Going with God’s Flow – The Parable of the Sower
Based on Matthew 13:3-9 & Matthew 28:16-20
Offered by Toby Jones to the People of Charlevoix UCC on April 11, 2021
Today we begin a new 8-week sermon series on the parables of Jesus. On each of the next 8 Sundays through April and May, we’ll examine one of Jesus’s parables. But before we dive in, we should spend a little time reminding ourselves of what a parable really is and what Jesus’s purpose was for using parables as his primary teaching tool.
Let’s begin with the Greek word – parabole – which comes from two words “para” and “bole.” Bole means to throw or to jettison – it’s the same root from which we get the word “ballistic”, and para means side by side or next to each other. So what a parable literally does is throw two things side by side, so we can look at them differently or in a new light. Jesus used this art form, this teaching tool, in a particular way and with a particular purpose. He wanted to get people to let go of their previous understandings of God and God’s kingdom, so most of his parables throw the Kingdom of God alongside something that people would never expect it to be alongside of. Jesus was trying to explode people’s previous understandings of God and God’s kingdom, so he could then replace that understanding with something very different, often an inversion or reversal of it.
What I’ve always appreciated most about parables is that they are stories. They engage us, involve us, and get us wondering. Jesus was a master storyteller, and he would often walk away from his listeners once his story was told, without ever explaining it, so that each hearer would have to wrestle with possible meanings. Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus never explained or interpreted his own parables. So in those instances where one of Jesus’s parables is followed up with an explanation, it is quiet certain that the explanation did not come from Jesus and was not a part of the original text. Such explanations were added later by those less comfortable than Jesus with open-ended or even ambiguous stories.
So with all this in mind, in Matthew 13, Jesus offers us the parable of the sower. “A farmer went out to sow his seed…” Jesus is throwing together God’s word with a farmer sowing seed. Remember that Jesus lived in an agrarian society, a pre-industrial time, so his listeners would have been very familiar with the farming life and the process of sowing seed. They would have been well acquainted with the fact that of all the seeds they planted, not all of them grew. Jesus’s articulation of the way the planting process unfolds would have made perfect sense to them. But remember, since this is a parable, Jesus was throwing something else alongside that typical planting process. He was throwing God’s words or Jesus’s gospel message alongside that planting process. So what were his listeners supposed to do with that? What did he want them to wrestle with?
In my early years of encountering this parable, I remember trying so hard to figure out what Jesus wanted me to DO as a result of it. I’m a doer; I’m always thinking that Jesus is trying to get me to do something. So my earliest conclusion about this parable was that Jesus must want me to be a certain kind of person. So I mentally dug into these different kinds of soils – like they were some sort of metaphor for the human heart – the hard path, the rocky places, the thorns, and then finally the good soil – and I concluded that my job must be to make sure that my heart was the good soil. ‘Yeah, that’s what this parable is about,’ I thought. So immediately my brain got to work on the question of how do I make myself the good soil for Jesus? How do I make my heart most receptive to the Word of God? Then, a bit later in my journey, particularly as I began to share my faith and minister to others, I started to think about which other people – out there – were the good soil folks, thinking I should try to share the word God with the “right” people – the ones with the good soil in their hearts – rather than wasting it on the rocky or thorny folks, right?
Frankly, I’ve handled a lot of Jesus’s teaching this same way over the years – looking for what I’m supposed to do differently. But it was actually this very parable – the parable of the sower – that in more recent years has given me a sort of wake up call. The parable of the sower led me to wonder if, at least sometimes, Jesus isn’t so much trying to change us as he is trying to get us to just see and understand the truth of things. What if the parable of the sower is simply the way it is – the way planting seeds works, the way sharing the gospel message works, and even the way the world works? Gradually, I’ve come to believe that this parable is just Jesus giving us a reality check. It’s like his way of saying, “Look, this is how it’s going to be when it comes to sowing seed or sharing the word of God… Some of the seed is going to land in good, receptive, productive soil…and a lot of it – maybe even the vast majority of it – isn’t. And that’s not your fault. It’s not something you have to change. That’s just how it is.” When I read this parable that way, I found it relaxed me. It actually made me breathe easier. It’s like Jesus is telling us up front that he understands what we’re up against when we share his word or his gospel. After all, Jesus was up against the very same thing. His expectations for sowing seeds and for sharing the gospel are realistic, and maybe he wants ours to be too.
