Please note, our minister will be on leave for the next fortnight, so we will be joined by guest preachers. There won't be any posted reflection, but you are welcome to worship with us in the building, or catch up with previous services on this blog.
Matthew 13:1-23 | NIV
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."
When we read scripture in isolated chunks, we can lose sight of how it all connects up, but the passage we have heard this morning begins with the phrase “that same day", so it is clearly linked to what has come before, and the first question we might want to ask of the text is “what has just happened?” The gospel writers aren’t always great at giving a clear sense of the passage of time, and some translations have the day start part way through chapter twelve, while others seem to suggest that the whole of the previous chapter has happened on “that same day”. Either way, It has been a busy one. If we take the whole of chapter twelve, the day begins with the disciples causing trouble by picking corn on the Sabbath, to which Jesus responds by saying that the Sabbath is meant to be for the good of people, and then doubles down on the point by healing a man in the synagogue. The religious leaders who oppose him start plotting to kill him, so he heads out of town and is followed by a crowd. He heals those among them who are sick and swears them to silence, saying that this is to fulfil the words of Isaiah, who spoke of a servant who would exercise a quiet ministry which would bring about justice and be the hope of the world. He then heals a demon possessed man, and when the religious leaders get wind of this they say he can command the demons because his power comes from the prince of demons. Jesus points out that it would make no sense for a demon to cast out demons, and counsels them that “a tree is recognised by its fruit”.
It is at this point that some translations suggest a new day, and so this next bit certainly happens just before our reading, even if the events we’ve just heard happened some time earlier. Jesus is approached again by religious leaders asking for a sign, and he despairs that they need miracles, but says that he will give them the sign of Jonah, being buried as the prophet was swallowed. His mother and brothers arrive wanting to see him, and instead of greeting them, he says that his brother and sister and mother are those who do the will of God. There’s a lot going on there, but perhaps the main point we can take is that Jesus has been getting mixed responses. He is gathering crowds who are coming to him for healing and teaching, but he is also attracting the attention of those who want to challenge and even destroy him. There is misunderstanding over the nature of his power, and not everyone is yet ready to reimagine the world in the way that he does. I think that sets us up well for the parable that is the focus of our reading, which has so much to do with how we respond to the presence and word of God.
Before we get to the parable itself however, I want to ask what the middle section of the text is all about. The lectionary leaves out verses ten to seventeen, and I can understand why, but at the same time it feels like cheating to skip over the tricky bits. And this bit is tricky because it sounds like Jesus is saying that he teaches in parables because he doesn’t want everyone to understand, as if he doesn’t want everyone to hear and see and so to turn to God and be healed. That doesn’t line up with the radical love and inclusion we see elsewhere in the gospels, including in this very parable, and so there must be something else happening here. I think it all rests on how we read the prophecy from Isaiah. Is this hardness of heart what God commands, or is it simply what God recognises will happen? It has been translated both ways, but the second reading seems more consistent with the God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”, and I think it is possible to read a note of sadness in it. Perhaps then the parables are not meant to confuse, but are given because of the confusion that already exists. Not everyone is able to respond to Jesus in the way the disciples do, and so the parables are given so that others might see and hear in a new way. They are an invitation to not just listen but to engage and explore and so to finally understand.
And so on to the parable of the sower, and this is the only parable Jesus tells that comes with an explanation. It is not clear why this is the only occasion on which we see Jesus offer a midrash or interpretation of his own parable, but this is arguably the first true parable in the gospel of Matthew, so perhaps we might see this as him modelling what we need to do with the other parables that will follow. At any rate, it seems to me that there is still interpretive work for us to do. First of all, I want to think about the sower for whom the parable is named. I know little about farming methods, and even less about farming methods in first century Palestine, but it seems to me that scattering seed without paying attention to where it is falling is probably not the recommended technique. It seems careless and wasteful, but then Jesus wasn’t teaching a class in agricultural college. The theologian John Colwell says that there are two main questions to ask of scripture - “what kind of God?” and “so what?” - and I think the sower speaks to the first question, revealing a God who sows indiscriminately, giving every kind of soil a chance to accept seed and bear fruit.
It reminds me of the Frederick Buechner quote we landed on when we looked at the story of Hagar, which he describes as “the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvellous promises and loving everybody”. God doesn’t care about efficiency, God cares about reaching everyone. The presence and word of God are not finite resources, so God can scatter them wildly and generously. This is the radical love and inclusion I spoke about earlier. If we’ve started to answer “what kind of God?” then perhaps we should start asking “so what?”, or to expand the question slightly “so what does this mean for us?” In the first place, I think we are called to imitate the sower, but I wonder if we have the same wild and generous attitude, or if we are more selective in our approach. Elizabeth Johnson suggests that “Too often we play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become contributing members of our congregations. In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work - as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs. Jesus' approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts.” Like the sower, we are to scatter the seed of God’s presence and word in all places, even where that means taking risks.
But I think we have another job too, a job that is only hinted at in the parable. Because the success of the seed depends on the soil, and soil can be tilled so that seed will grow in it. Let’s remind ourselves now of the types of soil Jesus describes, and then go a step further than the parable does in thinking about what those images might say about the people the soil represents. There is the path, which would have been hard packed earth so that the seed could not get into it, and perhaps that represents those who have been so trodden down by struggle and oppression that they have become hard to protect themselves. There is the rocky ground, which was so full of obstacles that the seeds could not take root, and perhaps that represents those who carry trauma and discrimination as dead weights that stunt growth. There is the thorny patch, which allowed the seeds to grow but then choked them out, and perhaps that represents those for whom stress and persecution prove deadly or debilitating. And there is the fertile soil, which had been turned over and dug out and so was able to produce a crop, and perhaps that represents those who have faced trouble and hostility but have been given the tools and the support to deal with them.
Of course that’s not the only way of developing those images, but I want to suggest that many who reject the word of God do so not out of ignorance, but because of how life has shaped them, and in many cases because of how the church has treated them. I understand why someone who has known hardship after hardship finds it difficult to believe in a loving God. And I cannot blame someone who has felt the sharp end of homophobia or misogyny or racism in the church for shunning religion altogether. That’s why I think there is an unspoken but undeniable call for us to till the soil, so that faith can flourish. We need to take tangible steps to address the very real struggle and trauma and stress that people face, so that they are free to discover the abundant life Jesus promised, and we need to tackle the evils of oppression and discrimination and hostility, especially where they are perpetuated by the church. If we can do that, then the indiscriminate love of God may take seed and bear fruit in every kind of soil.