of Creighton University's Online Ministries
July 20th, 2011
Robert P. Heaney
John A. Creighton University Professor
Click here for a photo of and information on this writer.
Jesus uses an earthy, agrarian example. To the city dwellers of the Roman empire among which Christianity mainly spread, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why would a farmer waste a lot of good seed with this haphazard planting method? Scholars tell us, however, that the method is pretty faithful to what Palestinian farmers actually did, and it was, indeed, surprising that they got much of a yield. So it wouldn’t have seemed contrived to Jesus’ hearers.
To make better sense of the story the gospel writers treated it as an allegory, and that’s the part that we’re familiar with since, to some extent, they incorporated the elements of that allegory right into the gospel story itself. We are to see ourselves as perhaps the rocky ground, or the weedy patch, etc. But that’s probably not quite how it came over to His audiences when Jesus Himself was telling the story. The “hook” in the story was not in the sowing method or the unpromising acreage, but in the astounding yield. That’s what would have captured their attention.
While we Christians look back on Jesus with the eyes of faith, that wasn’t an option for His own audiences. Skepticism may have been more the order of the day. They were looking for someone who could throw off the Roman yoke and restore God’s reign to God’s people. They thought of that outcome, for the most part, in political terms; but however they visualized the triumph of God, they weren’t completely sure that Jesus was the one nor whether the kind of salvation He offered was what they wanted. Some, initially enthusiastic, became disappointed. We read in John’s gospel (John 6:55) that “many of His disciples broke away and would not remain in His company any longer”. Put yourself in Jesus’ position. Would you have been discouraged? I certainly would.
It seems likely that Jesus told this parable in response to a challenge from skeptical critics. “Why aren’t You doing the political thing, the worldly-wise thing, that we would expect a Savior king to do for us?” “Why doesn’t our movement seem to be making any progress?”
The point of the story is that, despite unpromising beginnings, God’s kingdom is, after all, God’s work, and in the end the yield will be astounding. The parable, rather than being a story about us, is actually a story about Himself, a statement of Jesus’ trust in His Father, of Jesus’ refusal to give in to the discouragement that must have tempted Him. It’s a message that all of us Christians, and particularly those in any kind of ministry, need to take to heart. Things often do seem pretty bleak, within the Church as well as outside it. We simply have to trust as Jesus did. That was the message Jesus had for His hearers, and it’s a message no less timely for us modern Christians as well.
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