Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
13 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 parable of the sower has always been one of my favorites. Maybe it is my agricultural background, maybe it is my love for biology and nature. Or maybe it is just because it is so relatable. I know what it is like to try to sow a few metaphorical seeds, and I know what it is like to be unreceptive to the seeds that other people have tried to sow in my life.
I want to start today by looking at the soil and then end by looking at the sower. Because we are called to be both. We receive the message of the kingdom and we spread it. We are going to jump around this passage a bit, much like our passage itself jumps around a bit. Notice that in verse one Jesus is addressing a large crowd. This is one instance where he is speaking to so many people that he has to get into a boat and push out into the lake a bit so that everyone can hear him, forming a bit of a natural amphitheater. After he tells this parable, his disciples take Jesus aside and ask him why he talks in parables, and our text jumps over Jesus’s reasoning for teaching in parables and goes straight to the explanation of the parable of the sower.
Let’s look at the beginning over verse 19, where Jesus begins his explanation of this parable: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom…” The word that is translated as “message” in the NIV is the Greek word “logos,” which simply means “word.” So in the parable of the sower, the seed is simply word of the kingdom. Don’t limit the seed to the story of salvation, and don’t limit the seed to ethics or theology. It is all of the above. Any word of the kingdom falls into this category of seed. So no matter if you are not a Christian, or if you have been following Jesus for 60 years, you need to be receiving seed. That is how we grow.
As we consider the types of soil and how they may reflect our receptivity to the words of the kingdom, let us not think this is just about some other person. Jesus is talking about people at all stages of their faith walks. So we should be asking, “How’s my soil? Am I receptive to words of the kingdom?” While Jesus describes a number of inhospitable soils, like the rocky or thorny soil, I don’t think that this list was meant to be exhaustive. There are many things that can keep us from producing a healthy harvest.
I’ll admit that I am not always receptive to teaching. There are some teachers that I appreciate, some authors that I frequently read, and some preachers that I listen to on a weekly basis. I’m receptive to these teachers! My soil is good, worked up, and fertilized. These are the teachers that I often quote in my sermons, the NT Wrights, the Greg Boyds, and other Neo-Anabaptist folks. But if someone doesn’t quite fit my mold of Christianity, I become skeptical.
Part of it is the way I read or the way I listen to words of the kingdom. I listen with a critical ear or read with critical eye most of the time, but this critical aspect is heightened when the words of the kingdom are coming from people from certain traditions. I’m looking, listening, for things that I disagree with. I want to catch that person saying something that I believe is wrong or something that I believe is simply too naïve or uneducated. Ohh! Joe Shmoe just admitted to believing in a Trinitarian heresy!
Don’t hear me wrong, critical thinking is a good skill to have, and we can’t just assume that everything someone tells us is correct. But when I listen to a sermon or read an article looking for things that I disagree with, my soil is unsuitable for kingdom seeds.
Last weekend we traveled to my childhood home in Ohio to spend some time with my family. Since we were going to be there on Sunday, we made the decision to attend worship at the church where I was baptized, which was also the church were Sonya’s father served in his first pastorate. I’ve not been to this church for several years, and I would say that in many ways I am at a different place theologically than many people in that church, and I’m in a different place than I was when I was an active member of that church. This is exactly the kind of scenario that lends itself to me being very critical of what is said from the pulpit.
This is the kind of thing that makes it really difficult for me to enter into a real time of worship. If I’m always looking for something to disagree with, I can’t be moved by the spirit, and I can’t be moved by the words of the preacher. I know that this is a problem for me, and I also knew what my scripture for this Sunday was going to be. So before we went to church, I made the conscious decision to listen to the sermon and find kingdom seeds that could be planted in my life and grow to produce a crop.
Again, this isn’t about agreeing with everything that I hear or read. I’m surely not asking you to agree with everything that I say! But what I’m suggesting is that we enter into conversations, into study, and into worship with an attitude of receptivity. I’m suggesting that we check our soil and ask if we are prepared to receive kingdom seeds or if we are just looking for something to disagree with. Not just in worship, but in our conversations with people who don’t think just like us and in our reading, our studies, and our daily activities, we need to be open to hearing words of the kingdom from people outside our circle. If you enter into worship or dialogue trying to find something to disagree with, you will find it. But if you enter worship or dialogue trying to find kingdom seeds, you will find that, too. We are responsible for preparing our own soil to receive words of the kingdom. We are responsible for receiving kingdom seeds.
As I spent time on my family’s farm this past week, I was reminded of all that goes into preparing the soil to receive the seed. The plowing, tilling, and fertilizing all takes place before the seed is ever introduced to the soil. Afterwards, efforts are made to keep the weeds down. Some cultivate, others spray, and some do a combination of the two. If my family is willing to put forth that kind of effort to prepare the soil for the seed and care for it once the two come together, then surely I can do a bit more to prepare my soil for words of the kingdom.
What about the sower? As I noted three years ago when I last preached on this passage, the soil isn’t the only interesting thing about this parable. In fact, look at what Jesus says in verse 18, “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means.” Jesus doesn’t call this the parable of the soil, he calls it the parable of the sower. As much as we can get from Jesus’s description of the soil, we must not miss that Jesus calls this the parable of the sower. So what can we learn from the sower?
The first thing that I notice is that this sower is really wasteful. There are four different kinds of soil named in this parable: the compacted path, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the good soil. The sower comes along and throws seed on all four of those soil types. If we assume that he sows an equal amount on each soil, he wasted 75% of his seed.
