Like mid-summer weather, things start to heat up in the middle of Matthew's Gospel.
Chapter 12 narrates several stories of Jesus' conflicts with the Pharisees, who are now plotting to destroy him (12:14) and have accused him of working for Satan (12:24). By the end of chapter 12, Jesus appears to be at odds even with his own family (12:46-50), and at the end of chapter 13, Jesus will be rejected by his hometown (13:54-58).
Why is Jesus encountering so much hostility? Why do so many disregard his message and discredit his ministry? Jesus has already hinted at some reasons in our Gospel reading from last Sunday (11:16-19, 25-30). The parable of the sower also probes the mystery of mixed responses to Jesus and his ministry.
The Sower, the Seed, and the Soil
Jesus teaches from a boat at sea (13:1-2), but his teaching is earthy, using images of seeds and soil. The parable of the sower is unusual in that Jesus offers an allegorical interpretation of it to his disciples. The interpretation focuses on reception of the seed by various kinds of soil as an allegory for varying responses to "the word of the kingdom" (13:19).
Jesus' clear explanation of what each element in the parable represents would seem to leave little work for the preacher. But the interpretation also raises some troubling questions. For instance, who qualifies as "good soil"? Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil? Are these destined to be unproductive forever?
One can find examples of each kind of response to the word in Matthew's Gospel. There are many in Matthew's story who "hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand" (3:19), including the religious leaders who are antagonistic to Jesus' ministry from the beginning. The crowds respond positively to Jesus, especially to his miracles of healing (9:8; 15:31; 21:8-9), yet turn against Jesus at the end and demand his crucifixion (27:15-23), leaving us to wonder whether they ever truly understood.
The disciples themselves might be included among those who fall away "when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word" (3:21; cf. 26:56b, 69-75). And the rich young man unable to part with his possessions (19:16-22) provides a stunning example of "one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing" (3:22).
What about the good soil? Who are those "who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit" and yield an abundant harvest (13:23)? In Matthew's story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, "the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the "least of these," and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).
What about the disciples? Will they ever bear fruit? After telling several more parables, Jesus asks them, "Have you understood all this?" They confidently answer, "Yes" (13:51). Yet subsequent events will reveal how little they truly understand (16:21-23; 20:20-28) and how quickly they will desert Jesus to save their own skins (26:56b, 69-75).
What is remarkable is that in spite of these failings, Jesus does not give up on the disciples. In fact, he continues to invest in them, even to the point of entrusting the future of his mission to them. Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church (16:13-20), even though Peter's understanding of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah is confused at best (16:21-23). Although Jesus knows full well that all the disciples will desert him and that Peter will deny him, he nevertheless promises them, "But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee" (26:32). Jesus does meet them in Galilee as promised, and with all authority in heaven and on earth given to him, turns them loose in the world to carry out his mission (28:16-20).
Matthew's story has given us little reason to have confidence in the disciples. Little reason, that is, except for Jesus' promises. Especially significant is Jesus' promise at the very end of the Gospel: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:20).
This brings us back to the parable. The main character in the parable, of course, is the sower. The sower scatters his seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising. He squanders his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts. Yet he promises that his profligate sowing of the word will produce an abundant harvest.
It is not difficult to find contemporary examples of the various responses to the word depicted in Jesus' parable. Having the word choked out by "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth" seems to be a particular problem in North America. One should be careful, however, to avoid equating the various types of soil with a particular person or group, and especially to avoid equating oneself or one's community with the good soil.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives and in our congregations on any given day. It is noteworthy that Jesus does not use the parable to exhort hearers to "be good soil," as though we could make that happen. If there is any hope for the unproductive soil, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, extravagantly, even in the least promising places. Jesus' investment in his disciples shows that he simply will not give up on them, in spite of their many failings. We trust that he will not give up on us either, but will keep working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us. We trust in his promise to be with us to the end of the age.
As those entrusted with Jesus' mission today, we might consider the implications of this parable for how we engage in mission. Too often we play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received, and only where those who receive it are likely to become contributing members of our congregations. In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work -- as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs.
Jesus' approach to mission is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in perilous places. Though we may wonder about the wisdom or efficiency of his methods, Jesus promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.