Matthew 13:1–9 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Sower
(Mk 4:1–9, 13–20; Lk 8:4–8, 11–15)
13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
Matthew 13:18–23 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Sower Explained
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
No matter how many times I hear a story from scripture they still amaze me. The Parables of Jesus are some of the greatest stories of all. This is exactly what they are, they are a story. Jesus used his imagination and the scene surrounding him and he wove an impromptu narrative to illustrate a point. A story is probably the greatest tool we have to transfer ideas from one person to another. The art of storytelling is also one of the oldest art forms. Long before a written language was developed various members of the prehistoric tribes would gather together and listen to one of their elders tell a story. In ancient Gaelic cultures, the storytellers or bards were some of the most educated members of society and their entire livelihood was provided by their lord. The bards made their living through the teaching of the people through story and verse. The reason is because a good bard would be able to weave a story together that would be exciting, mystifying, engaging, and profound all while sitting around a fire. And the people longed for these stories. They wait with anticipation for the next instalment just like we wait through the entire summer enduring week after week of reruns till the season premiere of our favorite show airs.
The story is powerful. And our story, the story of our journey through life is one of the most powerful tools God has provided to you. The blessings you have received provide those we speak to hope in their own lives. The struggles we endure allow others to look at their own struggles with the anticipation that their suffering can come to an end. Our triumphs provide encouragement and our failures are filled with grace. You may not think that your story is that interesting but as the storytellers of one of my favorites shows say, “There are no insignificant people.”
The story in today’s passage is one of the most recognizable parables of Jesus, probably second to the story of the prodigal son. This parable is one that speaks to me in many ways because it speaks directly to the essence of who I am. As much as I try and as long as I have lived in the city I will always be a farm boy at heart. I must get outside and view a horizon every so often or I develop anxiety. Occasionally I must get my hands dirty to reconnect with my roots. I love the musty smell of the soil just after a gentle shower, and to watch the wind create waves in the sea of wheat. When I say Jesus withdrew often to the isolated places to pray, I understand. He went out in the wilderness away from all the distractions of the busy cities in which he ministered and he found rest. This year’s theme for the Ministry conference, The Way in the Wilderness, connects with this idea which is probably a good thing because you cannot get much more remote than Haviland Kansas.
There is a reason that Jesus speaks of the sower and the seed. It is a powerful image that can be etched into our minds and hearts. To grow food connects our minds, bodies, and our spirits to creation. To participate in the production of grain, fruit, or a vegetable forces us to realize that we are not in control. There are forces at work that we cannot always overcome, yet we can participate with nature to manipulate a desired result. I use the term manipulate for a reason even though it may sound negative. I use it because to be able to manipulate we must have an intimate knowledge of the subject to be able to create a desired environment. But even our greatest efforts will not overcome every possible contributing factor.
Jesus speaks of the sower, or the farmer, out in the field spreading seed. I imagine there is someone off in the distance doing this sort of work as Jesus speaks. I imagine that there are some in the crowd listening to the words that Jesus speaks and gazing off into the distance watching the farmer out in that field carefully and methodically throwing handfuls of seed onto the tilled earth. They listen to Jesus words, they watch the farmer. They look at the path leading through the field and up the hill, the very path they walked on to listen to this teacher, and they watch the birds gathering and pecking at the ground gathering the seeds the farmer may have overthrown. (The practice of spreading seed by hand is more of an art not a science.) Then they look at the expanse of the field. They notice the deep dark earth and the lighter soil as it progresses to the hills. They see areas where there are more rocks than soil and they notice piles of stones in the distance that the farmer had removed. They see an area near the edge where weeds and vines seem to be encroaching on the carefully maintained soils of the field. They listen and hear the rhythmic swoosh of the seeds leaving the farmers hands and they watch as a cloud of seeds rain down onto the various features of the land below.
Then Jesus explains. The seeds that fell on the rocky soil quickly sprang up but as the sun came out they withered and died because they did not have a root. The Seeds that fell in the thorns grew and were choked out, the seeds on the path were eaten by the birds. And the seeds that fell on the good soil grew, they provided a yield.
Imagine the image that Jesus has given us. Some of us can imagine it because we have visited a farm or have made some sort of attempt to grow a garden. If you have done any of those things then you might grasp some of the concepts that Jesus is bringing up without even speaking them. If you have not ever tried to grow a garden then it may be more difficult to imagine, and I strongly encourage you to try next spring so that you might have a better understanding of the things Jesus speaks.
