By The Rev. Sherry Crompton

July 10, 2011

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

In Jesus’ parable of the sower, a man scattered seed over all his property, but how the seeds grew depended more on the condition of the soil in various locations than on the diligence of the sower. The seeds that fell on the path were snatched up by birds before they had a chance to germinate. The seeds that landed on rocky soil sprang up rather quickly, but soon withered away. The seed that fell among thorns germinated but was quickly choked out by the thorns. Only the seed that fell on fertile, deep, thorn-free soil yielded grain in the end.

Jesus’ explanation of what each element in the parable represents would seem to be clear, but it 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?

We can find examples of each kind of response to God’s 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.

The disciples themselves might be included among those who fall away “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” (3:21; cf. 26:56b, 69-75). And the rich young man unable to part with his possessions (19:16-22) provides a stunning 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” (3:22).

So 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)?

What about the disciples? Will they ever bear fruit? After telling several more parables, Jesus asks them, “Have you understood all this?” They confidently answer, “Yes” (13:51). Yet subsequent events will reveal how little they truly understand (16:21-23; 20:20-28) and how quickly they will desert Jesus to save their own skins (26:56b, 69-75).

What is remarkable is that in spite of these failings, Jesus does not give up on the disciples. In fact, he continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them. Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church (16:13-20), even though Peter’s understanding of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah is confused at best (16:21-23). Even though Jesus knows full well that all the disciples will desert him and that Peter will deny him, he nevertheless promises them, “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (26:32). Jesus does meet them in Galilee as promised, and with all authority in heaven and on earth given to him, turns them loose in the world to carry out his mission (28:16-20).

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. Yet he promises that his wildly extravagant sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives on any given day. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not use the parable to exhort hearers to “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. Jesus’ investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.

Barbara Brown Taylor retells the story…

Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.

Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.

Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into this field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full-fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.

Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed pouch and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that did not seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.

(Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), pp. 28-29.

Today’s lessons celebrate one of the most overwhelming aspects of God’s nature — abundance. The very existence and creation of everything, us included, demonstrates God as the ultimate giver. So awesome is God’s ability to do this, that even in the midst of broken lives and broken dreams, we humans can experience this abundance; God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness.

We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age. Amen.

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