Over the next three Sundays the Gospel readings at the Eucharist are going to walk us through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s telling of the good news. It is a series of parables, one after the other, speaking of the life of disciples and the Kingdom of God.
For context, Jesus has been travelling and offering teaching for a while. He’s shared the Lord’s Prayer with his disciples, had a few dust-ups with those who think he’s up to no good, and is trying to impress upon his followers what it means to live in this new way to which God is calling them. After this string of parables Jesus will receive news of John the Baptist’s execution, grieve that loss, and begin to work many miracles in the world.
For all of the generations of discussion, study, argument, and prayer that have been poured out over the parables in scripture, we have no definitive answer as to what, precisely, they are intended to mean. Many of us have hoped and wished that there was an answer key to the parables. We would be pleased to have clear and simple directions to take away. It seems that this is not what God intends for these stories. Rather, we are meant to spend our time contemplating, discussing, and wrestling with parables, learning of God and growing in our faith as we do. My contribution, then, to the discussion of the Parable of the Sower is not a particularly original one, but I pray that it is helpful for you who hear it today.
Let us imagine the sower in this parable to be God, the seeds to be the Word of God spread throughout creation, and the soil to be humanity, in all of its diversity, receiving the Word. I think, if we start here, we can learn or remind ourselves of some truths about God and about ourselves as Christians in creation.
My first observation is that, by any human standard, God makes a poor farmer. Who would waste valuable seed by throwing it about wildly on rocky ground, beaten paths, and among thorns and weeds? Human farmers carefully till and tend soil to make sure that each seed has the greatest possible chance of germination and production of a healthy yield. Of course, when has God ever done anything according to human standards? Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. God, source of all life and of the infinite, eternal Word, does not withhold any blessing, but showers the earth continually with health, renewal, and revelation.
Sometimes what is not said matters as much as what is said. Some of the seed seems wasted, falling where it cannot find purchase shrivelling in the heat. Others are choked out by thorns and brambles. Even those seeds that land in fertile soil produce varying yields, some of thirty, others of a hundred. Throughout the parable, with the many, varied fates of the seeds so abundantly sowed, there is no comment about God’s judgement of the seeds or the soils that receive them. God is not disappointed by the seeds which land on beaten paths, or by the paths which cannot receive the seeds. God does not admonish the seeds with smaller yields or praise those with greater. God’s sowing is indiscriminate. All receive seeds, all receive the Word, as freely as the next, just as the sun shines on both evil and good and the rain falls on righteous and unrighteous alike. God’s love-filled blessings of health, renewal, and divine revelation are for all without regard for past action or what humanity qualifies as potential. God has always showered the earth with blessing and will continue to do so.
But what of the soil? What of us in this contemplation of the parable?
It is true that, in the parable, some of the soil does not receive seed well. Some people do not have ears to hear God’s Word. Some reject God’s blessings, no matter how powerfully they are confronted with them. Some wish to receive God’s blessings well but are so tangled up with other concerns that they find it difficult. In a few chapters, Matthew will tell the story of Jesus speaking to the young man who goes away saddened when he learns that he must give away all of his possessions to enter heaven. Hard soil and brambles, like hardened hearts and thorny spirits, make it difficult to receive graciously.
As gardeners and farmers know, soil is not static. Its character can be changed. Depleted soil can be fertilised to restore spent nutrients. Thorns and brambles can be made into useful tools while being cleared to make room for more desirable crops. Beaten paths whose destinations are no longer a priority can be broken and tilled. Rocks can be moved and turned into houses and granaries. The soil that refused the seed in this season may be an ideal home in the next. The heart that was once stone may yet be softened to flesh.
Whether the ground stays hard and inhospitable or whether it is tilled and fertile, whether ears remain stopped up or whether they are opened and straining to hear, God’s outpouring of blessing does not slow nor stop. It continues, season after season, always new and always seeking the places where it is welcomed and can grow.
Parables as an ethic of behaviour are very difficult and, I think, generally unsuccessful. To look to the parables for clear, direct, black-and-white instructions on how to behave in any given situation leads us deep into the weeds of mutual judgement and can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. I think of this every time I hear today’s reading from Genesis used as an argument for vegetarianism as a spiritually superior diet. There is nothing wrong with incorporating dietary choices as part of one’s spiritual discipline, but reducing God’s action in the conflict between Esau and Jacob to a meal plan is most certainly a missing of the larger point.
Parables as an ethic of discipleship, however, as a way of reflecting and growing in our response to God’s action seems to work much better.. God’s ethic is one of spendthrift giving, without judgement and without discrimination. The Word and the seeds fall on every one in every place. God’s love is infinite and abundant without any question of whether the recipient merits the gift.
We are assured that we will receive from God. How we respond to God’s word and call and blessings is the part that rests with us.We can prepare ourselves to be fertile soil, with soft hearts and open ears. Or we can choose to be hard and rocky, filled with thorns and brambles. The question is not whether God is with us, whether God loves us, or whether God will bless us. The question is whether we will accept what God so freely gives.