The Parable of the Sower isn’t about the Soil – a sermon

Today’s sermon is on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it below.

I love parable season. It may not get songs written about it as “the most wonderful time of the year,” but these three weeks in Year A that invite us to tarry in Matthew 13, hearing no less than seven different parables, are some of my favorites. Maybe it is because I’m a nerd. Maybe it is because with the World Cup coming to an end this afternoon, the great doldrums of summer sports is upon us, and I need something to ponder other than if Tiger can find his swing and which baseball player is taking steroids this year. Most likely it is because parables are an excellent teaching tool.
Parables add excitement to my life by making me think. The word parable derives from a Greek work which means “to throw alongside.” Parables are helpful because they take a hard to understand concept like the Kingdom of God and lay down alongside it something that is easily relatable from real life. In Jesus’ day, he used images like farming and fishing. Sometimes a parable is simply a simile, “the Kingdom of God is like…” Other times they are long, drawn out metaphors. Like any metaphor, when taken too far, a parable breaks down. This is the challenge of parabolic teaching. It is kind of like the Price is Right. Parables invite you to take them as far as the metaphor will let you go without going over.
It is worth noting that Jesus tells us precisely what we are to do with parables. In a section we skipped over, Jesus’ disciples who are obviously confused by the Parable of the Sower, but don’t want Jesus to know, ask him, “Why do you talk to the people in parables?” He responds with a fairly long answer which I sum up as, “because I want people to listen, to see, and to think.” Jesus doesn’t hand us a blueprint of the Kingdom of God, but instead invites us to take our part in the larger building project. Through parables, he gives us an idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like and then challenges us to use our brains and our talents to create it. Unlike building from a set of plans, this way of building the Kingdom is sometimes sloppy and maybe requires some tearing down and starting over, but it is empowering. As children of God, we are invited to take what we learn from Jesus and to mold it into something that is good and life giving.
And so, this morning, we are given the gift of the Parable of the Sower and invited to think about how to build the Kingdom of God with it. There are at least three different ways we can go too far with this parable. The first is the classic mistake of literalism. It should be obvious that in the Parable of the Sower, Jesus isn’t describing a new way of farming in the Kingdom of God. Any farmer worth his salt would know that you don’t turn on the seed spreader when you leave the barn and let it just fling seed all down the road, onto the shoulder, and into the drainage ditches. Even with my two brown thumbs, I know that in order for plants to grow, the soil first has to be cultivated. Good soil is nutrient rich; it has to be fertilized; it needs good irrigation and drainage; and it mustn’t have too little or too much sunlight. The first mistake to avoid is to realize that Jesus isn’t prescribing a new farming style for his followers.
The second mistake we often make is allegorizing. Allegorical interpretation of the parables has been a popular sport over the years, and we aren’t helped by the fact that Jesus interprets his own parable allegorically in the second half of this morning’s lesson. I’m not a fan of allegory because I think it is too easy, and as I’ve alluded to already, I don’t think parables are supposed to be easy. If God is the sower and the Word is the Seed, and we are the soil, then what is there left for us to decipher? Jesus even goes so far as to tell us what kind of person each particular kind of soil represents: the hard hearted path doesn’t understand the Word, the shallow rocky soil won’t allow faith to take root, the unprepared, weed infested soil will choke out faith, and the good soil allows the Word to flourish. It all seems simple enough. Too simple really because if it is all so straight forward, why do you need me?
Allegorical interpretation, though simple and quite tempting, often leads to a third common mistake, moralism. From the time we first hear the parable of Three Little Pigs as children, we are conditioned to find the moral in every story. Build your house out of bricks, don’t cry wolf, slow and steady wins the race, don’t count your chickens before they hatch, and for goodness sakes, BE GOOD SOIL! Having heard the description of the four different types of soil, we can’t help but put these words on the lips of Jesus, “Be good soil,” but in reality he never says that. He never says “be good soil” because that’s not what the Parable of the Sower is all about, and as strongly as I believe that, I still spent the majority of this week spinning my wheels in mistake number three. I knew the moral wasn’t “be good soil,” but by George I was going to find the moral to this story. I read and I prayed and I listened and I went to Father Keith’s Bible Study, determined to crack the code of this parable. I worked and I worked and I worked to turn this cart path of a parable into good soil, and I thought maybe I had figured it out on Thursday afternoon, but my friend Evan and that guy sitting over there helped me realize that the true moral of the story is the moral of my week wrestling with it: I can’t.
I can’t make this story have neat and tidy moral, and I can’t make myself into good soil. I just can’t. This isn’t to say that if you think you are a path or rocky soil or full of weeds that there is no hope for you, in fact I think it is saying precisely the opposite. First of all, none of us is all one type of soil. Each of us has all four kinds of soil in our hearts, and despite all the talk about soils, the Parable of the Sower isn’t really about dirt at all. The Parable of the Sower is, as the name implies, really about the Sower. This story is a description of our prodigal God. God knows it is foolish to spread seed on unworthy soil, but he does it anyway. God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil. He throws seed at the disciples who over and over and over again prove that they have hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds. Jesus continues to throw seed at them, continues to work with them, and continues to help them see what God is up to in the world around them. He scatters the seed of the Gospel with wild prodigality, and even when it is clear that his disciples just don’t get it, when they turn him over to the authorities, abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; Jesus continues to pour out his love on them by inviting them to back into the fold after the resurrection.
God is downright foolish in his love for you and me as well. We who continue in the proud hard hearted, stiff necked and dim minded tradition of the disciples. We who seek morals in stories that have none. We who ignore morals in stories that call us to action. We who neglect to build the kingdom and instead focus on building ourselves. We who show again and again why we need forgiveness and we forget again and again to give it. The good news is: God continues to throw seed at us. He pours out his love upon us relentlessly. And when he finds even the smallest patch of good soil in our hearts, he nurtures the Kingdom within us, producing an abundant harvest: 30, 60, even 100 fold. This parable is about God and his wildly extravagant love for us, and that, I’ve been reminded this week, is more than enough. Amen.

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7 thoughts on “The Parable of the Sower isn’t about the Soil – a sermon

  1. I’ve been thinking about the parable of the sower for a week now with the idea of writing something. I’ve had “generous abandon” and “soil is passive” and “why parable of sower not soil” and “crickey, sucks to be the path” written on a page and some pretty clear inklings about how to put those things together but I’ve been searching to see if anyone else was going along the same lines as me…And after much searching here you are! I know it’s an old post but thank you. You’ve given me confidence that I’ve not gone off at a total tangent. You’ve done a better job of articulating it than I can which is perhaps the problem with reading other people’s sermons!

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