Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
Today we begin a summer sermon series on multiple parables in Matthew’s gospel. In the New Testament, the parables are Jesus’ short stories designed to teach us more about who God is and how God operates. We won’t even be able to zero in on all of them, so I encourage you to take time yourself this summer and read some of the others in Matthew’s gospel. Eight of the 23 parables in Matthew are found in chapter 13! Why parables in a pandemic? We are living through a pandemic of a deadly, fear-producing virus that has the whole world on edge. And we are living in a time of heightened awareness of the pandemic of racism that has been baked into the soil of our society for over 400 years. My hope is that we can hear these parables in a new way because perhaps our ears are better tuned, perhaps our eyes are opened wider, perhaps our hearts are aching for some good news of hope and change and encouragement. Parables in a pandemic.
Jesus tells stories so that his listeners, then and now, will be drawn closer and closer to God. So he tells stories about everyday things, everyday activities, and in a society filled with farmers and fishermen, stories about farmers. We begin with the parable of the farmer, or the sower, also described as the parable of the soils. This parable comes with an explanation a few verses further along in the chapter. Either Jesus’ listeners did not always understand the meaning of his parables, or Matthew’s readers needed a fuller explanation when the parables were collected and written down. The explanation describes the parable as an allegory, with each story element, from the farmer to the seed to the soil itself, representing something else
Farmers and gardeners pay close attention to the make-up of the soil because the soil affects the produce. When contaminants are present, it becomes dangerous to consume the produce. When the Ph levels are off, it affects the produce. I am not a soil scientist, but I am enough of a gardener to tell the difference between a tightly packed soil full of a red or brown clay and a rich, black soil that is loose and full of oxygen for the plants. Without getting too deep into the dirt, it would be safe to say that normally soils mixed with a good balance of nutrients are the best for healthy produce.
This farmer sows seeds, and clearly her goal is to grow produce, whether it is wheat or rice or tomatoes or kale. Like any farmer, she knows that seeds grow best in the good soil, the well balanced soil, the soil full of nutrients for her plants. But this farmer doesn’t seem to mind that the seeds also fall in other areas that are outside of the good soil, onto the hard packed soil of a path, or the rocky soil with little room for roots to establish, or soil that is good enough for weeds to take over. Is she wasteful? Or hopeful? Is she irresponsible with her seeds or is she so generous with her sowing that she creates the possibility for seed to take root in multiple types of soil?
The seed is the word of the kingdom, or the good news of God’s love and grace for us all. If God is indeed the farmer in this parable, I find hope in the image of God as one who has an abundance of this good news. And one who is liberal in the scattering of the seeds, mindful that one never knows where a seed might take root. I never purposely planted one of my basil seeds in the little crack between my sidewalk and the edging of my vegetable garden. But careless me dropped a seed in that crack (or maybe it was one of the birds who scooped up the seed and moved it to a new location!). And now a basil plant is growing, miraculously, hardily, facing odds that plants growing in other kinds of soil do not have to face. But I will harvest basil from that little plant and enjoy it in my spaghetti sauce later this fall.
I imagine that we are the soil in this parable, the recipients of the good news from God, the environment which enables the good news to grow and produce. At various times of our lives we may be different kinds of soil. Sometimes we are receptive and ready to absorb the seed well, full of the nutrients and oxygen needed to receive the message we get from God and let it permeate us in such a way that it grows into an abundance of joy or grace or peace or justice or love. Sometimes we are just plain worn out, exhausted or stressed or dealing with illness, almost like we have been trampled on by many feet, packed down so hard that we are not in a place where we can receive the seed of God’s good news. In those times, when the seed comes our way, maybe it is picked up by a bird and carried elsewhere, making an impact in a way we will never know. The seed touches other lives, other situations when it is unable to enter a hardpacked soil. At other times in our lives we are ready and receptive to God’s messages, but we have too much clutter in our way to really let them have a lasting effect on our lives. We know the message is good and nourishing. We know it at one level, and we welcome it. So we get started on a study or service project or a new spiritual practice and then the stones in our soil weigh us down and get in the way, blocking us from any sustained growth. At other times in our lives we are like a soil that has lots of possibility for nurturing plants, but we don’t discriminate between the plants that are healthy and positive, grown from the seeds of God’s messages, and the plants that are weeds, grown from sources that are destructive or harmful. Both kinds of plants grow, but if you have ever been responsible for a garden, you know that once weeds take over, there is not room for the plants you want to thrive.
Maybe that is really what we are talking about here… what does it take for the plants to thrive? You have seen it before, I am sure. The plant that got too much water or too little water does not thrive. The plant that got left out in the bright hot sun when it really prefers to be in the protection of the shade will not thrive. The plant that never sees the light of day will not thrive. The plant that grows in the crack between my sidewalk and my garden edge will only be able to get so big…I doubt it will ever really thrive.
Do we have a choice as to what kind of soil we are? Sometimes we do and sometimes our soil quality is out of our hands due to external circumstances. When we do control our soil quality, when we do manage the soil, we should be working to build the kind of soil that fosters the message of God, enabling it to thrive and grow and produce multiple times over. But even when the conditions are not exactly perfect, the farmer keeps scattering the seed, and it is amazing to see how plants can still grow in places and under conditions that you would not expect!
Good conditions for thriving plants include healthy, nutrient rich soil. Unfortunately, those are also good conditions for weeds! And weeds just keep coming back. That project that is hanging over your head. That argument with your neighbor last week. That addiction to shopping. That inability to break free of self-condemnation and self-criticism. What are the weeds in your life that threaten to take over the good news of God’s love? What can you do to remove them or reduce their strength and power? The parable’s allegory breaks down a bit here… if we are the soil, we don’t have the power to remove the weeds. Perhaps we need to remember that we are not just recipients of the seed, but that we also work hand in hand with the farmer here, spreading the very same seeds of God’s love wherever we can, removing the rocky obstacles whenever we can, weeding out the competing interests for time and attention in our own lives and helping others to do the same.
So maybe we are the farmhands as well. They are not mentioned in the parable, but maybe they are understood. That is the beauty of a parable, you see. It can reflect back to us in multiple ways as we see ourselves in various roles. Thanks be to God for the glimpses of the kingdom we find in these stories. Are you listening? Are you really listening? A farmer went out to sow, and the seed scattered on all kinds of soil. Where is God’s message growing and thriving in the midst of these pandemics of a virus and systemic racism? And what is your role in that growth? Amen.