Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

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Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus tells the following parable:

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

 

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the types of persons represented by the three types of ground upon which the seed of the word fell. Concerning those of the first kind he says:

No sacred or divine word will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruit of virtue can grow. Men of this kind are highways that are trodden by unclean spirits, and by Satan himself, and they shall never be producers of holy fruit, because their hearts are sterile and unfaithful. (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 41)

The second kind have

a religion without roots…when this kind of person goes out of the church, he immediately forgets the holy teachings he has heard there. And as long as Christians are left in peace, he keeps the faith, but as soon as persecution arises, he will be ready to take to flight in search of safety.

This holy Father finally exhorts us not to allow the cares of this world to choke the tender shoots of faith and commitment as soon as they sprout from the soil of our hearts and minds. We must not be deceived, thinking that thorns and new shoots can exist side by side.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, p. 14)

Blessed is the Generous Giver

This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: ‘He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.”  (2 Corinthians 9:6-11)

 St. John Cassian reflects:

 “It is more blessed to give than to receive. More blessed than the poverty of the receiver is this generosity of the giver, which does not come from money that has been stored up through lack of faith or confidence, and which is not dispensed from the accumulated hoards of avarice, but which is offered from the fruit of one’s own work and from loving toil. And ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ because, although the person who has given may be as poor as the one who receives, he nonetheless strives by his own effort to procure not only a sufficiency for his own needs but also, with loving solicitude, something to give to the needy. In this way he is adorned with a twofold grace, both because he possesses the perfect poverty of Christ through his renunciation of all his goods and because by his labors and his disposition he exhibits the liberality of a rich man. He it is who honors God from his righteous labors and gives to him from the fruits of his righteousness.” ( The Institutes, p 230)

God’s Word is a Seed

5096763138_3435941b81_n“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”

As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  (Luke 8:5-15)

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich finds deep meaning in the parable:

“The field signifies the human soul; the various parts of the field signify different human souls. Some are like the ground alongside the path, others like stony ground, yet others like patches of thorns.

Others, though, are like good ground, well away from the path, clear of stones and thorns. Why does the sower not cast his seed only on the good ground, rather than along the path or among the stones and thorns? Because the Good News of the Gospel is common to all, not secret and not confined to just one group of people, as had been the case in much dark and ‘magical’ teaching among the Greeks and the Egyptians, that had as their goal more the acquisition of power over a man, or by one group of people over another, than the salvation of the soul. ‘What I tell you in darkness, that speak you in light; and what you hear in the ear, that preach you upon the housetops’ (Matt. 10:27).

Thus the Lord commands His disciples; the Great Sower commands the sowers. God desires the salvation of all human souls, for ‘He will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet. 3:9). Were the Lord to have sown His divine teaching only among good people, the wicked would have had the excuse that they had never heard the Gospel, and would have ascribed their perdition to God, not to their own sinfulness. No-one will ever come to perdition through God’s fault, for God is righteous and no sort of fault can approach the light of His righteousness.” (Homilies, p 214)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
 ( BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if we think that some people have hardened hearts, hearts of stone or heads full of rocks, we are to share the Good News with them.  Even if we think they will never produce anything but thorns and weeds because we can see that in their lives, we are to live in such a way as to be light to them and to provide them with the seed of the Gospel.  It doesn’t matter what they are like, the Sower of Good Seed sends us into the world to continue His ministry.

Understanding the Parable of the Sower

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us the following parable:

 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ 

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”

Jesus gives the parable an allegorical interpretation.  Christians through the centuries have followed Jesus both in using parables to teach Gospel lessons and also in interpreting parables allegorically.  Abba Arsenius tells the following story and then following the example of Jesus provided an interpretation of the parable:

“…  while an elder was residing in his cell, a voice came to him that said: ‘Come, I will show you the works of folk.’ [The elder] got up and went out; [the voice] brought him to a place and showed him a burnt-faced-one cutting wood and making a great bundle. He attempted to carry it but could not. But instead of taking away from it, he cut some more wood then added it to the bundle – and he was doing this for a long time.

 

When he had gone a little further he also showed him a person standing in a lake, drawing water from it and pouring it into a receptacle with holes in it: the same water was running out into the lake.

He spoke to him again: ‘Come on, I will show you something else;’ then he saw a temple and two persons on horseback carrying a piece of wood crossways, one beside the other. They wanted to enter through the the gate but could not because the piece of wood was crossways. One would not humble himself to carry the wood lengthwise behind the other; for that reason they remained outside the gate.

‘These are they,’ he said, ‘who bear the yoke of righteousness with pride and did not humble themselves to put their house in order and to travel the humble way of Christ; so they remain outside the Kingdom of God.

The one cutting wood is a man beset by many sins; instead of repenting, he adds other transgressions on top of his sins.

