Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
The lectionary texts from the Gospel readings for the rest of the month of July all draw from different parables, all of which are found in Matthew 13 and there is no way that we are going to be able to look at each one as deeply as I would like. Today we are looking at the Parable of the Sower. Next week we will study the Parable of Weeds among the Wheat. Then on July 27th we will look at a series of short parables: The Mustard Seed, The Treasure Hidden in the Field, The Pearl, and The Net. I hope you like parables.
But just what is a parable? The Bible uses the word “parable” to describe a number of Jesus’ teachings. The word parable is a compound word from two smaller Greek words: para, which means beside, and ballo, which means to throw or project something. Ballo is the root of the word “ballistics,” which is the study of projectiles and firearms. A parable, then, is the throwing of two different things beside one another. And the reason two things are thrown beside one another is for the sake of comparison. It is a juxtaposition. (The geometrical shape “parabola” has a similar meaning as the two sides are mirror images of one another)
The word parable is usually reserved as a reference to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus often was asked difficult questions – which were usually traps – and rather than reply to the trick questions, he would tell a story. He would take the question, throw it on the table, and lay another story right beside it to compare the two.
Some may be familiar with the word “allegory.” An allegory is quite similar to a parable, but the differences are important. In an allegory, all of the details matter in the making of a point. For instance, Plato uses a famous allegory in his book The Republic, the allegory of the cave. Plato uses this allegory to describe what it is like when a person comes to a better understanding of the world. And he describes a cave where there are prisoners who are bound, unable to move their heads, unable to speak to one another, and have never seen anything but the shadows that are cast on the walls in front of them. All of these details matter and everything represents something else. This isn’t the case for a parable. Sometimes the details in a parable are simply there to illustrate and improve the story. So when Jesus uses a parable to make a point, we need to ask ourselves “What is the point that Jesus is trying to make” in order to better understand what he is trying to say rather than dissecting every aspect of the parable.
This is really important because I’ve heard some pretty bad interpretations of Jesus’ parables based on some minute detail of the story. I’ll just make one up. Let’s take what is probably the most well-known parable in all of the Bible, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The story is told that a son leaves his family with his father’s cash in hand, lives a life of debauchery, and is welcomed home by his father with open arms. The father even throws a party and has the fatted calf slaughtered so that they can celebrate with T-bones!
Obviously, Jesus is saying that vegetarianism is a sin and that we do not need to worry about eating too much red meat. Don’t talk to me about cholesterol! No, the point of this parable is to illustrate the grace of God and celebratory attitude that God has when we come home to him. And that point is very clear when we read the parable of the Prodigal Son in its context in Luke 15, which also includes the parables of the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep.
There are wrong ways to interpret parables. But one of the beautiful and challenging things about parables is that there can also be more than one right way to read a parable. The people who approached Jesus with questions and the intention of catching him in a trap expected simple yes or no answers, but Jesus often replied with “yes, and” responses. In doing so, Jesus really expands our understanding of his role and mission on earth.
A “yes, and” response seems appropriate to a very simple question from our scripture today: Who is the sower in the story? Is the sower God? Jesus? John the Baptist, or Jesus’ disciples? The parable itself does not say, nor does Jesus say who the sower is in his explanation. So we would be making a mistake if we make a big deal about the identity of the sower. We need to be flexible where the Bible is silent.
In preparation for today’s sermon, as usual, I read several commentaries written by Bible scholars and seminary professors. Because of the nature of parables, it is quite easy to find people disagreeing about the main point of a passage. However, I want us all to remember that there is not necessarily one right interpretation of a parable. There can be a number of good interpretations, maybe even a number of correct interpretations. But there can also be some that are just wrong.
One commentator thought that it was very important to make sure that everyone was aware of the identity of the sower. He laid it all right out there, saying that the sower was clearly God the Father and couldn’t be anyone else. He said that the seed represents Jesus and we are the different kinds of soil.
This isn’t a bad interpretation, but I would simply say that he is being too inflexible in his interpretation. I believe that he is correct that the soil types represent the different kinds of people who receive the seed. The text tells us that much. Where I think he runs into trouble is when he says that the sower must be God because the seed that he is spreading is Jesus. Jesus says in verse 19 that the seeds being sowed are “the word of the kingdom.”
When the text tells us what something represents in a parable, we start there. When the text is silent on the issue, we allow for flexibility. The first thing we clearly see is that the seed is the word of the kingdom (verse 18).
Let’s look at the text. Jesus tells his listeners that some of the kingdom seed was sowed on the hard, beaten-down path and the birds came and ate it up. Other seeds fall upon the rocky soil and sprout quickly, but fail to take root because of the hard, rocky soil. Jesus says that this type of soil is a reference to those who receive his teaching, are excited about it, but when they really try to act out his teachings, they lose interest and fall away. Others took root among the thorns, but because the thorns were well established, they choked out the young seedlings of the kingdom. The thorns, Jesus says, are the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth.” These things are able to choke out the kingdom seeds.
But some of these kingdom seeds fell upon well-prepared soil. These kingdom seeds grew and produced a large harvest.
