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.
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.” …
“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.Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
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.”
Among all of the parables Jesus tells, this one is the most seasonally appropriate. My backyard garden is doing pretty well right now. Peppers are in, tomatoes are growing, and cucumbers are doing pretty well!!! This parable also might be the most helpful one for OUR faithful growth in God’s love. So listen up!
By the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been on a roll, spinning yarns and sharing wisdom, so much so that the sound of his voice can’t reach all who have gathered to listen to him. So Jesus is taken out by boat into the shallow sea of Galilee that he can be heard and seen by this huge crowd gathered to hear him. Jesus’ teaching from the boat isn’t about fishing, but rather it’s totally grounded, in simple, straightforward images of seeds and soil.
What we don’t often recognize in hearing these oh so familiar words is that Jesus’ parables often conceal his words even as they are revealed. Some say this was how he stayed out of jail (unlike John the Baptist.) He could have been arrested after all, for talking religious heresy and political treason, but for talking about seeds and thorns, good soil and bad? Not as likely. Jesus’ roundabout references may have seemed trite to the authorities, not at all worth paying attention to (but what did they know?)
Yet this time around, Jesus’ words take root, and they are unusual in that he offers up their meaning to his hearers. He gives it all away. There’s nothing hidden here at all. There’s no guessing about what Jesus’ words mean this time around — and we are simply left with a question. … What kind of soil am I, packed down hard, or rocky, or thorny, or am I good and fertile soil? But before we jump too far ahead to potential conclusions, its worth revisiting the parable, just for a minute.
There’s more than one way to imagine how this parable can be depicted (though Amy’s field-hand video was pretty much right on target.) I remember how it was acted out in the Churches of Charles production of “Godspell”- performed at First English Lutheran, just a couple of years ago… a clever play from the ‘groovy 1970’s’ based on the Gospel according to Matthew. I think this is how it played itself out in that production, (or maybe I’m remembering the movie version)…. And, this was a spoken parable, it wasn’t the libretto of a song I can sing to you (sorry about that.)
Four rambunctious actors dressed like clowns played the seeds, each of them meeting a different fate. The seed that was cast on the path no sooner hit the ground when other actors making crow noises (caw, caw!), swooped down and pecked him to death.
The seed that was cast on rocky soil came to life with a bang, waving her arms around and dancing in place, but then an actor carrying a big yellow cardboard sun stood over her until she grew limp, and crumpled to the stage.
The seed that was cast among thorns barely had time to get to his knees before he was surrounded by prickly looking characters who got their hands around his neck and choked him. He was a ham, and wriggled and wiggled and made a scene, but he finally too, was a goner.
Then there was the seed that was cast on good soil, who came gracefully to life and stayed alive, blossoming in beauty with a gracious bow to all the audience and cast members who greeted her with a big round of applause.
Watching all of that, I had the same response I’ve always had in encountering this parable. I started worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God.
After thinking this though for a while I’ve recognized how this parable has played itself out in my life. I have stonewalled some seeds so successfully that they were exposed to the birds of the air, digested by others more desirous than me. I have happily received some other seeds, but never really embraced and nourished them, letting them wither and die. I have allowed the thorns of my other habits, interests, and preferences choke the growth of the seed rather than trim back the thorns to allow the young plant to fully grow. And I have, now and then, ‘gotten it together’ and produced good fruit.
What is remarkable in this story that Jesus tells is that in spite of the potential failings, dangers and destruction of the seeds sown, the Sower is not stingy in casting the seed far and wide. The clear intent of this passage is to say that there is a generosity, an overabundance of spirit about this unnamed Sower. The sower scatters seed recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest.
Similarly, in Jesus’ life’s work, he invested himself in disciples, some of whom who looked thoroughly unqualified and unpromising. Our Lord seemingly squandered his time with tax collectors and sinners, with doubters and lepers, those of questionable reputations, and all sorts of outcasts. Yet Jesus promised that his wildly extravagant sowing of the word would produce an abundant harvest (of which we, after all, are part 2,000 years later.) It’s also really interesting to me in this that the Sower uses no tools at all, not even a hoe or a plow, which could have easily been used. That tells me something else about Jesus’ intent with his message, and it’s a hypothesis I’m beginning to develop as we continue this Sizzlin’ Summer Sermon Series….
