First in a Three Part Series: Parables – Stories That Read Us
Updated for July 12, 2020
Watch a video of this sermon as it was preached July 16, 2017 here.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
… “Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet 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.
As 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. But 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.” – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
This week we begin a three part Sermon Series on the parables found in the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. I’ve called the series “Parables: Stories that Read Us” to describe why Jesus used parables in the first place. Jesus gives this explanation:
“The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ … But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:13, 16-17)
In other words, the way we hear theses stories tells us how receptive we really are to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus uses this first parable to set us up for the seven parables that will follow. They will be all about the Kingdom of God. This one is about the character of God, and how God reveals that character to those who recognize it. It shows how parables reflect back to us our ability to understand them.
Throughout this 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus keeps saying, “those who have ears, let them hear; anyone with ears, listen!” In other words, these stories will find the ones who can understand them. As you listen to the story, it will “read” you, and identify which kind of recipient you are by the way you hear it. The depth of our understanding depends on our willingness to be changed by what we hear.
For example, you can take the story at face value: seeds get sown, and where they land determines how well they will grow.
Or, you can try to assign meaning to the parts of the parable, treating it strictly as an allegory. The Sower is God, the Word is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the soil is our hearts. Using this interpretation, and the explanation Jesus gives of this story, we might think the point is to do everything we can to become good soil.
But there’s a problem with this approach: we can’t change the kind of soil we are – only God can do that.
The bigger problem with this kind of interpretation is that it makes the story be about us, about the soil. But the story is not about you; the story is for you. This parable, like all scripture, is really about God and God’s extravagant generosity.
God is the Sower, scattering seed liberally, even wastefully, everywhere.
It’s what God does. It’s what God keeps on doing. God keeps throwing seeds, regardless of where the seed might land.
God is love, and love is generous, lavish, abundant, eager to share what is good. God will not withhold the Word from anyone. God will not deny anyone access to the Good News.
God sows liberally, even wastefully.
This parable tells of “a sower who is ridiculously generous with the amount of seed he scatters, throwing it not only on the good soil but on soil that even non-farmers … can recognize weren’t good bets: thorny soil, [rocks,] … and even a beaten path. I mean, what are the chances the seed is going to take root in that?” (David Lose)
God doesn’t use a computer-driven tractor to plot out perfectly spaced rows, carefully inserting each seed at the exact depth of carefully prepared soil for optimum germination. God scatters the Good News of the Kingdom of God liberally, even in places where it is not likely to grow or bear fruit.
God sows everywhere.
Whether on the path, on rocky soil, among thorns, or in the good dirt, the Good News cannot be contained. God does not discriminate between good soil and bad soil. God throws the seed of the Kingdom everywhere! It goes out into all the world, to transform any who will accept it. You see, seed can only become fruitful when it stops being a seed.
Seed must die to become a plant. It breaks open, just as God has broken into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. As it grows, it becomes something that is not a seed anymore – it becomes a plant that bears more seed!
The parables read us – where the seed lands, how we understand the Word and absorb it into our lives, how well our ears are tuned to listen to it, determine the extent to which it can change us, transforming us into fruitful plants that bear abundantly.
Are you willing to be broken? Are you willing to let Christ crack open the hard shell of your spirit, and change you into someone new, someone whose life demonstrates God’s abundant generosity and grace?
As we listen to the parables of Jesus over the next few weeks, how will they read us? How will our ears hear them? How will we be changed, as we find ourselves drawn into God’s story, as God invites us to become part of it? How willing are we to be transformed by that story, becoming something we have not been before?
Each Sunday, preachers cast the gospel as broadly as possible, with no assurance of where or how it will land.
- It might be heard by newcomers to the community, who are looking for a place to call their spiritual home.
- It might be heard by people experiencing crisis in their lives.
- The word might land among those who think of church as their social network, a way to connect with friends.
- It might even be heard by those who are hungry for God’s Word; who are eager to worship the Lord in the spirit of holiness.
But every preacher knows that no matter how carefully crafted the sermon may be, no matter how much prayer and study have been poured into sharing the Word of the Lord, the chances of something taking root are no better than the chances Jesus describes in the parable of the sower.
Yet we all have been called to sow the seed of the gospel, and to bear the heartache and frustration when it falls on rocky, weed-infested ground. And you’ve been there, friends! Each of you have experienced the hard truths of this parable on some level.
- Every parent whose words of loving concern have fallen on a teenager’s deaf ears knows hard-packed ground.
- Everyone who has operated a business with integrity, only to see clients go where prices are cheaper, understands shallow roots.
- Every person who has been overwhelmed with worry, or caught in the trap of loving money has experienced the chokehold of thorny weeds.
This parable reminds us that we are not alone in these struggles.
The parable also reminds us where to keep our focus. As a church, we may be tempted to invest time, energy, and hope in trying to coax growth among people who don’t want to grow. We can waste precious effort despairing when the seeds we sow do not take root.
The sower does not do that. The sower accepts the reality that a good quantity of seed will fall on bad soil. Yet the sower keeps sowing. Jesus keeps spreading the word, and he calls us to do the same. But Jesus calls us to something even more in this parable. He calls us to hope.
Jesus challenges us to believe in God’s abundance. See, the story could have ended with a normal harvest from good soil. There’s a song for Passover that goes, “ Dayenu: that would have been enough.” But this story is filled with the promise of lavish abundance, even in the face of rejection and the hard realities of living in this world.
Some of you may have come to expect scarcity instead of abundance. Your experiences have taught you to assume that there is not enough – not enough love, not enough joy, not enough grace – and you’ve come to expect that you are going to get the short end of the stick, that someone is going to do you wrong. But God is a God of extravagance!
Our God does not hold anything back. God doesn’t worry if there will be enough to go around. God wants our hearts to be good soil, but God will continue to hurl “a ridiculous amount of seed even on dry, thorny, or beaten soil. Goodness, but you get the feeling this God would probably scatter seed-love-mercy-grace on a parking lot! Why, because there is enough!”
The story is not about the dirt.
The story is about God’s abundant generosity, and God’s desire to draw us into the kind of transformation that bears abundantly more than a “normal” crop could possibly bear. Hear God’s love for you and be broken like the shell of a seed, to become something new, as part of God’s story. Let the Word of God grow in you, and produce an abundance in you! Let these parables read you, and change you. All who have ears, listen!