If we were to place ourselves in the fishing and farming region named The Galilee in the days of Jesus, I wonder what aspect of his ministry we’d be attracted to. Would it be the healings? His interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures? Would we be attracted to his courageous pushback against Rome and local collaborators? Would we have admired his openness toward groups typically shunned by polite society? Or was there something about him, a presence, maybe even an “aura”, conveying the very wisdom and grace of God? My hunch is that it would be different for each person, depending on their needs and their personal preferences.
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But one factor that seems to have drawn nearly everyone, no matter what else they hoped for, was that this young man from Nazareth could really tell a story… stories that engaged, stories that challenged, stories that transformed. Writing about poetry, but applicable to storytelling as well, 20th century French poet, Paul Valery wrote, “A poet’s function…is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. [The poet’s] function is to create it in another. The [person] of genius is the one who infuses genius into me.”
To me, that last sentence expresses what Jesus did with parables: he embedded a complex truth in a relatable story, and in its mode of telling planted genius in the listener. And here we are, two thousand years later, with parables of his that still speak to our lives.
In today’s scripture reading, you heard two distinct parts: the story and its interpretation. Years ago in seminary, we were rightfully taught to be wary of this, because a really good story is almost never followed by an interpretation. Recalling a storyteller like Stephen Leacock, who told funny, relatable, satirical stories, I just can’t imagine him sitting down over a cup of tea and explaining, “now, here’s who I was mocking in this character, and here’s the behaviour I’m challenging.” A good story needs no explanation, and, in fact, it will likely be weakened and narrowed by explanation because explaining it only allows the intent of the storyteller, not the imagination and receptiveness of the listener.
So, for the past forty years or so, I’ve approached the Parable of the Sower by looking only at the first part – the story itself – as being authentically and unquestionably a story told by Jesus – while the interpretation (with quite a different form of Greek, it seems, than the parable itself) is viewed as something most likely added later by the gospel writer. I still think there is great validity to this approach, as it allows the story to be a story, freed from explanation. But this week, I’ve been encouraged, for this parable at least, to examine it as presented in the gospel – both the parable and the interpretation – for each part has something to say to its specific audience.
Theology Professor Jennifer Kaalund points out that there is a change in setting between these two parts. The parable itself was shared with everyone who came to hear him, newcomers and established disciples alike – while the interpretation, afterwards, was spoken by Jesus only to the disciples. I’ll let that sink in for a moment or two: the first part was for everyone, the second part was for those who had signed on to share the ministry of Jesus.
So what about that first part, verses 3 to 9? Jesus uses an image he would have seen all his life, a farmer casting seed in the field. As noted by Barton W. Johnson in his classic late 19th century commentary, The People’s New Testament, there were few farmhouses, if any, in Jesus’ day; you lived in a town or village, like Nazareth, then walked out to your field. Once you got there, you sowed the seed by hand. The crowd hearing the parable, even those who were fishers rather than farmers, would be familiar with this scenario, and when Jesus described the four kinds of soil, those would ring true as well. They’d all seen the pathway, trampled down by villagers, they’d seen the hungry birds that snatched up the unprotected seeds; everywhere there was rocky ground, with such thin soil cover that germination was quick, but the plants would get baked in the sun; and there was soil full of weeds, with thorns or brambles overwhelming the seedlings. Living in one of the most important breadbaskets of its time and place, all the original hearers of this parable would also have seen soil so rich that it would bring forth record yields. In a place where seven-to-tenfold yields were expected (see Mounce), this soil brought forth 30, or 60, or 100. Even thirty would be a best-ever crop, so the 60 and 100 fold yields would need to have had some divine assistance.
