Matthew 1-9, 18-23
Throwing Seeds Around
I want to begin today with a story. A guy walked into a flower shop and asked for some potted red geraniums. “I’m sorry,” said the clerk in the flower shop, “we are completely sold out of all of our potted geraniums. But I’d be more than happy to give you a deal on something else. Could you use African violets instead?” The guy sadly replied, “No, it was geraniums my wife told me to water while she was away for a couple of weeks.”
I sympathize with this guy. I do not have a green thumb and I stand in awe of people who manage to grow plants without killing them and even get them to burst into bloom! I am amazed at farmers who earn their livelihood growing things. So today in worship, we come to a story which Jesus calls “The Parable of the Sower.” It seems a story a little remote from urban dwellers of twenty-first century Vancouver. It must, however, be an important story because the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke all thought it necessary to include these words of Jesus in their accounts of his life. One scholar has said that this is the “touchstone” or standard for the rest of the stories that Jesus told. Because of this importance, I want us to take a fresh look at the meaning of this scripture passage.
The usual way of approaching this parable is to focus on the ground that the seeds are falling on. Some fall on the path and the birds come and eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground where they spring up quickly but die because they do not have depth of soil. Other seeds fall among thorns, and the thorns grow up and choke the young plants. Other seeds fall on good soil and bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. The punchline of many a sermon has been that you have to be planted in good soil and be out there producing for God. The other seeds have all landed in not-so-good places.
The clue to applying this passage to us today is that Jesus calls it “The Parable of the Sower.” It is a parable about God and not about us. It is the parable of the sower, not the parable of the four kinds of soil. It is about what God does, not about what we do, in putting God’s Word into action. The point of the parable is: what does it tell us about God?
As I read the parable, I have an image. I see a farmer who has a sack of seed slung over his shoulder. He is walking along and, every so often, he reaches in to the seed, takes out a handful and haphazardly casts the seed on the barren ground. The way Matthew tells this story it looks like the sower is quite reckless in his distribution of seed. In Jesus’ day, as today, a good farmer would take great care to sow seeds in good soil, but here the sower liberally throws seeds everywhere and the seeds are landing on walking paths, on rocky ground and among thorns. Why sow seeds where they are not likely to grow and flourish?
What is this seed that is being sown? In verse 19, Jesus tells us that the seed is the word of the kingdom. We might also say that it is the Word of God. I wonder if the Word of God is an experience. When I was a student at Presbyterian College at McGill in Montreal, on the pulpit in the chapel were the Greek words “Και ο λόγος σάρξ εγένετο”, which translates as “and the Word became flesh”. These are the first words of the Gospel of John. God’s Word becomes flesh in Jesus. Sometimes we say, “Let’s put some flesh to these ideas.” That’s what God did. In Jesus, God’s ideas became flesh. Notice that when people met Jesus they did not just think, “Wow, he’s got some good stuff to say.” No, they were exclaiming, “Look at the stuff that he is doing.” You couldn’t understand the words without having the experience.
There’s a little boy who gets his mom to pack him a lunch, a few loaves and some fish, and goes off to listen to Jesus teach. Lots of preaching that morning, but to make his point, Jesus take the meager lunch and feeds the crowd with it. Can you imagine how that little boy felt? He couldn’t wait to get home and tell what happened. “Mom, you won’t believe it! Jesus fed the entire crowd with my lunch. It just kept coming and coming! Look what Jesus and I did!” He was moved from words to experience.
When Jesus says “listen” to the crowds and to us today, he’s not expecting us to be passive, to do nothing. He is expecting us to put those words into action, just as God put God’s words into action in Jesus.
The seed is the Word of God. In the parable, the seed lands on all kinds of soil. The idea is that it is just tossed out there. In our world today, I think that is what we who are Christians are to be doing. We should be tossing the Word of God, the teachings of Jesus, out there into the world. We know what was at the centre of the teaching of Jesus. There are enough examples that Jesus gave us. Jesus brought a message of love, forgiveness, hope, peace, justice and reconciliation. Goodness knows that in our world, in our society, even in our own relationships with one another, we need to hear these words and live them out. God is asking us to be sowers of the Word.
The sower doesn’t seem to care where this seed lands. Have you ever been walking in the forest and you come across a rock outcrop and there growing from the rock outcrop is a plant or a small tree. Sometimes even a large tree. And you wonder to yourself, how can it possibly grow? You and I need to be sowing God’s seeds even in places where we don’t think they have even the slightest chance of taking root. We have to sow God’s love everywhere, even in areas where the soil is not yet ripe and ready for growth. Who knows what seeds will take root? God, the master sower, sows seeds everywhere.
It seems to be in God’s nature to being sowing these seeds that we see in the ministry of Jesus. As we take up the invitation to do some sowing in our own corner of the world, we need to remember and take heart in the fact that God sows everywhere. These seeds of love and peace and justice have already been sown. God goes ahead of us into all of the life circumstances that we might be facing. So when you are faced with a situation when you think that you are being asked to speak some words of God, remember that God is already there, having planted some seeds. Maybe you are there just to add a little fertilizer or water to the situation.
This story would have been shocking to the people of Jesus’ day. They believed that God’s Word was only for the people of Israel. Jesus says the seed is scattered everywhere. There are people today who believe that God’s word can spring up in the most unlikely places. There are those who think that they have possession of God’s Word. Those who think they know who is in and not in the kingdom or the fold of God.
Strange that Jesus would associate the coming of the kingdom to a seed. There is nothing spectacular about a seed. If you are expecting a triumphal messiah or a God who is going to step in and make everything in sight all right, the seed is a weak image. Seeds are tiny. They fall into the ground and get buried. It is, however, precisely when they are out of sight that they begin to do the real work of a seed.
The word λόγος [logos] appears six time in this passage in the original Greek. The Word became flesh. The Word is Christ and it has already been sown into our world. God has done this mysteriously. So often we think that we have to do something to kick the Word into gear. Something to get God’s kingdom moving. That we need to repent, confess our sins, get “born again”, or even sacrifice a goat. We think that we need to make ourselves into good soil so that the Word can really work. When will we realize, when will we internalize, that God’s grace – God’s love – is freely given to each and every one of us and that we don’t need to do anything special to receive it. Yes, we might want to do all of those other things in response to God’s grace, but we do them because grace has acted in us first. The seed was already planted in us.
The types of soil that Jesus talks about reflect the human condition which all of us share. We all endure rocky times. We all have times when we feel we lack roots and connectedness. We know that there are times when we are keenly aware of living among the thorns which feel as they are choking our very being. What a wonderful way Jesus has of describing our reality.
We also know that we are planted in beautiful earth, which is a more accurate translation of the Greek. That is a part of our reality. There are times in life when we especially feel God’s grace in our lives and we feel that our faith in God through Christ so enriches our human existence. We realize in those moments that what faith is all about is not how much fruit is produced but about the faith in which God’s Word has taken hold in our lives.