Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading for this morning make up what is known by most as the “Parable of the Sower”, or as it is known within German tradition, the “Parable of the Four Types of Ground”. Simply by these titles alone, we can see, as parables do, that today’s reading can be interpreted in various ways.
Contextually, by the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, from where we read just a moment ago, Jesus’ teachings have already began to offend the local religious authorities and caused enough conflict with the powers that be, that the doors of the synagogue have started to close on him, yet as our gospel writer describes, the people continue seek him out.
St. Matthew sets the scene along the “shore of the lake”, believed by most biblical scholars to be somewhere along the shoreline of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. As we read, we can almost picture Jesus walking out of the front door of the house that he and the disciples had been staying at, and casually makes his way down to the shoreline for a time of prayerful reflection. The sun gleaming over the water, a mild breeze grazing over the tops of the sands, the sound of the water gently breaking onto the shore.
Yet as it so often happens when Jesus goes off by himself, it isn’t long before his time of reflection is interrupted by crowds of people who gather in hopeful anticipation that this rabbi they have heard so much about, will share some words of wisdom.
And so, never one to disappoint a crowd, Jesus climbs into a boat to gain a better vantage point, and begins to teach in the form of a parable… these simple stories with a far deeper meaning, or as Presbyterian/UCC minister Rev. William Sloane Coffin describes in a sermon on today’s parable, these “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning.”
For today’s parable, Jesus tells of a sower, a farmer of sorts, who goes out to plant his crop early in the morning just before the sun has risen. He describes, that in the course of the day, the farmer scatters his seed along four types of ground: a path, some rocky ground with little soil, ground overcome by thorn bushels, and of course, over some rich fertile soil.
As we might expect, the seed that falls on the path are eaten quickly by birds before they can settle into the earth… those on the rocky ground with little soil, while they spring up quickly, they wither just as quickly because of their shallow roots… those that fall among the thorns are overcome, and never produce… and those that fall onto the good soil are nurtured in the way that they ought, bringing forth grain of great abundance.
The earthly message that Jesus offers is clear… seeds grow best in good soil… I think we could all agree on that… But what is the heavenly meaning within this earthly story that Jesus hopes the crowds will take away? That we would take away today for ourselves?
In regards to the sower, if we go back to our original Greek text, coming in the form of a participle, thus deeming the sower as the object of Jesus’ parable, the word is literally translated as “the one who sows”, the one who spreads the seed… or for the purposes of Jesus’ message, the one who spreads the kingdom of heaven… who spreads the Word of God.
With this, some would deem the sower as a “hopeful evangelist”, we could say… throwing the seeds of the kingdom wherever they may lay, even those places most would deem as hopeless… those places with shallow soil, consumed by thorns… hoping to share messages of God’s love in whatever way they are needed the most.
Others might deem the sower as a symbol for how to discuss what it means to be a good steward. Using that which God has given in order to better the kingdom, to make this world closer to that which God intended it to be, to throw the seeds where they lay and hope for the best.
And too, there is the heavenly meaning of the soil and the seeds that are sown. As any one of our farmers would argue at great length, good harvests don’t typically come from a hard path, a rocky ground, or fields covered with thorns. They come from those of fertile soil.
As it is with the sower, as Jesus speaks of planting seeds, he speaks not of farming, but of those who seek to follow him, of each of us, and should therefore lead us to question exactly which type of soil we are…
Are we the hard path, beaten down and unreachable? Are we the rocky ground… thin soil laid over a layer of rock, shallow, unable to take root? Are we soil overcome by thorns, so busy with countless things that nothing ever comes to fruition, that our faith never reaches fruition? Or are we the fertile soil, those followers of Christ ready to respond to God’s call as the seeds fall as they do?
In some ways, because of the various ways parables can be interpreted depending on where it’s hearers find themselves in life, it is difficult to find exactly what the Good News of today’s text is. For me, as I worked my way through today’s parable, and reflected on my own life in more recent times, if I am honest, I have felt a lot more like the soil consumed by thorns, than the rich and fertile soil, which brought forth much grain, and I found myself wondering where the Good News is.
My guess is, that many of you, have at times, found yourselves in exactly the same place.
Yet, while we may have to dig a bit deeper to find the Good News within today’s parable (no pun intended)…. where there is Jesus, the Good News is also…
We are all, you and me, various types of soil, depending upon where we find ourselves in life. We all have days in which we feel better able to do as Jesus requires than others, when we are fertile soil for producing the “kingdom of heaven” here on earth… and too, we have our days when we could use… a little tilling… yet even in these moments, there is promise… and that’s the Good News for us this day…
As William Sloan Coffin continues his sermon on today’s parable, “Maybe good soil is the soil that the plowshare of tragedy has broken up. Maybe it is soil made rich by love, carefully weeded by tender, loving care. To be soil rich and deep, you don’t have to be well educated, although education helps. To be soil that is good and rich, you don’t have to travel, though travel helps. I say this because experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you.”
I think Coffin has it just right… For me, “good soil”, God’s soil, what we are to be, is exactly as Coffin describes. It is wherever we find ourselves in life in any given moment. Regardless of if we are in a place of hardened faith, our guard up, angry at God for things happening not according to plan… one of weakened faith, our roots left shallow by life’s many challenges… a place in which life has become so chaotic, so overcome by thorns, that we can’t seem to find time to practice our faith… or a place in which life feels exactly as it should, one of fertile soil…
In all these moments, we receive the promise of today’s parable, of the kingdom of heaven… the Word of God rooted in our hearts.
That while the soil of our lives’ are so often far from ideal, the harvest still comes. Through Christ, his life and his sacrifice, his death and his resurrection, our most challenging moments, can be broken up, tilled and weeded, and gently nurtured by God’s tender-loving care, whereby all of life’s experiences can bring forth new life and fertile ground… both in the here and now, and in the Kingdom to come as well.
With this we do our best to be fertile soil and tireless sowers… to hold firm the faith we have in Christ when the work is hard, trusting in the loving care of God to soften the ground ahead. For in it all, the harvest will come, and it will be plentiful. Thanks be to God. AMEN
~Pastor Andrew Geib