The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

“Listen,” says Jesus, “I have something important to tell you concerning the kingdom of God.”

Today marks the first of three consecutive Sundays when we will hear from our Gospel lectionary parables of Jesus concerning the kingdom—stories told by a masterful storyteller.

But parables are more than stories; they are analogies–something that conveys a message or meaning about another thing, something common that informs us about something uncommon, something ordinary that helps us grasp the extraordinary.

And so, while parables are meant to be helpful, they’re not always easy to understand. They are certainly not meant to be taken literally. They require thought, imagination, interpretation. & so, people who read the Bible literally have a difficult time with parables, because to interpret a parable in a literal sense is to miss the interpretation—to miss the point. And, of course, there are many other ways to misinterpret or miss the point of a parable.

And this is probably going to be one of those sermons that will get me into trouble with some folks, but I’m going to go so far as to say, this morning, that I think the writer of Matthew, in the second half of today’s Gospel lesson has misinterpreted – missed the point – of this parable of Jesus. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first, I want to look at the question, the reason, of why Jesus used parables as a teaching technique.

I believe it’s because Jesus understood that we are “amphibious creatures.” We belong partly to one world, partly to another–partly to the spiritual realm, partly to the physical. We belong to both dimensions, yet exclusively to neither.

We are formed in the image of God and of the dust of the ground. We originate from the Spirit, and return to the Spirit, but in the meantime, we definitely belong to the earth.

Although we affirm that the unseen kingdom of heaven is in our midst, we nevertheless live and move and have our being in a world where the tangible rules. Our creatureliness demands such; it ties us to the earth. As much as we long for the things from above, we can’t get away from the realities here below.

Jesus understood this, and so does the Church, and so in the same way, the Christian faith has always affirmed the amphibious nature of humanity, this duality of being, maintaining that the spiritual is expressed through the material. All of our sacramental theology is grounded in this thought. That God’s love is a mediated love, because we earthlings need mediation.

We long for the eternal, but we also need particularity. We are endlessly spiritual but hopelessly material. So Jesus, in the incarnation, comes as God with skin. And the Church is the enfleshment of Jesus. All our sacraments fall under the same incarnational premise. We are amphibious:

By water and the Spirit; the body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine of the Eucharist; the laying on of hands; the anointing with oil, the joining of hands, the giving and receiving of rings. You get the idea. In Christianity, invisible and spiritual realities are known through outward and visible signs—in physical ways that are realizable by earthlings.

And that was Jesus’ purpose in teaching through parables. By virtue of being one of us, he knew not to get spectral when it came to teaching spiritual truths. Jesus knew that we apprehend best through particularity: what we can taste and touch and hear and feel and see. Thus, when it came to revealing the Kingdom of God, Jesus didn’t use a lot of fifty-dollar religious words. He told stories. He used simple down-to-earth images and in so doing, he opened people to the reality of the Unseen by way of the seen.

So over the next three weeks, as we deal with some of Jesus’ most memorable word pictures on the kingdom, I want you to keep an eye out and an ear open for these parables to do three things: 1) to tease the imagination; 2) to challenge accepted values; 3) to illustrate a point.
Which brings us back to this morning’s Parable of the Sower.

And this is where I think the writer of Matthew missed it—the point. It is the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Seeds or the Parable of the Soils.

“Listen.” Jesus starts right in with an image out of the “dailiness” of life in Palestine. A sower goes out with a bag of seed under his arm and begins to throw them to the wind–broadcasting the seeds indiscriminately (already a twist to the imagination, as no self-respecting farmer would be so careless and so wasteful as to plant that way. But still we follow).

The farmer throws the seed out in such an uncalculating way that some of it naturally falls on the path the sower used to reach each portion of the field. The hearers know before Jesus tells them that this exposed seed will inevitably be lost to the birds.

Other seeds fall on rocky ground where they will sprout and begin to grow but because of the shallow soil depth, the roots won’t be able to take hold and, after a time in the sun, the plants will wither and die.

The seed that fell among thorns will also sprout and begin to grow, but it will have no chance against the thicker, faster growing weeds and thorns and eventually it, too, will die.

So what is Jesus getting at here? How is he teasing our imaginations? Challenging our accepted values? What point is he making? Is he talking about the fate of the seeds? I don’t think so.
Matthew is. And I’m sure he had a reason for interpreting the parable this way.

And here’s where I want you to get out your service sheets and look at the Gospel lesson. And I’m going to suggest to you that the entire second part of the lesson is Matthew’s interpretation of the parable, while only the first part is Jesus’ parable—Jesus’ words. What Jesus had to say ends on the 9th line down with “Let anyone with ears listen.” the rest are the words of the Gospel writer.

Now, I’ll admit, I’ve cheated a bit, I got this information from a Bible commentary, but it makes sense, so now I’m passing it along to you. Think about it. How often did Jesus interpret a parable to his audience? Jesus’ method was to tell a parable–lay it out there–and then leave the interpretation to his hearers’ thought and imagination. He would tell the story and say, Figure it out.” “Think about it.” “Let anyone with ears listen!” just as he does here.

And then Matthew steps in. “Hear then the parable of the sower.” And he begins his interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with that. George and I do it all the time from this pulpit. A lesson from scripture is read, and we expound on it, seek to interpret it, in a way that, hopefully, gives the lesson meaning to our lives. And that’s what Matthew has done here.

Maybe it was because people weren’t responding to the gospel the way he thought they ought to be responding to it. Maybe it was because, as the years went by, and the hearers of the parable were further removed from agricultural life, he thought this simple farming parable needed some explanation. Who knows?

The point here is that Matthew and the faith community felt the need to focus on the hindrances to accepting the Gospel message rather than focusing on the broadcasting of it. The parable became an allegory, literalized. “The Parable of the Sower” shifted to become the Allegory of the Soils,” with paths, and rocky ground, and thorns all representing the various downfalls of non-Christian or unproductive Christian lives.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good interpretation. This very parable can be used well to make this point. All I’m saying is, this was not Jesus’ point.

Jesus’ point lies with the sower. And about the kind of sowers you and I are. Do we spend our time spreading many seeds, or do we spend our time worrying about the condition of the soil, & carefully dropping a seed only here and there for fear of wasting our time and our efforts?

Are we so worried about wasting a little seed that we are denying much seed the opportunity to grow? Are we keeping all tied up in a seed bag the core element that begins the process of life, and growth, and harvest? And if so, why? Out of fear of failure? Selfishness? Laziness? Judgmental attitudes?

Are we passing up the joy of spreading the Gospel, denying it to others, for the sake of saving ourselves from the possibility of disappointment? A few shriveled up seeds or unworthy recipients?

Well, what Jesus is saying to us today is, “Don’t worry about that!” The point of Jesus’ parable is to broadcast those gospel seeds, fling them far and wide, and don’t worry about where they fall. Obstacles to growth? Harvest? That’s not even your concern. (The Holy Spirit will take care of that.)

Did you ever hear of Jesus ringing his hands over who accepted his message and who didn’t? He spread the seed and moved on. And he instructed his disciples to do the same. You are a sower of seeds. You are the Johnny Appleseeds of God. Forget the birds, the rocks, the thorns and let ‘em fly! Broadcast the gospel seeds that God has given you to distribute. And leave the harvest to God.

“Let anyone with ears listen!” And let anyone with the gospel seed respond, giving thanks always to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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