Gospel text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Today we get to hear the Parable of the Sower. This is one of those famous passages from scripture. And it happens to be the first parable in each of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It may have been Jesus’ first parable, but it certainly paves the way for the Gospel writers in telling the parables of Jesus. In the middle of what we read, in the verses we skipped, Jesus explains to the disciples why he uses parables to speak to the people. Jesus says that the crowds have indeed fulfilled the prophecy – if you remember, fulfilling prophecy or what was written in the Old Testament is Matthew’s thing. That prophecy comes from Isaiah and says, “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.” (Matt 13:14-15)
In true Jesus fashion, I don’t think his explanation about using parables actually explains anything. If the people are having a hard time seeing, hearing, and understanding, why not tell it to them plainly? There is something beautiful about the parables, though. They tell us about God in so many ways. The same parable can give us a number of insights into who God is, or into who we are as God’s people. And this first parable definitely does that.
One of the first things to notice is that the parable itself is told to the crowd. I love the beginning of this passage. Jesus goes out of the house and sits by the sea. A peaceful image. A personal retreat. Time to breathe and reflect, maybe. And then the people notice. And so many people come that he gets into a boat and sits there while the crowd is standing on the beach. We could read all kinds of things into this.
Today I imagine this is one of the points at which Jesus is coming to grips again with who he is. He has to accept again his life, which includes being followed by people everywhere and having no chance for his own peace and quiet, except for the few times he takes it intentionally while his disciples keep watch. On the other hand, he could have seen this as a great teaching moment and he gets into the boat because he knows the people can see him better, or maybe hear him better, or something like that. Either way he’s in the boat. And I envision him trying to figure out what to do. What should he do now that all these people are here? Is it time to teach? Sing a song? Send them home? Run away completely to the other side of the lake? He decides it’s time to begin teaching the people. So he begins, shouting from the water.
“LISTEN! A sower went out to sow…” And you know how it goes. The sower goes out to sow seed, and as he does, seeds are falling all over the place – on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good soil. Then Jesus ends his parable the way he started, “Let anyone with ears LISTEN!” Then Matthew says that the disciples came to Jesus to talk to him about all this. That’s when Jesus tells them about using parables, and he even explains the parable, but only to the disciples!
So we have two sections in our text today: the first is the parable itself, told to the entire crowd, and the other is the explanation of the parable, which some argue wasn’t actually said by Jesus but was inserted by Matthew to help make some sense, but this explanation is told only to the disciples. And if you notice, the content of each section is a bit different. The parable is really about the sower and the seeds. Whereas the explanation turns the parable from a simple agricultural story into something about the word of God and how it is sown in people. It’s the explanation that makes us have so much conversation about what kind of soil we might be, and you might be singing in your head, as I have been all week, “Lord, let my heart be good soil…” Don’t worry – we’ll sing that song during Communion today.
So let’s look at both of these sections and see what seeds God might have for us today. In the parable, the sower goes out to sow. Seed falls all over, on all kinds of ground. And growth happens! It’s not always the growth that we want to see from seeds, but growth nonetheless. The first seeds fall on the path and are eaten by the birds. Well that’s not growth for the seed, but it is for the birds. The next seeds fall on rocky ground where they spring up quickly! Growth! Even if they end up withering away from the sun. Then some seeds fall among the thorns, and maybe the weeds too. They also grow! But they get choked out by the other plants. Finally the seeds fall on good soil, where they grow and thrive.
One thing we notice about this sower is that she is not very good at her job, at least if her job is to plant seeds that will thrive. She is pretty wasteful and reckless, actually. And anyone who knows anything about growing plants knows that you shouldn’t throw seed everywhere. Because you would know that some of it won’t grow up well. And some of it might grow up where you don’t want it to grow. Not to mention that it’s a huge, fat waste of precious seed to just be throwing every which way.
A couple of other things you might notice.
- The ground is not cultivated before the seeds are planted. To us who understand farming to be a rather scientific process, where you prepare the land, then plant the seed, and care for it dutifully, who consider crop-rotation, the perfect times to plant and harvest, and which plants will grow best with other plants…this parable sounds irresponsible. In Jesus’ day, this is closer to their practice, to throw out seed, and then till the soil, but still, I would imagine that throwing seed where the weeds are couldn’t have been anyone’s understanding of a great place to sow.
- There’s no mention of harvest in this parable. A few weeks back we heard about harvesting – on the Sunday when Pastor Kristen was here. “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Today there is no harvest. Just planting seeds. And the success of those seeds without any work by the farmer. Maybe this hints at the mystery of farming…that the seeds grow by the grace of God. The farmer can do all the work possible, but the actual growth, the opening of the seed turning into a plant that turns into something useful is a complete miracle in many ways.
Let’s look at the explanation. This is the part about the soil. The explanation, which would usually make something easier to understand, actually makes things more complicated. It’s one thing to have a simple farming illustration; it’s a whole other thing to look at the seeds as the word of God and consider what happens when it falls on the people. It’s this explanation that makes us all judge each other based on what kind of soil we think our neighbors might be made up of, and it’s the place where we start to find ourselves in the parable. What kind of soil am I? Am I good soil? And if I’m not good soil can I will myself to be? This explanation makes us want to be good soil, which means we want to be people who hear the word of God and understand it, who bear fruit, and lots of it. And we want to command others to do the same.
It might be that you and I are all the kinds of soil. We are at times good, at times rocky, and at times really dry when it comes to hearing God’s word and carrying out God’s work. None of us is able to be good soil all the time. So it might be that we have some tilling to do, either in ourselves or in our neighbors. Tilling being those things that encourage our faith – to till the soil is to encourage the seeds to grow. So to encourage the seed to grow we put ourselves in places that we know will nourish our faith – like worship with the community, and prayer, and acts of service. “Lord, let my heart be good soil,” is a pretty heartfelt prayer, so we should keep that, and do the tilling that we can while we let God do the miracle of growing our faith.
But remember that the seed grows everywhere. And in the case of this wasteful sower, God, if you will, seed is thrown everywhere. There is no ground selection, no cultivation even. One could argue that you don’t have to be ready for the seeds of faith to be planted and grow. When we think about telling people about Jesus or inviting others into this life of service and worship, sometimes we try to choose those people who might be the most ready – those who show an interest or those who already have experience with the church. When we plant a church, for example, often times there is some groundwork done to find a place that is suitable – good soil, if you will. It’s good business practice for anything. But this sower is no good businessperson. Seeds are scattered without thought or foresight. We might see this as wasteful, but we could also see it as generous, abundant, extravagant. God throws the seeds of the word of God everywhere.
We typically associate that phrase, “the word of God,” with the Bible. We call it the word. But that doesn’t really make sense here in this context. The Word of God is a bigger picture than that. And indeed, the Gospel of John names Jesus as the Word of God. So according to this parable then, God has planted Jesus everywhere. There is no place God isn’t, through the work of Jesus Christ. No soil, no person, no place. God is everywhere, sowing seeds of justice, and mercy, and salvation, and love. In the parable, there are no boundaries around each kind of soil. They are all intermingled, just like they are at your house probably. It’s all creation, it’s all the same, it’s all a product of God the Creator who sows seeds generously, and makes them grow.
Today, know of the abundant love of God for you and for all the world, overflowing so much that we would consider it wasteful. We ask God to increase in us our fruitfulness, to make us good soil, to shine in our hearts that the good seeds of faith may grow.