This parable still speaks, in our non-agricultural surroundings some 2000 years removed from Jesus. You may find that one of these descriptions of soil where the seed may or may not grow particularly speaks to your life, or the life of loved ones; it may be current right now, or it may describe a previous time when the thistles or the magpies seem to have had the upper hand. But, as pretty much every Bible commentator reminds me, this isn’t just an allegory in which your life is one kind of soil and whatever kind you are, is what you’re stuck with. In this parable Jesus invites us into a realm where, with God, soil can change. So if the shallow soil over rocky ground describes where you’re at, God invites you to go deeper in your faith, with hopes of greater depth; if external competitors like birds or weeds are diminishing your life, snatching the seed from the path or choking the seed with pernicious weeds, God invites you to face what you can and change what you can but does not blame you for things beyond your control; and even if it feels like God’s word has taken root in your life and is bearing a good harvest, even more bountiful harvests may well lay ahead.
What does this say for you today? What does this say for us as a community of faith? What does this say to the communities of Banff and Canmore? Are we receptive now? Do we have deep enough, healthy enough soil now? Do we address those things in society that make it harder for us to be the kind of people and community that God calls us to be? At the level of parable, Jesus invites every listener to a time of honest self-assessment.
The interpretation of the parable, verses 18 to 23, is in a more intimate setting: just Jesus and his disciples. They had heard the parable along with everyone else in the crowd and had likely determined which kind of soil they most resembled, but he had something additional and specific that he needed to tell them – just them, and all disciples since then.
Perhaps, as suggested in the gospels, this served some esoteric reason known only to God, but I like Jennifer Kaalund’s suggestion: Jesus explains the parable to them, privately, because the disciples are not just the soil; they are, with him, the Sowers. Earlier in Matthew (chapter 10), we are told of Jesus’ sending the disciples out two-by-two, so they would already have seen first-hand what it was like to have mixed results – as every preacher since then has learned by experience. In these words, Jesus, speaking to the first disciples and/or Matthew, speaking to the next generation of Christ followers, reminds them that the seed is good; when it fails to grow, something else is afoot, and he names those threats: the worries of this world and a focus on accumulation of riches are like choking thorns; troubles or persecutions may challenge those in rocky land with shallow soil; and while we don’t use Satan language much in the United Church, the birds snatching the seed off the path is identified here as “the evil one”. Anyone in the grips of addiction or who have been regularly mistreated or belittled by another, unfortunately understand the power of something external to oneself that keeps on trying to thwart you.
In this interpretation of the parable, these Sowers of God’s word were reminded that their job was to keep on sowing the seed, regardless of how fertile the soil seemed, and to trust that God, the creator and author of life, would do remarkable things with those whose life soil was deep and well nourished. In these unusual days, still very much in the shadow of the coronavirus, we as Church turn to God in prayer seeking the resilient grace to keep on sowing. We may not be around to see the growth from seeds we have sown, but there is even now the potential of a great flourishing of God’s love, whether that happens in familiar ways or unfamiliar ones.
Jennifer Kaalund also asserts that this parable – and the six brief parables that follow in this same chapter – mark a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, the point where he moved from well-liked local preacher, to widely-known preaching phenomenon. To use modern terminology, this was when Jesus went viral. Not by arguing with his opponents, not by trotting out well-reasoned proofs that would be hard to counter, not even by his healings… but by inviting people to see everyday life in his stories about God, and encouraging them to partner with God, to provide a nutrient-rich environment for the good news to take root and grow and flourish. Then, Jesus went one step further with those who’d said a solid yes to him, encouraging them to be the love that they wanted to see in the world, even when that was hard to do.
It’s not an essay, it’s just a story – a story that drew a lot of listeners. It doesn’t cover every eventuality, just four basic soil types. But in the same way that a picture can tell a thousand words, it seems that a well told story like the Parable of the Sower can hold its transformative power for thousands of years. May this story from Jesus speak and be whatever it is that we need to hear in this stage of our life’s journey. Amen.
References cited or consulted:
Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables. NYC: Harper & Row, 1973.
- Includes quote from Paul Valery (1871-1945), found in W.C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction,
Johnson, B.W. “Matthew XIII” in The People’s New Testament, 1891. https://www.ccel.org/j/johnson_bw/pnt/PNT01-13.HTM
Mounce, Robert H. Matthew: A Good News Commentary. SF: Harper & Row, 1985.
© 2023, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church. Preached in Canmore.