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The Kingdom Parables: The Sower

July 10, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 10, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Genesis 25: 19-34 Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

God is speaking to us through the Gospel of Matthew this year. Several months ago we started to get acquainted with Matthew and the gospel that he wrote, but we were interrupted by the seasons of Lent, Easter and Pentecost.  As we focused on the last days, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and when we turned to the establishment of the early church, we took our gospel readings from the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles. But now we settle in for the long season we call Ordinary Time, from now until the last weekend of November, and we return again to the Gospel of Matthew.

To review what we have learned: Though 2,000 years in the past and half-way around the world, Matthew writes for a community within a city that has similarities to our own.  Matthew’s gospel is a letter of encouragement written for a community of a couple hundred people living in one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities of Syria, Antioch-on-the-Orontes. Antioch itself had about 200,000 residents, and was a political capitol for the region.  People came to Antioch to be near the politicians, the courts, for trade and business, and for the Imperial social services, such as they were. This small community had covenanted to share their lives, to support one another economically and spiritually, and to sustain their unique identity as God’s people in the midst of a hostile city. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first called “Christians.”

Just as the scriptures of Judaism are built around the five books of Moses, Matthew constructs his gospel around five major blocks of teaching, intentionally evoking the covenant established between God and Israel on Mt. Sinai.  Jesus is the great restorer of the covenant. He is the renewer of personal and corporate relationship with God, leading his people, like Moses before him, to take up again their commitment to live justly with God and one another. The Torah, the five books of instruction attributed to Moses, become in Matthew’s hand five blocks of teaching, five sermons or seminars, through which Jesus teaches the Way of God.

We know the first set of teachings as the Sermon on the Mount.  A community defined by the beatitudes (poor, peace-making and justice seeking) is called to be salt of the earth, light in the darkness, and a city set upon a hill. It is called to practice the radical love of enemy, and to envision a world in which none are excluded. Such a community can do this because the God who created them is at work within them to redeem the world. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.  And it is “at hand.”

The second set of teachings can be found in chapter ten (10:1-11:1). There Jesus calls and commissions his disciples for mission, sending them out to do what he does and speak as he speaks. They are to announce the kingdom of heaven in every town and village to which they were sent. We too have been called. During the last several months we have commissioned new officers, confirmed new students, received new members; and just a few weeks ago we renewed our baptismal identity as a church for the world. We have been asked to ‘bear and follow God’s Word into the world’ because we believe God is already active out there, and we want to be a part of what God is doing.

Today, as we resume our reading of Matthew’s gospel, we begin our study of the third set of teachings, what are commonly known as the Parables of the Kingdom. Over the next five weeks we will encounter the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds and Wheat, the parables of the mustard seed, buried treasure, fishing net and pearl, the subsequent feeding of 5000 with bread and fish, and the response of Jesus’ bewildered disciples who are by then just beginning to realize that they do not know Jesus as well as they thought they did. But they want to.

The Parable of the Sower, our text for today, is a superstar parable. It is the central parable in the gospels, appearing in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is the first parable Jesus tells. And it marks an important shift in the nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Until this point in the gospels Jesus has been acting pretty much like a standard issue messiah: healing, blessing, exorcising, teaching. He has spoken about the Reign of God, and of the Way of God’s people in the world, but there are hints that he is about something more. Each time he is recognized as the Messiah, whether by disciple, demon, or by someone he has healed, Jesus urges them “not to tell,” to “keep it secret.” It is as if to lay the title upon him too early will be to lay on his shoulders a whole set of expectations which he is bound to frustrate because what he is about is something new.

New Testament scholar Richard Horsley has studied not only the hopes and expectations of first century Jews living under Roman occupation, but the kinds of leaders who rose to meet them. Those whom Horsley calls “bandits, prophets, and messiahs” either announced the imminent action of God to end the earthly empires and establish God’s own, or rallied the people to bring it about now through rebellion.  Those whom Horsley calls “scribes and visionaries” chose the path of wisdom, seeking alternative ways to live in the midst of a bad situation.[1]

But Horsley argues, and I agree, that Jesus was not just showing us a way of life, whether of rebellion, patience, or accommodation – he was demonstrating the way of God among us to bring about a new realm. Jesus had announced from the very beginning that the Kingdom of God was upon us; that God’s life-giving reign was present now; hidden, yes, working mysteriously; but nevertheless real, active and making a difference.  

Yeah, they never really got that!

