Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23;
Isa. 55:10-13; Rom. 8:1-11
THE PRODIGAL SOWER
Several months ago, I asked in confirmation class if anyone knew what a parable is. How would you answer? One of the students answered, “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Aren’t you impressed? I was.
The only change I might make to this definition is the last word: “An earthly story with a heavenly twist.” Heavenly twist — something to convey that parables aren’t as transparent as one might think. Often, when I hear the subject of parables introduced, it goes along the lines of, ‘Well, Jesus used parables so that he could get his points across clearly. It’s not like our pastors whose sermons are so hard to understand. Jesus used down-to-earth stories to make his points clear.’ Have you heard Jesus’ parables talked about in that way?
The problem with this description, though, is that it doesn’t quite meet up with what Jesus says himself about his own parables. The Parable of the Sower, this morning’s Gospel Lesson, is the first major parable in Matthew’s gospel. So we also get introduced ourselves, along with Jesus’ disciples, who ask point blank, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” This is in the verses we skipped over. Jesus 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. Parables are indeed earthly stories that we think we should be able to understand, but with a heavenly twist. Jesus gives us a perspective from God that is difficult for us to understand.
So let’s check this out with this morning’s Parable of the Sower. It seems straight-forward. Even though most of us are city folks, and farming has come a long ways since Jesus’ day, we should be able to get this simple story about sowing seed, right? Well, take a look. If we know something about farming, even farming two thousand years ago in Palestine, we can see at least two twists that would have struck Jesus’ audience. The first is that this sower apparently does nothing to prepare his field. They didn’t have sophisticated equipment at the time, but a farmer could still take some measures to get his field ready before sowing the seed. He could clear as many rocks out as possible; he could pull weeds; he could turn the soil over with a crude plow, softening the earth and burying remaining weeds. But it doesn’t seem like this sower has bothered with any of this, does it? He simply goes out into a field with a lot of rocks and weeds and trampled down, hard ground, and flings the seed anywhere. A heavenly twist?
Another aspect of this story that would have given Jesus’ audience a jolt is the ending: the good soil that produces thirty, sixty, and hundred-fold. This is an unheard of harvest! In this modern times of fancy, hybrid seeds that be an expected outcome. But in Jesus’ day, thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold would be an outrageous expectation for a harvest. What gives?
Let’s briefly consider a couple other of our favorite parables to check this out. Do they all have this heavenly twist? The Parables of Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd — we’ve grown so accustomed to these stories that the shock value is largely lost on us. Good Shepherds, 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 an oxymoron for Jesus’ Jewish audience. “Good” and “Samaritan” were two words that don’t go together because Samaritans were their enemies. 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 in 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 he uses a heavenly twist or two. 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.
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. What we need to unlearn is for God there might be a limited supply of such love and mercy, that there will come a day when that mercy will run out, like it does for us, and God’s wrath will do all the evil-doers in. We need to unlearn the stuff about God’s wrath and learn that the seed of God’s mercy does no give out until it will one day yield a fantastic harvest.
No, the part about wrath is our earthly way of telling the story because there’s something else very important to unlearn — namely, our ways of constantly trying to decide who’s in and who’s out. That our way of doing things, so we expect it to be God’s way, too. Is that what we see in this parable? I’m not sure. Because there’s one thing Jesus doesn’t tell us for sure. It sounds like it is about a way to divide up people into groups of who’s in and who’s out. There are three kinds of soil, representing three kinds of persons, who 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 we need to be careful here and look at the climax of the Gospel story: Jesus hanging by himself on the cross, utterly and totally rejected. The cross is the ultimate in heavenly twists. 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, those who fall away when persecution arises.
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.
In light of the sowing of God’s mercy in the cross and the incredible harvest of the resurrection, then, I’d like to suggest one further twist to this parable. If I am to unlearn the usual human story filled with divisions and strife, then I need to unlearn looking at myself as good soil and someone else as bad soil. No, the most basic field that God sow his grace is in my life, where it sometimes meets with hard soil and rocky soil and weeds, and sometimes with good soil that bears the fruit of extending God’s limitless love with others. It is my constant prayer, then, that my heart and life be good soil today.
As a pastor, neither should it surprise me that I often find resistant soil even among God’s faithful, because I’ve learned to see that bad soil in myself. But neither am I surprised when that good soil that God turns over with God’s gracious Word bears fruit. I have so often seen it my year here with you. And I know that Pastor Jerry will be blessed to see it yield a hundred fold in the years ahead, as he begins his ministry with you tomorrow. It has been my constant prayer for you, and it will remain my constant prayer for you, that the Lord let your hearts be good soil.
Let me teach you a beautiful way to pray that prayer [singing]:
Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your Word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart,
Lord, let my heart be good soil. (1)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, July 14, 2002