More and more I am thinking that Jesus himself is the message, and not merely the means of delivery. Christ is not the delivery system at all, that is the Holy Spirit. So in this way, Jesus HIMSELF is the seed, throwing himself toward us and all who might hear his words, all over this big wide world, allowing himself to be vulnerable to the conditions onto which he has cast himself. In fact, Jesus continues to invest himself in us as we read, as we share and sing about and ponder his words. As the seed of God’s word, Jesus entrusts the future of God’s mission to us.
The conditions into which Jesus throws himself are as varied as the lives we live in our common humanity all around the world. Jesus enters our lives in varied ways, in the time we spend studying scripture, or reflecting on our place in God’s creation, in casual conversation or prayerful discernment. And if you are watching this worship service, Jesus is being planted, one way or another, in your life, too.
The planting is God’s work, with Jesus as the seed in your life. What happens next, Jesus says, is at least in part up to you. According to this parable, there are three ways that the seed of Jesus, planted in you, will not flourish in your life. They are each worth a word of clarification.
First, Jesus says that the seeds that fall on the hard, beaten down pathway are like words that you do not understand, and then are snatched away from your heart. Jesus is mixing a lot of metaphors here—but his words do make sense.
‘Understanding’, in Jesus’ world is not about intellectual assent. It’s not so much whether you can read or understand Jesus’ words in the original Greek that matters here, but what Jesus’ words mean down deep in your heart. If Jesus’ words and ministry remain superficial in your life, you may be a goner. The random hassles of life, not to mention the trials and tribulations of living that come to most all of us at one time or another, in ways unexpected and unpleasant, will simply gobble you up.
Next, Jesus says that his seeds that fall on the rocky soil meet thin soil and quickly sprout, but just as quickly die. The soil is receptive, but not deep enough. Without a root system, a fledging growth cannot bear the heat of the day, and it will wither. This is all about when we hear the word, or a song, as a message of joy, but for whatever reason don’t work to let it sink in in our lives…. The Jesus seed doesn’t do well in shallow soil; it is in itself healing and wholesome, but it is not an instant cure. Jesus’ roots are looking to go deep, but they cannot penetrate rock. When it comes down to it, life with Jesus isn’t really so much an off-and-on thing, or once and done, but rather a long and deep journey. Jesus’ roots seek to go deeper to find welcome and nourishment.
The third soil is all about thorns. The Jesus seed enters a competitive environment. God’s word is not the only one we hear in life. As the NRSV translation puts it, the ‘deceitfulness of wealth’ chokes the new plant—(which are pretty strong words.) The soil into which it was planted is fertile and good, but too many other things compete for the nourishment it needs to live. So this new plant, too, is a goner.
The fourth seed is the fortunate one. It lands in soil that has learned the lessons of the first three failed attempts. It begins to bear life, and sustains it with care, attention, and necessary resources. Hungry birds are shooed away, depth and resources are given to it to thrive, and other invasive species are trimmed back to allow for enough sunlight and water for healthy growth. Importantly, this fourth seed doesn’t just soak up the goodness it has been given for its own pleasure, but it becomes more and more fertile as it grows.
When the seed is planted in good, deep, cleared-out faith-filled soil it is finally able to open itself to the goodness that only God can give. The Jesus seed is first and foremost nourished by that which gave it birth, and it returns thanks and even multiples itself beyond belief. It is not an instantaneous process, but rather step by step, reinforced each and every day by open and honest gratitude for the goodness only God can bring.
Simply recognizing that we have the “Jesus Seed” in us, planted by God’s grace, by no work of our own, might be the right place for us to start today…. and then, perhaps, we can bring to mind another song from that hit play, Godspell, to remind us of just what we should do, each and every day…
Day by day
Day by day
Oh Dear Lord Three things I pray
to See thee more clearly
to Love thee more dearly
to Follow thee more nearly
Day by day
May it be so, in Jesus’ name,