"Seeds and Soil" Bible Study on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 8, 2020, 2:20 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (Common English Bible).

That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit.23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce—in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

There's something so down-to-earth about this passage, which opens up the third set of Jesus' teachings in the Gospel of Matthew.  We can imagine Jesus walking out of his house after a private tutoring session with his disciples, seeing the large crowds gathered to hear ("the harvest is plentiful," Matthew 9:37), and then climbing into a boat to address them.

Sound may carry better across water than land, but that doesn't necessarily mean the message is received and listened to in the heart.  Indeed, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor is poetic in her description of Jesus in the water, "his figure swaying a little with each lift of the waves, his words full of life and as hard to hold as a handful of lake' ("The Extravagant Sower" in The Seeds of Heaven).

It's time to switch up to a new way of teaching: out on the water, in front of a crowd that could have included spies from the empire and concerned religous authorities as well as pickpockets and thieves, Jesus turns to a common practice of his time: speaking in parables.  And parables, and their meanings, are definitely "hard to hold."

In the New Revised Standard Version, Jesus begins and ends the parable with the imperative, "Listen!"  It's a command.  What he's about to say is not only important; it's startling.  But Jesus knows that only those who have ears to hear, and hearts to listen, will get what he's talking about.  The rest will be bewildered and unsure.  Is he making trouble, or not?  It's a little like speaking in code, or telling family stories that only family members will understand.  Ironically, it's insider talk by the ultimate Outsider.

Try to imagine what an extravagant and yet wreckless farmer (sower) looked like as he flung the seeds every which way.  Can you imagine what the crowds thought as they listened to this story?  Maybe they came to hear a compelling and clear message, perhaps even a rabble-rousing speech to overthrow the Romans, but Taylor says, "what they get instead are more like dreams or poems, in which images of God's kingdom are passed before them -- as familiar as the crops in their own fields and the loaves in their own kitchens -- but with a strange new twist" ("The Extravagant Sower" in The Seeds of Heaven).  Jesus preached the reign of God, always.  Do the stories our lives tell preach the reign of God?

So what do you think the Parable of the Sower means?  In my early Sunday School days, one teacher told us that "a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning."  During college and seminary, I was taught that just about the tmie you think that you "know" what a parable means, right when you think you've figured it out, you're wrong.  Perhaps that's somewhat of an exaggeration, but it seems that more than one meaning in this story is possible.

Matthew provides an explanation from the time of an early Christian community that must have felt small and threatened, and sometimes ineffective and discouraged.  But even Matthew "tweaks" the story a bit, changing "seed" (in the other Synoptic Gospels - Mark 4:3-8, 14-20 & Luke 8:5-8, 11-15)  to "seeds" and reversing the order of the yield of the harvest.

Commentators, of course, wrestle with the meaning of those changes, and even with the explanation of the Gospels before us, we can ask some thought-provoking questions:  What is the seed, and what is the ground, and who is the sower?  It's almost like watching different climbers attempting to conquer a mountain, each one taking her or his own approach, and the mountain always wins.  But it's still there, just like the story, which has something to say to us today.  And what is that?

What does our situation today share with that of the Early Church long ago?  The early Christians of Matthew's community faced all sorts of responses to their proclamation of the Good News: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community.  When Christians today proclaim the counter-culteral gospel of love, peace, justice and acceptance of all God's children, we face many of the same responses our ancestors in faith encountered: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community.

As in early Christianity, a measure of this opposition comes from within the religous communty.  And yet God works great wonders in all situations, and is astonishingly extravagant in offering grace and new life in the harshest of situations and the deepest deprivations.

A few things seem clear in the parable.  The sower is remarkably free in throwing the seeds on all sorts of potential "growth areas."  There's no calculation or careful husbandry of the seeds in his pocket.  In the face of all sorts of obstacles and dangers, the sower (the farmer) counts on the bountiful return of a few seeds.  He imagines the plentiful harvest reaped when even a few of the seeds find fertile soil.

We are both the sowers and the soil.  Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit, may we sow abundantly, and may the seed that is sown in us bear the plentiful fruit of God's love.

Abundant Blessings,

Pastor Greg Rupright


07-09-2020 at 3:17 PM
Pat May
Lots to chew on here...
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