A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 16, 2017: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

A Question or Two:

  • Couldn’t Jesus find a better field in which to plant seed?

Some Longer Reflections:

The words reveal that the sower knew what he was doing.

The seeds that landed in unfortunate locations did not land there because of professional sloppiness.  The sower sowed seed.  In fact, you probably ought to write that (in English): the seeder seeded seed, and the seed fell where it fell.

Why does this matter?  It matters because this parable is deeply realistic.  Every real farmer knows that every field is a mixed bag.  Some parts are boggy and will dry slowly in a wet spring.  Other parts are sandy and crops will wither in years of sparse rainfall.  Some areas are rocky, and some are eroded and some are ideal soil.  Real farmers know that real fields offer mixed conditions.  So does real life.  This parable knows that, too.

Real farmers plant the crop anyway.  And most years, it pays off.  That is one of the practical points made by this parable.  If the sower waits for perfect conditions and guaranteed success before risking the seed on the field, nothing will ever grow.  This is true if we are talking about actual seed or about the “word of the kingdom.”

But the parable knows something more than that.

The parable knows that the yields promised are crazy impossible.  If we assume that the crop being sown is wheat (a reasonable assumption shared by many interpreters), it is worth knowing that ancient wheat normally had twelve to fourteen seeds in each head.  If a seed tillered (grew more than one stalk from a single seed), it would normally not produce more than three seed heads, generally fewer.  That means that even thirty-fold yield is abnormal (though occasionally possible), but sixty- and hundred-fold yields are completely impossible.

This impossibility could just be storytelling hyperbole: simply an intensification of the part of the story that you are supposed to notice and reflect on.

If so, this is a story that says, “Dare to risk.  Plant the seed.”

That is a good point.  It intensifies the practical point of the parable.  Farmers know to plant the crop even in the face of real risks.  Perhaps the hyperbole is simply emphasizing this point.

But the harvests that are impossibly large suggest something else, as well.

Read 2 Baruch sometime.  In the midst of a soaring  apocryphal apocalypse, we are given a glimpse of a world turned right-side-up: a sower is sowing, and has to step lively because the harvesters are following close behind.  The idea is that when Creation is set free from bondage to futility, soil and seed get to do what they have always wanted to do: produce life.  As soon as seed touches soil, both rejoice and collaborate to erupt in life.  The stalk of grain races up from the soil, and the seed head explodes from the stalk.  Reapers have to hurry behind sowers because Creation was always meant to flourish, to erupt in unstoppable life, not to be “regulated by death” (to recall Albert Camus’ picture of the world in The Plague).  This parable presents a picture of a world set free from death and futility.  This is more than practical encouragement.  It is a promise of a new aeon that erupts out of the career and teaching of Jesus, God’s messiah who is turning the world right-side-up.

“Let anyone with ears listen!,” says Jesus.  That means that it does not require magical powers or supernatural insight to understand that the world is rising from death.  All it takes is ears.  Everyone has ’em.  (And for people whose ears do not work, one of the signs of the world turning right is the restoration of mobility, sight, and hearing for everyone.)

There is one more little element to notice in this scene.

When Jesus explains and expands the story he told, he tells his hearers that it is the “evil one” who comes along and snatches away the seed that was sown.  This is a workable (and common) translation of πονηρὸς, but the word implies not so much malice as pointlessness.  I translate it (usually) as “the worthless one.”  I like that translation here.  The one described as πονηρὸς is snatching up the seed before it has any chance to grow.  Every group of which I have ever been a part has had at least one person like this.  They know ahead of time that nothing will work.  They snatch up hope before it has a chance to ripen.  They prevent (if they can) any action at all, thus guaranteeing that NOTHING AT ALL will happen, good or bad.  I call that sort of activity worthless.  The parable appears to agree.

Let anyone with ears listen.


5 thoughts on “A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 16, 2017: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

  1. Love this – especially the last bit! I see it all the time in church groups. I want to say – don’t be that person! Especially around newly planted folks!

    Liked by 1 person

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