Matthew 13:1-23: The Parable of the Sower
1Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3He told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4As 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 withered away because they had no root. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Yet other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’
18‘Hear 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.’
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Jesus goes out of the house, presumably where He was staying, and walks to the side of an unnamed lake, but crowds of people gather round Him to hear His words, so He gets into a boat, leaving everyone on the beach, and starts to talk to them. I know how to project my voice quite some distance, without shouting, and I would be reluctant to try to talk to a large group of people in the open air, with natural sounds abounding, but to dwell on the impracticality of this situation would be to detract from the meaning of the story about to unfold.
This passage is commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, and most will think the title refers to the person mentioned in the story sowing seed, but if we focus on that aspect of the story we might as well call it a parable of the soils. Jesus knew full well that any competent person charged with sowing seed to grow a crop would make sure all the seed landed in good soil with a good chance of not only surviving but also generating a worthwhile crop. Despite that, He starts with the sower being careless enough to throw some seed on the path, where it would be trodden on and eaten by birds. Some of this sower’s seeds fell on rocky ground – not too unreasonable when you’re trying to push the boundaries to get more crop, but still a little irresponsible. Next we have seeds which fall among thorns. Were they visible when the seeds were being thrown, or did they grow up at the same time, and take over control. Only then do we hear about seeds which land in good soil, with an abundance of produce, rather than the mediocre results common in the era.
Many of those who would have heard this story would have cringed at the idea that the sower was being irresponsible, or wasteful, or didn’t care for the value of the resources he was using. However, and this is consistent with the explanation Jesus gave to His disciples, if the sower is God, and the seed He sows is love, then the extraordinary generosity associated with expressing His love for the down-and-outs, for those whose faith has little foundation, and for those who are caught up by the evil around them, can be seen with the scattering of seeds. We might be reluctant to make an effort to reach out to those whose circumstances are less fortunate than ours, but God isn’t, and we are called to follow His example.
As with all the parables, there is a surface story which people will hear, understand, and even note. Here there is the responsibility to ensure that the best crop is generated from the seed available. Farmers in the Western Australian wheat-belt wouldn’t be counting each grain as they plant thousands of hectares of wheat, but they still follow the practice of trying to ensure each one has good enough soil around it to produce a good crop. The wise sower of fields in the first century would want to avoid the pitfalls in that level of the parable. However, Jesus wasn’t on about good farming practices. Spreading the Good News to people who have no comprehension of the message is like throwing seed on a path. First you have to prepare the way. We all know people who live on rocky ground, where Good News can be cast off because something more interesting is available, and you don’t have to be an avid reader of news stories to hear about people who have been led astray by those who have no regard for others. What we may miss is that the abundance of the crop for seed planted in good soil is at least a magnitude greater than what would have been expected at the time this story was written. God’s love abounds. The NRSV ends this part of the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen.” The Greek verb ακουετω (akoo-eto) can mean let (the one) hear, but can also mean “let (the one) listen to understand.” We can hear without listening, but we can’t listen without hearing. Listening requires that we pay attention and take on board what we have heard. If we don’t understand we might ask questions, but that won’t happen if we only hear.
Let us then listen to the parable of the sower, for we are all sowers. If the Good News we have falls on the pathways and the receiver doesn’t understand any of it then it’s too easy for the message to be corrupted and lead the person astray. If our sowing is on rocky ground then without tilling the soil to ensure good food for the seed it will wither as soon as it gets challenged in life. If we choose our scripture passages to serve our own purposes, biases and prejudices then the receiver will be led astray, but if we plant our Good News seeds in fertile ground, and tend to it, then we could have churches bursting at the seams with new converts and people enthusiastically sharing their experiences of God’s extravagant love. Which church do we attend? Notwithstanding the problems of Covid-19 restrictions, poor sermons, poor music, poor liturgy, a welcome mat but no genuine welcome, and no social life in a parish will turn away any enquirer looking for the Good News, but good sermons, good music, good liturgy, genuine welcoming and a vibrant social life will attract others. Which church do you want to attend?
If you want to read the reflection on Genesis 25:19-34 see http://frends.biz/reflections/16th-july-2017-trinity-6/.