Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Analysis by Lori A. Cornell
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”
Jesus’ liberal generosity takes purchase in the least likely places but is still rejected by many. Ultimately, he and his generosity are buried; like a seed that falls into soil and dies there. But if a seed falls into soil and dies it becomes something else: new life.
DIAGNOSIS: Bad Seed?
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): Sowing for Growth
The Saint John’s Bible bears a modern illumination of this parable (depicted in Mark’s Gospel); it sheds new light on this old story. Jesus, clad in denim jeans, predictably scatters seed across four soils. But the seed is sown beyond the picture to the words of scripture that surround it. The four soils are tucked right next to each other: uncultivated, rocky, thorny, and good. But the sower is intent on spreading the seed farther and farther. The seed is cast beyond the picture’s frame into the print surrounding it.
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem): Reckless Sower
Considering the condition of three of the soils, we might wonder why the sower sows the seed so recklessly. If you know where to get the growth, and under what conditions growth happens, why sow anywhere else? Jesus’ interpretation of the parable may give us a hint: The sower is spreading the seed even—and maybe particularly—in adverse circumstances: lack of true comprehension, enthusiasm choked out by hardship, worldly concerns that overwhelm. Would it be right for the sower not to sow in those places?
Robert Farrar Capon suggests that this parable is a watershed teaching (in three gospels) that reveals much about the kind of reign Jesus is bringing in. It’s not a might-makes-right reign. It’s God reigning in the heart—not with a sword. For that reign to take purchase it will have to get past lots of adversity—in- and outside the minds and hearts of those invited into it.
In his book, Seculosity, David Zahl writes, “Rest is now just a prelude to more work, not a respite from stress but something else to stress over, another area where you may be falling short, another wrench in the self-justification toolkit.” Rest becomes one more thing by which we measure our worth.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): Bad Sower
The Saint John’s depiction of the Sower begs a question: Is it possible that this Sower is not only reckless, but just ineffective? And, if parables are meant to sit alongside real life, we might ask: Has Jesus planted his word fruitfully or is he ineffective? But to blame the Sower misses the fact that the condition of the soil is what finally determines the effectiveness of the seed. Perhaps the problem is not bad sowing, but bad soil.
PROGNOSIS: Good Soil
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): Seed Buried in Soil Springs Forth to New Life
So how does a seed take root, in all kinds of adversity, and grow? If this parable is about God’s kingdom, and not just individuals having enough faith to follow Jesus—because they happened to have taken root in the right kind of soil, then the answer lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not in us making ourselves good soil.
Jesus is God’s reign come down to earth. Among human beings who look for quick fixes and no pain, Jesus shares himself generously; in a world that is shallow and thorny, he ultimately suffers consequences. His liberal generosity takes purchase in the least likely places but is still rejected by many. Ultimately, he and his generosity are buried; like a seed that falls into soil and dies there. But if a seed falls into soil and dies it becomes something else: new life. Jesus dead and buried told the world that adversity wins. Jesus’ risen from the dead, means not only new life for him, but that adversity doesn’t get the final say about us. Jesus does.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): Fourth Soil
And, if Jesus gets the final say, then he can turn our uncultivated, rocky, thorny soil into good soil. (Maybe that’s why we pray/sing: “Lord, let my heart be good soil.” God gives the growth.)
Vibrant Faith is a consortium coaching 14 congregations through a Lilly Foundation grant. They call their effort “4th Soil Parenting” (from the parable). Each of the congregations works from a basic premise: children grow in faith primarily because their parents (or the people most trusted by them) talk with them about their faith. Christian parents talk with their kids about why they trust the God they know in Christ—helping their children to find hope in Christ and persist in adversity. But for parents to talk about their faith they need to hear Christ (dead in the soil, raised up to new life) preached. They need to hear about the Christ whose new life pushes up through the rocky, uncultivated soil of our lives. They need to have room to reflect where new life in Christ has sprung up to give them new understanding and purpose in the world—that they can share with their children.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): It’s about the Growth
When rocky, thorny soil is cleared, it can produce prolifically. Soil seldom produces growth without being cultivated and fertilized and watered. Even prepared, the weeds grow back and rocks push up to the surface. Good soil is produced by constant care. So (like Paul reminds us in Romans 10) faith in Christ is an ongoing process. And growth happens differently in different kinds of soil and conditions. Some of us face more adversity than others, others of us still long for a shiny-happy faith that doesn’t require constant care.
In the end though, what matters to God is that the Word (and ultimately God’s reign) find purchase in each of our lives. So Christ continues to sow hope in the midst of our adversity, the seeds of faith in a harsh world. And, by the way, the one with the most growth isn’t the winner. More growth means that we have more seed to share. Whether Christ’s seed produces 100-fold, or 60, or 40 is not the point. Growth is the point, and in Christ growth is possible.