Sermon; Proper 10A; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Today we begin a three week journey with what are commonly called “kingdom parables.” One of the things we need to know about Matthew's gospel is that it is a kingdom gospel. Matthew uses the word kingdom more than any of the other gospels. He traces Jesus' lineage through a royal line going back as far as Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites. He is the one who records the three wise men (or magi or kings) arriving at the Holy Family's house in Bethlehem. So as we listen to these parables, note that they are all about the kingdom of heaven.
Today's kingdom parable of the sower appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Next week's parable appears only in Matthew. And of the three parables we'll hear in two weeks, only the parable of the mustard seed appears in all three. Additionally, it is only that parable where all three gospels relate it to the kingdom. So while the other gospels may reference the kingdom, Matthew consistently does.
Parables are interesting things because even though we think we know the meaning of a parable, there can be multiple layers and multiple meanings to it. It is that multilayered aspect that gives a parable life; it is that multilayered aspect that allows it to have meaning for us today.
Today's parable is a perfect example of this. For those of us who have been involved in church for some time, we have heard this parable countless times in our lives. The traditional way to understand this parable of the sower is that the sower is God and the various landing spots are the people. God scatters the seed of the kingdom and some people do not understand, some people cannot endure, some people are distracted by the ways of the world, while some people hear and produce results.. But because this is a parable, there are a variety of ways to understand it.
For instance . . . previously in Matthew's gospel Jesus gave us missional instructions to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. If we go out into the world proclaiming the good news, then we become the sower. The seed we sow is the gospel message, and where the seed ends up is, again, the people. Some of those people will not understand, some will get distracted, and some will produce results for the kingdom.
The parable could also be about the foolish generosity of God. If I'm a farmer sowing crops, I want to make sure that what I sow has the best chance to produce. I will either plant each seed by hand, or drop seeds only in good soil, soil that will lead to yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. But here's God scattering seed willy-nilly across the land not really caring where it ends up, only caring that everyone has a chance to receive the good news. If we see ourselves as the sower, then maybe we need to do a better job of being foolishly generous.
A follow-up interpretation to this version is that there are no lost causes. The seed that was scattered on the path is often taken up and eaten by birds, having no time to take root. But that's not always the case. How many times have you been out walking and noticed a shoot of new growth springing up from a crack in the pavement? We all have cracks. It just may be that the seed, the word of God, finds a crack on the hard path and causes something good to grow. Maybe there's hope for being foolishly generous.
Another interpretation focuses on the use of parables themselves. Today's passage is, like last week, chopped up. What's been cut out is the section where Jesus tells the disciples that he uses parables to confuse outsiders but to deepen the faith of the disciples. The parable itself is given to those willing to learn, to those willing to dive in and explore, to those who want to deepen their faith. Those are the ones who will produce thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The parable is designed for people serious about their faith. Think of parables as an AP religion class.
And yet another way to see this parable is to connect it back to the second creation story and the Garden of Eden.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, and there he put the man. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it.
The sower is once again God, planting “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” But this time God isn't just planting seeds in a garden, God is scattering his seed of Good News throughout the world.
Notice this though: that when God planted the garden the first time, what was the very next thing God did? God put the man in the garden to till it and keep it. It became our job to care for what God had planted. In today's parable, the garden is the world. What's missing from the parable, then, is us.
If we were put in the garden to till it and keep it, can it not be that we are put in this world to help cultivate the word of God? If in God's generosity some seed falls on the path, is it not our responsibility to place it in good soil; or, at the very least, drive away the birds of Satan? If this parable ties back to creation and the garden, then we have work to do.
Parables are wonderfully engaging tools that allow us to study, delve, imagine, and play. In engaging today's parable, are you the sower or the seed? Are you rocky ground or fertile soil? Are you an active participant or a passive observer? Depending on the day, maybe you are a little of each.
Over the next three weeks, we will hear a variety of kingdom parables. My job isn't to explain them, but to help you engage with them. These are kingdom parables that apply as equally to us today as they did to Jesus' original audience.
Let anyone with ears listen.