That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet 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. As 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. But 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.” – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
When I was a sophomore in college, my friend, Stephanie, and I decided we wanted to be the fill-in Sunday School teachers for two months for the 4-6 year old Sunday School class at the church we attended. When the regular teacher asked us to do this, I was really excited. I had been leading a Bible study for several college students who were very involved in my campus ministry, but I wanted to branch out and lead faith discussions in a different setting – where the audience would not necessarily be as biblically literate and well-versed as those who were in my Bible study. Teaching children seemed like a great opportunity to branch out. Although most of my experience had been working with kids in kindergarten through 5th grade, I knew a few of the 5-6 year olds at my church and I figured that teaching these kids would be a piece of cake…
Was I ever wrong…
This group of 18 4-6 year olds (and a few 3 year olds) was the rowdiest bunch of kids I had yet encountered. Our first day was pure chaos… The minute Stephanie and I opened the door to allow the kids to enter the classroom, kids swarmed the room, chasing, tagging, and kicking each other, crawling under and on top of tables, and screaming and laughing at the top of their lungs. Just as Stephanie and I were able to calm the kids down and began teaching our lesson – a few boys held their hands up to their mouths and made loud gas noises, creating a wave of laughter… and more gas noises. And after about 5 minutes of trying to quiet this hysteria, when we were finally ready to get back to our Bible lesson, a boy shouted out, “I have to go to the bathroom!” And immediately, 2 other hands shot up: “Me, too! Me, too!” As I began to take these three boys down the hallway – feeling badly I left Stephanie to begin teaching the lesson alone, and yet also feeling quite relieved to get a short break from the chaos – a group of 4 more boys from our classroom came running up behind us, shouting to the boys I was with: “come on!” and the 7 little hell-raisers went flying down the hallway to the bathroom, leaving me to run after them, while hopelessly pleading with them to “Walk, please!”
And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, as I arrived outside the boy’s bathroom, I heard the most terrifying sounds a new, 20-year-old Sunday School teacher could hear coming from the other side of the door: the voices of my Sunday School boys chanting: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
You’d have thought this was a scene on some kind of 90’s tv special.
By the end of that Sunday, when I finally arrived in my dorm room, I exhaustedly threw up my hands, and decided I was ready to give up. I was ready to just quit trying to teach these kids about God and faith when they obviously didn’t seem to care about it at all. I was ready to just go back to planting seeds in the places that seemed comfortable and easy to me, in my campus ministry Bible study – where I knew all of the college students who attended came voluntarily because they were eager to participate and would readily hear and receive the words that were being taught.
I was ready to stop wasting my time planting seeds in places that just seemed too unlikely to take root and grow.
This makes me think of the situation Jesus is speaking to in our Gospel text for today.
Jesus is sitting by the Sea of Galilee, when large crowds gather around him, so large that he gets into his boat and begins to tell a story.
And in his parable, Jesus tells about a man who has a profession that his mostly rural audience would have been very familiar with: a sower. And – as did many sowers of his day – this sower is spreading seeds everywhere: on a dirt path, on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, in the midst of thorns, and on good fertile soil. And yet, as any of us who are gardeners might suspect: the seeds on the dirt path get eaten by birds; the seeds that are thrown on rocky ground spring up quickly but since they have no root, they wither away as soon as the sun rises; and the seeds that fall among the thorns grow up, only to be immediately choked by the thorns, themselves. It is only the seeds that are thrown on good, fertile soil that bring forth grain.
Now, to Matthew’s audience these images of the sower and the unfruitful seeds would have been all too familiar and real in their experiences as early Christ-followers. As Jesus soon reveals in our text, it is he (and his followers) who represent the sower, and it is the good news of the Kingdom of God that represents the seeds in the parable. And these early Christ-followers in Palestine know quite well that this good news Jesus (and his earliest followers) is spreading all over the place is not taking root or producing crop in many places and circles.
As we see throughout Matthew, Jesus has been spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God everywhere he goes, and he is calling his followers to do the same. Yet, while Jesus gains a large following, this good news of the Kingdom of God doesn’t seem to be good news to everyone. We see this in the chapter that precedes our text: where many of the religious leaders are already plotting to destroy Jesus, and we see this at the end of chapter 13 – not long after todays text – where Jesus will be rejected even by his own hometown.
As Jesus explains later in our Gospel text – this good news is being misunderstood by some and therefore eaten up or snatched away by the evil one; it is being received by others quickly with great joy, but since those individuals have no root, when persecution arises because of this good news, they immediately fall away; and this good news is being heard by even others, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth is getting in the way and choking it, yielding nothing.
