Isaiah 55:10-13 Psalms 65:1-8, 9-14 Romans 8:1-11 Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Luke and Sam are sitting at a table in a restaurant. Sam asks Luke about his hobbies. “Well,” says Luke, I suppose it’s gardening.” “Wow,” says Sam. Luke pauses and looks into the distance. “Well, to be honest, I’m not a great gardener, especially when I try to grow flowers from seed. They never look as good as they do on the packet.” Then Luke looks up and adds, “But do you know, the other day I discovered that’s because the photo on the packet had been posed for by professional flowers.”
Growing flowers from seeds is hard work. As Luke admits, the flowers hardly ever look as good as they do on the packet. Jesus is well aware of how hard it is for seeds to grow into plants. This image suggests strongly that Jesus is not surprised that not everyone gets the truth about the kingdom. However, we are invited to see ourselves as those who are in the good soil, with the privilege of producing fruit enabled by God. We, if you like, are the professional flowers.
So we arrive today at the Parabolic Discourse (the third of the five teachings sections in Matthew – it mirrors the Torah). For those around Jesus, there is an obvious mystery: if Jesus is the truth, then why isn’t everyone following him? And so Jesus tells this parable. Humans find receiving the truth difficult. Three of the four who receive the “seed” do not grow and flourish. Some seed fell on the path; some on rocky ground; and some fell among thorns. All three failed to product fruit. But there was nothing wrong with the seed, because once it was planted in good soil, grain came forth in abundance. Jesus answers questions using images that his hearers would understand. They all knew about the complexity of crops and growing.
What do we think of a sower who throws seeds everywhere, even in such unlikely, seemingly unproductive places? Not very good agricultural practices. What sort of worldview is suggested by someone who throws seeds on a well-worn path where birds can eat them, or on rocky ground where it is unlikely that they will grow, or among thorns that will choke them?
This parable is often called the parable of the sower, sometimes called the parable of the soils. Maybe it should be called the Hundredfold Harvest. Even if the harvest was only thirtyfold, this story would end with a miracle. Sevenfold meant a good year for the farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a house by the Sea of Galilee.
Bushels of abundance are where this parable leads. Jesus certainly starts with a whole lot of reality. Everyone in the crowd nods his or her head as Jesus describes the trials of traditional first century farming. Unlike a modern American farmer, who carefully prepares the soil with just the right balance of nutrients – balance between input and output. Then they inject the seed into the ground. Farmers during Jesus’ time cast the seeds and then plowed the land. With this scattershot approach, it is no surprise that some seed falls on hard soil, other seed on ground too rocky for good roots to develop, and still other seed falls among thorns and weeds. Those are the facts of life and everyone knows it, including Jesus.
This parable draws us into the foolish waste of seeds and other precious resources on the part of the sower. The logical place to sow seeds is on good soil, and we readily take this message to heart. Even if we aren’t farmers, the lesson here is easily applied to our situation. If we ever decide to develop a new missionary opportunity, we would choose a place where the odds are good and the possibilities are promising. We would be strategic about location – like any self-respecting hamburger joint or grocery chain or Dollar General – and maximize our efforts toward the arena of greatest result. Find the good soil and throw seed on it. It’s just good business.
Both Jesus and those who follow him also know the facts that apply not only to farming, but also to his ministry at that time. The seed of his teaching has fallen on rock-laden, thorn-strewn ground. In Matthew’s preceding chapters, the disciples have lost faith during a storm at sea. The Pharisees want to choke out his message. Jesus is soon to experience the hard soil of his hometown as Nazarenes reject him. Jesus doesn’t just tell this parable. He lives it.
The community hearing Matthew’s Gospel are living it also. Christians had a hard time living in first-century Palestine. Impacting their lives were both poverty and persecution, massive numbers of people migrating out of the region. Within the church itself there are dissenters and false prophets. With this parable, Jesus reminds his followers – and Matthew reminds his community – that rejection of Jesus’ message does not mean the message is wrong or their efforts are futile. It is simply a fact of life, whether in farming or in faith.
Like Jesus, we preachers cast the gospel as broadly as the parable of the sower does, with no guarantee where it will land. These days I don’t get much feedback from those watching our livestreaming. There have been times when all I got was, “I like your hair – is it a new haircut?” Once, I was collecting bulletins for recycling, and found a bulletin with “where is she going with this?”
Sue Monk Kidd tells a wonderful story. She was looking out the window as she washed dishes. She saw a tiny wren below the bird feeder. She wasn’t sure if it was sick or injured. As she watched, another wren landed on the feeder and dropped a seed down to the weak bird. Drop seed – drop seed. She went on doing chores around the house. In a few minutes, she checked on the bird and it was gone. All it took was a few minutes of kindness and care to get the little guy going.
Isn’t that what we are called to do. Drop seeds of compassion when we see someone overwhelmed with the demands of life. Drop seeds of kindness when someone has taken their bad day out on another. Drop seeds of community unity when we sign up and show up against injustice and racism. Phillips Brooks wrote, “You can keep a faith only if you can keep a plant, by rooting it into your life and making it grow there.”
Standing in front of folks and preaching from my heart, in hopes of ideas and images taking root, and knowing it is a scattershot approach but also realizing my results aren’t any better that the sower’s. That is our job, our calling. To sow the seed and bear the heartache when it falls on rocky, arid, or weed-infested ground. In accepting the calling to preach, we stand in solidarity with the people we know also know the hard truth of this parable. The business person who opened a new business just as the COVID-19 virus hit. Parental advice given to teenagers falling on their deaf ears knows hard-packed ground. This parable reminds us all that we are not alone in such times, even as it reminded the first crowd who heard it.
The parable also reminds us where to keep our focus. In parish ministry, we are often tempted to spend our resources – time, energy and hope – trying to coax, convince and beg for growth from inhospitable places and people. Sometimes I dwell too long on the seeds that don’t take root. The sower doesn’t do that. He accepts the reality that some seed, a goodly portion of it, will fall on bad soil, and he keeps on sowing. Matthew tells us that Jesus kept on sowing. He keeps spreading the word, no matter how dry, rocky, or weed-infested the ground. His followers are called to do the same.
But like Jesus, we have yet another calling, also found in this parable. The story does not end with the inhospitable soils – though many folks stop here. It does not even end with the normal harvest from the good soil. It ends with a miracle, a hundredfold harvest. It is our job to trust – and preach – that possibility as well.
The parable’s ending is its greatest challenge. Jesus goes beyond simply encouraging his listeners to “keep on keeping on” in the face of rejection. Instead, his parable challenges them – and us – to believe in God’s abundance.
If the parable ended with the sevenfold harvest from good soil, that would be sufficient, a good story of encouragement and hope. However, this parable is not simply pragmatic. It is also filled with promise. We are called to proclaim that promise, even in the face of rejection and the reality of this world. Novelist Bebe Moore Campbell writes, “Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody.”
That is the God this parable calls us to trust. Jesus knows the hard ways of the world. He also knows the abundant ways of God. May we all have faith in God’s abundance too. Amen.