The parables of Jesus, aside from the Sermon on the Mount, are the most distinctive way Jesus taught his disciples. Parables in general would have been familiar to the disciples, along with the bystanders who were also listening to Jesus as he taught. The parable of the sower, along with the rest of the parables in chapter 13 have shaped the way we speak of growing our faith and the way we think of the Kingdom of God.
Something that often aids us in understanding a story or teaching, is to acknowledge what the story and teaching is and is not.
Jesus’ parables are telling us who Jesus is not. Jesus is not proclaiming the Kingdom of God, using either military force or coercion. Jesus is not using these stories to mount an insurrection. Many of the first listeners to this parable were expecting the Kingdom of God to be ushered in with military force, mirroring the work the Maccabees started. Our parable this morning is not what the average listener would have been expecting, the stories are not out of reach, but are not what they. They are not what we expected.
Next, we need to know why these simple and distinctive stories are important. Parables provide us with tangible, real-life things to which we can compare areas of our faith. Parables take the hard-to-explain parts of life and make them a bit more explainable using metaphors most of us are familiar with. Parables often hit the listener with a counterintuitive conclusion, a jab to the gut, that parallels the counterintuitive nature of the Gospel – God dying for the ungodly.
If these stories are so important, what are we, 21st century listeners, missing out on that the first century listeners would have picked up on?
The metaphor used in this parable, the sowing of seeds, was a common metaphor used in the Hebrew Bible.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.” – Jeremiah 31.27-28
“See now, I am for you; I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sow” – Ezekiel 36.9
Because Jesus is speaking to a first century Jewish audience, people would not have had access to written copies of their sacred texts, but the hearers of this teaching would have at the least been familiar with the metaphor Jesus chose to use. Furthermore, as farmers, many of them would have been intimately familiar with the practice of sowing.
Sowing is very different from the mechanical farming practices we use today, which is why there remains confusion in this text for 21st century hearers. Whereas today farmers utilize tools like seed-drills that precisely plant seeds, the practice of sowing was less accurate. Workers would take handfuls of seeds and cast them over a prepared area. There would be some effort to place the seeds where they needed to go but this method was less than precise. Seeds would fall onto the fertile, prepared soil, but also would fall onto the rocky and thorny ground surrounding the fields.
On the surface, parables seem to be deceptively simple. On the surface, we think we how exactly what Jesus is talking about. Sowing seeds, growing our faith. On the surface when we read this story we are drawn to thinking about which soil we are planting the seeds of our own faith. Are we planting on rocky ground, hearing the Word of God and then immediately jumping into action? If not that, maybe our lives are full of thorns, and upon hearing God’s word we do not fully understand what we are hearing because our lives are hostile towards God. Or maybe, we think, the seeds of faith we are planting are planted with precision into the fertile ground needed to grow faith in “a hundredfold”.
But Jesus was intentional in these stories, leaving ambiguity and confusion on the table. Later in chapter 13, after Jesus has shared his teachings, he asks the disciples, “have you understood all this?” The disciples response of “yes”, is a lie. Jesus intentionally left these parables with confusion, misdirection, and today many of us who are charged with preaching on this text are confused and misdirected.
Confusion and misdirection.
Is this story really about us?
Are we the sower?
The parable of the sower is more so about the sower and less about how we change our lives, creating good soil where the seeds of our faith can grow. The sower, God, will continue to cast seeds where God knows they will not grow. Or where they will grow but will later be scorched.
In the corporate world, results increase revenue, which increases company performance, which can increase our standing within the company.
In the church, as much as we hate to admit it, results are important as well. They determine which clergy are appointed where. Results determine the programs we choose to invest more financial resources into. Results determine where we choose to allocate volunteers and staff time.
We are captivated by results.
That should not be a big surprise to most of us as we live in a results driven world. We want plant the seeds of our faith in fertile soil. We want to help others do the same. We spend countless hours, and lets not forget a lot of financial resources, trying to help our communities do this. We record and track attendance and engagement. We produce reports, study the statistics, trying to figure out the secret recipe for good soil.
But if we read this parable closely, is that really whats going on? Is this story about the soil?
While we are captivated by results, God is not. If we read this parable closely we realize that God is sowing seeds, casting out the love and grace we all need in our lives, the love and grace we need to establish our faith, indiscriminately. God knows, even when we pretend otherwise, that when the seeds of love and grace, the seeds that establish deep roots of faith, that some seeds will not establish the roots necessary for a bountiful harvest.
God knows this, and still God, the Sower, continues to sow the fields.
God knows of our hostility towards the Gospel and still, the Sower sows the fields. God continues to bless us, Christ’s church, all the while knowing that our agendas, predisposition with results driven ministries, will cause some of the seeds to burn up or be eaten by the birds.
How are we hostile towards the Gospel?
Often times, we fail to listen to and hear God’s word because like Pharaoh, our hearts are hardened. We are unable to discern God’s calling, we are unable to see love and grace being sown in our lives because the Gospel is counterintuitive to world we are living in.
The early church faced this problem. Paul said this to the church in Rome, “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.”
We live in a time when many Christians, primarily, in the United States argue that the world has become hostile towards the Gospel. From removing the Ten Commandments from public squares and courtrooms, and banning students from praying in school (if we pray the way Jesus instructs us to in Matthew 6.5-6, in secret, can that really be banned?) to Sunday no longer being observed as the Sabbath for our communities there is a strong argument to be made in defense of the position that we as communities are becoming hostile to the Gospel. But if we take a deeper look at what Jesus is speaking of, we see that Jesus is not speaking in generalities. He is being specific. You and me. Not us or we.
We allow the superficiality of our lives and the vested interest we have in wealth, self-promotion, and prosperity to harden our hearts, hardening the ground around us. We are motived by greed, even when our best intentions tell us otherwise and still the Sower continues to sow.
We fail to see God’s love for us.
We fail to see God’s love for those around us.
We fail to see God’s love for those who we think are unloveable.
We read this parable and think that we are the sower, sowing seeds in our own lives as well as the lives of those around us. We think, at times, that we are in control of our own justification and thus our own salvation. We think we can control whether or not we are sanctified before God, and that we can do likewise for those around us.
This parable tells us otherwise. This parable tells us that in the face our best efforts and failings, God is still sowing.
God is sowing seeds so that we will be liberated from the Evil One. Sowing seeds is God’s work of liberating us from a Captor. There’s more at stake than just our faith, growing in grace, and being acceptable to God. God sows in the face of an enemy. God knows there is competition for our hearts and still the Sower sows.
None of this is up to us to do on our own. The task of sowing seeds has not been left up to the church. Changing the soil seeds are sown into is not something we can do on our own. The work of sowing seeds has always been and will never stop being God’s work. We participate in this work individual and as a community, trusting that God will work in and through us individually and collectively because once we have faith and are baptized into new life through Christ, we are Christ’s regardless of what your soil seems.
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Grace & Peace,