My blog-Sabbath continues with my soul-crush on Robert Farrar Capon. This time with his commentary on the parables, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Starting with the Parable of the Sower — the “watershed” of the parables.
Consider the imagery of seed. First of all, seeds are disproportionately small compared with what they eventually produce. In the case of herbs — which, for some reason, Jesus took special delight in — they are in fact almost ridiculously small. Anyone who has planted thyme or savory knows the strange sensation of practically losing sight of the seed after it has dropped into the furrow: you might as well have sown nothing, for all you can observe. And what does that say about the Word of God that the Sower sows? Well, it certainly does not say what we would have said. Left to our own devices we would probably have likened the Word’s advent to a thunderclap, or to a fireworks display, or to something else we judged sufficiently unmistakable to stand in for our notion of a pushy, totally right-handed God. Instead, this parable says that the true coming of the Word of God, even if you don’t see it, doesn’t look like very much — and that when it does finally get around to doing its real work, it is so mysterious that it can’t even be found at all (67).
I was never satisfied with the way this parable was used in my former life — dirt striving to be less rocky or straining to be more fertile. Interestingly enough, the Mormons interpret the parable similarly. But it doesn’t work that way. Dirt is made. It doesn’t make itself. It doesn’t till itself. It doesn’t improve itself.
I made dirt this last year. Yes, I did. We have the lousiest soil in our backyard — red clay so hard that it surprised the contractors who built our retaining wall. I don’t understand this clay. It’s ugly, stinky, impossible. I sigh at the Midwestern black dirt we pass on our way to Missouri. It’s gorgeous.
So I made dirt this last year. Or rather — compost. I collected carrot shavings and strawberry tops, used kleenexes and coffee grounds, egg shells and dead heads, and I just let it sit. And rot. ::drumming fingers::
And this Spring there it was — black dirt. I included a hand-trowel-full with every seedling and transplant. I sprinkled it on the old plants. I brought a shovel’s worth to Grant’s trees. We’ll see if it works. Ask me in a few months.
But compost is like grace for garbage — turning my forgotten failures and castoffs into the best fertilizer for flowers. That’s what Capon is getting at too — at the mysterious left-handed power of the Gardener rather than the forthright right-handed power we humans crave. We want ex nihilo. We want lightning strikes and fireworks. We want pushy and unmistakable. We want a pre-made Miracle Gro that we can sprinkle on the red pan to POOF! make it soft and fertile.
We want a commodified garden. We want to shove blue “silk” flowers bunches in our azaleas to force them to look like May. We want control.
Every one of us would rather choose the right-handed logicalities of theology over the left-handed mystery of faith. Any day of the week — and twice on Sundays, often enough — we will labor with might and main to take the only thing that can save anyone and reduce it to a set of theological club rules designed to exclude almost everyone (25).
It just doesn’t work like that. God as Gardener doesn’t work like that. The process is slow. It’s indirect. Intuitive. Imaginative.
But Capon is talking mostly about the Seed — the Word. And contrary to the interpretation from my previous life, he insists that in this parable the Word is not the Bible per se. It’s Jesus, a la John 1. The Word who disappears in the earth, sleeps and rises only to grow His Kingdom-Plant grander and stronger than we could imagine.
I found a pumpkin seedling growing in the compost pile. I didn’t see the seed there when I combed through my black dirt, and it’s gone now. The plant is growing stronger and bigger than the ones I deliberately planted in a tidy circle in the clay-amended-with-compost. And I may just get the pumpkin I’ve been struggling to grow for years . . . all in a very left-handed way.