Someone probably should have told Matthew that parables are very much like jokes. It never really works to “explain” one.
You either “get it” or you don’t.
So, Matthew’s account of the “parable of the sower” as told by Jesus is not my favorite. The explanation that Matthew includes here tends to make us want to rush headlong into understanding the parable and parsing it all out. We try to figure out who is what kind of soil, and immediately want to embark on some kind of a “soil improvement program” or perhaps “sower training” to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
After all, isn’t the point to get better results? Isn’t that the goal in life, to take the guesswork out things and to get consistent results?
So, we hear the parable and rush into trying to figure out how to fertilize to guarantee a consistent harvest.
Where do we need to work in a little mulch to loosen up that rocky soil, and what would we use for that? How would we go about it?
Maybe we’d be better off not scattering the seed quite so liberally. Now that we know what it takes to be a disciple, can’t we be a bit more selective about where we focus our resources?
By introducing the explanation of the parable, Matthew shifts our focus away from what appears to be the main point all along, which is this:
Nobody knows exactly how this “Kingdom of God” thing is all going to play out in the end – not even Jesus.
We find that unsettling, maybe even unacceptable.
But just look at the situation into which this parable is told. Jesus is gathering crowds, big ones! He’s pushed by those crowds who want to hear him so much that today they’ve got him backed up to the water’s edge.
One more step back and he’s wading.
Surely this is a picture of the kind of “success” Jesus is having in his ministry. He’s packing them in!
So, Jesus hops in a nearby boat, pushes off from shore so his words will carry over the water and begins to teach.
“He told them many things.” Matthew records, but the topper, the memorable one seems to be this parable about a sower who scatters without regard to where the seeds end up, and who gets unpredictable results. Even if the seeds fall on the “good soil,” we still don’t get a predictable result! “Some a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
You just don’t know what you’re going to get, scatter it anyway, let it fall where it may. That’s the Kingdom of God.
Drop everything else you think this parable might or ought to be about for a moment and just let that sink in. What you are called to do, you do, with no preconceived notion of what the results will be.
Why would you do it?
Why be a sower if you can’t guarantee a harvest? That’s folly, after all! You wouldn’t last long in farming if you couldn’t feed yourself or grow a decent crop consistently.
I was having a conversation recently with someone who asked me how many weddings and funerals I had done over the 30+ odd years of being a Pastor. I had to confess that I really didn’t know. I received a register book when I graduated from Seminary for just such a purpose, to record all my official clergy actions through the years so that I would be able to look back upon them all someday.
But I had to keep records for the particular parish I served anyway, so it seemed to me like an unnecessary duplication of things. Besides, when you’re young you think you’ll always remember important events.
“I’m NEVER going to forget THAT wedding!” or “THAT person.”
But 30 some years takes the edge off memory. Experience changes what one counts as “memorable” over time. I didn’t keep the register up.
I have no idea how many babies and adults I’ve baptized.
I can’t give you a precise number of funerals I’ve done.
I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve counseled or for whom I’ve done wedding ceremonies.
It all becomes kind of a blur after a while, it truly does.
I never really goaled toward numbers.
I didn’t become a pastor to pay that much attention to the “bottom line” of measured effectiveness. I’ve always been more of a sower and scatter-er.
That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes get caught up in the numbers game as much as anyone else. The world wears at us after all, with its economic insistence of “return on investment” and “sustainability” and “proof of effectiveness.”
That’s one of the primary reasons for the funk in the church right now I think. We have our eyes focused upon the results column more than usual these days, tallying how many congregations are growing, how many are shrinking, how many are in decline, and how many are vibrant or viable.
We are as much attracted to the explanations for that floating out there, (or the attempts at them,) as anyone else; as if by “figuring out” the right trend and formula we could reverse decline or multiply positive ministry gains.
But that’s not the image I get from Jesus as he tells this parable… minus the explanation.
