In between Jesus’ telling of this famous parable and his own point-by-point explanation of the parable’s meaning and symbolism there comes an eight-verse section that the Lectionary would have us skip but that contains some of the most intriguing material in this part of Matthew 13. Mainly what Jesus says there is that the seemingly confusing nature of parables mirrors the confusion that the people already have. Of course, Jesus also says that the disciples “get it,” they understand and have been given the secret of the kingdom.
Still, I wonder how well those same disciples would have done had Jesus asked them to interpret the parable right then and there on the spot. I have the funny feeling they might not have looked as with it as Jesus indicates they should be! But that’s Matthew for you: he values knowledge so much that he casts the disciples into the best light possible, in contrast to Mark who was content to let them look pretty clueless a lot of the time.
In any event, Jesus says he tells parables because somehow doing his teaching this way matches the spiritual cluelessness of most of his listeners. As Tom Long once pointed out, Matthew presents a kinder and gentler Jesus in his reply to the disciples. Whereas Mark has Jesus saying “I tell parables in order to confuse them,” Matthew tweaks that Isaiah-esque language a bit to have Jesus say that “I tell parables because they are confused.” Mark shows Jesus pumping fog into the sanctuary, Matthew shows Jesus recognizing the fog already in the air.
Either way or both ways, however, Jesus is saying that if his words cause a lot of arched eyebrows and furrowed foreheads, it’s not strictly speaking his fault, as this landmark Parable of the Sower likewise claims. Because the word of the kingdom—that vital seed that Jesus came to sow into people’s hearts—may well be the most important word anyone will ever hear but the fact is that things have fallen into bad enough shape in this old world that the odds are definitely stacked against the success of the gospel seed.
Four soil types are identified but only one has a shot at yielding anything resembling a good and lasting crop. But then, this would be no news at all to actual farmers. You wonder what the people heard when Jesus first told this story. Maybe some of the actual farmers in the crowd chortled to themselves to hear the story. “This guy’s been in the woodshop too long,” some may have mused, “because he doesn’t have a clue as to what farming is all about.”
Today we might have the same reaction if we heard a story about a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the PTO switch to activate the planter even before he was out of his driveway. There he is putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies into the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy and thorny patch with corn seed still flying out loosey-goosey from that planter that, by all rights, had been switched on way too early.
In truth, no farmer would be so careless, so profligate in the scattering of valuable seed. It would not even make sense to do this. It would be a waste, a spectacle of great prodigality that a frugal and economically minded farmer would never tolerate. Of course, some experts on the Ancient Near East point out that few fields back then were as pristine as fields you might see in the Iowa countryside today. Ditches, rocky patches, even roads and paths all co-mingled in many “fields” such that inevitably some seed would fall into a variety of soil conditions. Still, the farmer in this parable seems pretty prodigal and none-too-careful in flinging the seeds around.
This farmer has got (apparently) more than enough seed to go around and so throws it anywhere and everywhere, the odds of success notwithstanding. Maybe if the whole world were as God intended, maybe the seeds would find a higher success rate—maybe they’d even sprout 100% of the time as every heart would be fertile ground for the loving words of the Creator.
As it stands, however, people have built roads in their hearts, veritable highways that have gotten too packed down by the busyness of life, by the high-falootin’ claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. We’ve met these people and a few of them have been publishing best-selling books of late to sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. Maybe the seed will get smushed under the tires of whatever vehicle whizzes through that heart next. But it won’t grow. Not in this life anyway.
Others are not that bad off but they have nevertheless been made fiercely shallow by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for products touted as “New and Improved” and have come to believe that the next best thing to come along is always just around the corner and it will be theirs for the snagging. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like a fast-growing kudzu in people’s hearts but then withers just as quickly when the shallow, me-first craving for novelty once more takes over.
Still other hearts—and we’ve met these people, too—are just plain busy and crowded. These hearts are neither calloused nor shallow. In fact, there is some real depth to them. Lots of stuff grows here. But in the end, it’s too much. The seed of the gospel comes in and sprouts just fine but faces stiff competition for light and warmth and nutrients. Because just over there the plants of commerce and business are growing. Concerns about the 401k fund, the Roth IRA, the kids’ college funds, and the growth of their stock market portfolio absorb a lot of nutrients from the soil of the heart (isn’t it interesting how financial firms in their advertising always use the horticultural images of growth?).
And also in the garden of this heart are the plants of community involvement, of the PTA at school, of politics and social justice and ecological activism and . . . and it’s all good stuff (or a lot of it is) but it sure makes one busy. And so when the pastor calls looking to recruit some new elders and deacons for the church, well, what can one say? “Sorry, pastor, but I just don’t have time for everything.” (A funny reply seeing as, faith tells us, the Gospel IS everything . . .)
There is, of course, that fourth and final heart/soil and the seed of the gospel does splendidly well there, thanks be to God (literally). Because given the apparently long odds for gospel success, you have to assume that the hearts whose soil is deep, wide, and unencumbered with other things is a field cleared by the Holy Spirit himself. Only the power of Almighty God could overcome the obstacles thrown up by this world: the obstacles of cynicism and despair, of media hype and incessant novelty, of sheer busyness and greed.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.
Matthew 13 opens by telling us that on the day when Jesus told this set of parables, starting with the Sower, the crowds following Jesus and hanging on his every word had grown very large—so large that Jesus had to invent his own shoreline amphitheater to be heard. So maybe it’s no wonder that Jesus tumbled to tell this parable first. Looking out over that big crowd and scanning not only the shining faces turned his way but scanning also the hearts of those people with a kind of spiritual MRI, Jesus could see the hard hearts, the shallow hearts, the thorny hearts, the pure and unencumbered hearts. And so Jesus as much as said to that wild assemblage of hearts, “Have I got a story for you . . .”
In preaching on Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower (hear the sermon here), Tom Long claimed that Jesus preached in these confusing parables in order to make people deeper thinkers about what the gospel is all about. Jesus did not want to have people grab the gospel too quickly because such a quick grab almost always resulted in bad faith or shallow faith that did not last long (a point made within the Parable of the Sower itself, of course). In that connection of wanting people to grow deeper, Long told this story:
The great preacher George Buttrick was once flying on an airplane. As he sat there, he had a legal pad out on which he was furiously scribbling some notes for his sermon the coming Sunday. The man next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir.” “My sermon for Sunday–I’m a Christian preacher.” “Oh,” the other man replied. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule. That’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what do you do for a living?” “I’m an astronomer. I teach astrophysics at a university.” “Ah, yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy. Who could ever need more than that, eh?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 Commentary