Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

A Farming Faith

Week of Sunday July 10
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. 22As 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.’

A freshly ploughed winter paddock looks immaculate. The lines of the scarifier quilt the paddock in rich red browns which stand out against the green borders. So delicate is this patterning, and so sweet smelling, that long ago my dear Auntie Is stood at the edge of the paddock, and waved frantically to my Dad, far away in the middle. Newly married town girl that she was, Auntie didn’t know that you could drive over the fallow. She thought she might damage the ploughing if she drove across to  him!

The romance of the country hides highly refined and calculated agricultural practice. The scarifier, now being superseded by minimum tillage equipment, slices off any roots below the soil surface and buries the weeds  as the soil is turned over. Later a combine, or seeder, will precisely place the seed at the recommended depth in the soil, along with fertiliser.  And the crop will grow.

Before this, the farmer will be comparing the long term rainfall pattern for the district against the falls for this year. She will check the probability tables for a completed harvest based on the rain and the dates, and calculate how much it is safe to sow, and the likely costs and returns.

Jan's Quilt

Most of us, safe in the city, are unaware of the huge gamble that the farmer undertakes; a monumental act of faith, especially in marginal country. Enormous bills for fertiliser, and fuel, and seed are booked up against the harvest, in the faith that there will be yield enough to pay for them. Weeks will be spent working long hours to put the crop in.  And then the waiting happens.

The biggest gamble is to dry sow.  After a couple of weeks without rain, the dry fungus in the soil begins to destroy the seed, before it germinates.  If there are mice, they can eat the seed; rain or not.

Even if the rains have begun well, and the season looks good, there may not be enough following rain later in the spring, and the crop will wither, and not fill the grain. Frost can burn out the flowers.  Wind, hail, and heavy rain can all “lodge” the crop; flattening it into the ground and making harvest difficult, if not impossible.  If it rains too much at harvest, the grain can actually germinate in the heads of the wheat, making it unsaleable for anything except low grade feed. Rust, a pathogen that has been under control for two generations is beginning to rise again, in Africa.

That’s just the weather problems.

Cockatoos may come in their thousands, chewing the heads off the sunflowers. In a day or two, locusts can devour a crop that you have watched for months, destroying the harvest.  Fire can do the same in an afternoon.

Farming is the great liturgy of faith which country folk enact each season.  Insulated by supermarkets and distance, the rest of us have no idea how fragile our survival actually is.

In Jesus’ time the technical prowess of the farmer was much more limited. Negev farmers had sophisticated water saving and retrieval systems that we are learning from today! (eg The Negev Evenari, Shanan and Tadmoor  .) But for many of Jesus’ farming families, the plough was sometimes not much more than what we would call a pointy stick. Preparation of the crop could be as crude as spreading the grain by hand, not easy to do evenly, across the paddock that held stubble remaining from last year’s crop. It may have had hardened foot paths bisecting it, from  people padding back and forth during the harvest, or to collect water. The plough, far less precise than the heavy machines of today, would skip,  bump, and wobble its way across the ground, acting more as a single point harrow! I marvel that much grain at all would be covered by soil on the poorer farms, and in  the rougher paddocks.

Seed loss to birds, the effect of hard ground and shallow soil, and the threat of weeds, would all have a significance that many Australian farmers have to work hard to imagine. The faith of the ancient farmer was real, and immediate!

It is in this context that

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!’

The seed is sown in the face of enormous risk. Like a farmer at the end of a ten year drought, one could wonder if there is any point in wasting more seed. And yet other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

The story of the sower is a parable.  It is the same form as the other parables in the chapter. That means the (uncommon) explanation given for this parable is a later interpretation. This because the  interpretation in verses 18 to 23 is allegorical in nature. Each aspect of the story is given a corresponding meaning. Allegory is a much more buttoned down and defined communication than parable. A parable has a key thrust to it; often this is “The kingdom of heaven is like...,” but is more slippery and subversive than an allegory. An allegory leaves little to the imagination.

In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data.  (Eugene Boring Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible pp299)

If we are to have ears to hear, we need to unlearn, and forget, the interpretation of the parable which turns it into an allegory, and instead let ourselves be disturbed.

Think of the farmer who borrows money for the crop, and then the harvest fails.  It’s a big farm, so the bank will simply apply interest, and lend more for the next season. There is a series of poor years; perhaps a middling year and then another failure. The farmer now owns little of his own farm. If he sells at the bottom of the market he may still have enough to buy a part of a city house in an outer suburb. If he risks another year, and it all fails again, he will be bankrupt. What is the wise thing to do?

In hope he sows the crop. He may as well have thrown out the seed by hand, and ploughed with a pointy stick,  because mid winter, the rain stops. In September the paddocks are the heartbreaking grey green of dying wheat. As they leave their whole life behind, heading for an alien town and a rented house which will eat most of the “New Start” allowance, was it worth it? Has twenty-five years running the farm been worth anything, or is it all waste?

Matthew has located the 'parable discourse' in the midst of the conflict section in which Jesus is being rejected by the leaders of Israel, the new community is being formed, and the inclination of the people as a whole hangs in the balance. The messianic words (chs. 5-7), deeds (chs. 8-9), and mission (ch. 10) had generated increasing conflict and rejection (chs. 11-12). The section is preceded by the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees and by his own family, culminating in the announcement of a new community of those who do God's will and are thus Jesus' 'family' (12:22-50). Immediately following the parables discourse, Jesus is rejected with hostility in his own home town (13:53-58). Matthew created this structure, having already used the intervening Markan stories in his earlier section of miracle stories (Matt 4:35-5:53; 8:23-34; 9:18-26); as a result, Jesus' parables in 13:3b-52) are his commentary on the meaning of his rejection by Israel and the founding of the new community. (Boring pp 300)

Was it worth it?

What the explanation of the parable does in vv 18-23 is make things all too easy, even if it describes what often happens. No doubt there are people who simply do not understand. There are those who seem to rejoice in good news but have no “root,” just as there are those who seem to be choked in their faith, by the distractions of life. But this is a clinical description, almost written from a position of comfort, to explain why the message of the kingdom was  not heard.

The parable, by contrast, is the lived distress. It is farming faith. The parable is the promise to the farmer that having lost everything, including the farm, there will still be a harvest in life. Rather than look for neat categories to rationalise the wastefulness that seems to accompany the spreading of the word , we are called to sow the seed and trust the harvest.

There is a wonderful line in Schweizer’s Good News according to Matthew.

...the parable represents Jesus’ own fate, the failure of his message and ministry to bear fruit, but also God’s good purpose, which is depicted here in a simple metaphor without fantastic details about a coming eschaton. (pp297)

As I look at my tiny congregations, and a society that seems completely disinterested in the Word, I wonder if I should use common sense and get back into computers, while there is still time, and before I am too old. It really would be sensible to sell up the farm, and quit while I am ahead. The message of Jesus calls me to sow despite the drought, regardless of climate change, and trusting in a harvest; even a hundred fold.

Andrew Prior
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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