Matthew 13.1-9 (and 18-23)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you are like me and Jane Anne, you may have expanded your springtime gardening experiments during the lockdown. What better time to germinate some vegetable seeds, nurture them along as they sprout, weed out the strongest ones, mix in some well-seasoned compost to the soil, put in some drip irrigation, and transplant them outside and hope that neither the hail nor the rabbits kill them off. So, if I were writing a parable, I’d use a setting like that, because it’s commonplace, and that is what Jesus used: everyday settings.
Parables are a particularly meaty form of teaching that Jesus employed throughout his ministry, and they are recorded primarily in the synoptic gospels — the three accounts in our Bible that see things through a similar lens, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas, outside our canon, is also packed with parables. Our word “parable” takes two Greek words, para (next to) and ballo (to throw) and combines them to describe a literary tool that throws one thing down next to another. You and I know that this is not essentially a story about sowing seeds…Jesus tosses out metaphors in order to challenge and reveal a truth in a memorable, more engaging, and less obvious way.
Jesus used parables to shake up his hearers, revealing their assumptions, often turning them upside down. For instance, his audience would know that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan…so what could a Good Samaritan show us?
Jesus’ parables also need to be understood as spoken, not written. So, what we have in the gospels is a condensation of a good, long yarn that Jesus may have spent 30 or 40 minutes developing, and the compilers of the gospels gave us their distillation. But imagine yourself being part of the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus on the beach. Don’t you imagine that there would be some dialogue among the hearers and Jesus? Can’t you imagine someone shouting out, “Are you saying that we are the seed or the sower?” or “Is he saying that we are rocky soil?” or to one another, “Crikey, don’t you just wish he’d make his point and move on?” It would probably look more like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” than anything else. So, there is some back-and-forth, some puzzling, engagement, and stimulation of their imaginations.
John Dominic Crossan, one of Plymouth’s past visiting scholars, has written more incisively than any other New Testament scholar about the function of parables. He sees them as fulfilling a different role than stories, which provide a narrative or even a myth that explains something, like the Genesis story we heard last month about three visitors who are offered hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. What Jesus spins for his hearers is akin to a riddle or an example or a challenge, often concerning the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Sower is in all three synoptic gospels, and the earliest is Mark’s gospel. And here is the odd thing: in all three gospels, a few verses after the parable itself, the writer of Mark’s gospel gives an explanation of the parable. (You just never do that! It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke, which means the joke failed. You can hash it out orally with someone, but the presenter never says, “Here’s what the parable really means.” Jesus would not have done that. It is as if a Zen master offered a koan —a parabolic riddle — to a pupil and then explained what the answer was…it means the student doesn’t learn by struggling with it. That is what we are meant to do with parables.) The Parable of the Sower also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas without “explaining the punchline,” which leads some scholars to think that Thomas provides the earliest copy of what Jesus said.
Let’s look at the text itself. This is the part where you have to really engage…I’m not giving it away, so you might even take down a note or two to ponder. This parable is a long sequence of metaphors. Jesus throws down a word, but alongside it, you, the hearer, have to fill in the blank for each metaphor.
The first character in the story is the sower herself. She sets out to broadcast seed and has some failures and some stellar successes? Are you the sower? Is Jesus the sower? Is God the sower? The parable turns out differently as you cast the role differently, and it’s fun to play with it that way.
What do you think Jesus meant seed to represent? Is it his own ministry? Is it the law and the prophets of Judaism? Is it the alternative commonwealth that he proclaimed?? Is it holy wisdom?
The next metaphor is the birds, who are swooping in to satisfy their hunger by snatching some of the fallen seed that has fallen from the sower’s bag onto the path. What do to the birds represent? Are they the Pharisees who Jesus always seems to tussle with? The Temple authorities? Satan? The occupying Romans?
The third metaphor is rocky soil, onto which the seed falls and springs up quickly, only to wither and perish in the heat of the sun. Is the rocky soil the tradition of pro forma religious observance that looks good from the outside, but doesn’t produce a resilient faith? A faith journey starts out strong but shallow and isn’t sustainable over the long haul? Is the rocky soil the mind and heart of someone who is a bit shallow?
The fourth metaphor is the thorns, and the seed that falls among them is choked by them as they grow, kind of like bindweed does here in Fort Collins. Are the thorns like the things that distract us from spending time studying our faith and developing spiritual practices? Perhaps for you the thorns are the priorities in your life that may need some realignment…priorities that occupy your mental and spiritual space — whether it’s work or worry or acquiring material things or addiction — that block out your ability to really commit yourself fully to God’s service.
And the final metaphor is the good soil: the kind that has had good, rich compost mixed into it, that is aerated and well-watered. It’s ready to receive the seed and provide an environment that will not only allow itself to flourish, but to provide a huge yield of new seed for future generations of the plant. So, what is the good soil? Is it the life of a person who lives faithfully? Is it a community that nurtures and nourishes people in their faith? Is it the world itself, ready to provide all we need, if only we can learn to be good stewards and share resources?
Imagine what it would be like to create a parable for the middle of the year 2020. Perhaps we could see God as the sower and the wisdom of Jesus as the seed.
Perhaps the birds who come and consume the seed is the busyness in our lives. Maybe we ourselves feel as though the pandemic has tested our faith, since we don’t have the physical community to rely on, and the coronavirus birds came along and ate up what we thought was at the core.
Perhaps our faith isn’t as resilient as we would like, and its roots aren’t as deep as we think they should be. Is our sense of scarcity like rocky soil? Do we fixate on the lack of money, influence, health, or ability and let that form our dominant narrative?
I wonder if fear is the thorn bush that holds many of us back: the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, the fear that we aren’t [blank] enough: young, rich, thin, fit, smart, confident…whatever descriptor keeps you hamstrung.
And where do we find good soil? How do we become good soil from which the kingdom of God can rise up? We can add the compost of our faith, which is historically and theologically deep. We can fertilize it with truth, which can be tough to take, but it increases our yield. We can aerate it with time to contemplate and pray, which is so hard to find if you are a young parent or trying to occupy your kids and work from home. And we can water it with love, patience, kindness, and understanding.
We need to bloom where we are planted, and my prayer for you this week is that you will find something that makes your life and your faith flourish and grow.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.