Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Ordinary 15A; Proper 10
Jesus’ parable of the sower would not make it into a self-help book.
Nor would it be the basis for a business best-seller. Current titles like “Rich20something,” “Extreme You” and “Boss Bitch” may well have helpful advice, but Jesus’ take on success runs counter to that of our capitalistic, individualistic culture. Jesus tells the crowd – so large and so eager to hear him that he must get in the boat to be free to speak – that sowing the seeds of the kingdom results in abject failure three out of four times. Did you catch that statistic? Seventy-five percent of the time the work you do related to the divine reign will yield not a little, not something, but absolutely nothing. Imagine that stat on a college recruitment postcard or an annual financial report or the list of best jobs or a guide to happiness, health and wealth. Come join us and fail – often, repeatedly, spectacularly, totally! See your efforts result in nothing! Not exactly the top 10 ways to wealth or three easy steps to happiness or 30 days to a thinner you.
Recently, the New York Times printed an article on the front page of the “Sunday Styles” section titled, “Failure is on the syllabus.” The subtitle read: “Programs are being put in place to help students used to achievement and recognition cope with basic setbacks.” Prestigious colleges such as Smith, Cornell, University of Texas and Davidson are helping “failure deprived” students manage the fall-out from their first experiences of failure. One of the leaders of this effort at Smith, Rachel Simmons, is quoted, “We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college. We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus.” The article goes on to assess the reasons for this phenomenon, of course the ubiquitous “helicopter-parenting” is cited, the “everybody gets a trophy” culture, stress over student debt and job opportunities after college, and the glorification of being busy. All no doubt true, but I wonder if there is something even more fundamental going on.
As I was working on this text I initially spent a lot of time digging around in the soil metaphor. (Sorry, it was just too easy a pun.) I even went so far as to label each kind of soil with pithy descriptions. The path? Obtuse apostles. The rocky ground? Fair weather followers. Thorny soil? Distracted disciples. Good soil? Faithful farmers or kingdom crop growers. Clever, right? I rolled around questions such as, “What is our role in creating good soil? Being good soil? Cultivating good soil?” I had cringe inducing flashbacks of my father, wearing combat boots, a straw hat and a European-style bathing suit tilling his garden in the heat of the North Carolina summer, but that’s a whole different sermon. I thought about what makes for good soil and about crop rotation, the right seed for the right soil, water, pesticides. I wondered: What are the metaphorical equivalents for a life of faith? Then I read the parable and Jesus’ explanation again and realized that the soil is not my problem. Jesus explains; he does not prescribe.
Jesus does not say to add fertilizer (at least not in this story). He does not say we should choose the soil in which you will cast seeds wisely. He simply tells the crowd and the disciples: The world is full of soil that is inhospitable, even hostile, to the seeds of God’s word. More often than not (three-fourths of the time, in fact) the world will reject the rule of God. Keep this in mind as you go about your planting so as not to be discouraged or to lose focus. Don’t worry about the soil.
Further, there is no need to worry about the seed. Scarcity doesn’t appear to be an issue given that the sower throws it around with abandon. There is no suggestion that the lack of growth is due to faulty seed. No GMOs needed. No careful planning required. Being anxious about what to plant, how to plant and where to plant is unnecessary (odd as that may seem to our Presbyterian sensibilities about stewardship and moderation).
We are to emulate the sower of this parable. Period. Stop. Our focus should be on the throwing of the seed, the sharing of the Word, the preaching, teaching and doing of the gospel. The results of our sowing are not our concern. Our “success” or our “failure” is not “ours” at all. This Kingdom work has nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with passionate participation. Imagine that word to a world obsessed with measurable results, relentless resume building and college students who believe their worth is tied to their grades or awards or cram-packed schedules.
Why does Jesus tell this parable to the swelling crowds and to his newbie disciples? This is Jesus’ third teaching discourse in Matthew and he knows that the road ahead will get increasingly more harrowing. Following Jesus offers countless opportunities to learn from failure. Getting a “B” will be the least of anyone’s worries the nearer they get to the cross. Jesus has already warned the disciples of coming persecutions. In the very next chapter John the Baptist will be beheaded. God’s present and coming kingdom will not come without great resistance and we can’t accuse Jesus of covering up that truth. Failure is certain. Followers’ best efforts won’t often bear any fruit. Keep planting anyway. Keep throwing around seed like Oprah gives away cars. Don’t be surprised when the yield is nothing; rejoice when you are surprised by a harvest that is a hundredfold the norm. Then keep going and keep throwing.
This year I read the parable of the sower and thought, “Well, this explains a lot.” Lately, I have found myself having moments of despair at the state of the world. The concentric circles of my community, our nation, the world and all of creation are each filled with more problems than I can address or solve with hard paths, rocks, weeds and thorns at every turn. There are times when I wonder, “What’s up with this God?” Is the seed insufficient? The sower inept? The soil hopelessly stripped of the nutrients needed to produce crops? No. But resistance to God’s reign of justice, mercy and grace is real, strong and inevitable. Ultimately, God’s victory is certain. Proximately, there will be bursts of amazing, life-giving abundant growth. Practically, our focus is not on the soil or the seed, but on gregarious, abundant, foolish-looking, daily sowing.
Let’s get to failing spectacularly for Jesus. It will be hard and disappointing and as Carter Warren says in interpreting this text, “often unrewarding.” But sometimes the Kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven, and we will have the unspeakable joy of being a part of it when it does.
- Do you have any experience with gardening or agriculture? If so, how do these experiences influence your understanding of this parable?
- If we are to generously and relentlessly throw seed around, how do we do that? What does such sowing look like in the places where you are serving God?
- Jesus talks explicitly about the role of the “evil one” in preventing the growth of God’s Word. What do you make of that description? How do you understand the “evil one” that Jesus names?
- Do you agree that the soil isn’t our problem? Do we have an obligation to try to cultivate or be good soil?
- As you go about your daily routines this week, notice all of the things that grow without having been carefully planted: wild flowers, trees, fields of grass. As you see that growth, try to make note of where you unexpectedly see God’s reign in your midst. Make a list and give God thanks.
- Are we stingy when it comes to sharing the Word of God? What keeps us from sowing with abandon?
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