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Matthew 12. 1-9, 18-23
Parable of the Seeds and Soils
We’ve been talking the last few weeks about the challenging and difficult times that those early Christians in Matthew’s community were living, trying hard to be faithful followers of Christ in a world that was often in opposition to them. Matthew’s gospel was written after the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple, it was an especially oppositional time and there was a struggle for leadership in the Jewish community. Matthew’s writings reflect the tension of the times, and the tension between him and contemporaries in their views of the Torah, the Jewish law, and the direction that the Jewish community should go. Remember in these early days the followers of Jesus were not yet seen as a separate group of people, as Christians. They were seen as subset within the larger group of Jews living in a Roman dominated world. Also interestingly, Matthew sandwiches this parable of the sower and the soils in the middle of other stories of opposition to the gospel.1 It’s a story that both Mark and Luke use in their gospels as well.
This parable is also one of the Kingdom parables, parables that provide some insight into what the Kingdom of God is like, how God works in the world.
So, we have Jesus telling yet another farming story. Why did he use so many farming stories? I googled “agriculture in Jesus’ time” and one website I read noted that in those days “... at least 90% of people in the ancient world lived by working the land.”2 So stories about farming would make sense to many of the people Jesus was reaching out to, they would understand and connect with them.
The land of the ancient middle-east was dry and rocky. Crops would be sown after the rainy season had softened the hard ground. “To plant the grassy crops such as wheat and barley, farmers would first plow the top 3-4 inches of ground with an ox-drawn plow. They would sow the grain by hand, casting it over a wide area (Luke 8:4-8), (what we today call broadcast seeding) and then plow a second time to force the seed under the ground. Wheat would be sown in the most fertile fields and other crops in the less fertile ones.” 3 Weed control was done by hand hoeing. By today’s agricultural standards, incredibly inefficient. And really hard physical work for what we would consider very minimal yields. Broadcast seeding is the most inefficient method of seeding precisely because the seed gets everywhere, as our bible story tells us—it gets onto the pathway where birds can eat it, it falls on rocky dry ground, or along the side of the field in the thorns and weeds. But some actually does make it in the freshly worked ground, gets covered up, and it has the greatest chance of growing to maturity and yielding more grain. The goal would be to get most of the grain into the freshly worked ground. And everyone who was listening to Jesus telling this story was fully aware that when they broadcasted their precious seed grain, a portion of the seed they worked so hard to plant just wouldn’t make it to maturity, for all the reasons he mentioned. Except given as this is a parable, the soil isn’t really soil and the seeds really aren’t grain. We have to consider what the comparators might be. I think the soil are the people who are being taught about the Kingdom of God and the ways of Jesus, and the seeds are seeds of faith, belief and love of Jesus as Christ and the wisdom and understanding of God’s word. I also think we can even personalize this parable in terms of how we as individuals can better prepare ourselves to receive these seeds, and so bear fruit for the Lord. Let’s consider that for a moment, how we might improve our own yield potential, so to speak. The seed that falls on the road can’t germinate, which means we hear the message and it simply is unable sprout or to take root, the message makes no impact on us. What can we do? Prepare the ground! we can make a point of setting aside time and energy to learn and understand —reading faith based literature, bible study, discussion groups, researching, movies—whatever works best for each of us, we each learn in our own way. The seed on the rocky ground starts off fine, but is shallow rooted, and roots can’t grow strong or deep and when stressed, the plant stops growing or even dies. When we are stressed, we tend to forget everything except dealing with the essentials that we need to get through the day, and one of the things that can also gets pushed aside is God, our prayer time. We can forget that prayer really is one of the essentials that keeps us grounded, keeps us secure and strengthens us, it is how we stay connected with God and grow deeper in faith.
The seeds that falls in the weed patch, they too germinate, but later the thorns overcome them, choke them out. The thorns of our lives –all the day to day busy-ness that overwhelms, and the constant bombardment of our consumerist society are counter the message Jesus teaches and it can and does overwhelm us, if we let it.
Yet, if we work the ground of our souls, nurture our inner beings, we become like the soil that is well prepared to receive the seed, our faith roots can grow deeper and stronger and will help to nurture us in the difficult times. We can feed our souls through daily prayer, in whatever manner works for you—gathering with other Christians in worship, in prayer and song, receiving the bread and wine and other sacraments, reading and learning about the bible, about God’s love, Jesus’ forgiveness, Holy Spirit’s healing, and by coming together with people who are like minded in faith, so we can strengthen each other. And as church, we need to offer these spirit nurturing opportunities for ourselves and others, so as to help prepare the ground for more of God’s seeds to take root, thrive, bear fruit, and further God’s kingdom.
This is a very familiar parable for most of you I suspect, and maybe you’re thinking, that it’s good to hear about it again, to be reminded again. And what I’m saying is probably nothing you’ve not heard before. And I suspect that it was not earth shattering news for Jesus’ disciples either, once they understood the meaning of the parable’s elements. Jesus was preparing his disciples to be the farmers, the sowers of the seeds of faith bringing the people back to being God’s Holy People. We too are also called to share our faith, to sow the seeds widely, to share with others what our belief in Christ means for us, and how it impacts our lives.
What I find noteworthy about this parable is what Jesus didn’t say. He simply said: “A farmer went out to scatter the seed.” He didn’t say sow the seed only in the good soil, to maximize the yields. The farmer, by himself, just spread around the seed. No fancy expensive seeding equipment. Jesus during his earthly life seemed to make a point of scattering the seeds everywhere he went. He wasn’t too picky about the quality of the soil he sowed in. Because he knew that even the seeds that are sown among the thorns and in the gravel will germinate and some of those will grow, some of which will blossom and some even yield seeds of their own. There is potential for growth everywhere. Jesus didn’t state the obvious—he didn’t tell his disciples to only sow seeds in the good soil, which of course provides the best yield.
Jesus wouldn’t have made a very efficient farmer; it seems he was more concerned with maximizing opportunities for yield instead of maximizing a return on investment. Any farmer will tell you it costs more to grow crops in poor soil, or in tough conditions. And we know that Jesus didn’t chose the easy way to do things.
Something else struck me about this parable this week as I was thinking about seeds that go astray. You know those seeds that fell into the thorns and rocks? There will no doubt be a few of those seeds that are more tenacious and grow, and maybe even blossom and produce seed in those tough spots. Maybe not grow as big or yield as much as those in the good soil, but some will grow. It always amazes me where plants will grow, even in the most challenging of places! We need to remember that it is our job to sow the seeds, and sow them far and wide because we don’t know just where they will take root. And the growth of the seed, well, as another one of Jesus’ agricultural parables tells us, that’s God’s job,
I said earlier that this is one of Matthew’s Kingdom parables. So, what is this telling us about God and God’s kingdom? We have a God who’s more concerned about spreading the seed and offering opportunities for growth than simply focusing on high yields or being too concerned about the cost of seeding. Yes, the yields will be higher with seeds planted in the good soil, but Jesus tended to hang out where the conditions weren’t always ideal.
“Which leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s see cannot sprout and take root.”
So this is a story is a much about soil, as it is about sowing practices—a farmer who’s not afraid to take a risk and plant the seeds everywhere and anywhere, even in the improbable places, to maximize the reach, rather than simply maximize the conditions. Which is good news for smaller churches like us! Amen
1 Gary Pelus-Verdend in Theological Perspective Matthew 13: 1-9,18-23 in Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 3 (WJK Press:Louisville, Ky) 2001 236