The Parable of the Sower . . . or the Soil? (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
It doesn’t take a seminary degree to observe that the parable itself in 13:1-9 puts the emphasis on the sower who sows the seed. It’s called the parable of the Sower in verse 18. But the interpretation that is given in verses 18-23 of the parable of the sower puts almost all the emphasis on the soil. If you give credibility to scholarly work on sacred texts as I do, it’s not difficult to understand what is going on.
The parable itself which is no doubt very close to the story as Jesus most likely told it was probably told as an encouragement to his disciples whom he sent out to preach the kingdom of God. He knew they would face opposition and he warned them that they would be like sheep among wolves. It would be easy to become discouraged in such a climate. The parable assures them that while, yes, there will be those who do not hear and receive their word, there will be some who will receive it. There will be some whose minds and hearts will be open and receptive to the message.
The interpretation of the parable goes in a different direction. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship it is likely that the interpretation originated very early on when this story was being passed down orally – by word of mouth. In the course of this oral transmission this interpretation developed among Jesus’ followers. If Jesus had given a particular interpretation to his parables he would have defeated the purpose for telling parables in the first place, namely, to tease the mind and heart into active engagement with spiritual truth. He would also limit the meaning and restrict the impact of the parable by giving it one, particular interpretation. So it’s not likely this interpretation originated with Jesus. When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written some 5 or 6 or even 7 decades after Jesus, this interpretation had become such an integral part of the tradition that it was incorporated into the Gospel story as the interpretation of Jesus, even though it arose in the church. That’s the consensus of mainline scholarship which you may or may not accept.
I do accept that explanation and on that basis I want to make a point here that I think is very important and I will begin with a common experience. Have you ever read a scripture passage, maybe you even studied the passage or pondered it at some length, and it impacted you in a certain way? You discovered such and such meaning in the text. You believe God spoke to you in a certain way through that text. But then later, maybe a year later, maybe 5 or 10 years later, you came back to that text, and that same text impacted you in a very different way. And you believe that God spoke to you through that text in a very different way than God spoke to you initially through that text. I’m sure many of you have had that experience.
Why is that? It is because sacred texts are fluid and dynamic. The symbolism and meaning in those texts can change for us as the Spirit makes use of these texts and as we are open and ready to receive what God is trying to communicate to us through them. There are scriptures that I read and apply today in a completely different way than I did a decade ago. Why is that? A lot of it has to do with the journey we are on. Maybe we are at a different place today than we were then – a different place spiritually, psychologically, theologically, and socially. God can use a text to speak to us in many different ways at different times and in different contexts in our lives.
That is the nature of God’s word. God’s word is not limited to scripture and it’s not a static thing. The word of God is God speaking. If you read a text of scripture and your mind and heart is not open to hear and receive what God may want to say to you through that text, then that scripture is not God’s word to you. The word of God is God actively wooing, drawing, enticing, revealing, and engaging us in a variety of ways.
Certainly, scripture is one of the key ways, one of the more important ways through which God engages us. This is why we give such great attention to scripture in our worship and in our study and mission groups. Sacred scripture is really important to us. And of course, we believe Jesus to be the living word par excellent. We believe that in the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, in out sacred scriptures we have been given a definitive revelation of what God is like and what God’s will is for humanity. This is why the lectionary puts such emphasis on the Gospels. Every Sunday there is a reading from the Gospels. The lectionary is structured around the life of Jesus. So scripture is very important to us. But the word of God is not limited to scripture. The word of God is God speaking and God can do that in any number of ways.
The word of God is a dynamic reality and we may never know the full impact of a word of God on a person. Sometimes we write off people as having closed hearts to the word, but we never know really. The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching in Atlanta and was called back to Oklahoma for a funeral. The man who died had been a good friend in the little church that Craddock served there. It had been years since they had talked, but they were good friends.
The voice on the phone said, “Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So he went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family gathered around. Kathryn was there. She was the oldest daughter. When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old. Fred says, “I remembered her when I left. She was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention. When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’”
Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company. She and her dad were real close. Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.” She said, “It is tough. When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something. Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.” And she went on to tell Dr. Craddock something he had said in the sermon which apparently made a difference in her life. It gave her something to hold on to when she needed it most.
We just never know do we? And this is encouraging. Some seed land in good soil. And even when the soil may not be so good, some seed may stay put long enough to eventually do some good. This is a real encouragement to those in the business I’m in. We don’t know what might get through, and so we keep sharing the message, we keep teaching and preaching and writing and sharing because we never know.
But this also should encourage you, because you are also sowing seed. We all are. One of the primary ways God speaks to people is through people. We are the body of Christ. We are called to scatter God’s love and grace. And we are not to discriminate. It is not for us to say who is good soil or bad soil. It’s not for us to say who is deserving or undeserving. There is a sense in which none of us are deserving and there is a sense in which we are all deserving. We are all God’s children. We all bear the image of God, no matter how marred that image may be. The Spirit resides in all of us whether we know it or not. Who knows when a closed heart will become an open heart? Our job is not to judge. Our job is to scatter the seed.
