July 13, 2008

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

You may have noticed, as Jim was reading today’s Gospel passage, that it came in two sections. The first part was the parable that Jesus told to the crowds about a sower who scatters seeds liberally across the ground, and the results that follow. And the second part was an explanation or interpretation of the parable.

The Gospel writer frames the explanation as “Jesus explaining to his disciples what he meant by this confusing story.” But most biblical scholars agree that while the parable itself is probably one that Jesus actually told (or at least, something very much like it), the interpretation is likely the product of Matthew’s community near the end of the first century.

Jesus was, indeed, a Jewish teacher — a rabbi. And he brought not only a new message to the people, but he also used a new form of communication. Jesus’ method of teaching in parables was not the typical practice of contemporary rabbis, but a new and unsettling departure in religious communication.

Without the helpful little explanation that Matthew’s Gospel provides, we can imagine that both the crowds and the disciples would have been confused, or perhaps intrigued by Jesus’ little stories.

The biblical scholar C.H. Dodd describes a parable in this way:
“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Though Matthew’s Gospel gives us an “explanation” of the meaning of Jesus’ parable, it may or may not be the meaning that Jesus intended when he told the story. Or perhaps it’s just ONE of the meanings that Jesus intended.

Matthew interprets the parable as an allegory. Everything in the story represents something else. The seeds are the Word of God. And when they fall onto the ground (or onto the ears of various people) they either grow and produce a harvest, or they are impeded in some way… by lack of understanding, by trouble and persecution, or by the cares of the world.

Matthew’s community, near the end of the first century, was trying to make sense of the fact that many people were rejecting Jesus and his message. They were likely struggling with the problem that only a relatively few people were being saved when they encountered God’s Word — and others were hearing it and rejecting it. Matthew’s group was preaching the Gospel faithfully to anyone who would listen, but sometimes it just didn’t seem to have an effect.

The parable and its interpretation must have served as a consolation when their mission wasn’t going anywhere quickly — an encouragement to keep on trying, because there must be some good soil out there somewhere!

Although most of us are inclined to accept the allegorical interpretation of this parable, the problem that I have with it is the question it leads us to want to ask. And that question is usually, “What kind of soil am I?” Or even worse, “What kind of soil is that person, or that person?”

It’s the same trouble that I have with a strict doctrine of Predestination — the idea that God has predestined some of us for salvation and others are destined to go the other way. We start wondering who’s who, and trying to judge which people God has put on the list. And that kind of judging always leads us into trouble.

An alternative approach (rather than starting to ask ourselves, “What kind of soil am I?”) might be to set aside Matthew’s interpretation of the parable for a moment and look at the parable itself again.

Jesus said: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Parables are little stories or sayings that draw their content from the everyday world of the listeners. On the surface, they are not religious at all, but when we start to think about them, we realize that they have a deeper meaning.

Our parable is about more than seeds and where they grow best. We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not just reminding his listeners that seeds grow better in good soil, away from rocks and thorns. They already knew that, so his story is likely about something else.

Well, the one thing that Jesus preached and taught about the most was the kingdom of God. Many of his parables begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like this…” And though this parable doesn’t say it explicitly, I think it’s safe to assume that this is another parable about the kingdom of God.

And if that is the case, the most obvious message in the parable is that the kingdom of God will be successful in coming about. Despite the challenges and setbacks of rocky soil, of path & birds, of weeds and thorns, some of the seeds in the parable fall onto fertile ground, and the yield that comes from them is enormous! The parable says that the harvest from some of those seeds is a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty — that’s way more than a farmer would have expected from a few seeds!

To an early church that was discouraged by failures, by rejection and persecution, this parable would have been good news. God is able to produce an abundant harvest, despite the seemingly limited resources and potential. Perhaps the parable is encouragement NOT to give up in mission. Though many attempts will not lead to success, they need to trust in the fact that God will eventually produce a harvest through their efforts.

So, in setting aside the allegorical interpretation, we resist identifying individuals as good soil, or path, or weed-infested ground. We avoid righting people off as “no good,” as if we can know the mind of God and who will be saved.

On a day like today, when we baptize a child like Kayden, we do not ponder whether God has chosen her to be good soil, or rocky soil, or path. Because we assume, that like the rest of us, her life of faith (as she encounters God’s Word) will likely include all of the above.

As her parents and God-parents, family, and church work to enact the promises that we have made today, there will be times when the Word of God does not take root and grow — perhaps because she doesn’t understand, perhaps because there are other distractions, perhaps because it stays at the level of her head and does not immediately take root in her heart.

But we need not be discouraged with Kayden, or with any of our children, or with each other, when God’s Word does not seem to be taking hold within our lives, or when we do not yet see the harvest that will eventually come from that Word. And we musn’t give up. We need to remember that as members of Christ’s body, the Church, we are partners with Christ in sowing the seeds that are the Word of God.

There was nothing in the parable that indicated any grave concern about the seeds that were not successful. There was no avoiding of the rocky looking areas, or testing of the depth of the soil. Instead, the seeds were scattered liberally, with faith and trust that those seeds that did grow up strong would produce an abundant harvest.

I think that’s what those promises are about, for us who welcome new children and adults into our communities of faith. We promise to guide and nurture Kayden in word and deed, in love and in prayer, and to share with her the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not only for Kayden, but for each young child, and each youth, and each adult. We promise to do it whether we think they’re going to “get it” or not. We promise to do it because sowing the Word is what Jesus does, and we are called to follow his way and live like him.

We need not be discouraged, and we need not feel inadequate in what we are doing — whether we’re preaching, or teaching, or caregiving, or serving, or revealing God’s Word in friendship and fellowship. Because God is the one who will surprise and amaze us with a sudden and abundant harvest. And the kingdom will come. There is no doubt about that.

Remember the greatest disappointment that Jesus’ followers once experienced… They had placed their trust and their hope in him. They thought that he would be their new king. They thought that his kingdom would come… But he was arrested. He was tried. He was sentenced to death and executed on a cross like a criminal. But like a few precious seeds that suddenly grow up and produce a surprisingly abundant harvest, Jesus was raised from death and ascended to reign with God.

And his kingdom has come. His kingdom is coming. May God speed the day when the kingdom will come in its fullness. And may God bless and empower us as we partner with Christ in sowing the seeds of the Gospel. Amen.