Many of you know that my wife and I are avid gardeners. . We took all of the grass out of our backyard some years ago and planted trees, shrubs, perennials. I made a rock path a few years ago. It’s beautiful but it takes a great deal of work and while I find the work relaxing, it can also be exhausting.
This year, between the wet spring, late Easter, and our vacation, we didn’t really get out into it to work until the end of June. Those of you who are gardeners can imagine the horrors we encountered. Overrun with weeds and mosquitoes, we’ve been spending all of our free time in it. I had eight yards of mulch delivered the Friday before the 4th and finally it looks like I’ll be done spreading it by next weekend.
In fact, yesterday morning, time I usually dedicate to sermon preparation, I was out in the yard, weeding and spreading mulch. In a way, it was sermon prep, because as I worked, I was thinking about the parable we heard this morning, the parable of the Sower.
Over the next several weeks, will hear a number of Jesus’ parables, beginning with the familiar one we heard today. It might be helpful to remind ourselves of what the parables are and why they are important. Parables are stories that Jesus used to explain the nature of the Kingdom or Reign of God. In fact, he introduces several of them by saying the “Reign of God is like… and then goes on to tell the story. So the first thing to note is that the parables are meant to teach Jesus’ listeners what the reign of God is like.
The second thing to note is that the parables are meant to be surprising; they are meant to challenge the listener to look at the world from a completely different perspective. This may be difficult for us, because many of us have heard these stories countless times, we could probably tell some of them by heart. But it’s important for us to try to recapture the strangeness of the parables in order to make them live again, and in order to discover what Jesus meant by preaching the Reign of God.
To do this, I am going to tell you the story of the sower again; this time without the editorial context in which Matthew put it, and without the second half of the story, the interpretation that Jesus offered his disciples when they asked him what it meant. It’s likely that these words of interpretation were not said by Jesus himself, but were the attempt of Christians a generation or two later to understand the story and to put it in a meaningful context for this new community of faith.
So here is probably what the parable sounded like in its original form:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Now, hearing the story in this way should raise numerous questions, but in case you think its meaning is obvious, let me ask you two questions. The first is, are any of you vegetable gardeners? If so, would any of you behave the way the sower does in this parable?
Think, for example, of all the work I’m doing in my yard right now. All of that weeding, and mulch spreading, and I’m doing it just to make it look nice. If you’re a vegetable gardener, how careful are you about preparing the soil, watering it, tending the plants? One of the reasons we’ve pretty much given up vegetable gardening is because we can buy beautiful produce in the farmer’s market for less money than it costs us to grow vegetables.
In other words, the sower doesn’t seem to be behaving as a farmer ought to behave. Think about where he got the seed. Well, it came from the previous year’s crop and it was likely the case that at some point, he had to make a decision between feeding his family with the grain or save it to plant the next year. Given the value of the seeds, he would not be so careless as to allow seed to go to waste by flinging it on rocks, or on a compacted path, or among weeds.
The sheer profligacy of the sower’s actions only become clear when we interpret it against this backdrop of subsistence farming and the annual reality that there might not be enough grain to feed one’s family or to sow the next year’s crop. Seen this way, the sower’s actions are so out of character, so unpredictable and unnatural that we can begin to tease out the parable’s meaning from those very actions.
The sower’s behavior is one thing. There’s another odd detail in the story we often overlook—the seed that fell on the good soil produced widely differing results: 100 fold, 60 fold, 3 fold. That shouldn’t be. Think about Wisconsin cornfields. What should they look like? Absolutely uniform in height. It’s only if the field has drainage problems that we expect variable amounts of grain.
For it is the case, that seen in this light, there is often, perhaps almost always, unexpected and unpredicted details in the parables. Yet, this reality may not bring us any closer to their meaning. Jesus often introduces his parables by saying, “the kingdom of God is like…” So how is the kingdom of God like a sower who acts irrationally and unexpectedly, with such extravagance and profligacy? How is the reign of God like a field that produces widely variable amounts of grain? Or, to put it another way, what does this parable tell us about God, God’s vision for the world and for human community?
Asked in this way, the parable invites us to imagine, to believe in a God who acts in ways completely counter to our values and expectations. We live in a world in which religion, especially Christianity, seems to be imagine a God who reflects our values and expectations. It’s not that God rewards the good and punishes the evil; it’s that God rewards us and those like us and punishes those we unlike us or those we don’t like. But the God of the parables, the God of Jesus Christ, may not behave at all in ways that conform to our expectations and values.
There’s another thing. We expect that our efforts will be rewarded and our evil deeds go punished. Sometimes that means we can be rather smug and presumptive about how God sees us, and that we judge others according to our standards of behavior.
One of the things about gardening and farming is that it can be humbling. In spite of all of your best efforts, it can all come to naught. I was reminded of that just yesterday as I rode my bike out the Southwest bikepath to the Badger Trail. Just beyond Lacy Road, there’s a farm that has been converted to vegetables. I’ve watched as the (I assume) Hmong or Laotian farmers work in the rows of vegetables. I’m guessing as much as 10-20 acres. Yesterday as I rode by, I noticed that most of it was under water from the heavy rains we had earlier in the week. Will they be able to salvage their crops?
Just as we want hard work to pay off in our daily life, we want God’s economy of salvation to be fair and to play by the rules, our rules. But the parable of the sower teaches us that the reign of God does not operate by our rules or conform to our expectations.
As hard as that is for us to conceive as we look out at an unjust and suffering world, it is often even more difficult to imagine when we look inside ourselves. We are often apt to hear words of judgment on our selves, our actions, know our own broken and hurting selves, and assume that God rejects us. But that’s not the case either. Whatever we have done in the past, all of the hurt and brokenness we have caused, indeed all of the hurt and brokenness that we experience in our own lives, all of that we can bring to God, and find love and acceptance.
To experience that love is what God’s reign is all about; to know, and love a God whose love towards us is as profligate and expansive as the seed thrown by the sower on good and bad soil, to love that God is what our faith proclaims. That message, God’s expansive love and accepting love, is also our duty to proclaim and share in this broken and hurting world.