The Careless Farmer and the Big Yield
Matthew 13:1-9, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 13, 2014
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout farmin’, but I know enough not to throw seeds on rocks. So what’s wrong with the seed-sower in Jesus’ story? I see Justin and his crew in the late spring getting the soil ready for his garden next to the Manisses. They till it, they lay out string to keep the lines straight, and I’ve seen old Justin himself putting seeds in the ground by hand. But the sower Jesus talks about uses the broadcast method, just throwing seeds out to fall where they may, as if he wasn’t worried about ever running out of seeds.
If we want to hear Jesus’ story the way he first told it, we have to put aside the sermons we have heard about the four kinds of soil, the ones that make us ask “What kind of soil am I?” Let me ask you as an experiment to focus only on verses 1-9 of Matthew 13. We’re used to reading the explanation of the story which turns it into an allegory, telling you what the soil stands for and what the birds and the weeds mean. I want you to set that aside. Many scholars say that while the parable of the sower came from Jesus, the explanation came from the early church and was added later. And almost all scholars say that parables are not meant to be allegories, where every character or object stands for something else.
Parables—as Jesus used them—were provocative stories told to make you think. If you can reduce an illustration to an explanation or a single sentence, it’s not a parable. Jesus uses a wide range of parables to talk about what the kingdom of God is like—that is, how God works in the world. Even in this chapter, they can be one-sentence parables saying that the kingdom is like a woman kneading yeast into dough or a merchant finding a pearl. They can also be narratives like the story of the prodigal son. But none of them can be simply explained. If Jesus could have reduced the way God works to a simple proposition that could be a point in a sermon, he wouldn’t have told stories. He tells stories to surprise us, to shake up our expectations, and to make us think differently about how things work. The subtext in most parables is The kingdom of God is not what you expect. And the stories are open-ended. Jesus ends here, as he often does, by saying, “If you’ve got ears, listen!” Pay attention! Think it over.
This parable has been known for centuries as the Parable of the Sower. That’s interesting. Not the parable of the seeds or the parable of the soils. Readers have intuited that the story is meant to tell us something about the sower. Once you understand that the story is about the kingdom of God, that it’s meant to reveal how God works in the world, it’s not much of a stretch to see that the sower is like Jesus in some ways, or even like God. But the sower in the story is careless, or reckless, or wasteful—or to use the Bible word, prodigal. He is extravagant with the seed rather than being careful not to waste them. What does that tell us about the kingdom?
Let me retell the story as if it happened right here. I got it into my head to plant some tomatoes in the back yard of the church. I saw some in a Burpees catalog I borrowed from Todd. Those tomatoes looked so big and juicy I just had to try to grow some. So I asked the Trustees if I could plant some in back; they said yes, assuming I had some idea what I was doing. But when the package came from Burpees I had no intention of being as serious about planting as Justin. I took one of those green Harbor Church aprons from the kitchen and held up the hem with my left hand. I dumped the contents of my seed packages into the apron and began spreading the seeds around the back yard with my right hand. It turned out that Burpees has a ministerial discount, so I ordered a whole bunch of seeds. I wasn’t too worried about wasting them. I just went out, whistling as I went, happily throwing seeds all around.
Some of them landed on the sidewalk, and sure enough some birds carried them off before long. Do you know how there’s a big slab of rock in the back yard? The soil around there isn’t very deep, but I threw seeds on that soil too. Heck, I threw seeds on the rock. There are some old beds out back that are chock full of weeds, but I threw some seeds in there too. Here and there in the yard there were some bare patches and spots where Percy had done that thing where he kicks up the dirt with his hind legs. Seeds went there too.
A month went by. I got so busy with the church fair and stirring up trouble in the community that I didn’t keep tabs on the back yard. But when I got back there you won’t believe what I found. Now listen up, because this is where there is a surprise ending! I went back there and of course there were no tomatoes on the sidewalk or in the shallow soil by the rock or in the weed-patch. But bless my soul, if I didn’t see half a dozen tall tomato plants where the seed somehow found some good soil. One of them must have had a hundred tomatoes on it! One had about sixty. One had about thirty. What do you think about that story?
Jesus’ hearers would have thought the surprising things about the story were the carelessness of the sower and the size of the yield. Both might have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. It’s just a story. But then Jesus says, “What do you think about that?” What does that strange little tale tell you about how God works? And I don’t think Jesus ever sits down to give an explanation.
He just throws the story out there, just like the sower throws the seed. If you can hear it, good. If you can’t hear it, no sweat. I’m just putting it out there. Make of it what you can. You know something interesting? The word parable comes from the Greek ballo, to throw, and para, alongside. A parable is something thrown alongside—alongside a truth you want to reveal something about. So in a way this may be a meta-parable, a parable about parables. This is the way I preach because it’s the way God is: I just throw it out there for everybody. It’s simple but not direct. I tell the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. But I am not interested in efficiency. I am not worried about running out of stories. I got a million of them. The world is full of them.
If I were Jesus, I’d leave it right there. I’d either sit down or move on to another story. But since I am not Jesus and you probably expect a little help from me, I’m going to do something Jesus would never do: I’m going to give you three points to take home with you.