Think of this parable of the sower in terms of every sermon I preach, Sunday after Sunday. I work hard at it, throw the seed of my sermons out there every Sunday morning. For some people, it just lands flat; it doesn’t resonate, doesn’t take root. It just falls on deaf ears. But that same sermon, for another person, might begin to sink in, make the person think or reconsider some things, maybe even consider a new course of action. But even that person who “got something” out of the sermon probably doesn’t really change or go on to live his or her life any differently. Then there is that rare person who hears that very same sermon and is struck to the core, and starts following Jesus in a profound and lasting way. Same sermon…same seed…three totally different responses. So what this parable of the sower says to me is – “That’s ok. That’s just the way it is. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep preaching my word. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Can’t the same be said of basically every program idea or church event we ever come up with? We plan, we prepare, do our due diligence, and we try it out. For some who decide to attend or take part, the event falls flat. It doesn’t really resonate. A few others really like it and are glad they checked it out, though it doesn’t really make a big difference in their lives or in their relationship with God. But then there might be one or two others for whom this very same program or event penetrates into the deepest part of their being, and their life is set on a whole new course. I saw this exact “parable of the sower” dynamic at work in the recent Lenten study I led focusing on Brian Mclaren’s book Faith After Doubt. A few participants did the reading, but it didn’t really engage them. A few others found the study fascinating and really rolled up their sleeves for it. They thought about the material a lot and – during the study – were really into it. But by now, just a couple of weeks later, they’re right back to the way they’ve always done things and lived out their faith. But for a couple of participants, this study was life changing. They can’t go back to the way they were thinking and living before they read this book. And, I’ll tell you, nothing is more rewarding for a pastor than to see that happen. I wish it could have happened with all 10 of the participants…but it didn’t. And the parable of the sower reminds me that that is OK. That is how it was for Jesus as a preacher and teacher too. It’s not my job or my responsibility to have every teaching that I offer or every sermon that I preach take root in the good soil of your heart, so that it totally reorients your life. I’m just a sower. My job is to offer you the very best seed I have, week in and week out, and then leave the rest to God in God’s good time. Now, don’t get me wrong, my seed-sowing work is very important; but it’s not for me to say or to control where and when that seed takes root.
And this leads me to the second passage we read this morning – “The Great Commission” – the culminating verses of Matthew 28, where Jesus tells the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That’s a pretty tall order, isn’t it? Sounds darn near impossible to me…Unless we look at it in light of the parable of the sower. We’ve already seen that, even in Jesus’s case – as the ultimate Sower – some of his seed fell among the rocks, some amidst the thorns, and others on the path where it was trampled underfoot. Jesus didn’t play the percentages; he just sowed and scattered his seed everywhere. He loved everybody and left the rest in the hands of his loving and providential Father. Jesus didn’t bother with the numbers, nor did he calculate his effectiveness ratio.
Far too many Christians think that when Jesus called us to “make disciples” he meant for us to force the Christian path upon them, to convince them to follow Jesus, and to not let up until they say “yes” to Jesus! I like the way one theologian put it, saying, “Too often we forget that Jesus called us to be witnesses – not attorneys.” The parable of the sower gives context and balance to the great commission. Our job is to sow seeds by expressing our faith in love. That is our witness; that is our testimony – what Paul called “the most excellent way.” We do that – that seed sowing and scattering – and God takes care of the rest.
In one of my favorite Spring Break moments, Eloise, Kelley, and I were white water rafting in some pretty intense Class 3 and Class 4 rapids. It was scary and thrilling. But our captain and guide Odell, at just 17 years of age, was calm and composed through it all. He knew the river, and he knew that his job wasn’t to make the river change or to smooth it out. The river is going to do what the river does; our job is to go with its flow. Even Odell admitted, “Most of what I do and try to get you all to do is just trust the river and go with its flow.” In the end, I think that’s what the parable of the sower is all about too. We just get out there and sow the seeds of love as best and as broadly as we can. God and Her river of love will take care of the rest. Relax, breathe, and trust in God’s flow. Amen.