Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. 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. 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.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Imagine you are at the lake and you just got done taking the boat out. It’s hot, but not that humid—a perfect day to be outside. The kids are playing on the beach and you are setting out all the things you need for a picnic.
Suddenly, you see one of the local farmers come toward you. He’s whistling a happy tune and flinging seeds right and left, without caring about where they are going. “Hey!” you say, “That just went in my drink.” He just smiles and continues to toss the seeds about, as he replies, “I’ve got plenty.” Your children run up to you and say, “That man is throwing seeds in the water and on the dock—will they grow?” You shake your head, puzzled, as you watch him walk away, throwing the seed—wasting the seed—for no apparent purpose, except that he’s got plenty. This doesn’t make sense farmer in these days because all who are part of agricultural communities never waste anything, especially any of their seed, since that is their means of living.
Our Gospel today tells us a strange and vivid story, but when we look a little bit deeper, it might not be so strange after all. Think about it this way—when we witness the birth of a child, accomplish a hard-earned goal, our favorite team wins, or we receive a birthday present that we are overjoyed about, aren’t we so happy that we are about to burst? We’re just bubbling over and feel we have to share our good news with others. We don’t care what kind of day they have been having or if they know us or if they even care; we just have to share our joy. We’re throwing it everywhere with abandon—why? We’ve got plenty!
Isn’t that what the sower in our parable is doing? The seed is so abundant, the sower doesn’t care where it goes. What that sower trusts is that God will provide the response in the hearts of the people where the Word is being sowed. God’s generous abundance keeps overflowing in us so that we are compelled to share it with others.
And what about those others? Jesus further elaborates on his own parable by describing each of the different soils where the seeds land.
This is about the cycle of sowing and reaping; telling and hearing; sharing and responding. Now, we all know people from each of these soil “types” and most of us shift between one soil and another—sometimes on the same day or even within an hour. We’d like to believe that we are the good soil, but if we are honest, we probably aren’t—at least not all the time.
I believe that God has a mission for us all. God wants us to move forward, to announce and then practice the advent of God’s kingdom. We pray: “Let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven ….” I think God wants us to obey Jesus and follow in the footsteps of the early church. They proclaimed the good news, practiced radical and even dangerous hospitality, and stood in communal solidarity across racial and national boundaries. To depict God’s mission of moving us forward, the Bible frequently uses images of a river of God’s presence. A river isn’t static, but it carries everything in and on it to a new place.
In Isaiah 55, the word of the Lord is compared to rain and snow, which fall and don’t evaporate until they have watered the earth. After a long, dry summer in the mostly arid land of Israel, the rains from God are necessary for anything to grow, and for people and animals to have anything to eat. The seasonal rains usually fall around the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. In ancient times, this was precisely when the priests poured out a water libation over the altar, and when Jesus proclaimed himself as the source of the river of living water. God links the life-giving water to God’s life-giving word, which also doesn’t return without bringing forth a bounty of fresh growth and new life.
This brings us to a favorite parable of mine, the tale of the sower in our Gospel text today.
The parable of the sower relies on knowledge of Judean and, especially, Galilean terrace farming techniques. Jesus’ teachings can lose their original meaning if we don’t remember that his words were deeply contextualized to be understood by his hearers.
Put simply, in the flatland farming that most of us imagine, you would never have good, rocky and weedy soil along a path so close together that a farmer would sow seeds among all four kinds in a single throw. Jesus must have been referring to farming in small terraced plots on hillsides. Rocky, weedy and good soil would have all been within a couple meters of the path upon which the farmer walked. But we must remember that in terrace farming, soil wasn’t static but moved in response to the water provided by God.
As the rain falls on the hills, water washes the soil further and further down the terrace system, where the soil is deepest, and mostly free of rocks and weeds. Farmers would have recognized in Jesus’ parable that the condition of the soil had everything to do with how it responded to the living water falling upon it. Soil that refused to move with the water was stuck among the rocks or became trapped among the thorns and thistles that grew in less-tended areas along the terrace retaining walls.
The moral of the parable is that we need to allow God’s living water to move us to someplace where we can bear the most good fruit for the kingdom.
As human beings, we are complex creations of thoughts, feelings, and the ability to act on them. When we experience discomfort, we want it to go away and may act impulsively in order to find comfort or release from pain and anxiety.
We all have experienced this—whether shopping, gambling, food, sex, our tempers, drinking, lying—you name it. Sometimes it isn’t a big deal, but sometimes the little things add up to extremely damaging consequences, both for ourselves and those close to us.
Right now, in the news and on social media, we are seeing deaths from COVID-19, deaths from violence, relationship struggles, job loss, bankruptcies, and despair from anxiety, causing people to behave reactively with dire consequences. These things take root from a seed misleadingly small—the desire to be our own God—a desire to have what we want, when we want it, regardless of the costs or who else may be affected. Augustine of Hippo astutely reminds us that no one should “say that he [or she] is more worthy of life than others,” and if we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our neighbors as ourselves],” then this is the standard toward which we must grow.
Those impulses can get us into loads of trouble; when we give in without tempering them with our call from God, we end up with no depth of spirit, choked with the thorns of the world. We yield nothing, and our actions break the cycle of abundance. Others do not experience the love of God through us and we have lost the chance to share the abundance we received.
Have you ever met someone that you immediately feel is a holy person? There is something about the way they move and live and have their being that speaks to you on a soul level. We might say they are living in the Spirit and, oh, how we long for what they have! But we have those qualities as well.
They are the seeds that were first planted in us when we heard the Word of God from a sower, nurtured in us by the waters of baptism, and enriched by coming together in community for strength and renewal. Seeds sown in the good soil of our hearts blossom into the fruits of the Spirit.
If the seeds of God’s love flower into these fruits, then what do those new seeds look like? There is pollination, cross-pollination, and new growth all over the place! The cycle of sowing begins again. God’s abundant love sees to that. We go about our daily business, living in faithfulness in God’s abundance and being sowers among those we encounter. We don’t often get to see where the seeds fall, but the point is that we continue to sow. The Church’s mission and our mission is to spread the Good News to every end of the Earth. Archbishop William Temple (who was an Anglican priest who later became Archbishop in England) once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” This still holds true for us today. There are infinite ways for us to be the Church he describes: by giving a smile to someone who is feeling lonely, watching the kids so a couple can have some time to themselves, donating money to an organization that helps those who are marginalized, speaking up for a neighbor when you witness an injustice occurring, praying for those you dislike—the list can go on and on.
We are both the sowers and the soil. Without the one, the other would not make sense. When we go forth today, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, may we sow abundantly, and may the seed that is sown in you bear the plentiful fruit of God’s love. I believe that God’s mission is to use the life-giving Word of God to move us to attitudes and areas that force us to be productive in encouraging and supporting life for all our siblings and all of creation.