Matthew introduces us to a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Up to this point Jesus has been teaching in the synagogues; now he is teaching on the seashore. The doors of the synagogues are beginning to close, even though the ordinary people want to hear him. Some minds and hearts are shutting Jesus out. At this stage Jesus begins to use parables, good earthly images that challenge us and ask us to go deeper into their meaning. Jesus wants us to ask, 'What is this all about?’
On face value it look quite straightforward. No farmer expects every seed to germinate - some are blown away, some eaten and some choked by weeds - but the majority grows and produces a harvest. Of course, if there is no sowing, there will be no harvest.
Thinking about the places the seeds fall, how often have we walked the hard-packed path of prejudice, a path where not much grows, where life and opportunities are too quickly snatched away. Many know what it is like to live between a rock and hard place. On the rocky ground life withers because you can’t put down roots. There’s no security or stability, and the sun scorches every effort you make. Surely many have walked amongst the thorns of violence, fear, anger, and poverty. These thorns wrap themselves around us choking away dignity, security, and trust.
We may not have all these experiences but we all know the different landscapes of which Jesus speaks. We know about the beaten path of life. We’ve all stumbled through the rocky patches of life. We have been scratched and cut by the thorns of life. And we have planted our roots deep in the sacred soil of life that feeds and grows in us to become a harvest, maybe it will yield a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty.
Jesus is not just describing different types of soil or circumstances of life. He is describing our inner geography. These are the various landscapes of the human heart. We have met these in others and discovered them in ourselves. We are rarely just one type of soil. We are all four. The four soils are descriptive of how we live and relate to others and to God. Jesus’ interpretation of the parable, when he tells what happens to the seeds, describes the consequences of each kind of life.
At one level the parable invites us to be self-reflective and examine the kind of life we are living. That is important work and there is nothing wrong with doing that. I think that’s how we most often use and, misuse this parable. We live in a world that thrives on competition, comparison, and judgment. So we reduce the parable to one obvious question. What kind of soil are you? In doing so we put ourselves at the centre of the parable and push the sower into the background. The “what kind of soil” question is not, however, the only way to read this parable. That’s the difficulty of parables - we look at them through the lens of the 21st century and so often they don’t make sense.
21st century logic says:
A farmer that goes out and sows seed on a public pathway, on rocky ground, and amongst the thorns is simply being wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective. The sower is not much of a farmer. You can’t plant seeds among the rocks and thorns or on a path and then act surprised or complain that nothing grew. The story Jesus tells simply does not fit in our world. Parables offer a different perspective and give us a glimpse into God’s world and the surprising generosity of God is exactly what the parable of the sower reveals.
The four different soils all hold two things in common. Seeds and the sower. The sower sows the same seeds in all four soils with equal toil, equal hope, and equal generosity. The sower does so without examining the soil’s quality or potential. There is no soil left unsown. This is not about the quality of dirt. It’s about the quality of God, the divine sower. We want to judge what kind of dirt we are. God simply wants to sow his life in ours. Whether we are 50p a bog soil or £5 a bag soil, we are sown with the seeds of God. No life, no person, no soil is left unsown.
Seeds here. Seeds there. Seeds everywhere. That just seems like poor planning. Given today’s economy that’s just wasteful. By today’s farming practices it is inefficient. With the cost of seeds and the time spent sowing it may not even be profitable. These are not, however, the sower’s concerns. They are our concerns.
Thankfully this parable is about God’s faithfulness and not about farming, soil quality, or how things work in this world. In the sower’s world wastefulness gives way to hope, inefficiency to love, and profitability to generosity. Every part of your life has been sown with the seeds of God and you know what happens to seeds. Given the right conditions apple seeds become apples. Peach seeds become peaches. God seeds become - God in us.
The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13:1 - 9, 18 - 23
Fourth Sunday after Trinity