The second thing that we clearly see is that the soil represents the different kinds of people who hear the words of the kingdom (verse 20-23).
Often we hear today’s text preached from the perspective of what we as the soil can do to make the soil of our hearts more receptive to the word of the kingdom. This is one way to look at the text, and I have preached that message before. There’s nothing wrong with that interpretation, and there is definitely truth to this understanding. We should be preparing our hearts to receive what God wants to show us and teach us. But I’m not convinced that this is the point of today’s text.
Jesus never calls this the Parable of the Different Soils. No, he specifically calls it the Parable of the Sower in verse 18. This is the third, and perhaps most important thing that we see in this text. With this in mind, we would do well to look at the actions of the sower as we seek to discern Jesus’ main point. And to understand the sower, we need to understand how Jesus’ 1st century hearers would have understood the practice of sowing seed.
One thing that jumps out to me as a former farmer and aspiring gardener is the carelessness of the sower in Jesus’ parable. He should be able to tell which soil is going to be able to produce a good crop, shouldn’t he? He should know that the birds are going to eat the seeds off the hard soil, that the rocky soil will not have a good rooting capacity, and that the thorns are more mature and can choke out the freshly-sown seed.
Even to a gardener of my caliber, this seems wasteful. I’m the guy that plants his garden in the spring and then saves what seeds I don’t use by placing them in a moisture-resistant bag and placing them in the freezer. And a little bag of spinach seeds costs what, $1.25? Yet I’m very careful to plant the seeds only in the good soil in nice, straight lines, spaced evenly according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
On the farm we put a lot of effort into making sure that no seed was wasted. Every so often we would check the calibration of the corn planter to make sure that one seed was being placed in the soil every couple of inches apart. This was important to maximize yield, but it was also important because seed corn is pretty expensive, especially when you are planting hundreds of acres.
But the seed in Jesus’ parable would have been even more precious to the sower. The main crops grown in Jesus’ day in his region of Palestine were small grains, like barley and wheat, which were used to make flour for bread. And if you have some background in agriculture or gardening, you know where the seeds for next year’s planting comes from: it is a portion of the previous year’s harvest. One wheat seed grows and reproduces multiple, additional grains of wheat. Today a single grain of wheat can produce up to 200 additional grains of wheat, but in Jesus’ day you were looking at a yield of about 1/10 that.
For the sower in Jesus’ parable to simply throw the grain here and there without any consideration of where it might fall would have been considered downright wasteful and wrong. The grain thrown on the hard, rocky, and thorny soil could have been used to make his supper that evening. It seems quite wasteful to just go throwing it around like that.
But notice that Jesus is not critical of the sower. He is just kind of like, “That’s how it needs to be.”
So let’s translate this story into the real-life scenario that Jesus was facing. Let’s lay this story down side-by-side with the issues he was dealing with. The sower in Jesus’ story can be anyone. But the seed is the word of the kingdom of God, it is some kind of information about what God is doing in the world right now and how God is working through Jesus to bring reconciliation between God and human beings and among human beings. Essentially, I think that Jesus is saying we are not to discriminate where we sow this seed. There will be those who do not receive the seed well. Others will receive it at first and reject it later. Still others will accept it and produce a great harvest. But when we translate this scenario into real life, it becomes clear that we won’t always know which soil is which. We can’t always say who will receive this kingdom seed and who will reject it. Therefore, we spread the seed indiscriminately. Careful sowing will at times look careless.
The 4th century pastor, John Chrysostom says it this way, “For the sower makes no distinction in the land submitted to him but simply and indifferently casts his seed. He plants his seed among all. His concern is with sowing seed. For the farmer might be laughed at for doing this, since it is impossible for a rock to bear fruit. It is not likely that the path will become anything but a path or the thorns anything but thorns. But, here [in God’s kingdom], there is such a thing as the rock changing and becoming rich land.”
How are we doing when it comes to sowing the seeds of the kingdom? When I speak of sowing kingdom seeds, I am not just talking about evangelism in the strictest sense. I mean any action that makes the presence, the realness, and the person of God known. So giving a glass of cold water, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, mowing your neighbor’s yard, and sharing how Jesus has changed your life can all be ways of sowing kingdom seeds.
I believe I hold back too often. I save “the good stuff” for those I think might actually be interested. And of course, I base their level of interestedness on their outward appearance. I see some hipster intellectual with their nose in a Che biography, and maybe I assume that they think they are too smart for what I have to offer, so I offer them nothing. There’s that Harley-riding, beard-faced man who looks like he just finished a bar fight, and I think that he doesn’t look like “fertile soil” for the message that I have to share. But the parable of the sower tells us to sow indiscriminately. Even if the soil looks rocky, thorny, or trampled hard, we are to sow the love of Christ, the seeds of the kingdom upon them.
This message really shouldn’t surprise us, coming from Jesus. Jesus ate with, partied with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He even touched the lepers. To most people on the outside, they would have looked like thorny, hardened, and rocky soil. Why waste your kingdom seed on them? Perhaps because what looks like the roughest soil on the outside often is the very soil that can yield the greatest harvest for the kingdom.