For most of us city folks today, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. You can go to any hardware or home improvement store and buy a small envelope of seed for less than $2.00. If you lose a bit here and there, no biggie.
I was talking to my little brother this week about their spring planting, and he was lamenting how wet their spring had been. All of the rain made everything really green and beautiful, but it also kept them out of their fields. You really shouldn’t drive a big tractor through the mud when you are planting, because you will rut the field up. So my family got their corn planted pretty late this year.
However, there were some who were able to get their corn in early before all of the rain hit. The problem is that when you get too much rain, the seed sits there and rots in the ground. My brother told me that the local farmers who got their corn in early found out that they had to replant their fields, which meant additional time and additional cost. One bag of seed corn runs about $250 and is enough to plant 2.5-3 acres. If my calculations are correct, planting 100 acres of corn is going to set someone back $10,000. To replant it would also cost you $10,000! But really, what farmer doesn’t have an extra $10,000 lying around? (PTL for crop insurance!)
My point is that sowing, planting, harvesting on a large scale can be very costly. But when you think about it from a 1st-century perspective, you realize it might be even more costly. Consider Psalm 126:5-6, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”
Why did the sower in Psalm 126 sow in tears? Because what we call seed could also be food. The seed you plant this year was a part of last year’s harvest. A kernel of wheat or corn can be planted with the hope that it will grow and produce a great harvest of 100, sixty, or thirty times what is sowed. But you can’t guarantee that it will.
You may get too much rain, and the seed will die in the soil. You could end up casting it on the path, among the rocks, among the thorns, and what could have been food has now been wasted.
So yes, when a modern farmer plants $10,000 worth of seed, they are risk. But when a sower in Jesus’s day spread her seed, she was taking an even greater risk, a potentially costly risk.
If I were to tell the parable of the sower, it might go something like this: “There once was a farmer who went out to sow his field, and he got about 25% of it where it should go, and the rest was completely wasted because the birds ate it, it burned up from the sun, or it got choked out by the thorns. Don’t be like that farmer.”
But notice that Jesus never condemns the farmer for sowing without restraint. He doesn’t reprimand the farmer for his poor stewardship and never says that now his family might starve. Jesus just names it as a fact: some soil is going to be better than others. We hope for the good soil, but sometimes we hit thorns and rocks along the way. Praise God for the good soil, but sow wherever you go.
Remember that sowing seeds is a reference to words of the kingdom. This may include things like evangelization, but it can also include words of forgiveness and love. A kingdom word can be about ethics, it can be about theology. Anything that points to the kingdom can be a word of the kingdom. I don’t even think that words of the kingdom need to be words! Sometimes it is just a good deed or an act of kindness. The point that Jesus is making is that we are to sow these kingdom seeds broadly, indiscriminately, and without holding back! We are not responsible for the soil condition in other people’s hearts. We are responsible for two things: casting the seed, and our own soil’s condition.
Casting kingdom seeds is not meant to be an act of determining someone’s worthiness or even the likelihood that they will receive the seed well. I think of some of the ministries that we are involved with here at Staunton Mennonite. We recently purchased and installed carpet for the after school tutoring program at the Valley Mission. Every so often we gather other goods for the Mission as well. We have collected food for Thanksgiving boxes for the needy. We have had toilet paper drives, and served meals. We have supported the work of the Mission financially. We do this because these are little seeds of the kingdom. We are called to care for the poor, the needy, and the homeless.
Do you know how many people have come out of poverty because of the efforts of Staunton Mennonite or how many have seen our dedication to service and decided to follow Christ? No, you don’t know, I don’t know, and we may never know. That’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.
Last week Marvin delivered a message about the work of the Gideons, distributing New Testaments around the world and in our own neighborhood. Our church sent a check to the Gideons for $427 this week, which will buy almost three and 1/3 cases of New Testaments. These Testaments will be handed out across college campuses, in parks, and in nations I’ve never heard of.
I remember when I was in college and the Gideons were on campus handing out New Testaments. You can imagine that this wasn’t always met with appreciation on a secular college campus. I saw a lot of New Testaments dropped in the next trash can. I even remember seeing one in a drinking fountain, “baptized” by an unappreciative student. Do we know how many Testaments will end up on the trash and how many will actually be read? Nope. And that’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.
Every Sunday during the school year we have Sunday School, and all year long we gather our little children at the front of the church for Children’s Time. I don’t teach Sunday School very often, but I know that the kids aren’t retaining everything I say during our Children’s Time. Hit your thumb with a hammer and say a bad word, and your kid will remember it forever. Sit them down and teach them about Jesus, and it can go either way! If I can get them to sit still for just a few minutes, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I can’t say for sure what is soaking in and what will be forgotten before the get back to their seats. But that’s not my job. My job is to sow the seed. The Sunday School teacher’s job is to sow the seed.
We can’t work up someone else’s soil, and often, we can’t tell whose soil is prepared. Because unlike the compacted, thorny, and rocky soils of this parable, we aren’t in any position to know whether or not someone is receptive to kingdom seeds. You can’t determine soil condition with your eyes! But that’s not our job. Our job is two-fold: we are to prepare our soil to receive words of the kingdom, and we are to sow kingdom seeds without reservation.
God has poured out love and grace upon us, even though we are not worthy. Likewise, we sow kingdom seeds regardless of how prepared we believe someone else’s soil to be. Someone ones sowed seeds in our lives, and we are called to pass on the favor.