Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Matt 13:1-9, 18-23;
Rom 8:1-11; Is. 55:10-13
THE PRODIGAL SOWER
There’s a couple different kinds of vacation. One kind features rest. You lie on a beach somewhere, get plenty of sleep, and generally don’t do much — besides getting good rest. Then there’s the kind of vacation where you’re constantly on the go, sightseeing, swimming, recreation, a packed schedule of activities. Our vacation the last week was the latter kind — on the go in Washington D.C.!
In fact, I probably could have used a couple extra days seeing the Smithsonian. The boys would just as soon have spent a lot more time swimming, I think, but I love that historical stuff. Museums like the Smithsonian can really help appreciate how much things have changed over the last hundred years. It’s mind-boggling, really.
Take farming, for example, the aspect of life that Jesus makes use of in this morning’s parable. Jesus tells us, “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Pretty simple. Much simpler than today. At the Smithsonian one can see some of the first motorized tractors, right on up to the modern equipment. Racine, as the international headquarters of Case tractors, has been right in the middle of the industrial revolution on the American farm. It began with steam tractors around the turn of the century. Internal combustion engine tractors really took off after that. But even then, machines didn’t outnumber horses for farming until 1955. Eventually, of course, the machines have taken over completely. And the revolution of the tractor has only been a part of the overall farm revolution. Add in hybrid seeds, irrigation systems, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, computer controls, and so much more, and the United States has become the most efficient and productive farming culture in human history.
Now go back to the simple beginning of Jesus’ parable: ” “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” That’s it! No machines. Not even a plow or an oxen. Simply a man flinging seeds around everywhere in a field. Not exactly efficient, productive farming — certainly not by our standards.
What I’d like for us to consider for a moment, though, is whether or not this sower was being efficient even by the standards of his day. I’ve set that up for us this morning in the children’s time. Even in Jesus’ day, there were things that the farmer did to prepare his field first. You pick as many of the rocks out first as you can and stack them off to the side. You pluck weeds, and those you can’t pluck, you plow them under, along with the hard beaten down paths that people may have tread in your field. But as Jesus goes on with this parable, it seems evident that the field hasn’t been prepared. There’s beaten-down, hard paths; there’s rocks; there’s thorny weeds. If those things are taken care of before going out into the field, then sowing your seed is very likely to find good soil and to bear fruit. But this sower doesn’t seem to have done that. He simply goes out and starts flinging the seed everywhere. What gives?
The problem here is that we most often approach Jesus’ parables as if they are the most reasonable of teaching devices. I think that’s a mistake because I think he meant his parables to be absurd. I think he meant to shock us.
Listen, for example, to what Jesus says to his audience in the verses we skipped over this morning in our reading. He tells us flat out what he is trying to do with his parables: “The reason I speak to them in parables,” says Jesus, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 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.'” Do you see? With our minds and senses dulled to God’s Word, Jesus needs to shock us first, and that’s precisely what he does with his parables — tell us stories about things like a sower who goes out and flings his seed any-old-where.
How is it that we usually look at the parables? We think of our favorites — the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd — and we tend to think, “Hey, wasn’t Jesus such a wonderful teacher? So clear and precise in getting home his point with images and stories?” But we have grown so accustomed to these stories that the shock value is largely lost on us. Good Shepherd’s, for example, absolutely do not abandon 99 sheep to go off looking for one lost sheep. You count that poor lamb as lost so as to not risk losing anymore. And the so-called Good Samaritan was a contradiction in terms for Jesus’ Jewish audience. Samaritans were their enemies, and they didn’t count any of them as good. And what about that Prodigal Son? Well, what’s really surprising in this story is not so much that a young son would make mistakes, prodigally wasting his father’s money. No, that’s quite common, isn’t it? What’s surprising is how easily the father welcomes him home afterward! From the standpoint of the elder son, who had remained faithful to his father, his father was the prodigal one, wasting such love on a good-for-nothing son.
In fact, maybe that’s a similar point as the one of today’s parable. Jesus tells us about a Prodigal Sower, one who seemingly wastes most of his seed on soil that isn’t going to produce much, if anything. This sower doesn’t seem to care where he throws his seed. But, if Jesus is trying to teach us not about farming, but about God’s kingdom, then the Prodigal Sower image becomes a fitting one to shock us into hopefully being able to hear and see and understand that God’s kingdom is radically different than what we might expect it to be. And so we need to see and hear and understand that Jesus’ parables weren’t simply nice, clear teaching devices. Oh, I think they are meant to teach us something. But I think they are meant to help us unlearn things about God’s kingdom before we can properly learn them. We need to unlearn before we can learn when it comes to the kingdom of God. We tend to want to think about it in terms of our human kingdoms, not understanding that God’s is totally different.
If the most precious commodity in God’s kingdom, for instance, is God’s loving forgiveness, then we need to learn that there is an unlimited supply of it, enough for everyone. God can afford to ‘sow’ it absolutely everywhere, because there is never any danger of God’s running out of it.
And, when we look to the entire Gospel story about Jesus, we learn to see even more about this parable of the Prodigal Sower. Jesus’ explanation of it seems to highlight the rejection of God’s word. There are three kinds of soil that resist and reject God’s word as bearing fruit in them. God’s word bearing fruit almost seems an afterthought after the emphasis on rejection. But look at the climax of the Gospel story: Jesus hanging by himself on the cross, utterly and totally rejected. Not even his disciples have joined him in this terrible fate. They have all run away afraid at the first sign of persecution — in other words, even they have proved to be like rocky soil. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh given to this world. And when all was said and done, no one had eyes or ears or minds to understand. That Word was completely rejected. But on Easter morning it bore fruit anyway. God raised that seed of Jesus’ death to bear the fruit of new life precisely in the teeth of such total rejection. Do you see why God has to be so prodigal with that word of loving forgiveness, that seed God planted in this world through Jesus Christ? Because all of our hearts are so stubborn to truly receive it. If God wasn’t so prodigal in sowing the seed, it never would have stood a chance, because this whole world had become tramped down and rocky and overgrown with weeds. There was no good soil left.
Pause for a moment. If you or I was confronted with a field that was completely grown over and rocky, what would we do? Abandon it perhaps. Or get a big, powerful plow of some sort and at least try to plow it all under, in order to find some good soil. But notice that is not what God did in Jesus Christ. God did not plow us all under and start over. The story of the flood is basically a story that tells us, “Hey, God tried that way once and promised never to do it again.” No, instead God sowed the seed of his loving forgiveness anyway, and it bore fruit not just in spite of the rejection of the bad soil but through it. It was precisely by Jesus himself becoming the Rejected One on the cross that God somehow bore the fruit of new life. This is, of course, where our agricultural imagery fails us, and the mystery of God’s grace comes forth.
But it is a mystery which we can still begin to learn and to somehow model. We can model it here in our own ministry. When we receive new people as visitors, when we go out into our neighborhood inviting others to join us, we can first unlearn our habits of trying to decide who might be good soil and who might be bad soil for the gospel. Usually, those attempts result in deciding the “good soil” are those who look and act the most like us. (I must say that I think we can pat ourselves on the back as having made some progress in this area. At least, we aren’t all Danes anymore!) Once we unlearn thoe habits of trying to pick and choose who might be the most worthy to join us, then we can learn to sow the seeds of God’s love everywhere, to everyone. Because when we learn to be completely honest with ourselves, we know that God the Prodigal Sower has sown that abounding love into even the worst soil of our hearts and has begun to have it bear the fruit of new life — so that God asks our help in sowing the seeds of that love to others. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 10-11, 1999