Week of Sunday July 7 – Pentecost 5
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying:
‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears listen!’
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ 11He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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.[Greek: Stumbles] 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. 23But 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 next time you go driving in the country look at the paddocks. Everywhere you will see small sections of untilled ground— too steep, too rocky, too much flooding— where nothing is ever sown. Farmers are not stupid. Why sow ground that will yield little or nothing?
In the same way, sowers of Jesus' time did not broadcast their seed carelessly; seed wheat is expensive. And broadcasters could hand spread their seed far more evenly and accurately than generations of preachers have imagined. They avoided sowing the rocky soil and the paths for the same reasons as the farmers of today. They knew, better than us, that the sower in the parable is careless, extravagant and inefficient. The sower spreads the seed everywhere. (cf David Ewart)
The listeners to Jesus' parable are shaking their heads at the wastefulness, and reckon the farmer deserves to have seed lost to thorns and birds, when Jesus shocks them by saying some seed bore a hundred fold! Given that a good head of wheat might be twenty to thirty grains, this is an exceptional yield for an apparently careless and extravagant farmer.
Farming is a risky business, far more than city folk comprehend, but the parable is not about risk, as such. It is about needless extravagance and generosity, the offering of good seed to even the worst soil.
Thinking about this fact, I came upon the following words from Brian Stoffregen which we could craft into a similarly startling parable.
A farmer I know complained that when he wanted to buy a new tractor, most banks required that he put up his whole farm as collateral. The same was often true when farmers went to borrow money to buy the seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, and fuel necessary to put in the crop. I experienced more faith among such farmers who were betting their whole farms -- their whole lives -- that there would be a crop large enough to pay back the loan with enough left over to live on for a while.
Except for their building(s), I've never known a congregation willing to borrow money to pay for an evangelical program of spreading God's Word in the neighborhood or service projects among the needy. Why is that?
Why would you tell a story like this parable? Perhaps you are wondering why the gospel does not take root in some people's lives. Why is it that someone who has everything— not just money, but brains, a good family, a fantastic church youth group, a great start in life— why do they seem impervious to the call of God? Or even hostile? Why are they hard ground, or shallow? Why is that?
And then, why do some folk who have the worst of everything, who might even be full of hatred, yield a hundred fold from one meagre seed? Mark Heim retells the story of the terrorist at a church meeting who was waiting for the signal to begin the bombing, who was, instead, converted as he idly listened to the preacher! What causes this? Why is that? (Mark S. Heim Saved from Sacrifice. Search for firebombing to find this passage in the eBook.)
Well, maybe it's that God spreads the word everywhere, faithfully, extravagantly, even wastefully. And the word— the seed— is already sown. In Jesus the Word is already sown everywhere, good soil and bad. Why might a seed not take root in the heart of a terrorist, then? (Petty says the sower is God, not Jesus. Jesus is the Word, the logos, referred to 6 times in the allegory that explains the parable. And the soils "signify all conditions of life.")
But why does the apparently good soil turn out to be thistle laden, or shallow? Why is that?
The lectionary skips the answer. Verses 10-17 are left out, perhaps because they are too scandalous for our "civilised" ears; after all, who wants a God who seems almost to will that people do not hear?
But the answer is here, I think. "Why do you speak in parables?" they asked. "Wouldn't it be more obvious, and might not you find the deeper soil in people's lives, if you spoke more clearly?"
It is not that God does not want some people to hear. The text simply accepts a principle of life that is as inexplicable to us as it seems unfair:For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. For some reason some people respond and some don't; some really hear, and for others, it seems to go in one ear and on out the other, as we say.
McKenzie reminds us that in verses 10-17 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 where Isaiah is told "his ministry will not be well received. In fact, it seems as if his calling is to preach to a faithless people." So when people ask why the message of Jesus is not received, the answer is, in part, "Well, it was ever so— look at the ministry of Isaiah! He struggled with this problem and asked, 'How long Lord?' (Isaiah 6:11) How long will I do this?"
The answer was
Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate
but even then there is hope! Even then seed lands in good soil. Even after everything, when even the last tenth of the land is burned again, even then
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.