Looking out over the biggest crowd he has gathered to date, Jesus tells a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.
You do it anyway.
“Let anyone with ears, listen.”
So then, why does Jesus do this teaching, this healing, this parable telling? He does it just to push it out there and see what catches in the moment.
It’s about the moment more than anything else.
In fact, that is much of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. It is a “ministry of moments,” one thing leading to another, leading to a reaction, which leads to an isolated result, a difference made for that person.
Taken all together, we get a broader picture of God’s work of bringing in the Kingdom, but to watch Jesus in action is just to snatch at moments as they unfold.
Which pushes us back then to try to figure out the point of this parable. If it’s not about improving results, getting consistent returns, just what is it about? What am I supposed to “hear?”
Results are unpredictable. But moments of wonder, now that’s something that makes the effort worthwhile! I wonder if we aren’t supposed to get that, instead of pondering over an explanation and figuring things out.
You let a seed fall where it may. You let it sit, come back a while later, and then you marvel at what has happened in the wake of the scattering. It grows virtually everywhere, will sprout and take a shot at life in the harshest of places and under the most extreme of conditions. Just marvel at that for a moment, — that’s what the Kingdom of God is like.
The kingdom of this world is all about results. How do we improve the bottom line? But this sower, this “word of God” stuff is all about moments of wonder where you see the start of something, the end of which you can’t predict, and still you marvel at how it starts.
“Let anyone with ears, listen.”
The kingdom of this world, Empire if you will, is preoccupied with how things will turn out, and how outcomes can be controlled, manipulated, economized and systematized for results.
The kingdom of God appears to be preoccupied with where and how things get their start, and watching something start out is good enough. It is good enough for Jesus. Good enough for the sower.
Is that good enough for you?
I was reminded of this at Camp this past week. I’d like to be able to say that we take kids to Bible Camp so they will become life-long Christians engaged in their local congregations forever, a perpetual sustaining machine to keep the church going.
I’d like to say that, but I can’t.
I’ve taken kids to camp that ended up on the streets, or falling away from faith, or moved on to other expressions.
I can tell you that going to camp might help establish a good foundation for faith, but I can’t guarantee results. Some will be hundredfold, but some sixty, and some thirty, and a bunch choked out by the cares of this world as well.
I can’t guarantee results, any more than Jesus could with the crowd assembled before him at the lakeshore.
In the end, Jesus will be abandoned by this multitude and left to die on a cross alone.
But did he get to see the start something with his sowing of the Word? You bet!
People sometimes ask me if the kids had a good week at camp. I usually say “yes,” but that’s not really true. Weeks at camp have ups and downs, just like the rest of life.
You get the exhilaration of doing something, and the tears of homesickness. You get bit by bugs and suffer though a not-so-favorite meal along with laughing harder than you ever have before, singing, making new friends and catching a glimpse of God’s splendor in creation.
In other words, you get these “moments.”
You glimpse beginnings, where something sprouts, or something takes root, or something falls just right that the potential is there for a beginning.
That’s camp. That’s also the Kingdom of God.
So as unnerving as it may be to think of Jesus looking out over the biggest crowd of his career to that point and telling a parable about how you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out… that ends up being really good news.
You proclaim the Kingdom to watch the start of something and you let God worry about the harvest and return stuff.
You scatter the word, not to get a ledger book full of accomplishments, but a glimpse of a moment when something takes root. You see some possibility spark in a person’s eye, or a witness a lump of emotion at the beauty of God’s love catch in their throat as they are overwhelmed by a sunset. You glimpse a persistence to go out and do justice that takes root in someone’s life and actions. You watch two people pledge lifelong love and faithfulness knowing that disappointment is just as possible. You see a parent lift a child to God making promises, and for all the joy of that moment know there will be heartbreaks as well ahead.
This is what you do it for, this scattering of the Word of God, this “faith” thing.
You do it for the moments you get. “Let anyone with ears, listen.