Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In Matthew’s gospel, both Jesus and his disciples “sow the seed” of God’s word by proclaiming the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is near.” Now, in a memorable parable, Jesus explains why this good news produces different results in those who hear.
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and atet hem up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case ahundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
It must have been frustrating for the disciples and those gathered to have Jesus speak in riddles and parables all the time. Since miscommunication accounts for a large number of mistakes, fights, regrets, and stumbling blocks – wouldn’t Jesus want to be as clear as possible? Why would he want his disciples to have to read between the lines – to interpret – to assume things about his metaphors and stories – when they will in all likelihood guess wrong.
The traditional interpretation of this parable is about me – and well, you – and your soil. Is your soil bad? Is your soil rocky or thorny? What’s your plot of land look like right now? Are you in need of some spiritual pruning, or weeding, or fertilizing? Do you need a scarecrow to keep the birds away? We could go down that metaphorical path for a while – and all the while make this parable more and more about us.
What we need to do, what kind of changes we need to make in our lives, how we need to respond to the word, how we need to clean up our little plot of land in our heart for Jesus to come in…
We’ve started our brief series of classes covering some of the basics of how we do church. We shared last week our past experiences with church and how it shaped our beliefs. A few shared that some of their earliest faith formation was about what we do or don’t do – what we should or shouldn’t do…
But for Lutherans, the starting point is never what WE do, but what God has done, and what God is doing. The parable is not called – The Parable of The Different Sorts of Soil. It’s called the parable of the Sower. The story of how God chucks seeds anywhere and everywhere God pleases – to anyone and everyone. This parable is about God – and what God chooses to do with us – and with our small plots of land.
This is one extravagant sower – who seems to not care where the seed falls. The seed doesn’t choose where it lands. That is the responsibility of the sower.
Jesus’ clear explanation of what each element in the parable represents would seem to leave little work for the preacher. But the interpretation also raises some troubling questions. For instance, who qualifies as “good soil”? Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these destined to be unproductive forever? Is our soil good enough for God?
One can find examples of each kind of response to the word in Matthew’s Gospel. There are many in Matthew’s story who “hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand” (3:19), including the religious leaders who are antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry from the beginning. The crowds respond positively to Jesus, especially to his miracles of healing (9:8; 15:31; 21:8-9), yet turn against Jesus at the end and demand his crucifixion (27:15-23), leaving us to wonder whether they ever truly understood.
What about the good soil? Who are those “who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit” and yield an abundant harvest (13:23)? In Matthew’s story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the “least of these,” and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).
What about the disciples? Will they ever bear fruit? Matthew’s story has given us little reason to have confidence in the disciples. Little reason, that is, except for Jesus’ promises. Especially significant is Jesus’ promise at the very end of the Gospel: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
This brings us back to the parable. The main character in the parable, of course, is the sower. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising. He squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives and in our congregation’s life on any given day. It is noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t say to his hearers “be good soil,” as though we could make that happen. If there is any hope for the unproductive soil, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places.
Too often congregations play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become contributing members of our congregations. In the name of stewardship, we might hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted.
Jesus’ approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. In God’s economy, abundance is the starting point, not scarcity. Where will we sow seed and watch it grow? Where will we scatter seed and not see results? Can we do it anyhow? Because Thanks be to God that the Extravagant Sower keeps sowing seeds in our lives and in our hearts.