Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 The Parable of the Sower
Jesus said many things to them in parables. 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.
Jesus then went on to explain the parable.
Whenever people hear the word about the reign of God and don’t understand it, the evil of this world comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 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. 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. 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.
I have a lifetime connection to farming. I grew up in a rural, farming community in Illinois, worked on dairy farms growing up, I served a country church in rural Iowa for five years, and as many of you already know, Becky and I raise chickens and turkeys, goats and geese along with two large gardens on our property here in Northern Wisconsin. So, it’s suffice to say that I know a thing or two about planting seeds and what constitutes good soil. And it would be easy to translate that knowledge into a sermon on how you should become better soil.
But I’m going to go a different direction today. I want to offer you something beyond the same old, dusty understanding of this text. I want to offer you something more than just asking, “what kind of soil are you?” I want to offer you a perspective on this parable that speaks to us in our time, in our context, in the midst of all this chaos that is 2020. I want to offer you a word about the surprising generosity of God.
I read a story this week written by a pastor who had recently spent a couple of days in Selma, Alabama. He shared his experience this way: “I stopped at a gas station at the edge of town to fill up before heading home,” he said, “but when I went inside, I noticed an elderly black man sitting in a chair against the wall. I looked at him and said hello. He just nodded and said, ‘Boss.’ And then he started. ‘Forty cents a day I plowed dem fields boss. Forty cents a day!’ Then he got louder. ‘Forty cents a day I tell you. Forty cents, boss!’ Then he got his wallet out. Held up two one dollar bills. He was quiet, calculating. Then he began waving the two dollars and said, ‘This was five days of my life boss. Forty cents a day!’”
Today’s parable makes me think about the gound upon which that old man walked. I suspect he often walked the hard-packed path of racism, a path where not much grows, where life and opportunities are too quickly snatched away. I’d be willing to bet he knew what it was like to live between a rock and hard place. On the rocky ground, life withers because you can’t put down roots. There’s no security or stability and the sun scorches. He surely walked amongst the thorns of violence, fear, anger, and poverty. I have no doubt that those thorns wrapped themselves around him and his family choking away dignity, security, and trust.
Now, you and I may not have plowed fields for forty cents a day but we all know the different landscapes of which Jesus speaks. We know the beaten path of life. We’ve stumbled through the rocky patches of life. We’ve all been scratched and cut by the thorns of life. But we’ve also planted our roots deep in the sacred soil of life. Soil that has feed us and allowed us grow into the community of faith we are today.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Jesus isn’t just describing different types of soil or circumstances of life. He is describing the inner landscape of the human heart. And if we know anything, we know that the human heart is complicated and multifaceted. And it’s precisely because we’re so complex that our hearts are represented by more than just one type of soil. We‘re actually all four. The four soils are descriptive of how we live and relate to others and to God. Jesus’ interpretation of this parable, when he tells us about what happens to the seeds, describes the consequences of each kind of life.
Now, this way of understanding today’s narrative represents both the beauty and challenge of parables. The challenge comes when we try to understand a parable as a literal. By literal, I mean the attempt to cram an ancient, pre-scientific, pre-rationalist understanding of how things work in the world into our post-modern worldview. And unfortunately, this type of literalism causes a parable to lose its relevance.
I mean, as a person who gardens, when I read about a farmer going out and sowing seeds on a public pathway, on rocky ground, and amongst the thorns, I think to myself, “That is simply wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective. That’s bad farming. You can’t plant seeds among the rocks and thorns or on a path and then act surprised when nothing grows.” So, the result of looking at this parable in these literal terms is irrelevance. But to be aware of this disconnect is how we begin to understand the deeper, culturally in-tuned, beauty of this parable. A beauty that invites us to find a meaning that speaks to us in our time and situation. And if we approach Jesus’ teachings with this kind of freedom, they will offer us a glimpse into God’s world and what God is like.
And the Parable of the Sower is, in the end, a koan of grace that invite us to indwell the surprising generosity of God. A generosity that lays at the heart of this passage. A generosity that’s revealed to us through the imagery of the four soils. As different as they are from one another, these four types of soil hold two things in common. Seeds and the sower. The sower sows the same seeds in all four soils with equal toil, equal hope, and equal generosity. And the sower does so without evaluation of the soil’s quality or potential. There’s no soil left unsown. No ground is declared undeserving of the sower’s seeds. This isn’t about the quality of dirt. It’s about the quality of God, the surprising generosity of the divine sower.
Our society, however, for hundreds of years has misunderstood the nature of God’s generosity. The privileged have used their advantage to push people of color, whether they be African American, Latinx American, Asian American, or Native American, onto the hard, rocky, thorny ground of racism. That’s the point of the old man’s rage at spending five days of his life earning only two dollars. That’s the anger inherent in his words, as he spoke of getting only 40 cents a day while working 40 dollar a day soil. And that’s the motivation behind the Black Lives Matter Movement. It isn’t about the rioting and looting, that’s the unfortunate result of a few instigators of trouble. And it isn’t about getting rid of the police, as we depicted in a ridiculous political ad recently.
Instead, the Black Live Matter movement actually speaks from the very core of this parable. It’s about coming to understand the surprising and indiscriminate generosity of our Still-Speaking God, as revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s about a generous God who says that no life, no race, no nationality, no sexual orientation or gender identity, no person, no soil, is left unsown. No one is beyond the grace of God and no one should be excluded from the extravagant welcome of God’s people. That’s what this parable is finally about in our context: The equal distribution of dignity and respect, of opportunity and wealth. It’s about seeing beyond the color of one’s skin and coming to understand that justice, real and true racial justice, must be for all, by all, and among all.
And finally, we’re called and challenged, as people of faith, to be prophetic in how we respond to the rapidly changing landscape around us. We’re called to be fearless in our pursuit of justice and we’re challenged, maybe now more than ever before, to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, beyond the limits of the past, beyond even… the constraints of our imaginations. We are called, my dear ones, not only to proclaim the generosity of God in our society, but to live-out that generosity in our words and with our actions.
My friends, change is here. That’s the simple truth. That’s the reality. But the question of how we, as people of faith, as the advantaged majority, respond to this movement toward equality, that remains to be seen.[i]
[i] Many of my thoughts in this message found their beginnings in the stories and theology of a sermon titled: It’s About God, Not the Dirt (www.interruptingthesilence.com) 2011