And the one drawing water is a person who does good works but, because he has an evil mixture in him, for this he lost his good deeds too. So every one must keep a watch over his works, lest he toil in vain.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp 48-49)

Parables, Evangelism and Planting Seeds

“It is impossible to convert or persuade by mere dogmatizing or ranting. No amount of mere statement, no ‘spoon-feeding’ (as every teacher knows) will achieve this end. There is nothing for it but to sow ‘seed-thoughts’ – to set something germinating in the hearers. If they respond, they begin to be ‘inside’, they ‘come for more’; if they pay no heed – or for as long as they pay no heed – they are self-excluded. Hence the use of parables.” (C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, pp 150-151)

Time to Confess Our Sins

Jesus used his parable of the sower scattering seed on soil to show how the Word of God interacts with different kinds of people.  There are serious impediments to a seed’s ability to germinate, let alone blossom, in the differing places the seed might land.   This is as true for a farm field as it is for the garden of our hearts.    We cultivate the ground of our hearts through repentance and confession of sins, which requires the plough of humility to break up the clods of our hard heartedness.   The desired loamy soil in gardening requires organic material be added to the soil to help it become more fertile.  Humility, which must be organic in a Christian to relate to others, helps change our hearts from stone to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).  St. Porphyrios (d. 1991) proffers that there are certain cardiac impediments  to the spiritual life which inhibit God’s seed from taking root and bringing forth fruit in the garden of each person’s heart.

“For Christ to enter within us when we invoke Him with the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ’, our heart must be pure and free from all impediments. It must be devoid of hatred, egotism and malice. We must love Him and He must love us. If, however, our heart does harbor some thought of censure or ill will, there is still something we can do about it. The secret is to ask forgiveness or to make confession. But that, of course, as we said, requires humility. If you put the words of God into practice and are not troubled by pricks of conscience, you are calm and do good works, then you enter naturally into prayer without realizing it. Then you simply wait patiently until grace comes.” (Wounded by Love:The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p 115)

Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.

Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,

being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain.

You also be patient.

Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

(James 5:5-7)

Confession: Preparing the Garden of Our Hearts for God’s Seed

In Luke 8:5-15, our Lord Jesus Christ tells the parable of the sower of good seed:

“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

Saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments:

“The Word which brings about the salvation of our souls is analogous to seed. Just as farmers first cultivate the earth with the plough, then sow seed, so must we prepare ourselves beforehand to accept the heavenly seed, by which I mean the word of spiritual teaching. But we are not inanimate, unfeeling earth which is cultivated and sown by others, but living, breathing, rational ground. For that reason we must make ourselves ready by means of repentance. To give you an indication of the starting point of repentance and the cultivation of the soul, it is what those who approached John’s baptism did on their own initiative: ‘They went out’, it says, ‘and were baptized in Jordan, confessing their sins’ (cf. Matt. 3:5-6, Mark 1:5). The confession of sins is the beginning of this cultivation, the start, that is, of repentance and preparation to accept within us the saving seed, the word of God, which is able to save our souls. Ploughing the ground was devised by farmers as a means of extracting wild roots from deep down in the earth, and rendering it capable of receiving our seeds and plants. Confession does exactly this for the reasonable field, our heart. It digs up the evil passions concealed within it and throws them out, making it ready to take in the sacred seeds and suitable to grow a fine harvest of virtues. Just as, after Adam’s transgression, the earth began to bring forth thistles, thorns, and other useless plants (Gen. 3:18), so man’s heart bears shameful and evil passions and thoughts, and the sins which they in turn produce.” (The Homilies, p 460)

(see also my blog Bearing the Cross: Putting Your Hand to the Plough)

Striving for the Kingdom of God

St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century AD) marveled that humans are willing to endure almost anything and suffer greatly to attain some worldly goal, yet when it comes to following Christ, people often are looking for comfort and ease.  However, we have been warned by Christ about constantly looking for the easy way or the path of least resistance in the spiritual life.

“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”(Matthew 13:20-21)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”(Matthew 7:13-14)

St. Isaac writes:

“[…] to show how we must always establish in our thinking the aim of tribulation in any matter by means of which we are about to start on the path to the Lord, and how right at the beginning we must diligently press on with all our strength in order to reach its end.

How often does man raise questions when he wants to make a start in something for the Lord’s sake, saying, ‘Is there really comfort in this?’ Or, ‘How can I easily make headway in this without toil?’ Or, ‘Perhaps there is tribulation in this, which causes the body pain?’ Do you not observe how high and low we seek in the name of comfort? What are you saying, O man? You wish to ascend to Heaven, and to receive that Kingdom, communion with God, the consolation of the spiritual goods of yonder blessedness, the fellowship of angels, and immortal life, and you ask if this path requires toil? Great is this marvel!

Those who yearn after the things of this perishing world pass over the terrible waves of the sea, and they brave journeying on rough roads, and for all that, they never ask whether there is any labor in this, or any affliction in what they desire to do. But we search everywhere after comfort! If, however, we always keep in mind the path of the crucifixion, we shall think that every other affliction is lighter to bear than this.” (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 356-357)

In the sayings of the desert fathers we learn how difficult it is, even for monks, to fully follow the Gospel.   Here is a story, told with a little bit of humor, about how hard it is to follow Christ.

Certain brethren came to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “Speak to us a word whereby we may live.”

The old man said to them, “Behold, you have heard the Scriptures, and they are sufficient for you.”

The brethren said, “We wish to hear a word from you also, O father.”

Abba Anthony said to them, “It is said in the Gospel, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Luke 6: 29).”

They said to him, “We cannot do this.”

Abba Anthony said unto them, “If you cannot turn the other cheek, at least allow yourself to be smitten on the one cheek.”

They said to him, “And this we cannot do.”

The old man then said to them, “If you cannot do even this, do not pay back blows in return for the beating you have received.”

They said, “We cannot even do this.”

Then the old man said to his disciples, “Make then for the brethren a little boiled food, for they are ill,” and he added, “If you cannot do even this, and you are unable to do the other things, prayers are necessary immediately.”   (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 770-77)