A sermon for July 16 on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Whenever we hear a familiar parable, it is important to see if we can’t peel away our assumptions as to its meaning, and then try to hear it as if for the first time. In a sense, that’s the challenge embedded in Jesus’ words, “Let anyone with ears listen!’” As N.T. Wright observes, with these words Jesus was essentially saying, “‘This isn’t obvious; you’re going to have to think about it.’ Jesus wanted them to struggle with what he was saying, to talk about it among themselves, to think it through.” Not just them either, but every reader or hearer across the centuries.
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Our reading of this gospel tonight actually omits eight verses of text, obscuring the fact that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is actually presented in three steps. First comes the parable itself, which is spoken very publically to a crowd on the beach. The second step—the one we didn’t hear—comes as the disciples later ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. The third step is his explanation of the parable to those disciples, in the context of explaining why he uses this particular way of teaching.
Now given our familiarity with this parable, we might be inclined to think, “Wow, are those disciples dense. The meaning of this story of the sower and the seeds is so obvious, how could they possibly need an explanation? After all they’d already seen and heard, how is it that they’re so thick?” And of course, in the gospels they do come off as rather dense, even peculiarly gifted at utterly missing the point Jesus is attempting to make. As the musician Nick Cave reflects, “[These] disciples, who we would hope would absorb some of Christ’s brilliance, seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene with little or no comprehension of what is going on.”
Yet to be fair, if you back up a bit and read just the parable it isn’t all that surprising that they needed a bit of interpretive help. As Jesus spoke to the crowd on the beach, he just jumps straight into his story—“Listen! A sower went out to sow”—telling of how this scattered seed fell on the four different places, only one of which yielded a good harvest. Aside from that closing line, “Let anyone with ears listen!”, that’s really it. With no other context, what were they to think about this little tale of how seed and ground interact?
It is only through his explanation that they might begin to make a bit of sense of it. The context is “the word of the kingdom,” and how that word really needs to take root in order to do its work. The path, the rocky ground, in the thorns; it is impossible for the growing plant to actually take root, so it withers or is choked out or the seed is eaten by the birds. When it does take root, however, the yield is serious: “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Now that’s making a little more sense to them, and truth be told many of us have probably seen or experienced pieces of what he is speaking of. Whenever I read the bit about the seed that fell on rocky ground as representing “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while,” I think of people who had mountain top experiences or maybe the equivalent of a foxhole conversion—you know, “get me out of this mess Lord, and I’ll follow you”—but never had the support or community to help them take the next steps; the kind of steps that maybe aren’t so flashy or where the spiritual rush isn’t quite so immediate. That, incidentally, is an issue that belongs as much to the church, as to the individual; in a sense we’re the ones who need to clear the rocks off of that soil, so that the mountaintop doesn’t become the only positive experience of faith.
Here’s the question, though. Just who is the sower? Is Jesus speaking of himself, and of his own work of proclaiming the word of the kingdom? Is he perhaps by extension also speaking of the work of the disciples, who just three chapters earlier had been sent out to “proclaim the good news, [that] “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”? Maybe he’s making a point here, that they are supposed to spread that word widely, letting it fall where it may; that their job is to sow the seed, not to make judgments about the soil quality. In the same way that Jesus was speaking his word to everyone from pious Pharisees to prostitutes and tax collectors, they were to do the same. And of course would anyone for a minute have believed that the word took deep root in the hearts of the latter group; that in the end it is the least likely people who turned out to be the good soil?
I do like that way of thinking about the parable, in part because it challenges us to resist reading it as being in any way a baseball bat of judgment. It is out of bounds to say who is ineligible to receive this word, and equally out of bounds to look at someone else or at another church tradition or denomination and say, “well clearly that soil is a bit thin.” You know that drill, right? The long history of Roman Catholics and Protestants dismissing the other as being thorny or rocky ground? Or how about within the Mennonite world, in which the M.B.’s and G.C.’s so easily dismissed the other in a way that made something like the Canadian Mennonite University all but unimaginable until just a few decades ago? Nope, the parable would seem to suggest; judging the quality of soil isn’t your job. As best you can, just scatter the seed.
There’s another way of looking at the figure of the sower, though, that might just give us another angle on things. For Robert Farrar Capon, seeing Jesus as the sower is just fine as far as it goes, but he suggests it just might be more fruitful to see Jesus as being the seed itself. After all, Capon reasons, if the seed is the word of the kingdom, and if in the Gospel according to John Jesus is proclaimed as the Word—the Word made flesh, the Word who dwelt among us—and as the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and through dying, bearing much fruit, then this is indeed a promising way of reading the symbolism. In part, what it does is to remind us that in becoming incarnate, he is actually sown through the whole of the world, and not simply in the lives of those who happen to have heard him teach or even had one of his followers across the ages tell of his life, death, and resurrection. The seed that is Christ is tossed prodigiously, almost promiscuously, everywhere in the world. And so, Capon adds, “Have we not acted as if the Word wasn’t anywhere until we got there with him? Haven’t we conducted far too many missions on the assumption that we were ‘bringing Jesus’ to the heathen, when in fact all we had to bring was the Good News of what the Word—who was already there—had done for them?”
Which then presses us to a reading—a hearing—of the parable stripped of both judgmentalism and even the faintest whiff of superiority. We aren’t to look at anyone else and judge the quality of their soil, nor are we to imagine that we have the corner on the control of the spreading the Word. In the Incarnation, the Word—that grain of wheat—has been sown. Maybe this parable calls us first to pay attention to the soil of our own hearts, and then to live and talk and walk in such a way that the seed sown—the great good Good News—actually looks like Good News.