In Year A, the Revised Common Lectionary skips Matthew 12 entirely, then takes a three week journey through Matthew 13.
This Sunday is the first of those three, giving us Matthew 13:1-9 18-23. It’s one of my favorite parables: The parable of the sower. Or the parable of the soils. You decide.
Matthew 13:1-9 18-23
Notice that the lectionary has us skipping a bit in the middle. We don’t get to hear Matthew 13:10-17, the odd passage where the disciples ask why Jesus teaches in parables.
He gives a surprising answer.
I expect Jesus to say,
Well guys, I teach in parables because stories are really ‘sticky.’ You’ll find out when you preach. You spend hours slaving over your exegesis, and all they remember is the story you tell about that trip to the Grand Canyon.
Or maybe he should say,
I teach in parables because they make concepts really clear. Nothing like a good story to get the point across to people, whatever their educational level.
Nope. Nothing like that.
Jesus, via Isaiah
Jesus said he taught in parables so that the meaning would be hidden and people wouldn’t understand and repent.
I’m serious. Here’s part of it in his own words:
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.
Matthew 13:15 NRSV
Actually that’s just a part of what he says. It hinges on a quotation from Isaiah, who at his call was told
Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.
Isaiah 6:9-10 NRSV
The disciples get to hear and learn more, while many will get nothing. Jesus gives the sobering promise that
… to those who have, more will be given,
and they will have an abundance;
but from those who have nothing,
even what they have will be taken away.
Matthew 13:12 NRSV
(That last bit has become famous in scientific circles as “The Matthew Effect.” My wife even wrote a paper on it in the area of children’s vocabulary acquisition through reading. See Dawna Duff, Bruce J. Tomblin, and Hugh Catts, “The Influence of Reading on Vocabulary Growth: A Case for a Matthew Effect,” Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 2015 Jun; 58(3): 853–864.)
This whole omitted section is of a piece with the teachings of Jesus and Paul (and Augustine and Calvin) that the choice for salvation is essentially God’s, not ours, no matter how much the invitation is preached to all.
The Apostles were clear enough that this was important. All four Gospels include it in one form or another (cf. Mark 4:10-12, Luke 8:9-10, John 12:37-40). Paul quotes it as well, at least according to Acts 28:25-27. So, counting the original prophesy in Isaiah, it occurs six times in Scripture
Taking in the Whole of the Story
I admit, it’s a very unpopular biblical theme in our era. We like to emphasize our free and bold choice to follow Jesus. We’re content to love because he first loved us, but the idea that God goes to work inside us to make us his own, whether we want to belong or not, just doesn’t sit right.
But it is emphatically biblical, eh?
However, that’s not the point I want to argue. No. Instead, I want you to think about this, thou who lovest the Lectionary: not one of the five New Testament citations of this prophecy of Isaiah comes up in the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. Only if you happen to include the optional extended portion of the Old Testament reading on Epiphany 5 of Year C will you hear Isaiah’s words.
So how about we try to take in the whole of Scripture’s teaching. Even if you aren’t preaching the part of this Gospel that the lectionary left out, give it an extra read this week, just for yourself.
Of Seeds and Soils
Looking at what the lectionary leaves in, we find the rare parable that includes the backstage discussion from after the show. I think it is only this parable of the sower and the somewhat less famous parable of the wheat and the weeds where Jesus actually explains to his friends what the parable means. He gives a symbol by symbol discussion of most of it.
Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew doesn’t bother to tell us that the seed this farmer is sowing is the word.
Our hearts, the explanation reveals, are the various kinds of soils the word is sown in.
None of them quite tell us who the sower is. I guess they figured even the disciples could make out who came spreading the Word of God.
Some seed falls on the road. The birds eat it up. Jesus explains that this is the devil snatching the word away.
Some seed falls amidst the rocks on the roadside. There’s not much room for roots between the rocks, so the plants get scorched before they can flourish. Jesus explains that this is what happens when someone accepts the faith but the word can’t put down deep roots. Times get tough, and it withers.
Some falls where other plants were growing first. The thorny bushes had a head start, so the poor little seeds were deprived of what they needed from sun and soil. Jesus explains that this refers to people who have other stuff taking priority — “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” for instance. Those big tough plants throw shade on the word and suck away what could nourish it.
Some (thankfully!) falls in the field where it is supposed to be, where it can stay planted, put down roots, grow up tall, and bear a hearty crop. Jesus explains that this good soil refers to people who hear and understand. These are the ones where the word grows and bear fruit.
The Call to Nurture Ourselves as Soil
I wonder if there is implicitly a bit more to explore in the relations between the soils
By hearing and understanding maybe we put down roots, grow up past the existing thorns and weeds, soak up nourishment from sun and soil.
If we compare with the Isaiah quotation in the verses the Lectionary omits, it would seem like this hearing and understanding doesn’t entirely depend on us. It seems like the disciples were chosen to hear and understand.
However, even while it seems kind of passive (how can you help what kind of soil you are?) it does seem like we are called to do something here. I hear this parable and I want to make sure that I’m the good kind of soil, ready to go deep, let the word sink down its roots, and grow up healthy and strong.
So like a good farmer, we have to take care of the soil. Till it. Break up the clods of clay. Pull out the rocks. Put in nourishing organic matter. Keep it a living thing.
I need to make sure I do whatever is in my power to listen and learn, to be the kind of soil that hears and understands.
If I’m to be good soil, I’ll need to tend my life so it is fresh and alive. Fill it with what is good and nourishing. Take out what presents obstacles.
The Issue of Targeting
There is one more very interesting thing in this passage, and I don’t think it is commonly noted.
Think about that sower.
The sower goes out to sow. Presumably he’s hoping for a harvest after a few months. So you’d think he’d be careful.
I planted tomatoes this year.
- I bought my seeds.
- I watched a helpful YouTube video on how to plant them.
- I put my soil in my little pots.
- I poked little holes in the soil very carefully with my finger.
- Then, per instruction, I dropped one tiny seed in each little hole.
Okay, I wasn’t perfect: Some holes got two or three seeds. They stuck to my fingers.
I’ll tell you what I didn’t do.
- I didn’t open my seed packet and toss any of the contents on the road.
- Ditto with the rocky area beside the road.
- Ditto with parts of the garden where thorny bushes had a head start.
But the sower in the parable?
- Big bag of seeds.
- Throws them wherever.
- Doesn’t seem to care.
Actually I love that. The sower is so generous that he throws the word everywhere, even where it can’t grow. Along the way he feeds the birds.
The Lord is overflowing with seed, hurling it out in a gracious abundance.
It makes a lovely counterbalance to the rather narrow-sounding message borrowed from Isaiah.
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