Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Rev. Denise Vaughn
The Seed that Bears Good Fruit
The passage today from the Gospel of Matthew is often called the parable of the Sower, sometimes the parable of the Soils. Parables by their very nature can be puzzling because they use figurative speech, symbolic language with usually more than one level of meaning. The term parable can refer to a proverb, a wisdom saying, or a riddle. Whatever form the parable takes most often it does not confirm to the status quo. Its purpose is to persuade the hearer to adopt a particular view of God and of life in God’s kingdom. Their aim is to convert the hearer and turn upside down our preconceived notions of what the kingdom of God will look like. No wonder Jesus liked to use parables and in this thirteenth chapter of Matthew, the parable of the sower is just one of seven such stories.
For most of us, this is a very familiar parable. One that was portrayed quite well in the stage production of “Godspell,” a good humored play based on the Gospel according to Matthew. In it you may remember the four rambunctious actors dressed like clowns that played the seeds with each one of them meeting a different fate. The seed that was cast on the path no sooner hit the ground when the other actors making crow noises flapped down and pecked him to death. The seed that was cast on rocky ground came to life with a bang, waving her arms around and dancing in place, but then an actor carrying a big yellow cardboard sun stood over her until she grew limp and crumpled to the stage. The seed that was cast among thorns barely had time to get to his knees before he was surrounded by prickly looking characters who got their hands around his neck and choked him. Then there was the seed that was cast on good soil that came gracefully to life and stayed alive.
All in good humor, yet when we really listen to what Jesus is saying in this parable, we find he is giving us quite a rigorous lesson in living the reality of the church. The parable of the sower is crucial for the church to imagine the kind of community that we must be in order to survive in our world that assumes kinship to everything but Christ. We need to hear the message that we may not always succeed, yet we are to throw out the seed. This is the message Jesus felt compelled to teach that day from the prow of a boat because so many had come to hear him, to learn from him that there is no other space for Jesus to sit. But the crowds may have been a bit disappointed that day when Jesus starts with a good dose of realism.
Everyone in the crowd would be nodding his or her head as Jesus describes the trials and tribulations of traditional first-century farming but with a strange new twist. It seems that these ordinary things have something important to do with God’s purpose for them. That those things they handle every day are vessels of some sort, a truth that seems clear to them one moment and hidden the next. This just seems to be the way that parables work, easy to hear, but a little harder to get hold of. No wonder Jesus commands, Listen! A sower went out to sow.
A sower in a successful business today would have well-tilled fields, on land that had been prepared for planting. He would have at the very least taken a seed drill to put in one seed every so often in ruler straight rows. He has irrigation and fertilizer, and an automated tiller to deal with the weeds between rows. He thins the crop so the best specimens can grow to full maturity. And he keeps a careful record so he would know what to do differently next year for better results. But when God sows, the picture is very different. This is old-fashioned broadcast sowing, seed flung in the air by handful. It lands where it will, everywhere. There is no carefully prepared ground the whole world is the field and the seed is sown on all kinds of ground.
With this approach, it no surprise that some seed falls on hard soil, other seed on ground too rocky for good roots, and still other seed among thorns and weeds. Those are the facts of life, and everyone knows it, including Jesus. But for Jesus and his followers this fact of life applied not only to farming. The seed of his teaching had fallen on rock-laden, thorn-strewn ground. Preceding this event, the disciples lose faith during a storm at sea. The Pharisees want to choke out his message and soon Jesus would experience the hard soil of rejection in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus does not just tell this parable. He lives it and so does the community for whom Matthew’s gospel was written.
First-century Palestine is a hard time and place to be a Christian because of extreme poverty and persecution. Within the church itself there are dissenters and false prophets. With this parable, Matthew reminds his community as Jesus reminded his followers then and us today, that rejection of his message does not mean the message is wrong or their efforts are in vain. It is simply a fact of life, whether in farming or in faith. Some seeds will fall on well-worn paths where birds can eat them, or on rocky ground where it is unlikely that they will grow, or among thorns that will choke them, or just possibly they will take root and produce and bear fruit.
When we hear this parable, do we even think or worry about which kind of ground we are on with God? Or, do we hear it as a challenge to be different, not only in our own lives but to improve the lives of others? Jesus wants us to consider why so many more hear than understand, why so many more disciples are planted than bear fruit, and what is needed for fruitful discipleship by giving us God’s approach to growing God’s kingdom. Fruitful discipleship spreads the good news by flinging the seed of the kingdom far and wide. The sower may not know in advance what is beneath the soil’s surface, whether the ground is hard, or shallow, or where weeds will choke. The purpose of the sower is to sow. We are charged with the responsibility of farming God’s word even though such a task is easier said than done.
And, even though we do not in advance know what is beneath the soil it important that we understand the soil for fruitful discipleship. Without understanding, our words of faith find no good soil and the ever-present evil one, like the hovering bird, snatches away the potential of faith. Understanding opens the ground; it is insight that leads to action or growth. Jesus tried to impart to his hearers understanding of God’s ways that would enable them to understand the soil. And along with understanding the soil we also need to be aware that trouble or persecution will happen. There is joy when we or others receive the gospel but it soon can be snatched away. Worldly anxieties can make us limp and die.
Considering the powerful ways of the world—the evil one, hardened hearts, persecution, the anxiety-driven lure of wealth—it is a miracle that there are sowers and that there is any growth at all. Yet, in the end, all growth comes from God and because we cannot know or predict why some receive faith and others do not, we are called to spread the good news through our actions of generosity and invitation, always giving thanks to God for fruitful growth. And Paul’s letter seems to offer a simple solution: let the Spirit of God rule in one’s heart and the resulting actions will not only represent right choices but also will give evidence of one’s faith in God. For it takes faith to sow seeds of grace and love. To help others freely without expecting a return, with something of the joy of God’s own generosity because that is the way our world is being redeemed. May we find faithful understanding to persevere no matter what soil, to spread seed, having faith in God’s abundance.