Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 12th of Seventh Month, 2020
Speaker: Brian C. Young
Good morning, Friends!
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, NRSV: 1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 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!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet 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. 22 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. 23 But 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.”
When Stephanie and I lived here in Richmond when I was a student at the Earlham School of Religion, at some point someone gave us some flower seeds. I believe that they came from Tracy Crowe, who was at the time ESR’s business manager; if you knew Tracy, you might remember that she owned a good bit of land and cultivated a fairly large plot of prairie. I think she gave us a note with the seeds explaining what they were, which we probably lost somewhere in a subsequent move.
But we kept the seeds. Some four or five years later, Stephanie decided to sow these seeds in our backyard in Berkeley; we had an area that she was planting some sunflowers in, and she figured, “why not?” The worst that will happen is nothing will come up; five-year-old seed, no clear idea what it is, who knows what you're going to get?
What we got was a whole plot full of these gorgeous orange asters—kind of like purple coneflowers, except orange and gold. Randall Shrock might be able to tell us what these flowers were.1 And these plants were HUGE—some of them grew to be almost seven feet tall, with bright orange flowers all over the place. I had forgotten that prairie plants could grow so high. They really liked Berkeley sunshine, and they didn't seem to need a lot of water. It was a real treat to have them right outside our back door, blooming for months on end, especially after the squirrels laid waste to all of our sunflowers.
So when I think of the way the first part of this passage ends—the seed in the good soil, producing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold—I think of those asters, and how many blooms we enjoyed, when we really didn't expect anything at all.
But the parable in this passage is about a farmer who knew what he was sowing, and was expecting some return—indeed, he would absolutely have been depending on it.
Matthew tells us, in v. 18, that this is “the parable of the sower”, but it’s not just about the sower, so it’s sometimes referred to as “the sower and the seeds”. Once we’ve read the parable and its interpretation, however, it's really more about the soil, isn't it? So, Matthew’s title notwithstanding, we could call it “the parable of the soils”.
Now—I don’t know much about soil, or farming; that I think of flowers, rather than food crops, when I think about seed, should be proof of that. But I know enough to be able to tell that the way crops are sown today, at least around here, is pretty different from the practice of the sower in the parable.
As I understand it, an Indiana corn or soybean farmer would cut the furrows first, and then insert the seed by machine. In Galilee in Jesus’ day, seed would have been scattered and then plowed under. So in what Jesus describes, it might seem like the farmer was being careless, not really paying attention to where he was putting things—why scatter any seed on a rocky place, or in a thorny patch? Well, it’s because all of that is going to get plowed up. And especially for a small farmer without much land, it would have been very difficult to avoid rocky ground. Anyone who has been to Israel/Palestine will have observed that there is very little ground that isn’t rocky—there are stones, small and large, everywhere. One commentator suggests that the farmer would even have plowed the path—so perhaps it was just the path that people had trod that winter, and not a permanent byway. In this environment, nothing could go to waste, and the hope would have been that grain might sprout anywhere that the seed went.
Additionally, you might remember that in the Torah, there were prescriptions that when it came time for reaping, farmers were to leave the corners of their fields untouched, so that there might be some left over for the gleaners: those in the community who didn’t have enough to eat and who relied on the extras left behind. So it may be that the sower that Jesus speaks of broadcasts things so widely because he is thinking ahead to the harvest, wanting to use even the odd bits of land, so that not only his family, but also others’, might be taken care of. The Jubilee and sabbath economics of the Hebrew Bible are an important part of the backdrop to this parable.
The first time I remember engaging with this parable was when I was in college. For a little while, I attended a campus Bible study that was sponsored by a large local nondenominational church. I remember this parable, or one of the parallel versions from Mark or Luke, being the passage for one session. The central discussion question was essentially, “which type of soil are you?” Everyone went around and was supposed to give some answer. I don’t remember how I answered, or indeed if I said anything; nor do I remember how many people said, “I’m the good soil, and here’s why…”. But that’s the answer that everyone wanted to give.
If I had been honest in that Bible study session, I would have confessed that I was then particularly susceptible to the temptations of the thorny soil: “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” that choke the word so that “it yields nothing.” As I said, I don’t remember what I said. Whether or not that was my confession then, it is my confession today. Does this mean that I have no place in the reign of God?
This is one of the difficulties that we encounter in interpreting this parable. Jesus’ words were given as his young movement was gathering, in an atmosphere of opposition and difficulty. There were some in that listening crowd who did not understand the word that Jesus brought, out of whose hearts the evil one was even then snatching away the message. There were others, even among the disciples, whose joy was great, but who would fall away at the first sign of trouble. And there were still others, especially among the teachers of the law and the scribes, whose love of power and wealth made them unable to respond to the news of God’s reign. Jesus knew that his season with these folks was short, that time was of the essence, and that many of those who heard his invitation to become part of the in-breaking rule of God would never respond.
I don’t mean to suggest that the spiritual dynamics of the various soils are no longer operative, and that the reign of God is somehow different for us in the 21st century. What I want to resist is the interpretation that assumes that the sower sows once and only once, and that is the only chance there is for the soil to be fertile, for the grain to grow, and for fruit to come forth. For we know, and Jesus knew, that sowing and reaping are part of a regular cycle. They come every year, or even more often. The sower sows many times, and we have the opportunity to be fertile and to give forth fruit, each time the seed is scattered. The first reading we heard this morning, from Isaiah 55, says that the word which goes out from God’s mouth will not return to God empty, but will accomplish what God desires, and achieve the purpose for which it was sent. Does God speaks that word to each of us only once, and we have only one opportunity to respond?
I said that this is this is a parable about the sower, the seeds, and the soils. But there is another dimension of this that comes from our tradition, that I think is important to remember, which is the Seed—singular. The first Friends used the image of the Seed to express one of their foundational convictions, that there is something placed by God in each person, by which we can respond to God. Robert Barclay, our first systematic theologian, described it this way: “...we understand a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible principle, in which God, as Father, Son, and Spirit, dwells; a measure of which divine and glorious life is in all [people] as a seed, which of its own nature draws, invites, and inclines to God” (Apology, p. 120). The first Friends believed that this Seed was in everyone, and could enable anyone to respond to the gracious invitation of Christ. Thus when we see an opportunity to bear fruit for the reign of God, it is the Seed within us that has made us sensitive to that opportunity, and that allows us to respond.
One other Quaker perspective on this: in addition to seeds, the parable also mentions the word, and hearing the word of the kingdom; remember that for Friends, Christ Jesus is the Living Word. When we are in submission to the Seed within us, it is by attending to the voice of the Living Word; the voice that we hear within when we quiet ourselves and listen.
And listening leads to fruitfulness, even in the incredible measures that Jesus mentions: thirty, sixty, even a hundred times what was sown! Here I think of the fruits of the spirit, as in Galatians 5:22–23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” And we’ve heard quite a bit from Ephesians lately, so here is one more, Eph 5:9–10: “live as children of Light—for the fruit of the Light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Friends, what I have been trying to say is that we each can respond as good soil to the seeds that God sows. It is the Seed within us that allows us to be fertile for the seeds that are showered upon us. God continues to sow, in the hope of a harvest of righteousness—each year, each season, even each day and each moment. But in order to give forth fruit, we must begin in submission to the Seed within us. This comes in hearing the Living Word—let us submit our hearts to God, together now, that we may hear what God has to say.
1 I have since learned, from Eugenia Mills, that these were Mexican sunflowers—asters, yes, but not Midwestern prairie plants. See image on the last page of this file.
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