Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23. The Parable of the Sower. Focus on God’s extravagant love and grace even when we are hard, thorny, and rootless.
Like mid-summer weather, things start to heat up in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel. Chapter 12 narrates several stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, who are now plotting to destroy him (12:14) and have accused him of working for Satan (12: 24). By the end of chapter 12, Jesus appears to be at odds with his own family (12:46 – 50) and by the end of chapter 13; Jesus will be rejected by the folks in his hometown (13: 54-58).
Why is Jesus encountering so much hostility? Why do so many disregard his message and discredit his ministry? And the parable of sower probes the question of why this is occurring.
The parable of the sower is unusual among the parables of Jesus because Jesus offers a separate interpretation of it to his disciples, which our lectionary conveniently leaves out of our lesson for today. The interpretation offered by this parable focuses on how the seed is received by various kinds of soil, which is an allegory to how people respond to the gospel that Jesus is offering. (13:19)
Jesus’ straightforward approach in the parable leaves little to do in terms of interpretation, but his interpretation also raises some troubling questions. For example, who qualifies as “good soil?” Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these types of soil destined to be unproductive forever?
There are numerous examples in Matthew’s Gospel of each type of soil. There are those who “hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand, which includes both the religious leaders who are antagonistic to Jesus’ ministry (3:19) and the crowds who like it when Jesus is healing them (9:8; 15:31) but turn against Jesus at the end and demand his crucifixion (27: 15-23).
Even Jesus’ disciples can be found in this category as those who get his message but fall away when trouble or persecution arises on account of his words.” (3:21; 26: 56, 69-75) And the rich young man who is unable to leave his possessions behind and follow Jesus provides a perfect example of “one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (19:16-22)
What about the good soil? Who are those “who hear the word and understand it, and who then bear fruit” yielding a great harvest? (13:23)
According the Matthew it seems that it’s the least who are most likely to bear fruit. He 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)
And yet what is truly remarkable is that in spite of these failings by his disciples, and the people who demand his crucifixion, Jesus does not give up on them. In fact, he continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them. Telling Peter that he shall be the rock upon, which the church will be built, even though Peter will deny him three times.
Which gives us little reason to have any confidence in the soil whatsoever. And this in turn brings us back to the parable and what it’s really about. The main character in the parable is the sower not the soil. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, even wastefully. Jesus invests in disciples who look like they will never amount to a hill of beans. He squanders his time with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, with lepers, and the demon possessed.
Yet he promises that his wasteful extravagance will produce an abundant harvest. The parable isn’t about the soil or us, as we so often like to hear it. It’s about what God has already done for us and not about our feeble efforts at putting God’s word into action.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can find evidence that would show that we are all those types of soil that Jesus mentions and so are our congregations on any given day. Notice that Jesus doesn’t use the parable to tell us to be “good soil.”
If there is to be any hope for us, it is that the sower keeps sowing extravagantly, even in the least promising places of our lives. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their failings. And this in turn means he’s likely not to give up on us either.
What it also says is that unlike we who are tempted to play it safe, and want to make sure we use our resources as efficiently as possible God’s instinct is to be extravagant with his resources. Throwing it in places where it doesn’t look to offer much hope of bearing anything. Yet Jesus promises that in the end the result will be a bumper crop.
This story would have been shocking to many who first heard it. There were many in those days, just like there are today, who do not think that God has sown the seeds of his love everywhere in the world. God has only sown the seed in Israel or in North America, or among evangelicals and Catholics and not among mainline Protestants. God has sown his love and blessing only among the rich, the top one percent who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and not the 98 percent who haven’t.
The four types of soil reflect the human condition, which all of us share, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, gay and straight. The parable is a statement of reality, meant to cover the entire human condition. We all live our lives in the context of pain and suffering. We all endure rocks that seek to block our way, and we all lack roots in the face of oppression and criticism. We all live among the thorns, which are the cares of this world, the deceitful lie that riches will make you happy and define you as a winner in God’s eyes.
Doesn’t that pretty much describe the human condition? But we also have a capacity to be good soil, to be part of the beautiful earth that God has created. This too is part of our reality. We don’t save anyone, including ourselves, Christ has already done that, but the word of God does prosper in some conditions more than others, just as it prospers in us at times but not all the time.
In this beautiful creation that God has given us to enjoy we have the capacity at any given moment to bear fruit, just like we have the capacity at any given time to bear sin. And according to Matthew’s Gospel this has nothing to do with our piety, nothing to do with being nice, and nothing to do with our half-hearted efforts. It simply means following the way, the life, and the truth of Jesus, which means doing what he did.
With Jesus as our model of what the kingdom of heaven looks like here on earth, bearing fruit means doing what Jesus tells us to do and in the gospels that means supporting gender equality, an open table of fellowship with anyone and everyone, living in a non-materialistic and hierarchical way, embracing the least and the lost, not condemning them, resisting political oppression and religious corruption. That’s what bearing fruit looked like in Jesus’ day and that’s what it looks like today. Amen