a sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The parable in this morning’s reading is quite likely one of the most familiar of all the different parables that Jesus taught to his disciples. While some of Jesus’ parables defied interpretation in his own time and continue to confuse us today, this one clearly has simplicity on its side—and if we have any difficulties in understanding it, we can resolve them by reading just a few verses further on to hear Jesus’ own explanation of it! The parable’s simplicity certainly helps with its familiarity. I remember first hearing this parable as a child in Sunday school, and I suspect that it remains a staple of such classes even today because it is so accessible—and because it almost immediately leads to a fun activity involving seeds and dirt!
This parable of the sower showed up while Jesus was teaching an ever-growing crowd, for he had just climbed into a boat to speak to a crowd that had gathered on the lakeshore. They were anxiously awaiting his next teaching, so he offered them this story. A farmer set out to plant his seeds, and he sowed them all over his land. Some fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil.
The seeds bore fruit based on where they were sown. The seeds on the path didn’t have enough time to take root before birds came along and ate them. The seeds on rocky ground sprang up quickly in the shallow dirt, but they never grew deep roots and so withered away. The seeds among the thorns started out okay, but they had no chance to get the sunlight and nutrients they needed because the thorns took over all around them. And the seeds on good soil took root and grew well, building up toward a plentiful harvest.
After he had told the parable to the crowd, Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked him why he spoke in parables—and by extension, what this one meant. Our reading this morning skips over his explanation for teaching and speaking in parables, I think in part because Jesus’ words confuse as much as they clarify, but Jesus’ description of the meaning of this parable that follows is incredibly familiar and understandable.
Jesus cast this parable of sowing seed as the sharing of “the word of the kingdom,” placing God in the role of the sower and the hearer of this word as the soil. According to Jesus, the varied receptions of this word by those who hear it are the different types of soil. The path is those who do not understand it and so find the word snatched away before it takes root. The rocky ground is those who respond quickly but who struggle to keep going for the long term. The soil surrounded by thorns is those whose response is held back by the things of the world. And the good soil is those who hear the word and understand it and so bear fruit abundantly.
Now as Jesus tells it and explains it, this is a beautiful and simple parable, but when he is done talking about this sower I still find myself asking, “So what?” The pun for us is as intentional as it is bad, because I think the parable’s recognition of different soils is not as helpful for us as it was for those who first heard it. I think most of us here fall in that final category, in that space known as the good soil, for we have heard the word of the kingdom and done our best to understand it and let it take root in our lives. Now our fruits may be less visible at times, we may have shoots that sprout too quickly and wither faster than they should, we may have some roots that struggle to take hold for one reason or another, but on the whole I think we are far more like the soil where seeds yield fruit than any of the other options.
So if we are already among those bearing fruit many times over, the biggest question that emerges from this parable for us really does seem to be “so what?” It might be worth our while, then, to step back from our traditional viewpoint in this story and imagine ourselves not just as the soil but maybe as the sower or the seed. What is the seed which we sow? And how do we sow and spread it?
The seed, as Jesus described it, is “the word of the kingdom.” This is not just any word, not just a part of the Bible that we pick and choose as our favorite or as strangely essential, not just the word that we imagine God wants us or others to hear. This word that we sow is the word of the kingdom of God, a word that by its very name challenges every earthly kingdom and nation, a word that upends all our human expectations and transforms our desires, a word that focuses on the well-being of all creation and not just the success of a few, a word that demands more than a response in words or belief but also a response in action.
Sowing this seed, then, is more than hitting someone repeatedly over the head with the Bible, more than standing on a street corner shouting scriptures of love or condemnation at the top of our lungs, more than suggesting that it might be a good idea to let this seed take root and bear fruit. Instead, when we take on the role of the sower in our lives and our world, we are called to boldly proclaim this word of the kingdom of God in word and in deed, to shape and mold our own lives to this transformative vision of something new, to call our world to radical ways of valuing all human life, to work toward full expression of God’s mercy, justice, and peace in our world, to cry out for peace when war and strife seem to reign and calls for vengeance overtake any sense of reasonableness, and to turn away from all the things that keep us from placing our ultimate and real trust in God alone.
All this talk about sowing seed is important and thoughtful and good, but when we ask the question “so what?” we might just see that Jesus left out of his parable one of the most important parts of good farming: the hard work of cultivation. In his parables, Jesus often made his focus very intentional and immediate, recognizing that his own time to spread this message and plant these seeds was short and that the immediacy of God’s coming kingdom would outweigh a long season of planning, preparation, and waiting. It is not surprising, then, that his message here might miss some of the ways in which longer-term care and nurture might help these seeds to grow even more fruitfully.
Yet I think it is foolish to think that any reasonable farmer in this day and age would ever throw seeds so indiscriminately, let alone leave them to sprout on their own without any additional care. Even if Jesus leaves out this important part of the growing process, it still falls to us to be good stewards of the seeds of God’s kingdom that we sow and nurture. We may have to to till some soil a bit to make it ready for seeds to grow. We may need to examine where we are sowing our seeds to choose places that are ripe for the growth of the kingdom. We may need to keep the birds and weeds of our world away as these seeds sprout forth. And we may find ourselves doing less planting and more watering and fertilizing of seeds as they take root and begin to bear fruit.
So as we consider the impact of this familiar parable, may we keep asking “So what?”—wondering what exactly we are to sow, exploring all the different times and places where God is calling us to join in this work of sowing seed, sharing the seeds of the wonder of God’s kingdom far and wide, and nurturing all the seeds that God has planted in us and around us and in spite of us so that we all might bear much fruit as all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.