Jean-François Millet. The Sower. 1850 (Described by Salon critics of the time as ‘savage’ and ‘violent’)
Jesus is sitting in a boat, pushed back a few yards off the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:1f). He is gently rocking, his eyes closed, his face warmed pleasantly by the sun glancing off the water. He has come out here to get a little distance from the political heat of his Capernaum “campaign.” The contours and consequences of his mission have become clear. He has tried arguing Torah with the stewards of the Story, Sabbath economics with the administrators of Debt, social boundaries with the adjudicators of Purity. But he has concluded that the literate cannot read (2.25), that the authorities cannot lead (3.4), and that the House cannot stand (3.25). Political polarization has begun, perhaps quicker than Jesus was prepared for. He needs to think things over, to consolidate his gains and cut his losses, to reflect with his followers upon what all this means.
Jesus has made it clear to all concerned that he is struggling against the dominant system. But what is he struggling for? The poor who are attracted to him, the outcasts who flock around him, the skeptical onlookers who carefully measure his words, even his own disciples – they all want to know what alternative Jesus intends to offer. Jesus stares out on a glassy sea, blinking back the glare, anguishing over what to say and how to say it. How can he speak intelligibly to these people about human possibilities so discontinuous with the arrangements of power and privilege they all know so well? What metaphor, what symbol can he employ to revise the ancient Yahwist vision of a Great Economy? What discourse can he use that has not already been co-opted by the dominant media? What parable shall we use for the Great Economy? The question burns within him.
Jesus turns back, watching the crowd muster at the water’s edge. They are setting up a “camp meeting” in a lakeside field offered by a local farmer; most are already seated on the ground, waiting patiently to hear from him, the patience of those who have seen hope come and go too many times. They are peasants and plain folk, uneducated and “illiterate.” This is not the place for elaborate scriptural arguments and legal debates. Popular pedagogy, the villager from Nazareth reminds himself as he studies the crowd, begins where the people are, starts with what they know. Then it comes to him: What we must stand for is what they already stand on. Reconstruction must build upon the most radical foundation, renewal must take up the oldest story: The land itself. “Listen!” he begins. “A sower went out to sow…” (4:3).
“Who Will Roll Away The Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians” 1994, p.337
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.