A reflection on Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23 for Sunday, August 1, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 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.’
Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23 (NRSVA)
It is such a simple story. A farmer. A field. Seeds. Four soils tilled to different degrees. The perfect parable for a rural audience.
Seed is precious. It is food. It is produce to sell. Some seed, however, is more precious still. The seed that is set aside to be sown next season is the most valuable. It is the connection between the last harvest and the next. A treasured, priceless, link.
Perhaps this is why the many who gather on the shore are likely to quickly understand that Jesus was not offering new farming tequniques. Readily allowing seed to fall on such unprepared ground looks absurd, wasteful, even irresponsible. Jesus is describing a careless – or strangely generous – farmer.
And so, in typical Jewish fashion, Jesus’ listeners would have identified this absurdity-cue as an invitation to look deeper – to listen and consider more carefully. Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with sowing would quickly identify this as a riddle they will have to figure out.
For many listening that day this obscure story – without explanation – is all they would have to ponder and discuss. It would have left them wondering, searching, and – hopefully – seeking to known more about Jesus the storyteller.
The disciples – who may be a larger gathering than twelve – are left in this conundrum as well. Their investigation begins as they ask the teacher why he would teach in such a cryptic way. After giving his answer, which we will consider in our next post, Jesus offers his interpretation of his own story.
Tellingly, Jesus begins his invitation with the words: ‘Hear then the parable of the sower.’ So far they have not heard. Jesus is teaching them to hear parables. A masterclass in using their ‘ears’ to ‘listen’.
Although we readily imagine Jesus as the sower, this is not part of the explanation offered. Perhaps the sower could be anyone who shares – whether in word or deed – the kingdom Jesus proclaims.
What Jesus does do, however, is invite the disciples to consider four possible responses to encountering the kingdom: a complete lack of understanding; excitement without the capacity to endure; distraction that leads to unfruitfulness, and; hearing and understanding that leads to an abundant yield.
Perhaps all these groups were represented in the crowd gathered on the shore that day. They seem to be there voluntarily and in response to what they already know about Jesus. Perhaps some witnessed one or more of his many miracles. Perhaps others were present for the sermon on the mount. Maybe some are here to gather further information for those threatened by this itinerant. Mixed motives are highly likely!
The difference between all these ‘soils’ is the openness of their ‘heart’. Some hearts are closed. Some will not persevere. Some will be lured to another kingdom. Others will embrace it fully!
Jesus offers a clear measure of a heart open to the kingdom. It is fruitfulness. Not a nice feeling. Not excitement at the possibilities. Not a desire to live differently. Not even a desire to find forgiveness.
The clear measure of an open heart is fruit.
Intriguing isn’t it. For anyone listening who is new to this kingdom, fruitfulness is somewhere off in the future. It is not something that offers certainty – a line that determines who is in and who is out. Sometimes – even after we have been following Jesus for a long time – fruitfulness is difficult to recognise or see. Many of Jesus’ parables that include crops ready for harvest point to a reality only clear at ‘the end of the age’ (See Matthew 13:40).
I wonder if the very thing Jesus uses to measure openness of the heart is relatively hidden, or even impossible to recognise in ourselves.
If so, this is not a parable that leads us to a dualistic outlook – judgementally measuring ourselves as ‘in’ and others as ‘out’ of this kingdom. Rather, it is inviting an ever-deepening and careful listening to the kingdom that is being proclaimed.
I have a suspicion that we all too readily hear this parable and place ourselves in one of the four soils. If we already follow Jesus we usually choose the ‘good soil’. Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to recognise the possibility that parts of our lives are closed to the gospel. Others aspects may reveal a reluctance to count the cost. There may be distractions that still prevent us hearing. At the same time there may be abundantly fruitful parts of our lives.
Perhaps each soil speaks to each person.
If so, this story has the potential to steer us away from certainty or judgment. Perhaps it is more of an invitation to an ongoing humility as we enter into the reality we call the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.
What does this parable say about how widely we are called to share the Good News? Are you prone to choose who is ready to hear Jesus’ message? Where is the wisdom in this? To what degree are we to be as ‘generous’ as the sower?
Consider the characteristics of each of the ’soils’ Jesus describes. Can you find aspects of your life that fit into each?
How do you measure your own ‘fruitfulness’? Do you agree that this is easier to identify in others rather than in our own lives?