1. Don’t be so careful. The sower in the story is careless and extravagant and it all turns out all right. Why are you so careful? I get it, Jesus might say, you don’t want to wind up like me, you care what the neighbors will say, you have to be practical with your life. But can’t you see what I’m modeling for you? Don’t be so careful.
In particular, don’t be careful about where you spread my message. Don’t strategize about who will be receptive and who will not be. Just throw it out there. Don’t act as if you are going to run out of love and there’s only so much you can give away so you have to target your market. No, there’s no bottom to the barrel of love or truth, no shortage of God’s kingdom. Just throw it out there.
A graduating seminary student went to have lunch with his pastor from the First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, Georgia. He was intimidated by the senior pastor because he had been so successful. The church had doubled in size and built a new building and everybody respected this pastor. The seminarian asked him, “You’ve been so successful, what’s your secret?” The older man looked the younger one in the eye and said, “You have to know what is in your control and what isn’t, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn’t that much that is in your control” [Joe Evans, “The Sower’s Lesson,” day1.org 7-10-11].
2. You never know what will bear fruit. You can’t predict, so be indiscriminate with your witness and your love. Yes, Jesus says ¾ of your efforts may come to nothing—and that may be lowballing it. But sometimes when you least expect it, it comes back to you a hundredfold. We just celebrated the arrival of the first missionary to Burma 200 years ago, Adoniram Judson. Judson spent 6 years there before he had his first convert to Christianity. But did you know that now there are 2 million Baptists in Myanmar—more than there are American Baptists in the US?
You just never know when your love and a good word for Jesus will bear fruit. I made a friend named Cardi when I was in grad school at Duke, a Mount Holyoke girl who hadn’t had much to do with Christian faith. One night sipping on those great root beer milk shakes they had at Duke, I asked Cardi if she wanted to go to the Chapel with for Sunday worship. She did. It turned out to be a Communion Sunday. She said, “I can’t take that.” I said, “I think you can. Go ahead.” A couple of years later I was invited to her wedding in Richmond. Her groom, an evangelical, took me around to meet his family. “This is Steve,” he said, “the guy who led Cardi to Christ.” I did? I had no idea.
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a deacon in the church I served in Kentucky. It was about Tim, an atheist college professor that the daughter of a good friend of ours had married while we were there. I always liked Tim from the night we met at a fireworks party, but he was very skeptical about anything religious. We related socially; I went to hear him perform in his rock band; and surprisingly he asked if he could come to my young adult Sunday School class even though he wasn’t a believer. His daughter was coming to class for preschoolers and he would be there anyway. He asked questions in the class and made it clear he wasn’t a believer but wanted to understand. He never became a Christian, but when it was time for me to move away he sent me a letter telling me that I had become his role model. I hardly knew what to make of that. So as I said, I got this email from a deacon. The church was doing a long-range planning process and decided to interview some people in their 20’s and 30’s. Tim was among them. This deacon wanted me to know that Tim had told them how much he appreciated my nonthreatening approach that moved him from being an atheist to being a devout Christian. The deacon said he was moved by Tim’s story. So was I, needless to say. You just never know.
I got a letter last week from a doctor in Birmingham who was one of my students in the early 80’s. He just wanted to thank me for the influence I’d had back them and how important I had been in his life. He’s been married 25 years, has a medical practice with another of my Christian med students, and is active in his church.
I know I am really lucky to get such letters. Most of the time we never even find out about the fruit that comes from the seed we plant. But sometimes you find out that the little deeds of kindness and the words that point to Jesus come back to you a hundredfold. You have people in your life that you’ve touched and people you’ve influenced by your faith. You couldn’t have predicted which seed would fall on rocky soil or among the thorns and which would grow into big juicy tomatoes. But if you just throw it out there, some seeds will grow.
A woman was telling me recently that she feels kind of pathetic sending out Christmas cards with family photos like all her friends do, because she and her husband have no children. “But you have invested your life in so many people,” I told her. “Imagine a Christmas card will the faces of all those people, as if they were your spiritual children. See yourself surrounded by all those people who have been blessed by you.”
3. God gives the harvest. This is why you can be carefree in throwing the seed out there. Yes, you can’t have a harvest without planting, but whether the harvest comes and what size it is does not depend on you. Jesus tells the parable as a kind of miracle story. Here is a guy who goes out throwing seed in all kind of inappropriate places—a little like Jesus, right?—and you would think that it would all amount to nothing, but shazam! those few seeds that took brought a harvest of a hundred times what was planted. That’s what the kingdom is like. That’s how God works in the world. You can’t say “I will do just this much and God will give me just this much result.” God doesn’t work that way. You just plant, as the missionary Paul said, and someone else waters, but God makes it grow. The carelessness and extravagance we show in our own lives mirrors the carelessness and extravagance of God, who blesses the just and the unjust, who is not willing that any should perish, who is revealed in Jesus to be a friend of sinners. Loosen up. Don’t worry. That’s what Jesus says. Just get the love and the message out there, and let it happen.
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Block Island, RI 02807