Skip to content

The Parable of the Sower

6th Sunday after Pentecost
July 12, 2020

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Parables, parables, parables! Jesus used them frequently when speaking to the crowds. Matthew has Jesus ending his parables with the words “Let those with ears listen.” Well everyone has ears so what does Jesus mean by that statement? What is the meaning of the parable? It seems as though as soon as you think you have it figured out, you are wrong! That might be an overstatement, but more than one meaning is possible in a parable. It keeps the commentators busy grappling with meanings. It is possible Jesus may have been using parables in case there were spies from the empire or the religious leaders of the time in the crowds. Therefore, only those in the inner circle—those familiar with Jesus’ way of teaching would understand his meaning while all the others would be scratching their heads. He avoided conflict that way. Typically though it was only the disciples who got to hear Jesus explain his meaning in quiet conversations away from the crowds. But it still leaves us grappling with what the story means to us.

Today’s story is about the sower who sows seeds on a path, on rocky ground, in thorns, and on fertile soil. The seeds that fell on the path were eaten up by the birds. The seeds that fell on rocky soil sprung up but without enough soil became scorched by the sun and withered and died. The seeds in the thorns got choked out by the thick growth of thorns. It is no surprise that the seeds that fell on fertile soil grew well and provided an abundant harvest.

“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 that 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 the 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 bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matt. 13:18-23).

Jesus was always preaching about the reign of God. What must the crowd have been thinking?
If they were there to hear a rip-roaring speech about overthrowing the Romans, they must have been disappointed. What they heard instead sounded much like poems or dreams. Kind of like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I have always understood this story to be about us, the ones with ears that hear these words 2,020 years later. What is the seed? What is the ground? Who is the sower? Who are we in this story? Some commentators understand the soil to be us. What kind of soil are we and what will we harvest? That is certainly one way to hear its meaning. But our ability to hear the Word in our hearts—to be transformed by the Word is not a one time affair. It is a lifetime of growing closer and closer to God’s kin-dom.

Still other commentators find meaning in the fact that the of the early followers of the Way were in great need of encouragement. The forces against the small Christian communities seemed formidable. The last statement in the parable about a bountiful harvest was a reminder to them that God’s blessing and promise was to be trusted. But we need to keep in mind that this is talk about the kin-dom. We should not think that our strategic plans and efforts are guaranteed wonderful results. Instead we might ought to practice being astonished.

Astonishment requires imagination, an open heart, and open mind. Can we be astonished by the parable. In other words can we hear it in a new way! I certainly did after reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on the “Extravagant Sower.” What if the parable isn’t about us? After all it has been known for centuries as the parable of the Sower. What if we hear it as a story about the extravagance of a sower? It begins to sound quite different. Taylor writes:
“ What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds birds, whistles at rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and keeps sowing, confidant that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters” (“The Seeds of Heaven” pg. 26).

We have an extravagant Creator who throws the seeds of grace and mercy and love with abandon, without care of the type of soil, without judgement, caution, or being practical. God keeps reaching into the seed bag and sowing the fertile seed of God’s word over all creation for eternity.

If it were up to us we would be much more concerned about productivity. We would not waste seed but sow only on fertile soil. Jesus seems to be saying that the sower is more concerned about abundance. What if we take God’s example as the sower. What if we spread the seeds of mercy, grace, forgiveness, justice, love for our neighbors as well as our enemies with the same abandon that God exemplifies? The more we sowed the more we would have in return.

Barbara Brown Taylor rewrites the parable in a new light.

Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so shrining aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for Japanese beetles.

Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed bag down and went and fetched his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours late he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but was soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that we sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by and, which meant he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.

Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full-fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.

Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed push and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that didn’t seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.
Let those who have ears to hear, hear”(“Seeds of Heaven” pg. 28,29).

Perhaps the parable is about the sower. At least I’d like to see it in such a way. Jesus as the sower certainly spread seeds of God’s word everywhere with abandon with concentration on the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders, orphans, and widows. May we put on our seed pouches and sow the seeds of God’s love and justice with abandon!