In Matthew 13:1-23 we are offered one of the most evocative of all Jesus’ parable teachings. Matthew has Jesus not only tell the parable story, but also offer an allegory of the parable’s meaning. This is unusual for Jesus normally lets the parable speak for itself. In fact the effectiveness of a parable lies in not resorting to an allegorical explanation of its meaning, for its meaning is fluid and lies in it’s power to confront the hearer’s normative assumptions about how things should be.
This has led some scholars to suggest that the allegory section from 18 – 23 is an addition, perhaps by Matthew. Jesus’ detailed explanation using the device of allegory from v 18 onwards seems to be in marked tension with what he tells the disciples in v 13 – the gist of which is that the power of a parable lies in its ability to elude the hearers understanding as long as he or she remains unwilling to let the paradox at the heart of the parable turn normal expectations upside down.
In the Early Church the greater the distance between the community both in time and culture from the original Jewish context of Jesus’ parabolic teaching, the more likely the need for an allegorical interpretation. While allegories are instructive, they tend to tie down the fluid nature of the parable, confining it to a set meaning. Turning a parable into an allegory is a very non-Jewish thing to do, and hence another paradox for Matthew is the most Jewish of the Evangelists.
The Lectionary has jumped us from chapter 11 to chapter 13. In omitting chapter 12, which is concerned with the religious leaders rejection of Jesus and their desire to kill him, we miss an important piece for understanding Matthew’s locating the parable of the sower at this point in his structure – between the authorities rejections of Jesus and the more intimate rejection by the people of his hometown. The import of Matthew’s narrative concerning sowing and reaping the fruit of the seed seems to lie in the recognition that some hear and receive the word, while other fail to receive, because they do not hear. This question remains central in our own reflection on the context in which we live-out our Christian faith!
Three possible ways for us to receive this text
There are at least three if not more ways we can interpret meaning from this text. The traditional reading of the parable of the sower suggests that Jesus is the sower who sows the word of God. In this interpretation we, individually and communally, are the soil. The direction this interpretation takes us, is towards a pietistic examination of either our own failures or virtues depending on which kind of soil we think we are.
The problem for me in this approach is that it’s too neat and can become in the wrong hands more than a little judgmental. It also encourages the attitude of self-improvement. By the stint of our own hard work we can become more fertile soil for the reception of the word. We celebrate ourselves as fertile soil, while judging others as not. This interpretation rests on the assumption that except for the seed that falls upon good ground the rest of the seed is wasted. We bring to this parable assumptions drawn from our modern agricultural preoccupations with the two E’s -efficient planting, effective soil husbandry. So we plough under the weeds, we sieve-out the rocks, we uproot the hedgerows, and we eradicate the birdlife. We then increase the goodness of the soil through effective use of artificial fertilizers. As in farming, so in our lives; it’s all about our own carefully generated success.
A second approach to this text modifies some of the pietistic emphases of the traditional interpretation. The soil types are not distinct and mutually exclusive categories for receiving the seed. Offering a psychologically nuanced approach, the soil types when taken together represent all the ways in which the seed flourishes or dies within each one of us and within our communities. This approach requires me to be personal for a moment.
- In the area of my life represented by a deep longing to the core of my being to be open to an experience of the love of God, the seed finds a fertile soil environment. This is not only an internal, individual longing within me, it is also a relational longing that find fulfillment in community and relationship with others. I am faithful in private prayer and common worship, I am involved in community service and this produces a deep and rich experience of God, and the community that is God, in my life.
- Yet, so much of my experience is, at the same time, confined and constricted by my fearfulness. My courage and nerve fail me as I seek to take the safest path, and choose the least risky option. This is a shallow, stony soil in me where the Word of God withers for lack of the moisture of courage to risk, and hope to trust. It is only courage and hope that will take me beyond my familiar comfort zone. In other words, the birds represented by winged fears, come and devour the seed.
- Still struggling through the process of a major relocation of town, job, house, and friends makes me acutely aware of how the weeds of greed and phobia of scarcity grow up to choke my gratitude and restrict my generosity. In having been given so much in terms of material support and comforts, why do I seem to grow more anxious about losing what I have? As I contemplate the level of my pledge to my new Church community, the cares engendered in me by not yet knowing how much I will need to live on. My liberal credentials are sorely put to the test by the shock of moving from a low to a high tax economy. These pressures rise to choke my awareness of God’s profound generosity calling from me a response of gratitude that opens me to living generously.
The third way to approach this text is to focus not on the seed, but on the sower. This approach does not see Jesus as the sower, and nowhere does Matthew have Jesus identifying himself as the sower. Jesus simply says:
A sower went out to sow.
In this approach we see God as the sower and Jesus is the seed. The striking thing about God as sower is his recklessness and lack of agrarian efficiency. No farmer, modern or ancient – and here is the paradoxical confrontation at the heart of Jesus’ parable – would plant crops in this indiscriminate and wasteful way. Yet, God scatters the seed of the Word far and wide heedless of the type of ground upon which it falls. God scatters the seed everywhere in the world and its fruiting is not confined to having only fallen in our supposed, good soil.
God is free of our petty moralistic judgments about what is efficient, what is effective, and what is ultimately fruitful. God seems to foresee the possibility of fruitfulness in our failures, and in the arid areas of life where we remain limited by our fearful self-protections. It is in failure as much as in those parts of our experience where we encounter the self-satisfaction of our own success. .
I am learning the contours of a new community and for me this is, first a foremost, a listening exercise. As I listen in these first weeks, which coincide with the summer exodus of many from the regular routines of Church, something so very much needed as a time for re-creation, I hear of past initiatives judged as failures or mistakes and therefore not to be repeated. I hear of other initiatives that achieved their goal, but failed to afford those who had invested considerable time and talent with a sense of their efforts having been valued by either authority, or the community. I hear of initiatives when passion, effort, and success all came together in one place, and at one time. These are remembered with a longing to recapture or repeat those moments, even if the time has now past.
In experiences and disappointments, the dynamic of relational and community life unfolds amidst the ordinariness of our hopes and dreams if we dare to entertain them. As the contours of a new community emerge into my awareness I see the hand of God indiscriminately scattering the seed of the Word in the world so that it may bear unexpected fruit in us. Another way of speaking of God’s indiscriminate scattering of the seed of the Word is to speak of God as a God of unrestrained generosity!
 Pietism is an approach to the spiritual life that focuses almost exclusively upon individuals and their moral worthiness. The living of the spiritual life is reduced to a concern about me, my God, and whether I am getting or doing it rightly or wrongly. Pietism flourishes in the cultural emphasis on autonomy and individuality in modern American life.
This parable may also challenge us to take risks that may possibly fail; to try some things that may prove to be ineffective. Could “recklessly throwing out the seeds of God’s word” by similar to Luther’s “sin boldly”? Or to paraphrase it, “Do something, even if it’s wrong (or ineffective or inefficient)”? I’ve read business books that advise, “Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes.” Another book, (Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, by Robert Kriegel & David Brandt) offers these quotes: “Says former IBM chairman Tom Watson, ‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate'” [p. 97]. And “Said one executive, ‘If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn'” [p. 99]. Another book by Robert Kriegel (and Louis Patler) is entitled, If It Ain’t Broke … Break It!: and Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World. The willingness to make mistakes, to waste time and energy is part of the creative process. Such creativity may result in a wonderful break through or new product, etc. Why is it that so many people in the church, which is to be centered on forgiveness, find it so difficult to risk making a mistake — for the sake of the gospel?