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The Sower, the Soils and the Seed

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 12th of Seventh Month, 2020

Speaker: Brian C. Young

Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-13, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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.