July 13, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“Three Parables in One”

Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is found in the Gospel of Matthew between stories about opposition to the gospel. In chapter eleven, Jesus has criticized various cities for failing to repent even though they have witnessed Jesus’ deeds of power. And later in chapter thirteen, Jesus will be rejected again – this time by the people of his own home town, Nazareth.

And so, we may read the Parable of the Sower as a kind of explanation of what is going on in Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Jesus’ disciples (or even Jesus himself) are getting discouraged. They go about preaching, and healing, and doing miracles, and they expect a wonderful response. Why isn’t their little band of followers growing? Why aren’t people responding to Jesus’ teaching by changing their lives? Why aren’t they convinced by the miracles, the healing, or the wise teaching?

The parable provides a good explanation. It’s as if a sower is sowing seeds. The seeds are God’s Word being sown in the hearts of people. Sometimes, of course, the people do not understand God’s Word, and so it does not grow within them and lead to a fruitful response. Sometimes people receive the Word with joy, but when trouble or persecution arise on account of the Word, they do not have the endurance to remain steadfast. Sometimes they hear the Word and begin to respond, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the Word, and it yields nothing. Other times, people hear the Word, understand it, and actually bear fruit – sharing God’s love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness in the world – sharing God’s Word with others in speech and in daily life.

It has been suggested that this interpretation, the one provided by the author of Matthew’s Gospel, might be called “The Parable of the Four Soils.” It’s the interpretation that invites us to think about the condition of the people who hear the gospel proclaimed. It encourages preachers and evangelists not to give up their preaching and teaching even if the response is not always what we hoped for. It’s not that there is something wrong with the seed – with the message – but sometimes people are just not ready to receive it. We have to keep on spreading the Word though, because eventually there will be a good response, and then we will be surprised by what an amazing response it will be.

As people who are receiving God’s Word and trying to live fruitful Christian lives, a focus on the four types of soil may get us thinking about what we need to do in order to respond to Jesus as well.

The seed sown on the path reminds us that understanding God’s Word is critically important. That means that we have a responsibility to seek to understand. Listening attentively to sermons is a good start. Taking part in Bible study groups is another helpful practice. Reading commentaries, taking courses, or just dedicating some time and attention to trying to understand what God might be saying to us through the Scriptures and in the life of Jesus, is really the point.

But understanding is only the first step. At some point in your life, you may have come to understand that God has reached out to you in love by sending Jesus into the world. You know that God loves you despite all your failures and mistakes, that in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. You know that God has a purpose for your life, and that you have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help you to follow the way of Christ and fulfil your purpose – bearing good fruit in the world.

Understanding this is good, but actually bearing fruit also requires perseverance and attentiveness. When living the way of Jesus calls us to humble ourselves to ask forgiveness of someone, or have the patience to endure someone else’s failures, or give more of our time, energy, or money than seems reasonable to help someone who needs us, then our perseverance is tested. How deep are our roots? How determined are we to bear the fruit of the gospel?

Lack of attentiveness can also be a problem. We live in a culture in which our attention is always being drawn in many directions. We are always talking about how busy our lives have become, and church leadership knows that the busyness of work, family, sports, and other activities keeps many people away from a fuller commitment to their lives of faith.

It seems to me that many of the things that keep us busy are not bad things. But at some point we all make decisions about what will be given priority in our lives, and if worship, prayer, Bible study, and service are always last on the list, then all the other things become like thorns choking the Word so that it cannot bear fruit in our lives.

If we want to bear fruit, we must be good soil. And by that I mean that we must allow God’s Word a chance to grow in our hearts and produce the fruit of the Spirit. We must take some time to try to understand what God’s Word means for us. We must be determined to persevere even when living as Christians becomes difficult or onerous. We must keep paying attention – not allowing other pursuits to distract us from our purpose.

But a reflection on the four types of soil is only one of many things that we might notice in this parable. After all, it is not usually titled, “The Parable of the Different Types of Soil,” but it is called, “The Parable of the Sower.”

And if God is the sower, or maybe Jesus is the sower, sowing God’s Word, we are reminded by the parable that Jesus does not pre-judge us, deciding in advance whether to bother tossing the gospel our way or not. Jesus enacted in his life what one commentator called, “the extravagant evangelism of God,” sowing the seeds of God’s Word abundantly, freely, and extravagantly all over the place.

He began with the people of his own community, culture, and religion, but then crossed boundary after boundary to bring God’s Word of love and forgiveness to every People, in every place. He welcomed the poor and the outcast, and he invited the rich to turn their lives around too. And even when he was rejected by almost everyone, he did not give up but kept on sowing the seeds of his life until his bag was completely empty.

Those who observed what happened to Jesus might have concluded that his ministry was a waste of time. He ended up getting killed after only a few years, and so many of those who received his message were not convinced. But just as a seed must die before it can sprout and grow into a shoot, into a plant, and into a tree that stands tall and provides a home for the birds to nest in its branches, the Messiah also had to die and to rise again in order for the gospel of Jesus to go out into all the world, into every time and place… seeds scattered freely and generously into the hearts of all.

There is another possible title for this parable. We could call it “The Parable of the Miraculous Yields.” I mean, it doesn’t make sense, does it? The farmer scatters the seeds all over the place… on the path, on the rocky ground, among the thorns, as well as a little that lands in the good soil. And from that ridiculous, wasteful planting method, an abundant harvest grows! One might expect a reasonable result from the seeds that fall in the good soil, but Jesus’ story says that some yield a hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty. That’s way more than should be expected. The only explanation is a miracle.

But shouldn’t we expect miracles? We, who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers, empowering them to take the good news out into all the world… Shouldn’t we expect miracles?

Let us give thanks today for the extravagant evangelism of God. Let us commit ourselves to seeking to understand, to persevere, and to remain attentive to God’s Word. And let us trust that God has the power to produce a miraculous yield of good fruit in our lives and throughout the world God made. Amen.