A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13:3-8
The parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-8 (and its exposition in Matthew 13:18-23) serves three basic functions: proclamation, explanation and invitation.
The parable is part of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. In Jesus’ words and deeds, God was “sowing” the fruit-bearing seed that will result in the promised kingdom harvest. Insofar as Matthew’s gospel keeps those words and deeds alive in the Christian community, God’s sowing activity continues.
The parable, then, tells us something important about God. He didn’t sit back and wait for human beings to find him or figure him out. God took the initiative. Beginning with the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis, that’s the same story we see over and over. God takes the initiative to accomplish his purposes. In Jesus, God was bringing that story to a climax.
The parable undermines every human conceit. The kingdom’s harvest is coming because Jesus is sowing the kingdom’s seed. The seed didn’t sow itself. The field doesn’t produce a rich harvest apart the labor of the sower. From the first sprout to the final reaping, the coming harvest is God’s idea and God’s work. God wants to bring men and women into his eternal kingdom and he has taken the necessary steps to make it so.
The parable also explains the church’s disciple-making experience in every age. Some people completely ignore the church’s message about Jesus. Some apparently enthusiastic converts disappear, and we wonder what happened to them. Even long-serving Christians sometimes fade away.
Jesus describes how some fall away due to trouble. The gospel doesn’t provide the magical solution to their problems that they imagined it did, so good-bye church. Their connection to the gospel was never more than superficial. Like consumers looking for a better product, they are off to find something else.
Maybe they find trouble in the church itself when they discover it is filled with sinners and hypocrites – like me. So I pray, “May I never (again) be the stumbling block for someone else’s faith.” But I pray even more, “May God’s people root themselves in him so that their faith does not depend on me.”
Some fall away due to persecution. It used to be said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. The courageous witness of faithful Christians does much to validate the gospel in the eyes of those seeking God. On the other hand, persecution works. Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity describes the almost complete destruction of the Church of the East at the hand of those hostile to the gospel. Clinging to existence is the most basic instinct. For every Meriam Ibrahim who confesses Christ to her persecutors, there are others who choose survival. I can only imagine what I might do in those circumstances and I am in no position to judge anyone. All I know is that Christ calls all his disciples to take up their own cross and follow him.
Others find their love for God crowded out by much more mundane realities: the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth. For our generation, this is partly a matter of letting the misshapen culture define what we love. What does a happy, admirable and successful life look like? The world bombards us with a thousand messages every day that would turn us away from the love of God in Christ. This is not, however, solely a modern problem. Even first century Galilee offered distractions (some good, some not so good) that could redirect the faithful from the path of God. Among them were concerns for one’s family and its provision, the need to work, worries about one’s health, the fear of violence or having one’s property stolen, concerns about one’s social standing in the community and aspirations of wealth (however modest that might seem by modern standards). If the life of a 1st century Galilean farmer or fisherman was filled with thorns that might choke out the word of God, how much more does the life of 21st century western Christian run that risk.
Troubles, persecution and distractions are a description of “what” happens to some people who hear the word, but they do not really explain “why”. If bringing people into the kingdom is God’s work, why does he allow people to thwart his will? Why does God allow his word to be snatched away, withered or crowded out?
The “why” is found in the story itself and returns us to the parable’s implicit characterization of God.
God is like a farmer who sows seed knowing that not every single grain will bear fruit.
Imagine an ancient farmer standing at the edge of the recently cleared field. Even if the field had been used before, the common practice was to burn away whatever happened to be growing there when it came time to sow. The famer cannot see below the surface. Where is the soil shallow or compacted? Where are weeds and thorns just waiting to spring up again? It matters not. The famer reaches into the bag and casts the seed into the field, knowing that a portion of it will fall where it will produce a good crop, and another fraction will fall where it will never grow. Farmers don’t intentionally cast the seed into unfertile environments, but neither do they expect 100% of the seed to prove fruitful. They’re willing to waste a little to gather a lot. The purpose of sowing is reaping the harvest.
God is willing to “waste” some of his investment in people, knowing that not all his individual efforts will pay off in the long run. The day of harvest will come, and it will come whether you or I turn out to be fruitful recipients of the word or not.
And while the farmer’s “wasted” seed may be a relatively trivial matter (except to the famer), God’s unfruitful seeds costs him dearly. Jesus paid the price of “sore abuse and scorn” by those who proved unfruitful. He did it for the sake of those in whom the word would take root and flourish. He felt the sting of the lash and the blows of the hammer so that the fruitful seed might come to harvest.
You can’t reap if you don’t sow. God loves the world enough to waste his time and his energy, his sweat and his blood on those who may not turn to him or remain in him, for the sake of those who do.
Maybe Jesus’ attitude has something to tell the church today as it thinks about its life in the world.
The analogy of people’s hearts to a farmer’s field only goes so far. People are not soil. Their spiritual receptivity is not fixed in nature. Ultimately, people decide how they will receive Jesus’ offer of the gospel and let his word bear fruit in their lives.
When a seed lands on a rocky patch of ground, nothing is going to change that situation. Rocky ground is rocky ground. People, on the other hand, have hearts and minds that can change.
When the prophet Jonah cried out God’s message in the streets of Nineveh, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” the people repented and God averted the judgement he had decreed.
Similarly, people who hear Jesus’ words have an opportunity to change. Admittedly, this change cannot take place “without the grace of God preventing us” [i.e., going before us], but Jesus’ call to repentance affirms that change is possible.
Perhaps they had previously been those who paid no attention to Jesus or his story. Or perhaps they saw their faith suddenly crushed or dying a slow death. Jesus’ parable opens the door for non-believers to let the kingdom take root in their lives and it encourages believers to put down deeper roots in Christ. It challenges all Christians to cut away all the weeds that crowd out their love for Jesus and to be courageous in the presence of those who oppose him.
For those who have ears to hear, the parable causes them to ask, “What kind of ground am I? How have I received the word into my life.” And if it’s not in a manner that lets God bring his harvest to fruition, maybe with God’s help I can do something about that. After all, God placed the seed of his word in my heart to produce a harvest of righteousness, not so that the seed should wither and die.