The holy seed is its stump (Isa 6:11-13)
It is so because the word has been sown, and is sown, and is sown again, faithfully, extravagantly, even wastefully. Perhaps the text is a promise that the Word will grow despite the hardness of hearts. So
Verses 10-15 are not a statement of divine intention that some not hear. They are a description of the mixed reception of any prophet's life and teachings, whether Isaiah's, whose words these verses cite, or Jesus'.
People's "inability to penetrate to the meaning of Jesus and his mission is the result of their obstinate disbelief and dullness of heart, as Isaiah had prophesied (Matt 13:10-15)." The problem is not in the telling of parables. The problem is that "They do not open their minds and hearts to the parables, but rather, allow them to compound their misunderstandings." (McKenzie)
In other words, bluntly put, it doesn't matter how clear you make things to some people. They will not listen. It's as though telling them makes them more blind and more deaf to the obvious. There is no answer to this. It is just how things are.
Indeed, the parables are actually making clear what goes on in the Kingdom! If anyone has ears to hear, the parables, and this parable, make the foundations of the kingdom clear: the Sower sows... everywhere... and the seed of the sower is the Word... and the yield will be an unbelievable hundred fold. There is so much scattering of the seed that if you didn't hear perhaps it is because you hardened the pathways of your heart and did not let the Word in.
It's clear the "explanation" of the parable is a later reflection on the parable. The parable makes a point. The explanation is allegorical; that is, each part of the story has a particular meaning. The two parts are different kinds of literature. We unfortunately often use the "explanation" as an example to look for set meanings in other stories of Jesus, when parables are far more flexible, and don't have "set meanings." They are designed to make us think, to crack us open like a seed growing in hard soil.
There is a change in more than genre. "In v. 19 the seed represents the "word of the kingdom." However, in vv. 20ff, the seeds represent the people who respond in different ways!" (Brian Stoffregen) If we have been wondering why some people respond to the Word and others don't the progression to seeing "different soils" is quite natural.
I found it difficult to engage with this part of the text. Perhaps I have too often seen people categorised as one soil or another. Most of us are more like paddocks with patches of thistles and areas of rock, and only prove our yield, if you like, by the fruit we bear.
What are the thistles and rocks that get in the way?
Wesley wrote that "Cares are thorns to the poor: wealth to the rich; the desire of other things to all... The deceitfulness of riches... put[s] out the eyes, harden[s] the heart, steal[s] away all the life of God..." but the cares of the poor will do the same. I can testify to this; the anxiety of never having enough money, of keeping a house, sometimes chokes my discipleship and immobilises me. Distraction by wealth or the lack of it is a desire "of other things," for things to be other, and a failure to live with what is. Thistles never stop growing.
On our Australian farms a family would take a generation or two to pick the stones off the land. Farmers sometimes have huge stone heaps lining the gullies and steep places so that the level land can be sown. Are we disciples this committed to allow the seed to be sown in our lives?
Alberic and Cedric from whom I have taken this photo worked with a team to clear a paddock of 150 tonnes of stones on their backpacking holiday, and are well pleased with the work. But did the farmer tell them that the stones keep rising to the surface for years after the first pick?
Life rarely provides us with a front end loader to help.
In Matthew's theology, "bearing fruit" means living out the kingdom of heaven. This has nothing to do with piety, nothing to do with syrupy pronouncements, nothing to do with vague decisions, nothing to do even with worship. It means "following on the way," which means imitating Jesus, and doing what he did.
With Jesus as our model of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, "bearing fruit" means actually doing what Jesus himself teaches and does in the gospel of Matthew, which is: gender equality, open table fellowship, non-hierarchical living, embracing the human dignity of all, resistance to oppression, and resistance to religious corruption. "Bearing fruit" is that program lived out in every day life. (John Petty)
I remember afternoons lying sprawled on the stone heaps as the sun warmed us. Who would expect to enjoy the blessings of the world in such places?
Elisabeth Johnson asks "who qualifies as "good soil"? Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these destined to be unproductive forever?
The stone heaps and the struggles of our lives become good soil as we seek to follow Jesus. I doubt we can change ourselves too much; there are too many pieces splintered off the bedrock of our soul and slowly erupting through the surface of our brief moments of peace. But there is a Sabbath rest on the stone heaps. There are times when we can see that life is good. They come as we put ourselves in the way of the Spirit, as we try to follow, and discover a depth of good soil we did not know was there.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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