The crowd sitting on the sandy shore that day long ago, listening to this story for the first time, would surely have had no idea what he was talking about. It was the first time he had told them a story. “What do you think of this?” he says by way of introduction, and then simply launches into the story of the sower, the seed and the variety of ground.  An extravagant sower by all accounts, he (or she) casts seed willy-nilly in every direction. My commentaries divide over whether this was good or poor agricultural practice in the first century. Some suggest the crowd may have sized up the sower according to whether they were wealthy landowners or poor tenant farmers (cite)

Obviously, Jesus is talking about something more than agriculture, but what? As those in the crowd scratch their heads, trying to figure it out (don’t we all like things neatly figured out?) Jesus tells them that he is talking about the secret of the kingdom of heaven.

Episcopal priest and preacher, Robert Capon, imagines this moment in Jesus earthly ministry, and invents the following inner monologue for Jesus to capture the importance of this parable for understanding what Jesus is about:

Well, he seems to say, since they’ve pretty well misunderstood me so far, maybe I should capitalize on that. Maybe I should start thinking of examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from their expectations. They think the kingdom will be a parochial, visible proposition – a militarily established theocratic state that will simply be handed to them at some future date. Hm. What if I were to stand every one of those ideas on its head? What if I were to come up with some parables that said the kingdom was catholic, mysterious, already present in their midst, and aggressively demanding their response? Let me see . . .”[2]

“A sower went out to sow.”

Who is the sower? Jesus, right?  As I have asked people around the church this week who the sower is, Jesus was the near universal answer. Jesus is the sower, and his Word or his teachings are the seed.  The field is the world and the different soils are the kinds of responses he receives.  The parable, then, is about preaching or teaching.  But it is not just for preachers or teachers. We, the members of the church, have the task of spreading the Word, and we are to spread it far and wide and without expectation that all will respond. This is about evangelism.  I call this interpretation of Jesus’ story the “Parable of the Seeds,” and it is captured in the expression: “we are only responsible for planting the seed that someone else will water. We may never see the results.” How many times have we heard that on teacher appreciation Sunday? Well, there is truth to it.

On the other hand, my own gut response is more akin to what I like to call the “Parable of the Four Soils.” I think, “well, what kind of soil am I?” In fact, for years I have invited confirmation classes to take part in an exercise in which I give them a pad of paper, I assure them that God has planted something special, something of the divine life, a seed, deep within them, and then I ask them to write a dialogue with ‘their seed.”  Invariably, after about half a page of awkward and forced dialogue (“Hello seed.” Hi. “How are you?” I’m fine. “Really, because my pastor thought I should ask and that I would learn something by writing this out.”) Invariably, the dialogue takes on a life of its own and the students find themselves writing surprising things about their stewardship of the life and gifts God has given to them.

The Parable of the Seeds (about our need to share the good news); and the Parable of the Four Soils (about our receptivity of God’s word). Both are beneficial stories. I have benefited from and heard great sermons on each. But I am uncomfortable that both of them seem to make the parable about us, about you and me, and what we need to do, when Jesus says clearly it is about the Kingdom of Heaven, which is what God does.  

William Sloan Coffin once said, “Parables are not to be looked at, but to be looked through. When you look through a parable, you see Jesus, and when you look through Jesus, you see, transparently, the power of God at work.” I think the Parables of the Kingdom, not only this one but the ones we will look at over the next several weeks, are about the power of God at work in the world, God’s life-giving reign at work within us, in ways which might surprise us.  Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the presence of kingdom will increasingly be identified with the presence of the Jesus. The sower, then, is God, the profligate seed-sower, our generous Father-Farmer, and the Seed is none other than the Word of God, Christ himself, at work in all the world and doing what he does best, bringing life and abundance. As my Ted Wardlaw has written, “This sower is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed in only those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil – as if it were all potentially good soil. On the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well worn-path. Which lead us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.”[3]

I once had the privilege of sharing the pulpit with South African theologian and preacher Allan Boesak.  Allan was describing this parable, and joyfully throwing his arms right and left, almost jumping at he cast see in every direction, saying “This is the way God generously cast grace and love throughout the world.” This, then, is the “Parable of the Sower.”

This sermon contains unfinished business, because the nature of parables is that they are always and ever unfinished until we each take them up and live with them, listening for God’s Word to us, which is fresh and new every morning. (More information about parables is available on my blog at https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/the-kingdom-parables-a-new-series ).

So take some time this week to read this parable again.  To look through it for Jesus.  How do you see God’s power at work in the text?  Are there connections or comparisons to be made with your own life?  With our life together here at White Plains Presbyterian?  In our reflection on this parable, and as we allow it to simmer as we live our lives, may we glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven.  Come back next week, ready to share what you’ve seen.  Amen.

  

 


[1] Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids Michigan, William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co., 2002.

[3] Theodore Wardlaw, in Feasting on the Word, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, Vol. 3.

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