Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2023
The Sower Knows…
Text: Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23
Today is the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The season of Pentecost leads congregations into growth toward spiritual maturity and fruitful Christian living. This is especially evident in this Sunday’s Gospel. Following the momentous events of Easter, the seed Jesus, once buried in the dark earth was raised becoming the first fruits of the resurrection. The Christian’s life of faith, love, and witness germinates, grows, and multiplies from Christ and his victory over death. we pray that God’s Word would accomplish this in us as we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures as they are sown in our hearts.
The Word, that is, Jesus, as the seed, is explicit in the Old Testament Reading, including the assurance that “it shall not return to me empty” (Is 55:11). The seed parables in Matthew 13 show the temporal and eternal fruit that results in the lives of those who hear and understand the Word. Paul’s teaching in the Romans 8 calls our attention to the ultimate fruitful harvest that will be gathered from faithful hearing of the Word at the end of the age (“you will live,” “heirs of God,” Rom 8:13, 17), despite the opposition offered by our own sinful flesh and the enemies of the Gospel (“suffer with him,” 8:17; God’s “steadfast love” revives even “grass” that withers, Ps 103:15–17).
V 1 of our Gospel reading starts with “That same day.” The author is taking care to show the continuity of this new section (beginning in 13:1) with what has gone immediately before in chapter 12. In the preceding chapter, Jesus experienced the incomprehension and unbelief of the crowds and identified the Twelve as his true family who listens to his words and do the will of his Father in heaven (12:46–50). Therefore, the “crowds” here (v 2) are not a receptive and understanding audience, which explains Jesus’ explanation and warning later in 13:10–17, and why Jesus explains his parable only to the Twelve in verses 18–23.
In Vv 4–7: The flow of the parable starts immediately with seeds falling on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns—exactly the places seeds do not belong and which any normal sower worth his salt would avoid. Only at the end of this account of the sower’s strange work, verse 8, the reader learns that the exercise was not completely pointless. Though it does not amount to a strict calculation, the impression is that no more than a quarter of seeds sown had any chance of germinating and growing to maturity.
Vv 9: Jesus’ final statement, “Let the one who has ears hear,” a formula which appears earlier in 11:15 and comes up again later, in 13:43, is crucial to interpreting this parable within the context of this third discourse in Matthew. It is no mere —“So listen up.” It is a prophetic appeal and warning. Not all the seed of the kingdom will grow because they do not all fall on good soil, that is, on hearing ears. Jesus’ words in verses 10–17 are a telling commentary on this saying.
Now we move to Vv 18: Following his sermon to the crowd, Jesus speaks here only to his disciples, those who, although not perfectly, truly hear and understand him. He begins, “You all, therefore, hear the parable of the sower.” They are different from the unreceptive crowds.
Notice that Jesus does not indicate anywhere precisely what the yield of the seed falling in good soil is in any concrete sense. Yet, following the repeated pattern of sowing and harvesting unlike a farmer’s sowing and harvesting God’s sowing gives a sense of continuous sense of sowing and harvesting. Those who hear in turn become sowers themselves, participating in the work of the kingdom by living and speaking the Word to the world.
Vv 19–23: This text is an extended and carefully crafted metaphor (or allegory) explaining the different soil conditions as illustrative of how people receive the Word of God differently. While the parable clearly is speaking of those who have not heard the Gospel message seed, it also speaks to us who in numerous times in our lives, and indeed at various times in any day, correspond to the different soil types described in this parable.
Sometimes we may hear the Word, but it bounces off like seed thrown onto a rock-hard path because we do not bother to hear or understand.
At other times, we may hear it and receive it at some level, but it fails to take root and dies when our faith is challenged by something.
At other times, it is choked out by our worldly concerns and priorities, the busyness and demands of our hectic lives.
Yet despite it all, somehow, the miracle does happen. God’s seed-sowing work in peoples’ lives works out, through the Spirit’s power, into fruitfulness (Rom 8:14). Verse 23 notably describes the process of the “good soil hearer” simply listening, understanding and beginning the process of growth toward fruit-bearing. This is all described in an expedited, “time-lapse” style narrative, almost as if the fruit-bearing process begins immediately. There are no complications or impediments—simply the seed finding the soil where it can grow as intended by the sower and producing its increase.
Because of how this parable is constructed, we are tempted to assume that its weight of interpretation should lie with the seed's progress after it is sown. This precious seed of God’s life-giving Word must, we know, be received and nurtured by hearing ears and understanding hearts. Even though it is often wasted, as sinful human beings ignore and filter it out of their lives, we know that the seed of God’s Word is something of great value for which we, the receivers, naturally wish to take on responsibility, so that the seed grows well and produces fruit. We are called to work in the Lord’s kingdom, right? So there is work for us to do here. We all know that having viable seed is one thing, but where it is planted is the other half of grain farming. The natural question arises: What kind of soil is in my life? While this aspect of the parable is not to be ignored, it is not at the very heart of the story.
As in all the parables, Jesus is, rhetorically speaking, the “omniscient narrator.” His telling indicates that the sower in this story is no clueless amateur but knows what he is doing. He is well aware, even as he throws his seed into all the fruitless corners of the field as well as into the good soil, that much of that precious seed will die where it lands.
He knows already that only some of it, perhaps only a little of it, will reach good soil and come to harvest and that even this harvest will vary significantly in its fruitfulness. Yet he does not hold back one seed. It is hardly a cost-effective exercise.
There is a delicious irony here in this text. Jesus is himself that very sower as he speaks this parable to the unhearing crowds on the shore. He is himself enacting this parable, as he tells it. How many in this unhearing crowd will truly listen and have the seed of the kingdom take deep root in their lives so that it grows up and bears fruit? Going by the “rocky and thorny ground” Jesus encounters in chapter 12, very few, one would have to think.
This is why Jesus speaks in parables to the crowds but explains the parable’s meaning only to the Twelve, whose eyes and ears are “blessed” because, unlike the crowds, they do see and hear, although not perfectly (13:16–17). They are the true target audience here; they will be sent out to preach and sow the kingdom in rocky places and weed-infested fields as well as the good soil of the world. They are taught the “farming” of God’s kingdom and its dynamics. They are being shown that normal commercial-style measurable criteria do not apply. Investment and return in the kingdom do not work the way they do in the world. The world and, unfortunately too many Christian congregations think: avoid risk, make what you have last, and count the cost and reward. But the Gospel is not like this. It is not we who make the Gospel last or count! The seed is not ours but God’s. It is not like the predictable agriculture of the natural world. It is supernatural.
The kingdom of God is thrown into every corner of the world, even in places where it will be trodden thoughtlessly underfoot. What is the point of our sowing the Word of God in these post-Christian days in the West? Nobody listens or cares, it so often seems. But “the sower” of this parable knows more than we do. He knows that God’s Word never goes out only to return empty but always produces the fruit he intends even when it looks hopeless to human eyes (Is 55:10–11).
The sower knows there is good soil out there, hearts that miraculously hear and receive God’s Word and grace by the Spirit’s power and bear fruit. And how! The kingdom of God is not like the earthly sower’s seed supply. It is inexhaustible and superabundant. The sowing of the kingdom does not know any holding back or staying “safe.” It is always worth it, for God, as we are told in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him, that is God, who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.