13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
What I am Learning:
This reading evokes several kinds of reactions:
1) Personal Salvation: we wonder what kind of soil we are for seed Jesus is sowing and wonder what will happen to us if we are not the good soil.
2) Unlikable God: we wonder if a God who would take away everything from those who have nothing is worth our worship.
3) Church Growth: we get really focused on bearing fruit in terms of new members to whatever church we are a part of.
I do not think that this text was trying to address any of these issues.
First, let’s explore the Hebrew Scripture a little. Fruit is primarily used as a metaphor for two things in the Hebrew Scripture
1) Actual fruit which sustains the community, rich and poor alike
Psa. 72:16 May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.
2) The consequences of our collective actions or the results a culture produces.
Hos. 10:13 ¶ You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors.
The Hebrew Scripture is the story of a people called to live out an alternative vision of what it means to be a human community. They had experienced the crushing injustice of slavery in Egypt. They had experienced the exploitation of people that happens in a domination culture and were called to organize a society in which the most vulnerable (the orphan, widow and immigrant) were honored, cared for and given opportunities. This alternative way of being human community later became known as the kingdom of God.
Of course how much fruit the field produces and who gets to eat it is deeply affected by the results of our culture. This is why it is such a powerful metaphor – the fruit of our collective actions can determine the availability of food.
In sowing these seeds of justice, the Hebrew people would reap a harvest of peace and abundance. In Isaiah 25 all the nations of the world would come to a great harvest, not only of abundant and rich food, but a great harvest of justice – economic and social equity between all people. The nations of the world, Isaiah envisioned, would be so attracted to the peaceable and just ways of the People of Israel that they would stream to Jerusalem and be healed of domination and violence. This image is picked up in Revelation 22:2 when the fruit of the trees is provided for “the healing of the nations.”
Jesus was seeking to re-establish this alternative in the midst of the Roman occupation of Palestine. He calls this “the kingdom of heaven” because he is writing to a Jewish audience who avoid using the word “god” as a sign of respect to God.
He and John called for the People of Israel to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Jesus and John were leaders who tried to help people realize that they were becoming accommodated to the domination culture of the Romans; but it was not too late to begin again! They were sowing seed on God’s behalf so that God’s Way of Mutuality might grow.
Up to chapter 13 in Matthew, Jesus has sowed the seeds of the kingdom to many different people. But not everyone has accepted it. In chapter 12 some of the religious leaders decide that they want to kill Jesus. In this parable, Jesus tries to give his disciples a framework for understanding why many do not accept the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God.
1) Birds of the Air -The influence of domination culture: Birds of the air is a reference to the other nations of the world. (See Ezekiel 31:6). Some of those who hear the word are intimidated or distracted by the overwhelming influence of the Roman domination culture and so the seed cannot grow. This cultural force is so powerful that we don’t even know it’s there. Its like the air we breathe. The matrix has us, so to speak.
2) Rocky Ground - Active suppression by the Roman Empire: As people begin to live differently, as they begin to see with new eyes they behave differently. As they stand up they begin to stand out. Empires thrive when people are expected to be sheeple instead of human beings made in the image of God. No doubt this intimidation worked very well with many people.
3) Thorns - Resistance when we benefit from the status quo: Thorns are used as a metaphor for what happens when the People of Israel follow the ways of domination culture. (Isaiah 7:23) Many hear the word about God’s alternative way for us to live and realize that this might mean their position of privilege will be threatened by it. They see that their immediate self interest is served by the way things are.
We can certainly see all of these reactions to the reign of God or God’s way of mutuality today. We can see them in ourselves. I see them in my own life.
I am under the influence of a culture that in part tells me I am worth something if I am powerful and wealthy. Daily Jesus calls me to die to this vision of humanity and rise to know that I am beloved as I am.
There are institutional practices in the church and in society that punish living differently. I don’t like to be punished. Daily Jesus calls me to die to these practices, to call them out, and to act in good conscience anyway.
I have a certain amount of privilege as a white middle-class American with a house, a job and college education. What would happen to all that I have if everyone had enough? The reality is that the Reign of God does challenge my lifestyle, even though I drive a car with good gas mileage, use LED light bulbs, and shop at thrift stores. Jesus calls me to die to my small vision of my self-interest. My true self-interest is connected to that of other human beings and the future of this planet.
The reality is that Jesus’ message of a new way to live was resisted, and resisted so powerfully that he was crucified for it.
Throughout the 1700 years of Christendom, most Christians have reduced Jesus’ message to personal morality and church attendance leading to a post-mortem salvation as a way to resist his message.
Jesus is not tailoring a message to bring lots of people to church, but to change the way the human beings live.
No wonder that much of the seed did not produce fruit!
Jesus’ response to this is to sow the seed everywhere anyway, knowing full well that it may not be received. Or at least not received yet.
The sower still goes out to sow. The sower will not stop sowing. Ever. Or at least the trees heal us from our dominating ways, until the great banquet when all nations come together, until swords and spears are melted down.
Until then, Jesus continues to sow the seed of the kingdom in our hearts, and he won’t stop until it grows.
[Jesus’ reference to God taking away from people who “have little” is probably a critique of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They seem to understand some of what Jesus is talking about, they have some sense of the kingdom of God, but resist it when it does not come from themselves.]