And so many of those early Christ-followers were likely starting to get pretty frustrated that this good news was not taking root and growing as they had hoped it would. And with this kind of tension and opposition that would soon intensify, it would not be too long before these Christ-followers would begin to feel ready to just throw up their hands and give up trying to spread the good news in places where it seemed least likely to be received and most likely to be adamantly resisted.
But we can’t really blame these early Christ-followers, can we? Aren’t there many times in our lives when we feel that our efforts in sharing this good news of the Kingdom of God through our actions or our words are done so in vain?
Don’t we know what it’s like to feel ready to just give up when we try to talk about important faith and justice issues with our friends and colleagues with differing political opinions or faith traditions, and those conversations only bring about confrontation?
…Or when we spend so much time planning and advertising our church programs and services, and yet, we still struggle to see growth in program or worship participation?
…Or when we invest so much in individuals through mentoring or volunteer programs or in our personal lives, but these individuals just don’t seem to be very interested in learning from us, receiving our compassion, or responding to our concerns?
In these times, don’t we want to just throw up our hands and give up? To quit wasting our time throwing seeds in places where people seem to be the least likely to accept them? And instead to spend our time and energy planting seeds and investing in the people we know will be eager to hear and receive this good news or whom we know will quickly agree with us?
But this is where the end of Jesus’ parable comes in.
While much of the sower’s seeds fall on the dirt path, rocky ground, or in the midst of thorns, several seeds fall on good, fertile soil.
And those seeds will not only take root and grow, bringing forth a sevenfold of grain, the amount a farmer would harvest on a good year, but some seeds will produce a thirtyfold, which would have been enough to feed a village for an entire year. Other seeds will produce a sixtyfold, which would have been unheard of. And even other seeds will have produced a hundredfold, which would have been a complete miracle.
I recently had a conversation with a progressive evangelical Christian friend of mine who often writes blog posts and articles on deconstructing literal interpretations of the Bible, women’s rights, and marriage equality, among other controversial topics within the evangelical world. His blog, articles, and personal conversations on these subjects are specifically geared toward evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, and because of this, he is frequently criticized and said to be “unbiblical” or a “heretic” by some people in that world. When asked why he continued to target that particular audience when it continued to create confrontation, he said: “I will never give up trying to reach this audience because I was the one pointing fingers at progressives and liberals not too long ago, and yet, someone in my life chose to never give up on me.”
In Jesus’ parable of the sower is a message ringing loud and clear to both his earliest followers and to all of us who attempt to follow him today. As followers of Jesus, who are called to spread the good news of God’s love everywhere and to everyone we can, in doing so, we will experience rejection, opposition, and confrontation. And yet, in these times: when we feel discouraged, frustrated, and ready to give up, we can have hope.
Because while ¾ of our seeds may get eaten up, wither away, or be choked by thorns, there will be seeds that will fall on fertile soil.
Because some of those seeds may even take root and grow a thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or hundredfold – even in and through those people and places we least expect.
Because Jesus does not give up on his disciples – who later desert Jesus when he is arrested for fear of their own persecution… And no matter how much we may allow the seeds sown in our lives to be snatched up by others, to wither away when persecution comes, or to be choked by the thorns of the lures of wealth, success, and the cares of this world, Jesus doesn’t give up on us, either.
Though it took a lot of convincing by Stephanie to get me back into that 4-6 year old Sunday School classroom, I did end up going back the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that. And I even ended up finishing my two month commitment. And while most of my Sundays were quite exhausting, I started to find that the work I was doing was not done so in vain. Sure, the kids mostly wanted to skip out of Sunday school by trying to take bathroom breaks and making gas noises with their mouths, and there were others who continued to begin class by screaming, kicking, and chasing each other around the room. But as I developed relationships with these children over those two months, I began to realize that a big part of planting seeds was to just pray with and listen to these children and to show them what love and grace looks like in the flesh. And as I began to realize this, I actually was pleasantly surprised at how much these children began to plant seeds in my life.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is a generous sower, throwing and planting seeds everywhere he goes. And he calls each one of us to do the same. While this work will be frustrating and difficult, causing us to want to give up at times, we must not forget that some of our seeds will –indeed – fall on fertile soil. And it may take time – and in some cases we may never even see or know it occurred – but those seeds will reap a great harvest – sometimes, even a hundredfold.
We just need to be willing to take the chance on others.
Just as Jesus – in and through someone else – took the chance on us.
Let anyone with ears listen!