Embracing the whole imperfect landscape
A sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by imso gabriel on Unsplash]
So, there is a debate in the scholarly community about what to call this parable.
Traditionally, it is known as the Parable of the Sower, but more recently that has fallen out of favor because, if you pay attention to the parable, the Sower is not really the focus of attention.
It has become more popular in recent years to refer to it as The Parable of the Soils, since the different kinds of soil clearly do get a lot of attention in both the parable and its explanation.
But I’m not entirely comfortable with this title either, because it tends to lead directly into the “what kind of soil are you?” question, which feels rather reductive to me…
and even though I know that’s a really easy place to go with parables, I think we can get more than reductive categories from this parable. (More on that is a minute.)
My former professor, Fred Borsch, suggests calling it The Parable of the Seeds because “the interest (in the telling) is on what happens to the seeds.”
I find this a better option. It lines up with Jesus’s explanation, which highlights the seeds at the beginning and end of the interpretation:
Identifying them as the “word of the kingdom,” and then concluding the parable with the promise of great yield from the seed.
So, we have some evidence that Jesus agrees about the seed being the key to understanding the parable.
If I were the one in charge of naming the parables, though, I would name this one: The Parable of Varying Growth.
(Now you know why I’m not in charge of naming parables).
I know my proposal doesn’t quite trip lightly off the tongue, but hear me out.
This parable is about BOTH seeds and soil, but more specifically it is about how they interact.
It’s about how the potential for growth (in the seed / word) meets with different results in different contexts (of soil / circumstances). It’s about where growth can happen and where it can’t.
And if we want to understand how to apply this parable to our lives, rather than just provide an argument for what it means, in the abstract, then I think that paying attention to what it teaches us about growth is what will get us there.
Now, here is where I double back on that point about reductive categories because I have heard very application-focused sermons on this parable that flow from the “what kind of soil are you?” question.
It’s super simple to go through the different kinds of soil in the parable, or rather, Jesus’s interpretation of what the different kinds of soil represent, and then to be like: “Ok. There you have it. You know the dangers now: Satan, persecution, cares & wealth. So, go be good soil!”
But the problem is… life is not actually super simple.
So, it’s not actually terribly evident exactly how we are supposed to avoid “being bad soil.”
I don’t personally feel like I have much control over the Source of all Evil and Father of Lies… so… I’m not sure what to do about that threat.
Nor do I have the option to opt out of persecution… believe me I would if I could!
And, yes, I can work to deepen the roots of my faith, but I don’t care how deep my roots get I’m never going to be immune to scorching.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, if you cut me, I will bleed, and this is something that people of all faiths (and no faith) have in common.
And as for the cares and desires of this world, they are omnipresent. I honestly cannot imagine how I could arrange my life so that such “weeds” were not present in it, on a daily basis.
And all of this means that when I hear a “what kind of soil are you” sermon, my rather defeated answer is, “Umm. All of them?”
Because I am… I expect you all are too.
We are all just more complicated than reductive categories suggest.
We all have weaknesses that get exploited at one time or another by the negative forces in our world,
and we all have complex personal histories that create unique vulnerabilities,
and we all have responsibilities that demand our attention and desires that can distract us.
And we all, also, have plenty of “good soil” in our souls that bears much fruit.
We are all the entire landscape of this parable.
(That was my other naming option for this text: The Parable of the Whole Imperfect Landscape… what do you think, does that work better?)
My point is that once we recognize how integral all of the different “soil” conditions are to the experience of being human, the call to “be good soil” doesn’t make any sense.
We can’t just “cut off” any parts of ourselves that are not “good soil.” It’s all mixed together.
And that’s an insight that helps us to apply this parable beyond our individualism as well. (Because Jesus was teaching to a much more communal society - you can bet that his lessons were never about “just me and the state of my individual soul.”)
If it doesn’t make sense for us to try to be exclusively “good soil” ourselves, then we also should not carry that expectation into our interactions with the world by believing that it is the church’s job to form society into our vision of perfect receptivity to God.
The world we are called to serve has all of the same challenges that are part of our lives and that’s not going to change.
But that doesn’t mean this parable has nothing to teach us.
Jesus WANTS us to learn something. That much is clear.
When he ends the parable with the call for those with ears to listen, the Greek word carries the connotation of not only hearing, but learning.
And the conversation with his disciples before the interpretation (which gets skipped in the lectionary) is all around the theme of understanding.
And he starts and ends his interpretation of the parable with comments about those who hear the word and either do not or do “understand.”
So, what is it that Jesus wants us to understand? What does this parable about seeds falling on different soils, with different patterns of growth, have to teach us?
Greek scholar D. Mark Davis makes a point in his translation of this passage about the word for “understanding” that Jesus uses to open and close his interpretation. Davis notes that the word, συνίημι (syníēmi), “has the sense of bringing thoughts together (συν), like the English “synthesis.”
In other words, it’s about seeing the whole picture.
And the whole picture for 1st century farmers, would have been that with all the natural challenges present in the story, there was still a bountiful harvest.
Yes, there would be some unfruitful seed - Bishop Borsch refers to this as the “expectation of natural loss,” which would be no surprise to Jesus’ audience.
And, of course, it helps to be able to identify the barriers to growth: to try to ward off the birds, plow-up the rocks, and pull the weeds.
Or, in the interpretation:
to expose the lies that try to steal the truth,
identify and work to heal the traumas that block a deepening of faith,
and work to uproot the hold that various distractions and competing priorities have on our souls.
But the big picture is still one of hope… for us AND for the whole messy world we live in.
The growth that God is bringing into the world through the scattering of the seed of the word of God’s kingdom, is NOT an all or nothing game.
And, by the way, it’s not all about human effort either. The metaphor of the seed-bearing-fruit is an image of NATURAL growth.
The farmer has no part in triggering the natural processes whereby a seed splits open to generate roots, and stem, and leaves, and fruit all from one small, seemingly lifeless source.
So, yes, Jesus does want us to understand, to συνίημι (syníēmi) what God is up to in our lives and in the world, but the most fundamental thing I think he wants us to understand is that there is hope.
Not every seed needs to bear fruit for there to be a bountiful harvest.
Not every square inch of our soul needs to be “good soil” for us to see the evidence of growth.
And all the evidence of brokenness and barriers in the world cannot negate the work that God is doing. Because God keeps sowing the seed everywhere… even in the most unlikely places.
Because growth is a miracle. And it can surprise us with unexpected harvests.
Thanks be to God.
 Frederich H. Borsch, Many Things in Parables, Eurgene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1988, p. 129.  https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g191/kjv/tr/0-1/  https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2017/07/seed-and-soils.html; accessed July 14, 2023.  Borsch, Many Things in Parables