Matthew 13:1-9 Sermon for July 16, 2017
The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
If you walk out the north door of our church, on the other side of parking lot, there is a solar panel, and behind it there is a fenced-in community garden. The framed in plots of soil are lush with all kinds of vegetables and a few flowers. Had you walked out there in May you would have seen some of those plots marked out with straight crisscrossed strings marking off each square in which a vegetable seed would be planted. Other new sprouting seeds had already emerged in their rows as if they were soldiers standing a straight line waiting to be inspected.
Last May had you followed my brother-in-law Dave, on his tractor down in Seward County, just west of Lincoln, you would have watched him plant corn seeds exactly 8” apart and then have the rows spaced exactly 30” apart. In addition to no-tilling of the soil, and measured and variable application of fertilizer the crops they are getting are amazing and rather consistent in average summers with the right mix of heat and rain. It’s called Responsible Farming. Or at least they wasting seeds.
So I came up with my title “Irresponsible Farming” when I reflected on the Sower in the Parable of Jesus who throws the seeds on the hardened walking paths, the rocky soil, and among the weeds and thistles. What a waste of seed I thought. Not like my brother-in-law Dave. So it looked like the problem lay with the guy planting the seeds.
But we have to be careful. And I knew it. Never assume that any parable of Jesus can easily be explained. And always assume there is something of deep shocking insight that had to be unexpected in most of his parables. I’d told Laurie Hemish, our office manager, on Friday that my sermon title was wrong, but she didn’t have to change it. I’ll let you think of a better title.
We lose sight of the dramatic nature of any parable when we try to explain it and before us today is the perfect example of that. It was in the second part of our reading. There the Parable of the Sower is explained. Or was it?
The explanation is allegory. The rocky path stands for someone who hears the word of God, but has no depth to that hearing, and will fall away at the first sign of trouble. The seed sown among thorns stands for those with great wealth and caught up in the cares of the world. I don’t need to give you the whole explanation again.
A number of Biblical scholars actually question if this interpretation came from Jesus. Perhaps it represents those early followers at work, (in Matthew’s community) preaching and living the Jesus story, who saw how what they believe was true was rejected by others.
If you go home and look more closely at the 13th chapter of Matthew you’ll see that there is another parable, one for next week, called the “Parable of Weeds among the Wheat.” It stands alone, but then it is also explained in allegory.
What we don’t read, but should, is the question the disciples asked Jesus “Why do you speak in parables?” And the answer that Jesus gave, came directly from the 8th century prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Jesus quotes the prophets when he says, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”
Those 8th century prophets were calling the people of Israel back to the covenant with God—to fidelity, towards concern for the widow and for orphans, and the poor. But they knew their prophetic word was often rejected, meaning so many did not and would not understand.
Hold that word in your mind. Understand. It means to stand under some truth, some way of seeing what is suppose to be, and then walking and living under that truth. We must never remove the ethical component from the call to follow and to be faithful.
So what’s with a parable like the one Jesus told? First of all it is simple in its elements. It’s also a story that connects to something Jesus knew was in the real world of Galilee and Judea. It was also a riddle. It wasn’t a billboard along a highway. But it was a prism. You were expected to be able to see through it to the world as you knew it, and to the world as God wanted it to be experienced.
Above all a parable had a deceiving simplicity and familiarity to it that just might touch something deep and mysterious.
This parable also had the rule of three working for it. Three times the seed falls where it won’t or cannot grow. Three things happen to the seeds. The birds eat the ones on the path, the seed grows in the rocky ground and among the weeds, but dies. And thirdly, the seed grows in the good soil, and then there are three different results of productivity. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and one hundred-fold.
(By the way it’s like counting the seeds on a ear of corn. And a hundred-fold isn’t beyond belief, but it is more like picking the largest ear of corn to eat.)
With a simple structure, and a progressive narrative, the parable moves among what’s familiar: paths that are walked, rocky ground where sometimes things do grow, weeds that choke good plants, and good soil.
Notice by the way, there is nothing wrong with the seeds. They are even good to eat from the perspective of the birds. And I believe there was nothing in the way that Jesus tells the story that is wrong with the sower. He’s only mentioned at the beginning and then fades from view.
Some scholars propose that this parable should be renamed the Parable of the Soils, but I’m not so sure. We need context.
It’s the first century. People in Galillee sees a Roman City, Sephoris being built to honor Caesar. That new city that required day laborers and carpenters was four miles from Nazareth. And those farmers and peasants —more of the latter— struggle for their daily bread. They cultivated the tiniest bits of ground—seeking growth from wherever it was possible. They never expected super-abundant crops, but just enough to get by.
And Jesus talked over and over about the Kingdom of God. A rule that would make life possible, because no one would go hungry, or thirst, or be forgotten. Oh, what will we hear Jesus say, from this Matthew’s gospel, before this year is done? We shall hear, “Lord whenwas it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
The King answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Who are members of my family. That’s who Jesus is speaking to. They all know that those seeds are meant to bring life—to be bread. Crops for your animals perhaps. And then milk for your children.
And how did those first century Galilleans live? Well certainly with less security and freedom as we know it. But if we are honest there are aspects of all of our lives for which money, security, and whatever we do to preserve our health and prosperity seem at times beyond our control.
Is this parable of the Sower, then, speaking in some kind of puzzling fashion to a human reality that is true for all of us? To what one prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is said to be “For All Sorts and Conditions of People.” I think so.
In researching this sermon I came across a reflection by Amos Wilder, a poet and theologian, who mentioned the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” that touch our “place in creation and exuberance” that also includes a “primodial wonder that existence emerges out of and prevails over nothingness. (p. 141. The Parable of the Sower: Naivete and Method in Interpretation).
That’s a heavy loaded metaphorical way of saying, “Trouble can happen to anyone, and wonder can also be seen in the least expected times, places, and circumstances of life.”
Let’s go back to the seed. It’s everywhere in this parable. And that seed. It’s the presence of God. Or the possibility of discovering God. And the promised reality of the Kingdom of God, even when you can’t see it in the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” it is there.
I don’t do this often, but I want to quote from a sermon I gave on this text in 1999. As I got near the end of writing this sermon I wondered what I might have said about this parable at some other point in my ministry. What I said 18 years ago still works for me.
“How many of you can talk of dark, difficult days when you didn’t know God? When you seeking answers in something that wasn’t life giving? But now something has sprung up in your life. At least you’re here.
Jesus tells us something else which all of you know deep down…there is no one who can tell you when, or where, or how God is at work. Because God works in darkness and in mystery. God works with small things like seeds, and little children, and little people like Zaccheaus, and with a little bread and wine. What some may think couldn’t carry the life of God, turns out to carry the very life of God. Even a cross gets turned around by God to be a sign of victory. God’s mysteries never cease in our lives. That’s what Jesus is saying with seed sown everywhere.”