13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 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. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 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.[a] 22 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. 23 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.”
The Sower went out and cast seed across the land. Since the Sower wasn’t too concerned about where the seeds were sown, they landed in different kinds of soil. Some soils were ready to receive the seeds and plants emerged, grew, and flourished. Other seeds weren’t so fortunate. They might have found a bit of receptive soil, sprung up, but before long, since they couldn’t put down deep roots, the elements caused them to shrivel up and die. Still other seeds fell on the pathway itself. The soil was too hard and dry to receive any seeds, so they were left to the birds to eat.
The “Parable of the Sower” is one of the best known parables of Jesus. In Matthew’s rendition we’re even given an interpretive key that has often been used to read other parables, though the allegorical method employed here might not be appropriate for every parable. Because this parable is so well known, and because Matthew offers the interpretive key, it might seem as if this parable needs no further explanation. We get it. It’s an explanation of why not everyone is receptive to our message. What more can be said?
It might seem simple, but how this message applies to our current situations might need some thought and explication. We know from Matthew’s interpretive key that the seed is the Jesus’ message of the kingdom. The parables as a whole, especially in Matthew serve to remind us that the focus of Jesus’ preaching is the kingdom of God/Heaven. And, of course, not everyone is ready to hear about this kingdom. The Roman authorities certainly aren’t. Their collaborating partners in the religious leadership aren’t as well. There were others who heard the message, found it attractive at first, but then decided there were safer routes to follow. After all, Jesus could be quite demanding. If you love your parents or your children more than him, then you’re not worthy of him. It’s all or nothing (Matthew 10:37-39).
If you should choose to accept this mission of proclaiming the good news of a kingdom without soldiers and fortresses, then you can follow Jesus in making it known in your words (proclamation) and deed (acts of service and the way you live your life). So we have the message of the kingdom and the three soils – which offer insight as to why some receive the message and some do not.
Were I a better gardener than I am, I suppose I would be able to draw from my experiences with gardens to give insight into the parable. Alas, I’m not a very good gardener. With the exception of hostas, which seem to grow without any help from me, I need help from others to achieve my goals. I know enough, however, to know that the disposition of the soil is very important. If the soil is rocky, sandy, or hard clay, plants aren’t likely to last too long. So, unless you come across land with perfect soil, full of nutrients, and loose enough that water can get to the roots, you’ll need to go out and get a planting mix.
It bears repeating that the Sower isn’t too concerned about where the seeds land. They just get tossed out – some landing on the path, some in the rocks, and some making it to soil that has the potential to support a plant. The fact that the Sower – Jesus? -- is rather indiscriminant in this work of sowing should give us pause. The method of sharing the good news is not coercive nor is it programmatic. It’s not slick or edgy. This is not a church growth model, which seeks efficiency of effort. The Sower just makes the news of the kingdom available to everyone. Those who are ready to hear and follow will do so. Those who aren’t – well they won’t.
But, the nature of the soils is important, because there may be things we can do to create more receptive soils. There are a number of reasons why some people are more receptive than others. It is often timing – people are going through challenging times and are looking for something to hold on to, an anchor for their lives. Jesus’ message often took root among those living on the margins of society. Then there are those who have been cultivated since birth. They come to life in a context of a family that is deeply committed to the kingdom. It was the belief of Horace Bushnell, a nineteenth century theologian and educator, that it is best that people never grow up knowing anything other than faith. Thus, this faith should be nurtured from childhood. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t a big fan of revivalism, which relied on people feeling the need to convert. I rejoice that many do grow up in strong faith affirming families, especially ones that encourage curiosity and questioning. After all, how does one learn the story?
But, what about those who find it difficult to respond to the seeds that are scattered and sown? Some are skeptical about religious claims. These kinds of people have questions needing answers. Many are scientifically inclined. They are trained to ask hard questions. They’re not satisfied until they get to the bottom of things. There might be “irreducible complexity” to reality, but as long as they have breath, they’ll continue digging deeper, seeking answers. I have great respect for such an attitude. It’s not really inimical to faith. In fact, it can create a much deeper faith, because it is one that pursues understanding. It is always good to remember that faith and superstition are not the same things. Superstition is religion that is satisfied with easy answers, lacks curiosity, and is susceptible to being led astray. My concern is that many who have questions become discouraged by people of faith who reject sound scientific work – including overwhelming evidence that the universe and this world we inhabit is exceedingly old. Young Earth Creationism will not prove attractive.
Then there is the cynic. I expect that there are good reasons to be cynical about religion. Over the years Christians have provided much fodder for them – starting with the ongoing stain of hypocrisy. That Christians can say one thing and do another doesn’t bode well. We often compromise our witness because we are more interested in gaining or retaining the power that has accrued over the centuries of Christendom. Recent Supreme Court cases have illustrated this problem. Then there are the sexual abuse cases that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church with great fanfare, and with much less fanfare the Protestant world. I could add in the way in which churches exclude women from leadership, give room for racism, and disrespect and abuse their LGBT neighbors. It’s no wonder that the seed falls on hard-packed soil, so that there is simply no way that a plant will ever be produced. Perhaps we could help loosen the soil and give it nutrients by offering a different face.
Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – my denomination – has recently written a book describing the denominations identity statement – “A movement of wholeness in a fragmented world” – she speaks here of the way the church can move into the world and bring healing and wholeness to a very hurting world. I think that what she’s talking about in the book is preparing the soil, and the church can be a place of preparation for this work:
The church, where we first experience the welcoming embrace of a loving God, where we learn to extend that love by loving neighbor and expanding the neighborhood to encompass the world, is also the place where we can train and provide for the journey into a twenty-first-century world of technological change and increasing diversity. It is the place where deep spirituality, true community, and a passion for justice converge into a hunger for wholeness in the spirit of Jesus’ inauguration of the reign of God. [Watkins, Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World, (Chalice Press, 2014), p. 79.]
By making ourselves available to the Spirit of God, we can participate in the work of sowing and preparing the soil so that it is ready to receive the word that gives life and inaugurates the realm of God.
But what about the seeds that land in rocky soil, blossom, and then quickly wither and die – the ones that are choked out by the cares of this life. There is a lot of competition for time and attention. People get started, show some interest, and then move on. Stability is key. The church has become deeply enmeshed in what we can call the fast food culture. It is a culture, as Chris Smith and John Pattison suggest in their book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, that doesn’t provide sufficient nourishment for the spirit. True community doesn’t emerge. When times get tough, we don’t have deeply rooted relationships with others in the community. It’s one of the reasons why I’m skeptical about the long term benefits of being “spiritual but not religious.” I understand the hesitancy to get engaged in an institution (and anything with structure is a form of institution), but without community, without people to stand with you in difficult times and without a means of learning how to filter out what is spiritually nourishing food and spiritual junk food, how long can the journey last?
Is it not at the table where the realm gathers to share in the meal of grace? As the communion hymn declares:
Seed, scattered and sown, wheat gathered and grown,
bread broken and shared as one, the Living Bread of God.
Vine, fruit of the land, wine, work of our hands, one cup that is shared by all;
the Living Cup, the Living Bread of God.
(Dan Feiten, Chalice Hymnal, 395).
The Sower sows the seed, and we, the church, are both the soil and the preparers of soil – so that the realm of God might take root in our midst.