Readings for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: Psalm 119: 105-112, Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23.
Preached (via Zoom) at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, 12 July, 2020
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 listen!”
A man in my first parish, in rural Middlesex County, once told me that the sower in today’s parable was a terrible farmer because he wasted so much of his seed on bad soil. To my parishioner, who made his living on cash crops, and who needed to recoup his considerable investment in seed from companies like Monsanto, today’s gospel parable didn’t make a lot of sense.
This reaction isn’t so surprising if one thinks of the story as being about folly (the sower’s profligacy) and about scarcity (the poor results of the sowing and the inhospitable nature of the soil). As the one sheep in today’s cartoon notes, a 25% return rate isn’t that great. But the gospel isn’t good news if it focus us on scarcity and pessimism. The gospel is always about hope, hope firmly rooted in the abundance and generosity of God, and for that reason we need to focus on the figure of the sower in the parable, and on his reckless generosity with the seed. In putting our focus on the sower, I think we soon realize that Jesus in this parable isn’t really speaking about agriculture at all.
Of all the parables in the gospels, this is one of the few that Jesus actually explains to us, and in his commentary Jesus focuses on the meaning of the seed, and not of the sower. The seed, he says is “the word of the kingdom” (cp w Mark 4:13), which we could take to broadly refer to the Hebrew scriptures as his audience (the crowd on the beach) knew them, as well as Jesus’ own teachings. The various types of ground in the parable indicate the varied receptivity of those who hear the word. As Jesus explains it, not all who hear the word of God respond to it. Some are impervious to it because they are hostile (Mt 13:19), some are inconstant (20-21) and some are distracted by worldly concerns (22). Only a few respond positively and in them the word is life-changing, as expressed by the image of bearing fruit.
Jesus knew very well that not everyone would get the message. The parable of the sower fits a larger pattern in Jesus’ teaching, such as the parable of the wedding banquet, (Mt 22:1-14) where the guests aren’t responsive to the king’s invitation. In fact, the lectionary skips over a big chunk of Matthew 13, where the disciples ask Jesus why he uses parables that seem like riddles, when he could just speak plainly, and in response Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, who condemned the people of Israel for ignoring God: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never understand” (Mt 13:14). Jesus then says to the disciples, in effect, consider yourself blessed that you get it” (Mt 13:16).
Even so, Jesus is willing to preach to crowds. I’m not sure about the acoustics that day, with Jesus in a boat speaking to the many on the shore, but I suspected that it took effort, and involved some shouting. Jesus worked at his ministry of teaching, even knowing that only a few would follow him as disciples. In his preaching and teaching, Jesus spoke to crowds. He could have restricted himself to a small insider circle of disciples, it would have been easier on his vocal cords, but Jesus preferred a mass message. It’s important, therefore, to see Jesus as the sower in his own parable, tirelessly throwing the good news of the kingdom out there in the form of his words and teachings.
Perhaps then today’s parable is as much about the sower as it is about the seed. It’s no coincidence that the logo for the Canadian Bible Society (CBS) is a figure scattering seed. CBS understands that the word of God needs to be scattered far and wide. As an army chaplain I would regularly get boxes of their military bibles, with the distinctive camouflage cover, and pass them out to any soldier who showed an interest in taking one. Perhaps some only carried them as talismans, like a lucky rabbit’s foot. It wasn’t for me to say or to hold them back for just the soldiers who seemed devout. Those bibles were “the word of the kingdom” and it was our job to scatter them as widely as we good.
So where does this leave us, the church? The church is a group of people who are called together to hear the word of God and to be shaped by it. We exist because the word of God took root in our hearts and lives, and whatever fruit we bear is thanks to that word. But if we just stopped there, content that we heard and responded, we would just be a little group of insiders, a secret garden as it were. But the mission of the church, our apostolic mandate, is also to be the sower, to spread the word of God as best we can.
The church’s work as sower can be difficult, even discouraging, because we know that not everyone gets it. We know that when we look at our dwindling attendance over the years, and, sadly, many of us know it by looking at our families. I am sure that most of us have loved ones, probably young adult children, who have heard the word but don’t care for church. While our loved ones’ unbelief may give us sorrow, we are loath to apply the moralizing categories of the parable – stony ground, snatched by the evil one, love of wealth – to explain their lack of faith. We hope, we pray, that at some point they will find their way home, and that God will welcome them, like the father in another parable, the one about the prodigal son. We trust that God, like the father, will welcome our children and our kin with the same love that we have for them.
Go up to Georgian Bay and you’ll see trees growing in impossible places, in cracks in the rocky shores where there’s just a handful of dirt. I think God’s word can be like that, growing tenaciously, in unlikely places. We don’t always know where or when the seed will grow. A chance conversation may lead someone to church months down the road. Our children, our loved ones, may come to faith after we’ve passed away. All we know is the seed comes from the heart of God, from God’s grace and generosity.
Since I’ve started coming here, I’ve been looking at King Township and wondering what sort of soil is here. The new subdivisions with their aggressively opulent commuter homes, like little fortresses, look a lot like rocky ground, and it’s hard to see our parish can reach into them, but we always hope that God’s word can take root. We’re called to be extravagant sowers, not to be holy insiders. The mission of the church is to be the sower in the parable. We put our faith in the seed of God’s word because God is unfailingly generous, even extravagant, and because the seed is good, all we need do is scatter it, wherever we can, as often as we can, trusting that the Holy Spirit will do the rest.