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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The “So What?” Question

I love parable season.  I really do.  But this week isn’t working out quite the way I had imagined.  It has been a busy week, which, when dealing with spiritual hand grenades, isn’t ideal.  So here I am, at 10 to 2 on Thursday afternoon, my usual sermon writing time, and I’m still struggling around this question of “So What?”  I was supposed to have lunch with my friend and fellow Bible blogger, Evan, and per his post this morning, we were supposed to talk about this very issue, “So What?”, but that didn’t happen, so now my poor readers will have to read as I struggle through it in print.

The problem Evan raises in the post linked above is the crux of the issue.  If I am soil and there is nothing soil can do in and of itself to change from path to good stuff and if this story is really about God’s prodigal grace, then what is the preacher to do other than tell the parable for a third or fourth time after the people have already heard it twice in the Gospel lesson?  If I can’t draw a flow chart like this one:

The Parable of the Sower

Then what the heck do I preach?

Thankfully, yesterday I sat in on TKT’s Bible Study on the Parables of Jesus. Conveniently, the topic at hand was very parable.  As I sat and listened to it, rather than reading it, I realized that Jesus describes three action steps in his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.  First, the word of the kingdom is heard.  Hearing is a totally passive activity.  Sound waves travel all around and when they happen to enter the ear canal and vibrate the ear drum, hearing happens whether or not I’m paying attention.  In the context of the parable, this is the work of the sower, seed is cast no matter the type of soil.

Secondly, Jesus says that some hearers will understand to word of the kingdom.  This is, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is constantly tending the soil of our hearts.  Some of us are 90% good soil and others are 90% path, but no matter the make up of our hearts, the Spirit is at work with tiller, water, and fertilizer, working to create as receptive as possible a place in our hearts.  The Spirit attempts to soften up the path, to break up the rocky under layment, to pull up the weeds, and to continuously nurture the good soil of our hearts.  We can’t do anything to make ourselves receptive to the word or to better understand it when it comes, that is a gift of grace.

Finally, the seeds that fall on good soil produce fruit with varying degrees of effectiveness: some 100, some 60, some 30 fold.  This is where we get to help out.  When we recognize the kingdom of God at work in our lives, then we are seemingly compelled to respond by helping it grow.  Thanks to the gift of seed from the Sower God, and the tending of the soil by the Farmer Spirit, and through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are able to respond to God’s work in our lives by sharing it with those around it through evangelism, giving, outreach, care, and love.  Children of the Kingdom are known by their works.  Their works don’t get them in, as this parable makes clear, but the sign and symbol of the grace of God at work in their lives is the fruit of good works.

So there, I guess I’ve worked out my issues here on WordPress.  Still, I wish I could have had lunch with Evan.

What the Parable of the Sower Might Be About

It has been said that as soon as one thinks they’ve grasped the meaning of a parable, they’ve lost it.  This might be hyperbole, but I’m apt to think it probably isn’t too fair from the truth.  The gift of a parable, as I said on Monday, is that it is complex, nuanced, multifaceted.  I may find one particular meaning in the Parable of the Sower while you may find another.  Even naming it “the Parable of the Sower” betrays that my understanding of the story comes from a particular angle.  You may choose to call it “the Parable of the Soil,” but as I said yesterday, I’d think you were wrong. 😉

Many preachers find their understanding of this parable in the explanation given in verses 18-23.  This is well and good, but it leads us to talk about two dirty secrets of exegesis: things I swore I wouldn’t talk about once I left seminary.  The first is the Historical Critical method of Biblical interpretation.  Historical Criticism seeks to find the origins of the text in order to find the kernal of truth hidden inside.  In order to do quality Biblical exegesis, one must understand Historical Criticism in order to ignore it in the pulpit.  So, for example, most scholars argue that the interpretation given for the Parable of the Sower is not original to Jesus, but rather it was added by Matthew, building off of an addition my Mark, as a pastoral response to his original church context.  It can be considered sacrilegious and heterodox to suggest that the Bible says something that might not actually be true, so many modern preachers, knowing this information, skirt around it by being bold enough to suggest a different interpretation, thereby asserting that maybe the one attributed to Jesus isn’t the only way.  This leads us to the second secret of exegesis, we all interpret scripture differently because scripture is not univocal.  Again, in our interpretation from verses 18-23, we see that it begins with “Jesus” telling “the disciples” to “hear again the parable of the sower,” but yet once the interpretation begins, it is all about the soil.  So which is it really about?  Good preachers will explore both avenues before settling on their own interpretive angle.  Some will argue that we should be good soil.  Others will say that we should spread the seed of the Gospel.  Me, well you already know mine.

I think the Parable of the Sower is about the prodigality of God.  Whether the sower is God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit changes over time, but the truth about God remains the same, God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil.  No where is this more evident than in the lives of the disciples, who, as Elisabeth Johnson points out, Jesus invests in over and over and over again despite their hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds.  He continues to work at them, helping them to understand just what God is up to.  He scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when it is clear that they 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; he continues to pour out his love on them, inviting them to back into the fold after his resurrection.

God is downright foolish with his love for us, scattering seed indiscriminately and tending to soil that should have been abandoned long ago.  That is, I think, what this parable is all about.

What the Parable of the Sower Doesn’t Mean

I’m sure that I’m not bursting the bubble of many of my readers by suggesting this, but let’s start out our discussion of the meat of the Parable of the Sower by talking about what it is not suggesting.  The Parable of the Sower is not a call to “be good soil.”

There, I said it.  I feel better, don’t you?

There is nothing that soil can do, in and of itself, to be better.  In fact, even “good soil” still must rely on outside factors to maintain goodness and foster growth.  The most nutrient rich soil, which only gets that way thanks to the breaking down of organic material to create fertilizer, can’t support even a mustard seed without water.  Soil can’t produce water, it must come from either springs below or rain and snow above.  The proper amount of sunlight is also required for good soil to produce a good yield, which is also related to the need for a suitable ambient temperature for growth.  And sometimes, given the right amount of water, proper nutrients, and a reasonable temperate, even Alabama Clay can produce prodigious yields.

Let’s review.  Good soil requires the right balance of nutrients, water, sun, and temperature in order to produce good yields.  Soil can’t ensure any of those things, but rather must rely on outside sources.  Good soil, therefore, is a gift of grace.  Good soil that actually produces something, is a double portion.  You can’t make yourself into good soil.  Period.  End of story.

The Parable of the Sower, as the name would imply, really has nothing to do with the soil, but it is all about the sower who is downright reckless in tossing seed.  More on that tomorrow.