Whenever you offer hospitality and welcome you are scattering seed. Whenever you stand with and for the most vulnerable you are sowing seed. Whenever you do some work of mercy or share some word of kindness, or whenever you give of your resources and time to others, you are scattering and sowing the word of God. God is revealing God’s self through you. God is speaking through you. We are all sowers of seed.
And if we are not sowing good seed, there is a good possibility we are sowing bad seed. Jesus also told a parable about a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit. Are we sowing love or hate? Are we sowing inclusion or exclusion? Are we sowing affirmation or condemnation? Are we sowing courage or fear? Are we sowing humility or pride? We are all sowing seed.
We are also different types of soil at various times in our lives. The interpretation of the parable by Matthew should cause us to ask, “What kind of soil am I? So on the one hand we ask, “What kind of seed am I sowing?” And then on the other hand we must ask, “Am I the kind of soil in which the seed can flourish?” We can be different kinds of soil from one hour to the next.
Please don’t read this parable from the perspective of your own ego. If you do, then you will think of yourself as good soil and you will place others in the different types of soil. The people who believe like you do or think like you do or practice their faith the way you practice your faith you will designate good soil. If you do that, you might be anything except good soil. If we assign people and groups to various types of soil we will have then set ourselves up as judges and gatekeepers and our hearts will be just as closed as the religious gatekeepers in the day of Jesus.
We don’t need to be labelling or categorizing anyone. We need to look at our own hearts. Because the fact is, on any given day or moment our minds and hearts may be like any of these different types of soil. Let’s be honest. Some days we are like the hardened footpath. The seed doesn’t have a chance. There are days I know I am hard soil. And there are days I know I am preaching to hard soil.
One Sunday the preacher announced his sermon title as “Ignorance and Apathy.” A church member leaned over and asked his wife: What does he mean by ignorance and apathy. She replied: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Unfortunately, there are some days where that’s where we seem to be. And the seed doesn’t have a chance.
There are other days when our minds and hearts are like the soil that is shallow and full of bedrock. There are days when disappointment or disillusionment set in, when our physical or emotional suffering becomes a barrier of bedrock preventing the good seed from sinking down into the depths of our hearts. Suffering may make us better or bitter. Some days it makes us bitter.
There are other days when our souls are full of weeds. These weeds are identified in the interpretation as the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. We know about these weeds don’t we? The lure of wealth may not be the wealth itself, it may be the power and position and place that comes with wealth. These cares could be anything – not necessarily bad things, but preoccupations and concerns that distract and keep us from doing what is really important like loving others. These cares and aspirations choke out the life of the good seed.
For many of us it doesn’t take much to distract us and turn us away from the wisdom and truth that could make a huge difference in our lives. C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters describes a man who goes into the library to read and think. His mind is suddenly opened to thoughts of God and what that might mean in his life if he took God seriously. But then, his attention is drawn to the sounds on the street, to the newsboy calling out the latest news, and to the fact that he is hungry. And that’s all it takes to get his mind off of God. He, then, becomes consumed once again by the cares of the world.
Keeping the weeds out requires fairly constant attention. I have a goldfish pond in my backyard and I have some plants and rocks as the setting for it, and I have a heck of a time keeping the weeds out. It requires a little bit of attention every other day. If I let it go several days which I often do, weeds seem to sprout up everywhere. The same is true of our souls. This is why some spiritual writers insist on the practice of contemplative prayer or centering prayer, because it’s a way we can quiet our hearts and open them to the Spirit. In order for the divine life that is within to flourish it needs some space to set down roots and grow. That falls on us. We must make some space and invite God to speak and work in our lives. If we are focused on getting more stuff, or making a name for ourselves, or if we are constantly worried or anxious, there is no space in our lives for the life of Christ to live and thrive.
The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ.” How often can we say that? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these other things will fall in place.” Jesus asks us to move from being torn and divided about many things to being committed to the essential thing – God’s good and loving will for humanity and the creation.
We can’t make the seed grow, but we can clear away some of the stuff that prevents the seed from growing. So much of the spiritual life is about subtraction, it’s about letting go – letting go of our many worries and fears, letting go of our infatuation with our own importance, letting go of our need to be in control and on and on it goes. We must let go of those things that prevent the life and love of God from growing in our lives.
So these are the two critical questions we face today. First: What kind of seed am I sowing? We are all sowing seed. Am I sowing good seed or bad seed? And second: What kind of soil represents my heart and mind most of the time? Is my mind and heart closed? Is it distracted or preoccupied? Or am I open, receptive, and ready for what God wants to show me and teach me?
Gracious God, may our hearts be open to receive your word to us. Help us to make space for your word to take root and grow. And help us to realize too, that just as you speak to us through others you speak to others through us. Empower us to sow seeds of peace and hope and love everyday. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.