Sunday, July 12, 2020
We are all good soil
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
The Parable of the Sower in Matthew
Today we begin three weeks of readings from Matthew that are some of the famous parables that are such a prominent feature of his gospel.
In Godly play all the parables story kits are kept in gold boxes. The idea behind that is parables have multiple meanings. We are expected to unpack the parable just as a child in Godly Play takes out the pieces of the parable kit. When the Godly Play storyteller picks each character of item out of the box, they ask the children what they think each piece might be and what it might represent. Parables have the advantage of not always having the same meaning and that is true for today’s parable of the sower.
There are several different types of parables. This parable is a parable about the kingdom of God. The first thing we must realize is that the world of the parable will be different from our world. We must approach this parable with fresh eyes as we unpack what Jesus is saying. We must also appreciate that for Jesus the kingdom is not something in the distant future but very much of the here and now. Br. Mark Brown from The Society of St. John the Evangelist wrote the following post in the SSJE word of the day series.
In the Kingdom of God fear itself is cast out and love is perfected in us. Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom not only to describe the future, but to invite us into that future, even now.
The theologian C. H. Dodd defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought.” So how does this parable tease us into active thought? Well before we can ask that question, we need to realize that we are at a distinct disadvantage as modern day urban dwellers. Jesus’ audience was predominately agrarian.
Some parables lend themselves to the use of allegory in interpretation. By allegorical, I mean looking at the various images as symbols representing something in particular. This parable is one that can be interpreted in this manner. One of the hints that this is true can be found in the fact that this parable shows up in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each writer has a different idea of what the parts of the parable represent. In Mark the word for seed is singular, not seeds plural. In the case of Mark, the seed is a disciple and the soil is the community in which it is planted. Some communities produced a great harvest while others withered and died.
In Matthew the word for seed is plural and here we run into one of those parts that Dodd referred to as striking us as strange. Now we can follow the image from Mark and interpret the seeds as people that Jesus has sent out. However, we can also look at the seeds as the word of God and the different types of soils represent different groups or individuals who have heard the word. This seemed to work for it allowed me to examine the question of why did the sower, who could represent Christ, seem to scatter the seed, the word, so carelessly.
One possibility for this is that in the farming techniques of the time sometimes the seed was scattered first and then the soil would be tilled. It might be possible to say that the farmer might not know what the nature of the soil is until after he had sowed the seed and then tilled the earth. This led me to then consider the question of what kind of soil are we, you and I?
The problem I was having in following this line is that the image of the sower spreading the seed indiscriminately just did not seem to make sense in a world where seed would be valuable and a good farmer would not waste it. A wise farmer would know his field and would know where the path was and where the rocky soil lay. He would not waste precious seed on unproductive soil. As I worked with this, I found that I was also getting stuck with the other images and what to do with them; the images of the birds, thorns and heat. Were these just adding detail, or did they have a greater significance?
Here is the point that should make us pause and ask the “I wonder“ type of question that we use in Godly Play. Of course, no farmer would scatter seed so indiscriminately, but God does not work the way we do. For this parable is in fact about the kingdom and grace not farming. The definition of grace in our catechism is “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” God’s grace is out there for all to obtain.
So the question is not what kind of soil are you for we are all created by God as good soil and God knows that even if we do not. The real question is what has happened that may have caused you to react to the word as one of the other types of soil, the ones that do not bear fruit. We all start out as very good soil and then life happens, but we are still good soil. The soil on the path has been walked over and driven over again and again until it is hard and tough difficult for the word to penetrate. Some of us may feel like that.
Last week we did a meditation on the burdens that we carry and the importance of allowing Jesus to share our burdens or to take away our burdens. It can be those burdens I spoke of last week that are what turns us into the soil that is the path, the rocks or the thorns and weeds. Those burdens can be the birds who eat the seed.
I have spoken earlier about this being a liminal time, an in-between time. This past week I’ve spent a couple afternoons reading the Oneing magazine put out quarterly or so by Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. The entire issue is devoted to the concept of liminal space. One thing that is clear is that liminal times are always times of discomfort and disorientation and that is certainly true of our world today. Liminal times are also times of transition and change, but necessary change if growth is to happen.
I suspect that many of us feel like we are soil that has been compacted by the cares and worries of our world and want to get back to the way it was. Maybe those cares are the weeds that choke out the good seed. Liminal times are not however about going back to what was. They are about moving forward to what can be. Of course, if we are that compacted soil the only way to get back to our good state is for someone to dig into our hard-packed selves and break that up so we can receive the seed and allow it to grow. We need to be prepared to receive that new seed, the seed that is grace that God is always sowing in our world and our hearts.
Richard Rohr shared the following thought from Brian McLaren on Thursday this week:
“In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want to get back to our favorite coffee shop, our favorite restaurant, our church service. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with so many of those desires for the old normal. But I’d like to make a proposal. If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. There were problems with that old normal many of us weren’t aware of.
The old normal, when you look at it from today’s perspective, was not so great, not something to be nostalgic about, without also being deeply critical of it. As we experience discomfort in this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses the weaknesses and problems that were going unaddressed in the old normal. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.”1
What if our old normal was one of the three unfruitful places where the seeds fell? What if this is a chance to become, be transformed into or return to being the good soil that God created us to be. Soil that will bear the incredible harvest of a hundred-fold? We are in a liminal time where, as Brian McLaren proposes, we can move forward rather than back. Move to a place of being even more fruitful than before.
We were all created in God’s image and likeness. We were all created as good soil, fruitful soil. In this liminal time we need to let the holy gardener do their work.