Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan Sunday 16th July 2023
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I have an old book on gardening which tells me, amongst other things, how to prepare a seed bed. It talks about how to determine when the soil is ready to work – if it sticks to your boots it’s too wet; it talks about breaking down the clods with a fork; applying fertiliser and working it in; levelling out the surface with a rake; taking out any stones and debris; and then raking again to produce a fine tilth – lovely word, tilth – which should have, it says, the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs.
And then, having prepared your seed bed, there’s a whole page on how to get your seeds into the bed. You mark out the row with sticks and string, then you score a line the right depth, and then you carefully trickle out the seed, and so on and so on. If you do it properly, it is a careful and quite time-consuming job.
This is a book aimed at domestic gardeners. If you are planting a whole field, on an agricultural scale, then you can’t achieve this level of hand-crafted carefulness with seed-sowing. But, these days, you have machines that achieve a similar kind of control, and probably much greater accuracy in getting exactly the right spacing and placing of seeds.
There are good reasons for this precision. One is to give the plants the best start in life, spacing them to get optimum yield without any plant competing with its neighbours for light and food. The other is that seeds are investment. Seeds cost money. Even if you save them from the previous crop, that’s grain that you didn’t sell, or didn’t eat, so it has cost you indirectly. And you can’t afford to waste that money.
In first-century Palestine, with no machinery, they scattered the seed by hand; but they would still have been pretty careful to drop it in the right place – taking special care around the edges of the field, where you would find the paths, and the weeds, and the stony soil.
The people listening to Jesus live in a farming community; they know all this. So when Jesus tells this parable, it immediately grabs their attention. Here is Jesus describing a man who goes out to sow seeds with wild abandon, flinging the stuff all over the place – on the path, over the rocks, in the weeds, with complete disregard for where it lands or what happens to it afterwards. This is a picture of reckless extravagance. All that seed going to waste!
Unlike my gardening book, Jesus is not trying to give a tutorial on seed planting. He might have said, don’t try this at home. Like all his parables, this is a story told to illustrate a particular teaching. And, happily for us, in this case, the teaching is clearly spelled out, in the second part of our reading. It’s about different responses to the word of God, each response corresponding to one of the different soil conditions.
So we don’t need to ask what the parable means. That leaves us, though, with another question: why is Jesus telling this parable?
To answer this, we need to look at the context of this parable in Matthew’s gospel. It comes after two or three chapters about people responding in different ways to Jesus.
The reading is in chapter 13. We’ve seen, in chapter 11, the disciples of John the Baptist, thinking Jesus might be the one John talked about but we’re not quite sure; we’ve seen the unbelieving towns of Chorazim and Bethsaida who took no notice of Jesus at all; we’ve seen the Pharisees criticising Jesus for breaking the Sabbath by healing and by letting his disciples pick corn; we’ve seen large crowds following Jesus; and we’ve seen the Pharisees again suggesting his healing was through the power of Beelzebub not of God. We’ve seen Jesus, in these 2 chapters, being adored, being questioned, being criticised. And yet, whatever response Jesus gets, he stays true to his calling and his mission.
Matthew the gospel-writer, putting all this together some time in the latter half of the first century, sets this well-known parable in the context of these differing responses to Jesus, and in doing so, invites us to see Jesus as the extravagant farmer. Jesus, preaching the word, regardless of who is listening. Jesus, healing people regardless of whether they then become his followers or not. Jesus, healing in front of crowds, regardless of whether they are going to be impressed, or indifferent, or outright indignant. Jesus, sowing the seeds of the Kingdom of God with reckless abandon, loving extravagantly and generously and fully whether that love is returned or not. Much of it, so much of it, is wasted. But where it does take root, then it truly can make human lives blossom, make our lives blossom.
You might notice that when Jesus tells the parable, he’s speaking to the whole crowd at the lake side. But when he gives the explanation, we’re told, it’s just to his disciples. Why? Because they are being sent out as preachers too. They got sent for the first time in chapter 10, so they’ve already had one taste of this mixed response. Maybe Jesus is offering this parable as encouragement to them. He’s reminding them that when you preach to a crowd, you don’t know what the response is going to be. You can’t tell, just by looking at people, whether they are hanging on your every word, or thinking about lunch, or, as someone unhelpfully confessed to me, adding up the hymn numbers on the board. When you spread the seeds of God’s kingdom, you can’t plan or control or predict the response. Your job is to keep giving out, to keep sowing the seeds.
It goes against the grain (no pun intended) of our human economy. In our human economic thinking, when we invest, we expect some return on our investment. If we plant a field of wheat, we expect to have some idea of what the yield will be. If we invest in a business, we expect that business to make a profit – or perhaps to bring benefit in some other way, like a social enterprise, but still a return. If we give money to a charity, we expect the charity to use it wisely to benefit others, and there are strong laws now to make sure that happens.
But in God’s economy, the return is not the issue. Our call is not measured by the results we achieve/ And that’s good news for all of us. One of the other pieces of advice in my old gardening book is that, when you’re sowing big seeds, like runner beans, you put two beans in each planting hole, and then when they start growing, you pull out the weaker seedling. God doesn’t work like that. God cares for each one of us, no matter how small or weedy we are in faith. And God never gives up on us.
Look at the disciples with Jesus. They get things wrong, they misunderstand, they fall out, and Jesus never gives up on them. Even at the last supper, his last night on earth, they are still missing the point, and Jesus loves them to the end. God never says, I’ve put enough effort into this person; it’s not working; I’m giving up on them. God never says, I’ve forgiven this person too many times already; that was the last straw. God is endlessly giving and forgiving, extravagant in mercy and love.
This parable, then, brings us comfort, encouragement, and challenge.
The comfort is that, because of the endless generosity of God’s love, we are never beyond forgiveness. We are never so hopeless, so lost, so rubbish, that God does not care. God’s arms are always open in welcome.
The encouragement is that we don’t have to worry if our own efforts seem to be getting mixed, or even poor, results. Sometimes we give a lot of ourselves to a cause, or to a person, and it seems to make no difference. Sometimes we work really hard for the church, and the church doesn’t seem to grow. We start to wonder if it’s worth it. The parable tells us that the worth of what we are doing does not lie in the results; if it’s the right thing to do, it’s worth doing for its own sake.
That’s the comfort and the encouragement. And then the challenge.
The challenge is that, as we receive this grace and goodness from God, and as we know we are not to measure out our giving according to the results we get, then our call is to keep on giving. Our thanks for the extravagant love of God is to love extravagantly ourselves – to sow seeds of love wherever we go.
I’m reminded of the prayer of St Ignatius:
Teach us, good Lord,
To serve thee as thou deservest;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labour and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do thy will.
It’s a challenge, and sometimes it seems demanding. But if just one of those seeds lands in the right place, who knows what may blossom.
May God bless us in our sowing and in our blossoming.