Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Matthew’s take is very different. In the preceding chapter, Jesus is challenged by Pharisees when he heals a man on the Sabbath and again when he casts out demons. They ask him for a sign of his authority, but instead he criticizes them and calls them evil. Even Jesus’ own family try to restrain him, and he rejects them. Even though Matthew’s gospel uses many of the same stories that Mark’s does in setting up this parable, Matthew’s conclusion is far different.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses this parable and the others that come after it as parables of judgement. This parable becomes an interpretation of why Jesus and his message is rejected by the religious establishment and even his own family: their hearts are hard and will not receive the seed of his word. Even those who do receive his word are not perfect; some will bear fruit 100 fold, but some will only bear 60 fold, and still others only 30. Even though they relay the same parable and give the same explanation for it, Mark and Matthew use it for very different purposes.
When Jesus originally told this parable, he likely did so without giving any explanation because, as I said, parables are intended to be open-ended stories that convey the same truth in many different ways. However, over time, the community of believers that shared this parable with one another came to understand it in a certain way, and that understanding is the explanation that Mark included in his gospel, and which Matthew and Luke later copied into theirs. Even so, Matthew, when writing his gospel, was writing in a different context that Mark, and trying to address different issues. Reading chapters 12 and 13 of Matthew’s gospel, one gets the sense that Matthew is trying to address the concerns of his Jewish-Christian audience, especially the question of why they are being rejected by their synagogues and even their families. Matthew shares this parable with them to reassure them that they are in fact the good soil in which God’s word is bearing fruit. Those others who reject them now may bear fruit later, or they may not, but if they don’t, they will receive the judgement of God, and the faithful will be vindicated.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that kind of message makes me uneasy. We’ve grown a lot in our understanding of psychology and sociology since Matthew’s time, and it is very hard for me to proclaim or even believe that God will judge those who do not receive God’s work with open hearts, especially if, as the parable seems to insinuate, they can’t do anything to make themselves more receptive to that word. It’s easy enough to say, “Well, like it or not, there it is in black and white; the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But, it’s not that simple. Even for a parable like this one, a parable that has the “answer” written right there with it, even the Bible itself does not speak with one voice about how this parable and its interpretation are implied.
Not only do I find it hard to believe this, I find it harmful to believe this. Whereas this message may have given solid hope and courage in the face of adversity to Matthew’s readers, today this message creates Christians who are prideful and intransigent. The idea that only those who believe the right things are saved and the rest are damned allows us to either write off the unbelievers as heathens consigned to their fate or else to waste away worrying for loved ones who don’t share our particular interpretation of scripture.
In our reading from Romans this morning, Paul reminds us that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the past several weeks, we have heard Paul building the case that the law given by God on Sinai cannot save us, because it cannot make us righteous; only Christ can do that. For us to live our lives governed by that law is to make ourselves slaves to it. To live by the law, to make obedience to that list of rules our central, guiding focus in life, is worse than useless—it is death. Instead, we are invited to devote ourselves and our attention on listening to and following the Spirit of God; that, he says, is life and peace.
While Paul is talking specifically about the law of Moses contained in in the first few books of the Bible, the same can be said of the whole Bible; for if we take the stories of Jesus’ life from the gospels and Paul’s advice and exhortations from the epistles and make for ourselves a new law, we fall into the same old trap about which Paul wrote in Romans. Instead, Paul says, trust the Spirit rather than lists of rules. Rather than selling ourselves in slavery to this or that law, live the resurrection we share with Christ and trust in the Spirit of that resurrection that God has placed in our hearts.
This is absolutely not to say that God’s Word is relative or that we each get to make our own truth. As followers of Christ, we are guided by his example and by the words of Scripture, but those words do not bind us to a single, dead interpretation of Scripture.
And, so setting our minds on the Spirit of Resurrection, how might we reinterpret this parable of the sower? If the message of judgement that Matthew draws from this story is no longer helpful to us in our context, what new message might we hear Christ speaking to us in these words for our time and place?
One possible interpretation we may have is that, though it seems like there will always be plenty of places where the seed cannot bear fruit—the path, the rocks, the weeds—the fruit that is produced is bountiful—more than enough to provide seed for the next planting, food for the sower and his household, and grain to sell besides.
Another is that the ability of the seed to produce is limited by the conditions in which it finds itself. We should not worry, then, about seed that seems wasted, for the produce of the seeds that do sprout will still be sufficient for the sower’s purposes. It might also mean that as well as sowers, God may be calling us to be rock-pickers and weed-pullers, building relationships with people and preparing the ground to receive the seed through selfless service and genuine love.
Still another interpretation is that if we are sowers like Jesus in this parable, we are encouraged and empowered to sow the seed liberally, not worrying about whether or not it will sprout where it falls, but only trusting in God to do the work of growing the fruit, for as much as we know now about psychology and sociology, faith and its workings remain a mystery to us.
That’s the beauty of parables: even when there’s only one way to interpret them, there’s never only one way to interpret them. We trust the words of Scripture because they live and evolve along with us, always changing to guide us the same old truth in new and different ways. But more than the living words of Scripture, we trust the living Word of God who dwells among us in water, wine and wheat. To set the mind on the things of the flesh—even Holy Scripture itself—is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ is life and peace.