Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Listen! Jesus begins the parable of the sower by asking the crowd to listen. And again at the end, he tells them to listen. ‘Let anyone with ears listen.’
When I was a teacher it felt like I spent a lot of my time asking children to listen. Listen to me. Listen to each other. They didn’t always find it easy. In fact, the first time I preached a sermon I found it really disconcerting because everyone was looking at me and listening at the same time. No one was whispering, no one was playing with their shoe laces, no one was poking the person next to them. I found it really unnerving! Now I’m not going to flatter myself by assuming that they were all listening intently, hanging on my every word. Because adults acquire a skill that many children don’t have, the ability to look like they are listening when they are not. We’ve all done it, you might be doing it now. Our minds wander and we are distracted by what we might have for dinner, what’s on telly tonight or that job we must remember to do.
It’s hard to listen carefully as this parable shows. The weeds, the rocks and the thorns get in the way. Unusually Jesus interprets the meaning of this parable. The seed is the word of the kingdom and it only flourishes when it falls on the good soil. But it is easy to be led astray, to get distracted, to lose focus on the word of God. We often understand this parable as a simple morality tale. The moral is we should be like the good soil. We should listen carefully and be receptive to God’s word at all times.
But Jesus doesn’t actually tell us to be the good soil. He lays out the options and leaves it up to us to decide. Crucially there is a gap in between the telling of the parable and the interpretation of it, eight verses which do not appear in our reading today. In these verses the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. His answer is not straight forward; He says ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ There is a difference between listening and understanding as Jesus makes clear. He speaks in parables because he want people to listen, to understand and to think things through for themselves. By using parables Jesus challenges the hearer to respond to the message of the kingdom and this response is a free one. Those who listen are free to reject the message or to respond with genuine hearing, understanding and repentance. There is the possibility of a rich harvest.
It’s hard to listen carefully all the time. Realistically we are all, at different times, all four different types of soil. We all have rocks and thorns and weeds that get in the way. But I think there is more to this parable than a simple moral. It has something to tell us about the nature of God and about the nature of God’s kingdom.
What does it tell us about the nature of God?
If we consider for a moment the sower. He’s not a great farmer is he? Surely you would be careful to scatter the seed only on the good soil and not waste it on the bad? I’m imagining a beautifully ploughed field where it is easy to only scatter seed on the good soil. But maybe this isn’t possible without a tractor. Maybe the field is a bit rocky and thorny in places. Or maybe the sower is careless, or foolish. But this is what God is like. God’s scatters his word, his love for us, foolishly, recklessly over all types of soil, over all of his creation. For God sees the good soil in all his imperfect, perfect creation. He removes our rocks and thorns and weeds and nurtures the seed within us. This parable speaks of God’s love for all creation, of his desire to see us flourish and of our potential to bear fruit.
What does it tell us about the nature of God’s Kingdom?
What then of the kingdom? The parable of the sower is followed in Matthew but other parables about the kingdom of God. It is important that the sower is sowing a whole field of crops not one tree or one plant. We are all growing together. If we are all, at times, different types of soil but all with the potential to flourish then this parable calls us to spread God’s word and to seek the coming of the kingdom together, as a community. How can we do this? I suggest we follow Jesus’ example and use stories, not parables but our own personal stories of lives lived with God.
When I left college they told us that the first thing we should do in our new parishes was to carry out a ‘contextual analysis’. This sounds a bit clinical, like it might involve petri dishes and microscopes but all they meant was to get to know the place. And the best way to do this is to listen to the stories. Stories are one of the most effective ways we have to convey ideas, thoughts and emotions. It’s why on the news they go behind the headline, behind the facts to find a person whose story tells the event in a more eloquent and memorable way. It’s why Jesus used parables to get his message across, to elicit a response from his hearers. The stories we tell about ourselves and others are key to our understanding. In sharing our own stories of faith we can bear witness to the word of God at work in our lives. In listening to the stories of others we can hear how God is at work in their lives.
What’s your story? How would you speak of God working in your life?
God speaks to all of us in individual and unique ways but it is when we share our stories, our experiences that as a community we can together begin to make sense of them. If you speak to people after a sermon or a film or a TV show different people will be struck by different parts and will remember different things. To deepen our understanding we need to be listening collectively to what God is saying.
It’s not alway easy to listen, we are not always the good soil but if we open our hearts to God he will work in us to remove our thorns and rocks and weeds, such is his love for his creation. The seed that is the word of the Lord is not planted individually. It is scattered generously over everyone. In listening together and in listening to others we can hear what God is saying to us all.
What is God saying to you?
What is God saying to us in these unusual times?
By listening and discerning together we can speak of where God is working in the world, we can respond to God’s word and we can seek the coming of the kingdom where all will bear fruit and flourish.