Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
1 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.
3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”
18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce– in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.” (CEB)
I love watching sports with my wife. I mean, we don’t watch often. It’s the occasional Duke basketball game, Notre Dame football game, or Detroit Tigers baseball game. But when we do sit together and watch, she inevitably cracks me up with the way she mocks the sportscasters. Two of Joy’s Spiritual gifts are mockery of the inane and sarcasm in all its forms. Sports commentators offer some of the best material for both of her gifts to flourish. As soon as a commentator asks the inevitable question, “How do you win this game?” Joy is off to the races.
“Well, Bob, it’s really complicated, but here’s what we’ve got to do: we’ve got to score more points than the other team. Basically, our team needs to score a bunch of points and make sure the other team doesn’t score as many points. We know for certain that if they score more points than us, we’ll lose the game. So, to prevent that from happening, we need to score a lot of points and keep them from scoring any. Or, at least we need to keep them from scoring as many. And that’s our strategy for winning. So, to summarize, we are going to score points and keep them from scoring points.”
That’s actually every sports interview, ever. There’s really nothing to add, but people talk and talk and talk as if there’s something really new to add, some valuable insight that no one ever thought of before.
Which is kind of like this parable. This is a first for me. I’ve never preached on this text. I’ve avoided preaching on this text because sermons are, in part, about interpreting the Scriptures. The difficulty with this parable is that Matthew follows it a few verses later with an interpretation. So what more is there to add? What can a preacher do with it when the interpretation that breaks the parable down is right there, included in the lectionary reading? It’s a little intimidating, to the point that I considered reading the parable, and the interpretation Matthew has Jesus provide, and have my whole sermon be three words: “What he said.”
Then, I got to thinking about parables themselves. They’re grounded in real life stuff, so they’re fairly concrete, not theoretical or abstract. And, they’re not very straightforward or direct. A parabola is a curve, and parables tend to behave the same way. They curve in and come at things from the side, and there are always multiple interpretations and vantage points.
This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Soils, or the Parable of the Seeds, or the Parable of the Sower. In the interpretation Matthew provides in verse 18-23, the meaning is very straightforward. It’s about how different people receive the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Those who hear the news and don’t understand it have what was sown in their heart snatched away by the evil one. That’s the seed sown on the path. The seed sown on the rocky ground are those persons who hear the news and receive it with joy, but fall away when trouble comes because they don’t have deep roots. The seed sown among thorns are those who hear, but the cares of the world or the lure of wealth choke the news out so it doesn’t yield anything. The seed sown on good soil are those who hear, understand, and grow in the news of the kingdom. They bear fruit and yield bountifully.
We typically interpret the subjects of Jesus’ parables as us. I mean, we do that with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we’re the Good Samaritan, but we might be the guy who got beat up and was lying half-dead on the side of the road. God might be the Good Samaritan who comes to us and offers healing and care at God’s own expense.
In this case, we might be the sower casting seeds to those around us, meaning we’re the evangelist sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with others. In Matthew’s day, the early church struggled in Judea. They were a minority group. And while they had some amazing gains at various times, it wasn’t always easy to be a Christian in first century Judea. So, with this interpretation, it’s about perseverance when preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven because, while many will reject the word or fall away or be choked out, a few will accept it. Those few will bear their own fruit and start sowing their own seeds.
Or, in another interpretation, we might be the soil receiving the seed, and the state of our hearts and minds will determine how the seed cast upon us and sown in our hearts will grow or not. My problem is that the state of my soil seems to change. Sometimes the seed seems to fall flat on a hard path and I don’t understand things. Sometimes my soil is a little rocky, and my growth seems stunted. Sometimes my soil gets a little choked with briars and weeds because life happens and I end up worrying about my family’s well-being. This past school year, for example, my youngest missed over 30 days of school mostly due to a fever of unknown origin. Her temperature always registered from 100 to 101 degrees. Always. And no one could figure it out. The doctors finally decided it must be her tonsils, so she’s having them removed in a few weeks. It’s not a guaranteed fix, but that’s the best they can determine as a cause. And, her surgery is on my birthday. So yeah, I can confess that my soil has been a little choked lately, for that and other reasons.
While those are perfectly valid interpretations of the parable, what if we dropped our anthropocentric airs for a moment and looked at the subject of this parable as God? While the interpretation in verses 18-23 is important, most scholars agree that it’s a later interpretation provided by Matthew for the sake of the early church not necessarily an interpretation that Jesus gave. Let’s look at the parable by itself, without the interpretation.
“A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention” (Matthew 13:3-9 CEB).
If God is the farmer who is sowing seeds, I imagine God’s generosity is such that some of those seeds would be purposefully thrown onto the path just so the birds could get something to eat. There’s nothing in the parable itself to suggest the birds eating these seeds is a negative thing, nor is there any suggestion that the seeds were thrown onto the path accidentally, or that the farmer is being careless in his sowing. We’re simply told that some fell on the path and the birds ate them. At the risk of getting a little gross, when the bird passes the seed in a dollop, it can take root in the strangest of places. It’s possible that the farmer meant to throw some seed on the path.
The text which the lectionary provides from Isaiah suggests this very thing: “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:10-11 CEB).
God scatters seed extravagantly and with varying results. Some of it takes root in shallow soil but doesn’t last, some of it takes root in hostile places among thorns that threaten to choke the life out of the seedling. Others take root in good soil and grow as they’re supposed to grow. Why would Jesus tell us a parable like this? Somehow I don’t think it’s so we can make the connections to the different kinds of soils as mere observers and say, Yep. That sure is how it is, and walk away holding that little nugget of insight in our hearts. Jesus was a practical guy, and the Methodism of the Wesley brothers was practical divinity. Faith requires action or it doesn’t count as faith. Understanding means that we get it and get to work.
What if the reason Jesus told this parable was to show all of us that there’s still some groundwork that needs to be done? God scatters seed and gives growth, but we’re the tenants of the garden. We’ve been the tenants of the garden since Adam and Eve. That was God’s first commandment to the human race in Genesis 1:28. Got told us to take charge of creation. If some of the seed God sows is falling on unprepared ground, maybe it’s because we haven’t cleared and tended the soil as we ought. Maybe we’ve got some work to do. Maybe we need to step into those rocky and choked places of the world and get our hands dirty until even that soil can support life to its fullest potential.
With some effort and hard work, we can turn rocky soil into something fertile. We can clear out the thorns and weeds that hinder growth of the seed God has sown. There is a lot of rocky and thorn-choked soil out there, my friends. You can walk out any door of this building and see it. You can drive down any street of this city and find it. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” (Matthew 13:9 CEB). There is ministry to be done. God is already sowing seed in every heart we’ll ever encounter. Our responsibility is to love those hearts so fiercely that the rocks and thorns are cleared away and all that’s left is good, fertile soil and the potential for a mighty harvest.