john davies
notes from a small curate

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from a parish
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    Matthew 13 - The Prodigal Sower

    Christ Church Norris Green 10/7/2005 (Communion Service)

    Isaiah 55.10-13, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23

    I didn't write this. It is a slightly adapted version of a sermon of Paul Nuechterlein, from his [1]

    I wonder, if I asked you to describe what a parable is, how would you answer? Perhaps you might say, "Itıs an earthly story with a heavenly meaning." That would be a good answer. An even better answer might be: "Itıs an earthly story with a heavenly twist." Heavenly twist - because parables aren't as straightforward as we might think.

    Often, people will say, 'Well, Jesus used parables so that he could get his points across clearly. It's not like our vicar whose sermons are so hard to understand. Jesus used down-to-earth stories to make his points clear.' Have you heard Jesus' parables talked about in that way?

    The problem with this description, though, is that it isn't quite what Jesus says himself about his own parables. This morning's Gospel reading, the Parable of the Sower, is the first major parable in Matthew's gospel. And here, Jesus' disciples ask the question we might ask, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" This is in the verses we skipped over. Jesus tells us what he is trying to do with his parables:

    "The reason I speak to them in parables," says Jesus, "is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' They seem to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them.'"

    Do you see what he is saying? With our minds and senses dulled to God's Word, Jesus needs to shock us first. Yes, parables are earthly stories that we think we should be able to understand, but they have a heavenly twist. Jesus gives us a perspective from God that is difficult for us to understand.

    So let's look at this morning's Parable of the Sower. It seems straight-forward. Even though most of us are city folks, and farming has come a long way since Jesus' day, we should be able to understand this simple story about sowing seed, shouldnıt we?

    Well, letıs take a look. If we know something about farming, even farming two thousand years ago in Palestine, we can see at least two twists that would have struck Jesus' audience. The first is that this sower apparently does nothing to prepare his field. They didn't have sophisticated equipment at the time, but a farmer could still take some measures to get his field ready before sowing the seed. He could clear as many rocks out as possible; he could pull weeds; he could turn the soil over with a crude plough, softening the earth and burying the remaining weeds. But it doesn't seem like this sower has bothered with any of this, does it? He simply goes out into a field with a lot of rocks and weeds and trampled down, hard ground, and flings the seed anywhere. A heavenly twist in the story?

    Another aspect of this story that would have given Jesus' audience a jolt is the ending: the good soil that produces thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold. This is an unheard-of harvest! In our modern times of heavy, mechanised agriculture we would expect that sort of outcome. But in Jesus' day, thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold would be an outrageous expectation for a harvest. Whatıs going on?

    Let's briefly consider a couple other of our favourite parables to check this out. Do they all have this heavenly twist? The Parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd - we've grown so used to these stories that the shock value is largely lost on us.

    Good Shepherds, for example, absolutely do not abandon 99 sheep to go off looking for one lost sheep. You count that poor lamb as lost, so as to not risk losing anymore. And Jesus' Jewish audience would have been horrified when he put together the two words, "Good" and "Samaritan". These were two words that just don't go together because Samaritans and Jews were enemies.

    And what about that Prodigal Son? Well, what's really surprising in this story is not so much that a young son would make mistakes, prodigally wasting his father's money. No, that's quite common, isn't it? What's surprising is how easily the father welcomes him home afterwards. From the standpoint of the elder son, who had remained faithful to his father, his father was the prodigal one, wasting such love on a good-for-nothing son.

    In fact, maybe that's a similar point as the one in today's parable. Jesus tells us about a Prodigal Sower, one who seemingly wastes most of his seed on soil that isn't going to produce much, if anything. This sower doesn't seem to care where he throws his seed. But Jesus isnıt trying to teach us about farming, but about God's kingdom, and thatıs why he uses a heavenly twist or two.

    The Prodigal Sower is meant to shock us into hopefully being able to hear and see and understand that God's kingdom is radically different than what we might expect it to be. And so we need to see and hear and understand that Jesus' parables weren't simply nice, clear teaching devices. Yes, they are meant to teach us something. But I think they are meant to help us unlearn things about God's kingdom before we can properly learn them.

    We might believe that the most precious commodity in God's kingdom is God's loving forgiveness. And if we do, then we need to learn that there is an unlimited supply of it, enough for everyone. God can afford to 'sow' it absolutely everywhere, because there is never any danger of God running out of it.

    What we need to unlearn is that for God there might be a limited supply of such love and mercy, that there will come a day when that mercy will run out, like our mercy tends to run out, and God's wrath will do all the evil-doers in. We need to unlearn this stuff about God's wrath and learn that the seed of God's mercy does not give out until it will one day yield a fantastic harvest.

    You see, the part about wrath is our earthly way of telling the story because there's something else very important to unlearn - that is, the way we are constantly trying to decide who's in and who's out. Now, this parable seems to divide up people into groups of who's in and who's out. There are three kinds of soil, representing three kinds of people, who resist and reject God's word as bearing fruit in them. They all reject the word. Our temptation is to assume that we are the good soil - but are we?

    Letıs look again at the climax of the Gospel story: Jesus hanging by himself on the cross, utterly and totally rejected. The cross is the ultimate in heavenly twists. Not even his disciples have joined him in this terrible fate. They have all run away afraid at the first sign of persecution - in other words, even they have proved to be like rocky soil, those who fall away when persecution arises.

    Jesus is God's Word made flesh given to this world. And when all was said and done, no one had eyes or ears or minds to understand. That Word was completely rejected. But on Easter morning it bore fruit anyway. God raised that seed of Jesus' death to bear the fruit of new life precisely in the teeth of such total rejection.

    Do you see why God has to be so prodigal with that word of loving forgiveness, that seed God planted in this world through Jesus Christ? Because all of our hearts are so stubborn to truly receive it. If God wasn't so prodigal in sowing the seed, it never would have stood a chance, because this whole world had become tramped down and rocky and overgrown with weeds. There was no good soil left.

    If you or I were given a field that was completely grown over and rocky, what would we do? Abandon it perhaps. Or get a big, powerful plough of some sort and at least try to plough it all under, in order to find some good soil. But notice that is not what God did in Jesus Christ. God did not plough us all under and start over. The story of the flood is basically a story that tells us that God tried that way once and promised never to do it again.

    No, instead God sowed the seed of his loving forgiveness anyway, and it bore fruit not just in spite of the rejection of the bad soil but through it. It was precisely by Jesus himself becoming the Rejected One on the cross that God somehow bore the fruit of new life. This is where the parable leads us, and the mystery of God's grace comes forth.

    God sowed his mercy in the cross and the incredible harvest was the resurrection.

    There is one further twist to this parable. If I am to unlearn the usual human story filled with divisions and strife, then I need to unlearn looking at myself as good soil and someone else as bad soil. No, I must remember that God sows his grace in my life, where it sometimes meets with hard soil and rocky soil and weeds, and sometimes with good soil that bears the fruit of sharing God's limitless love with others. I must constantly pray, then, that my heart and life be good soil today.

    As a minister, it doesnıt surprise me that I often find resistant soil even among God's faithful people, because I've learned to see that bad soil in myself. But neither am I surprised when that good soil that God turns over with God's gracious Word, bears fruit.

    Thank God for being such a generous sower; Lord, let our hearts be good soil today.


    [1] - a great inspiration and an invaluable resource.