Our gospel reading today is one of many parables that Jesus tells. The word “parable” literally means “to cast alongside” and it is a method of teaching that truly marks Jesus’ ministry. In these stories, Jesus casts images alongside each other in order to illustrate the point he wants to make. Parables on the surface seem to have specific moral lessons, but in actuality, they are very ambiguous. They are meant to “tease the mind into active thought,” as one commentator from working preacher puts it. The listener is supposed to sit with the parable, and actively participate in discerning what it might be saying.
Precisely because of their ambiguity and fluid nature, parables are the most appropriate way for Jesus to talk about God, the Realm of God, and the word of God. These are concepts that cannot be precisely defined, but must be contemplated in all their wonder and mystery.
So I invite you to open your hearts and minds and take in, anew, this familiar parable about the sower:
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Some of you may know that I just got back on Tuesday evening from a 3 week vacation in Europe with my husband, where we had the wonderful opportunity to visit many of my relatives. One cousin in Italy whom we stayed with for a few days has a beautiful, verdant, lavish yard with fruit trees, berry bushes and a vegetable garden. Each day that we were there, we were treated to fresh produce like peaches and apricots, beans, zucchini and tomatoes – all newly picked that day from their property. It was amazing to taste and see and witness the seeds that had been planted becoming an abundant harvest. My cousin surely gets yields of 30, 60, even 100 fold for all his hard work.
I myself am not much of a gardener. When I was young, I used to plant a few things in my parents’ garden each summer. One year I remember taking some potatoes that were growing eyes, and planting them. And I did grow and then harvest new potatoes, and they were delicious. But I would bet that if you weighed the potatoes I had originally planted and compared that with the weight of the crop of small new potatoes I got, I would have produced a yield not of 30, 60 or 100 fold, but probably about one-fold – the weight of the crop being about the weight of the potatoes I originally put in. But unlike the seeds in the parable, I think the problem with my yield most likely lay with the sower rather than with the soil.
As I said earlier, parables are able to be understood and pondered on many different levels. It is very unusual for Jesus to offer detailed explanations for parables, like we find in our passage today. As with any good story, often the beauty is best appreciated not in having it explained precisely, but in our own reflections on its simplicity. In this parable, Jesus is casting images alongside each other (remember that’s what “parable” means – to cast alongside) – the image of seeds alongside the image of the word of God, the image of soil-type yield alongside the image of people-type yield.
We already heard in our first reading today, from Isaiah (55:10-13), what happens with the word of God when it is scattered among us. Isaiah promises a yield, promises that the word does not return to God empty. On the surface of the Matthew reading, however, it would seem as though in three quarters of circumstances, it does indeed return empty – when it’s thrown on the path, on rocky ground, into weeds. And while this parable might well lead us to a very left brain type exercise of soil analysis with questions like: “What type of soil am I?” or “How can I become better soil?” I’m not certain this is the main point that Jesus is making with this parable. These are certainly questions worth reflecting on, but in the end, we cannot really tell good soil from bad until harvest time, and that might be a long way away.
This parable seems to be saying to us that soil type is the primary indicator of harvest yield. But when you think about it, while soil conditions are very important for how much a crop yields, there are so many other factors that come into play as well. Like I mentioned about my own gardening experience, the soil in which I planted my potatoes was the soil from the same garden in which my parents planted their seeds - tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, cucumbers – all of which yielded much greater harvests than my meager produce from the same soil.
The soil and the word of God, soil types and people types, these are not the only images that Jesus throws alongside each other in this parable. He is also casting other images together - that of the sower and that of God. This is the aspect of the parable that speaks most deeply to me.
Now I would guess that most of you know parables besides this one, and one of the most beloved perhaps is the parable of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-31). You’ll remember it is about a child coming of age, then demanding to have all his inheritance early, leaving home and squandering his fortune. He wastes not just some of his birthright - he fritters away every last penny on riotous living. And then, when he’s dead broke, he has a change of heart and decides to come back home to his father and his family, hanging his head in shame. It is this parable that gives rise to describing someone as a prodigal son or daughter if they leave their family or friends, and then, often after a period of behaving badly, return home as a better person. But, in actuality, that’s not what the word “prodigal” means. The word “prodigal” actually means “wasteful.” And although as such it is an apt description for the son in the parable, it is just as much an apt description for the father, the one who welcomes this child home. This is a father who welcomes his son home with wasteful extravagance: wide-stretched, open arms, a luxurious, splendid robe, a glorious, sumptuous dinner and party. What wastefulness for welcoming back such a scoundrel of a son with this kind of extravagance.
