July 13, 2014: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

July 13, 2014

Year A, Pentecost 5                                                               


One of the things we saw in Ireland were the fields that were used for the potato farming.  These fields were not on typical flat farmland. They went up cliffs.  Our guide, who was also a farmer, explained that before and during the potato famine, they were making the most of the land and they needed as much as possible.  So they dug the rock out of the terrain and that allowed the land to become better soil.  He said it would have required a tremendous amount of work to remove all that rock.  We heard a fair amount about farming during that trip.  I think that knowing more about farming and agriculture would be helpful in understanding the Gospels because of the imagery that Jesus used.  

The people Jesus was talking to were farmers or people who knew farmers.  In this time and this area, everyone knew where their food came from and generally how it happened.  It is likely that the people he was talking to were not well off and were unaccustomed to having more than they needed. Unlike today, they did not have food stored in their pantry or their freezer.   There were no canned or frozen goods.  If there was a bad crop or a drought, they would very likely go hungry. 

Because of that scarcity, I suspect that this parable of the sower seemed a little ridiculous to them even though the imagery was familiar.  What kind of farmer wastes ¾ of his seeds?  If you only have so many seeds, why throw some on hardened paths that might as well be concrete, rocky ground, and ground covered with thorns? I don’t know a whole lot about farming, but even I know that type of soil is not going to be conducive to a good harvest.  According to this parable, there was good soil present. Why not use that?  Instead of spreading it willy-nilly, put all of the seeds in the good soil. That would be the sensible approach. 

As much as it pains me to admit this, Jesus was rarely about the sensible approach.  Let’s face it, the virgin birth—not sensible, crucifixion—not sensible, the resurrection—not sensible.  This does not make these things any less real, they were just extraordinary.  Yet this is a parable.  Parables are supposed to make sense.  When Jesus spoke in parables, he would take a fairly simple story that people would have been able to identify with and then use that story to teach a lesson about God.  However, just because it was a simple story, did not necessarily mean it was a simple lesson. 

In fact, most of the time the lessons were counterintuitive.  If this was a sensible and realistic story, the sower would have carefully spread the seeds where he knew there was good soil.  That means all of the seeds would have had growth potential.  As a result, there would have been an even greater harvest and the seeds would not have been wasted.  And this parable is about results, right?

Perhaps not.  You might note that when Jesus explains the parable he refers to it as the parable of the sower, not the parable of the ground or the parable of the crop.  It’s about the sower; the person who is tossing seeds around with wild abandon.  Jesus explains that the seeds are the word of the kingdom or the word of God.  He never says who the sower is, but if the seeds are the word of God, it would be safe to assume that the sower is Jesus.  It could also be whoever spreads the word of God, which means it could be any one of us.

One of the things I cannot help but wonder about is the amount of seeds.  This sower could not have had an unlimited number of seeds.  At what point did he run out?  I would think that at some point the bag became light and he would have been more cautious with his seed placement.  If we told this story today, it would be all about how careful we are with what we have.  We might talk about the importance of good stewardship of resources.  In other words, how are we using our limited resources as effectively as possible? Instead of talking about the countless supply of seeds, we might talk about how we could get the most out of every seed.  We would discuss each seed and its chance of success. Then in our modern day version of the story, the careful and practical farmer would develop a machine that would distribute each seed in fertile ground.

But this sower isn’t a farmer and the seed is not something that will run out.  This seed is the word of God. The word of God isn’t just the Biblical text; it’s also the experience of God.  It’s God’s love and grace.  And those things don’t come in packages of 100.  They are countless.  The sack that contains these things is bottomless.  Because of that, Jesus is not worried about wasting because there will always be more as long as we keep giving.  As long as we keep reaching into that bag, there will always be more.  But it’s tempting to be strategic in our faith.  We might talk to some people about faith, but only the people we think would be receptive.  We might invite a couple people to church, but only the people who might say yes.  We take the safe road because we fear rejection and we fear failure. 

Even Jesus realized that he would only reach a portion of the people he was speaking to.  When he taught this parable, the crowd was so large he had to move out to a boat to address them.  Yet in the end, the crowd that sat at the foot of the cross was one or two people.  The crowd that condemned him to death was countless.  He preached to them even when he knew they would not stay with him to the end.  Even his disciples would abandon him in some shape or form.  Yet he kept giving abundantly.

A lot of people read this parable and say the point is that it’s all about God and how God provides.  We can’t change the soil on our own.  We can only pray that God will change it.  Therefore it is not about how we can become better listeners, disciples who receive the word of God more authentically.  It’s about a God who is so relentless with his love that he gives it to everyone, even people he knows will reject it.  I agree with that.  This text is about God’s abundant love.  But I also believe that soil can change.  As followers of Christ, we can change.  When the disciples heard this parable, they were the rocky ground.  We know this because when Jesus was arrested, they fled.  Then, Jesus appeared to them in the resurrected form and they rejoiced. They faced their fears and in the end they became that soil that could bear much fruit.  They were able to face persecution without losing heart.  The soil changed.

This parable is not a perfect analogy.  I would have failed my creative writing class with this parable.  As disciples of Christ we are the ground, we are the sower, and we are the seed.  We receive God’s love, we provide God’s love and in some ways, we are God’s love.  God will love us regardless of what kind of soil we are.  Of that, there is no doubt.  But if we want to be vessels of God’s love…if we want to provide God’s love to others, then we have to participate in the Gospel.  We have to dig the rock out of our hearts.  We have to fling the seeds of love in places we know it will be ignored.  Sometimes we have to reject the sensible and safe approach and be a little fearless with our love.  After all, it’s not our love.  It is God’s love.  God has been pretty clear in what we are to do with that love.