If you are out in a plot of land, it doesn’t matter how large, you will see characteristics of the soil that will speak volumes about the potential of yield. Every soil has a color, imagine any color and there is a soil somewhere in this world that is close to it. That color can tell you a great deal about the soil and if it is something that will produce. Just so you know that crazier the color chances are you do not want to grow a garden in it, you might want to get as far away from some of the colors because of the elements causing the hue.
If you were to feel the soil with your hands, you might notice the moisture content, the textures and the smells. It might be a deep brown or black, but you notice that it is wet even though it has not rained in several days, you might notice that a couple of yards away the color is lighter and it feels like there is sand mixed in. Each factor affects the potential of growing a crop.
Imagine this as you consider the words that Jesus spoke. All the elements that Jesus spoke about affect the potential of yield. Soils are hard, rocky, filled with weeds, pestered with birds and rodents all wishing to steal your potential yield, and you are there trying to provide food for you family. Often, we look at all these factors and we think of them as absolutes rocky soils will always be rocky, good soil is always good soil, and bad soils are always bad. If you look at this story that Jesus told and think that I ask one simple question why is the farmer out there?
One of the most striking images of Ireland that I have seen are the beautiful green fields stretching across the land outlined by stone walls. I have only seen these in pictures because I have not traveled to that green land. But why are the fields lined with stone walls? If you were to hope in a time machine you might be able to see the progression of those walls. As soils are tilled occasionally a stone will be pulled up with the hoe or plow. The stone will cause problems with the crop so if they are found the farmer will carry that stone to the edge of their field. As time progresses eventually these stones eventually build walls. I am sure there is more to it than that but I have carried a few stones out of a field so some part of it is true. Eventually with each stone removed the ratio of rock to soil in the field changes and the field turns from poor soil to something better.
Soils can change. We can work with nature to manipulate soils to move land that was once undesirable to something that can produce an abundance of food. If lands are dry we can build irrigation systems, and terracing systems that help retain moisture. In some areas, we might realize that the soils or environment is not suitable for certain crops so we change the seeds. Many factors are involved and as we have become more aware of nature we have been able to provide more food than ever before.
That is great right. Soils are amazing and we are glad that we have a pastor that has a degree in crop and soil sciences so he can get excited about this silly little parable. If soils can change, if we can find ways to manage the soils and environment to produce food what does this say about the rest of creation or you?
If we were to look back through the story of your life you might have experienced a time where you were so busy that the seeds of faith never had a chance to take root before they were snatched away. There might be a time where you thought you had faith but the roots encountered rocks and withered away. Maybe worries of life began to choke you stealing the light and nutrients from you so you were unable to bear fruit for a season. Look at your life. Each of us have had trials, blessings, good times, and times we would never wish on anyone. Look at your life. Were there people out there sowing seeds? Were there people out there helping pick up rocks so that you became aware of the things holding you back from your true potential. Were there teachers or friends that helped you determine that a certain choice you had made might not have been the right one for your personality, so you change careers or studies? Look at your life the story of your life. Look at all those people you encountered in some manner that had helped you get to this point. Those people like the farmer in Jesus Parable worked the ground they knew the ground and they loved the ground. They did everything they could to prepare the ground and coax the very earth to bear an abundance of fruit. But even the best farmer, even the person with the greatest green thumb we know cannot control it all. The farmer like those in your life look at what the spirit is doing in the environment and they respond. They say a kind word, they give a gift to help you through a rough patch, and they allow you to cry on their shoulders. They bring soup if you are sick and they pray for you. They knit hats for your baby, and the sew quilts for your wedding. Every action they do is a seed planted or a stone removed so that the spirit of God can take hold and grow within you.
Consider your life, consider all who have gone before those saints of old that encouraged you, and those friends that still do. They are all a glimpse of the greater truth and hope that resides in Christ. Who came from heaven to live among mankind. He lived with us to show us what true life with God was, what the abundant life is, and what we were created to be. He showed us a lifestyle different from those our world offered, a lifestyle of mutual profit and a holy rhythm of worship, prayer, and service to each other. He showed us this life and then he encouraged us to live it out. And we quickly realized that life is hard. Jesus showed us hope in this way; while we were still sinners or people living opposed to God Jesus died for us, providing grace and redemption. He was crucified, and buried and on the third day he rose again to life. Why? Because we need to know that there is hope. That God is a God of second chances and when we fail there is still life. We are not bound to failure and death because Jesus lives. Because he lives no matter how many seeds were wasted on my life one might take root and yield an abundance of Fruit. And that life, that flicker of hope and love that blossoms around us is what gives us joy. The gardener participates with nature to bring about something beautiful. Consider your life, and consider all those who have help you along the way.