In that parable, the image of God is thrown alongside that of the father, and in today’s parable, the image of God is cast alongside that of the sower. In both parables, God is compared to one who has no sense of scarcity, who recklessly and abundantly squanders resources. In Jesus’ time when seed was precious, costly and scarce, this parable of the sower would have sounded absurd to those listening to it. No one would waste seed by throwing it onto surfaces where it would surely not grow. So this image of the wasteful, prodigal sower, who represents God, would certainly have captured the attention of the audience. I think that this is the image of God that Jesus wanted to leave with his followers then, and with us who hear the parable today: We worship a God who is constantly at work in our world and in our lives, wasting and lavishing love and grace by indiscriminately showering it upon all people all the time.
Here’s perhaps a parable for today. A world renowned violinist went out to play. He went to an arcade outside a metro station in the nucleus of federal Washington DC. This performer was one of the most renowned musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. For 43 minutes he played his heart out. And exactly seven people stopped what they are doing for at least a minute, and twenty seven people gave him some money for a total of $32.00. And 1070 people hurried by as if he were not even there.
As you may have guessed, this is not really a parable, because it is a true story. It is the actual outcome of a stunt engineered by Gene Weingarten, a columnist whose book called “The Fiddler in the Subway” includes this story. The musician was virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world who later, as he watched the video of this experience said that he understands why he did not draw a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday, but he adds: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”1
Here is how this story acts as a parable for me. God is like a virtuoso – constantly creating and bestowing wondrous beauty and blessings into our lives, and 1070 people out of 1097, or some close approximation of that ratio, do not even notice the gifts that are right in front of their faces. But what I also believe is that, despite this low return, God never stops giving, that God is constantly throwing, scattering seeds of grace and beauty and love upon us. God scatters people into our lives, ideas into our minds, loves into our hearts, strength into our souls, hoping that someday, somehow, someway, something will take root and grow. The Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way: “The focus [of the parable of the sower] is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of the maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into the seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of God’s truth.”2
That is the kind of God we have, who is always throwing seeds of truth and of blessing upon us. And we are called to imitate this aspect of God. We are called to be prodigal, to be wasteful with our time, with our talents, with our resources, a calling which seems to contradict everything we’ve been taught about being good stewards. Joann H. Lee is associate pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and puts it this way: The parable of the sower challenges the church and its leaders to scatter seed broadly and widely. But perhaps it also challenges the powers and principalities of this world. Most Christians would agree that one role of government is to provide some degree of help to those in dire need: benefits for those who have just lost their jobs, food for hungry families, a safety net for the most vulnerable. . .” 3
I believe that this parable challenges us to do the things that may seem to be wasteful of our time and resources in order to care for those in need. It is this belief that motivates me and pushes me to try make a difference in our world. It inspires me to make calls, to send emails, to sign petitions in order to make my voice and opinion heard when those in power make decisions that adversely affect those most vulnerable. And oftentimes this work is hard and frustrating, and feels like it’s not worth the time and effort. But then I wonder if God ever feels that same way. Does God feel hopeless, discouraged, ignored when trying to get us to build a Dominion of Peace and Justice in this world? I remind myself that even the prodigal sower in our parable only had a twenty-five percent success rate. So we are called to imitate that kind of sower - even when we feel frustrated, abandoned, and hopeless.
So where do we find hope to keep on doing this work? Two months ago, at our Social Justice Advocacy Ministry team meeting, we had the honor of welcoming and hearing Edie Rassell, who is on the national staff of the United Church of Christ serving as Minister for Economic Justice. Here is a small part of what she had to say to us: “Success in terms of getting laws passed, getting major changes accomplished, is tough. . . but we are committed to be about this work. God walks with us when we walk in solidarity with people to make sure everybody and creation thrives. We’re doing what we’re called to do. There’s ups and downs, but this is the life that we’re called to live - life that includes a certain amount of time for trying to make the world, with God’s help, a better place. . . Our hope comes from just being about the work. Our hope is given to us because we’re being faithful.
Her closing prayer for us was: God, You have created us in your image in your likeness. We know that your desire for your world is that all your people in all parts of your creation live in the fullness of life and that they thrive. Help us to be your instruments - your instruments filled with hope, with energy, with courage, with inspiration, determination and power to do those things that you put us here to do.
May that be the prayer for all of us. As Reverend Tom Long so beautifully sums it up: A sower goes out to sow, flinging precious seed around with holy abandon. "Therefore, the church is called to 'waste itself,' to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God.”4
May we be prodigal sowers all, imitating the extravagance and wastefulness of a God whose love and grace know no limits. Amen.
1Weingarten, Gene. “Fiddler in the Subway.” New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
2Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Seeds of Heaven.” Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 26.