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The Sower

“Listen! A sower went out to sow….” As Melbourne goes back into lockdown, what is the good news for us from Jesus’ parable of the sower? Also: just how much wheat were the hearers expecting from a head, and does it matter?

A sermon preached on Matthew 13:1-9 on 8/7/20

And here we are again, heading back into lockdown. Last week I said that every time I say “these are unprecedented times”, immediately the times become even more unprecedented. Maybe I need to think of a different phrase, because the future keeps on coming at us. Marx apparently said that history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and that feels about right to me.

We will all have our own reactions to this latest development. I, personally, swap between a sort of weary resignation, and frustrated anger. It doesn’t help that the rest of the country is heading in such a positive direction. But, I reflect, for me it isn’t so terrible. I have secure housing and income, and I live with someone I like. There are a lot of people doing it tougher than me. Lonely people. People with children dealing with cancelled holiday plans and the probability of going back to home-schooling. People with difficult, even abusive, relationships. People whose businesses are under huge stress, and who see their life’s work go up in smoke and a highly uncertain future looming. And, of course, people who actually have the virus, especially those with serious cases.

Difficult days.

What could the good news possibly be in this context?

A sower went out to sow. Grain must have been expensive for a peasant farmer in the First Century – the difference between life and death. Carefully hoarded, protected from rats, kept dry, ready for the all-important harvest. Fields must have been tiny – enough for a family, with maybe a little over for trade. Every square metre would have been diligently cared for, lavishly manured, lovingly tended. Then the seed would have been sown with care and attention. Some, of course, would be wasted, but most would be carefully cast, with due concern to wind direction and weather, and as evenly as possible, targeted to where it would do the most good.

That is not how the story goes though, is it? The sower here is profligate. Seed cast every which way, with no consideration given to cost or efficiency. In the field, into the brambles, onto the rocky ground, onto the path, with all sorts of different results. The birds immediately swooped down on the grain and gobbled it up, which is a pretty sub-optimal sort of a result. The rocky ground and thorny ground took a little longer to go wrong – the wheat had to grow a little before the weeds could smother it, or the sun could blast it.

The other seed, thrown on fertile ground, has amazing success. I don’t know what the acceptable rate of return on sowing seed would have been in the first century, but apparently in Canada[1]  at the moment you can expect 30-35 kernels per head of wheat. I assume that we have improved our ability to grow wheat over the last few thousand years,  but even if we said that thirty kernels per seed would be a good result, then sixty would be astonishing, and a hundred would be beyond imagining.

Let’s contextualise: if someone offered me an investment opportunity where every dollar I put it brought me a hundred dollars back… well, I would assume it was a scam of some sort and probably report them to the police.  Even if they offered me one which gave me three times as much as I could reasonably expect, I would be suspicious. Something which sounds too good to be true pretty generally is.

OK, enough with the maths and gratuitous investment advice. The point is that the sower sowed, some of the results were pretty uninspiring, and some were OK, and some were astonishing.

At one level, this is a description of what had been happening in Jesus’ ministry. He had been teaching and healing and doing his thing all around the area, and this was how it had been. A lot of people didn’t get it at all[2] – they thought he was a threat to their authority[3], or perhaps even an agent of Beelzebul.[4] Some had received it warmly, but had lots of reasons why they couldn’t follow him – family duties to attend to, a nice safe house to go back to.[5] And sometimes it was astonishing: legions of demons cast into swine[6], Matthew leaves his safe, well paid job as a tax-collector and follows him[7], a girl is restored to life[8].

I feel like we have been sowing our seed pretty diligently these last couple of months. Responsibly socially distancing, carefully considering what to do about opening up the church building. Doing our best to look out for one another. And, here in Melbourne, it doesn’t look like it has borne very impressive fruit.

And, more specifically to our community, it must feel like we have spent years diligently sowing the seed, being salt and light in our community, and yet here we are, feeling tired and discouraged. All our attempt to plan and build and move forward put on hold again. I imagine a lot of us must be feeling grief and disappointment. So much seed cast, and so much of it seems to have fallen on rocky ground.

One of the rules for reading parables[9] – well, maybe “guidelines” would be better – is to not be too quick to equate the various characters or other features in the stories to specific people. Just because a “king” is mentioned, does that mean that the king stands for God in the story? Parables aren’t necessarily analogies, where x always means God and so on.

Those of us familiar with the passage we read today will no doubt have noticed that we left out the bit where Jesus explains what the story meant. And, of course, the reading which equates the fertility of the ground to the readiness to hear and understand the word is in the Scriptures, and should thus probably be accepted as its primary explanation.

But there is another layer of meaning available. Rather than focus on the hearers, perhaps we could consider the sower. The sower is prodigal with his seed, just like God is prodigal with transforming love. God, Jesus says, sends the sun and rain down on evil and good alike[10]. God doesn’t distinguish between the deserving and undeserving. God doesn’t seem phased by success or failure. God isn’t concerned to be efficient.

Perhaps the key thing for us to take from this passage for today is the trustworthiness generosity of the sower. As soil, sometimes we’re fertile ground, sometimes dry and stony. But God is faithful, sowing regardless, with surprising results. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold.

God is at work in the world, bringing all things together for good. In the final analysis, the coming Kingdom is not our sole responsibility. It is something God is doing. How the Kingdom seems to work, however, is to do with our collaboration with God. We need to bear patiently with disappointment, to acknowledge our grief and failure. To allow access to our feelings, which are probably pretty raw at this exact moment in our shared life together. And to hold onto hope.

God is faithful. Abraham saw it demonstrated in his life. Jesus demonstrated it in his life, death, and resurrection. And we too are invited to hold fast to God’s hope. It isn’t all down to us: it does involve us. Our grief, shame, and failure are all too real. But they are not the central thing. The central theological truth – of Scripture, and of the world in general – is that God’s astonishing love is poured out without stint, and will achieve God’s desire for the world. It is God who is sowing the seeds of new life. All we have to do is to respond.

So, as we move forward with our week, here is a challenge and a promise.

The challenge for us is to ask ourselves: What is our share in the sowing of God’s good news? How can we be good community for one another, but with an orientation towards the world which allows the hope that we have become good news for our neighbours and this whole troubled city?

The promise is this: God says

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.[11]

A sermon preached at (or at least for – on Zoom) Preston High Street UCA on 8/7/20 on Matthew 13:1-9

[1] https://www.realagriculture.com/2017/06/wheat-school-counting-kernels-to-predict-yield/

[2] Matt 11:20-24

[3] Matt 12:14

[4] Matt 12:24

[5] Matt 8:18-23

[6] Matt 8:28-35

[7] Matt 9:9-13

[8] Matt 9:18-26

[9] https://www.faith-theology.com/2014/02/10-rules-for-preaching-on-parables.html Actually, this isn’t one of the rules. And I think I’ve already broken Rule #1 “Don’t assume God is one of the characters in the story.

[10] Matthew 5:45

[11] Isaiah 55:10-11

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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