Matthew 13:1-9 / Proper 10A / 10 July 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water 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 shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11
So then what’s the problem? Why doesn’t the infallible Word seem not to work infallibly? Why does it seem to return empty or at least not pay returns much less dividends? Why do our baptized children fall away? Why are the churches in decline in America, and not just the Lutheran ones? Why are some apparently saved and not others if Christ indeed died for all? Why don’t I see more fruitfulness of the Word in my own life and the lives of the Christians around me?
Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower goes to the heart of these questions.
Jesus is telling parables, and this is the first of them. Parables are clever little stories, earthly analogies about heavenly things. They’re not intended to make things clear but to obscure things. Jesus began teaching in parables when the people began to reject His teaching. He told the parables so that in seeing they would not see and in hearing they would not hear nor comprehend. That’s how you deal with know it alls who can’t be taught. You teach them in riddles so they realize how dumb they really are.
The parable of the sower and the seed is quite simple, and Jesus even gives the crib sheet to His disciples so they don’t get it wrong. They’re no brighter than the crowds, but at least they haven’t turned their backs on Him. Yet.
A man goes out to sow seed and he scatters everywhere. It falls on four kinds of places – hard pavement, shallow rocky soil, weedy soil, and good, plowed under soil. And of course, the only soil in which the seed produces anything is the plowed under soil, and it yields thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold what was sown. “He who has ears to hear, let him ear.”
“Ears to hear” are faith ears that hear things in terms of Jesus and His death and resurrection. They are ears attuned to the Word, listening for the voice of their shepherd.
Privately, the disciples ask Jesus about the parable, and He gives them the inside word. The seed is the Gospel of the kingdom, in a word the seed is Jesus, the promised Seed. The soils are various conditions of the heart. The hard pavement is the unbelieving, hardened heart. Though the Gospel is heard, it pings right off the hardened heart. This happens when people hear the word of forgiveness in Jesus, but they don’t think they need to be forgiven. The conversation runs something like this:
“Jesus Christ died for your sins.”
“Sins?” Are you calling me a sinner?”
“Yes, and Jesus died for sinners, you included.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not a sinner! I don’t smoke, drink, gamble, cuss, womanize. I’m kind to animals, recycle, and give to the United Way. What do I need forgiveness for?”
“Christ died for sinners.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then he didn’t die for me, because I’m not one of those sinners.”
The hardened heart, the refusing heart. The only unforgivable sin is the refusal to be forgiven. That’s why we need to be reminded on a weekly basis that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The truth is that everything we do is so tainted by our sin, even our good works need to be forgiven. And if you don’t believe that, the Gospel is going to ping of your hardened little heart like seed off of hardtack. And then birds, that is the devil, comes along and snatches it away.
I suppose we don’t think about the Gospel of Jesus being bird food and being gobbled up like seed off the sidewalk. Luther recognized that. He said the Gospel is like a local rain that falls in a place for a while and then, when people tire of it, it moves on somewhere else leaving a drought behind. Pray that it doesn’t happen here, my brothers and sisters. We’re coming dangerously close to drought conditions. People are being conditioned to follow their hearts rather than the Word, to rely on their feelings rather than the Word of Christ, to feel good about themselves rather than die to themselves.
Some seed fell among the rocks. The shallow soil. This is the shallow hearing. The one who hears the Gospel of Jesus and is full of joy, joy, joy, joy down in his heart. Faith based on feelings is faith with no root, a shallow faith unable to endure the heat of persecution, hardship, and testing. This is what happens when you use your heart as a barometer of God’s presence and the Spirit’s working. History has proven it over and over again. Faith based on feelings and enthusiasms does not endure.
Unfortunately, American religious soil is particularly shallow. Our religious past is shaped by the two “great awakenings,” those traveling revivals that pushed an emotional response, that you had to feel forgiven, that you had to invite Jesus into your heart and have some sort of conversion experience. This is not to downplay feelings. Feelings are part of our makeup as human beings. We are emotional beings. But emotional is not the same as spiritual. Animals too display the same range of emotions as we have. In fact, one could argue that emotions are more the animal side of us. It’s the devil’s trick to link feelings with faith. It’s the basis of all religious enthusiasms.
Faith based on feelings cannot survive the test of persecution. This is not the kind of faith that can endure under the sword of Islam or the hammer and sickle of communism. For that you need an objective word – Baptism, Absolution, Body and Blood. Something outside of yourself and certain, no matter how you happen to feel.
Some seed fell among the thorns. The thorns are the cares and concerns of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. Anxieties such as what will we eat, what will we wear. Houses, investments, portfolios, retirement. It’s no coincidence that the two rich men that appear in Jesus’ parable both wind up in hell. The rich man who ignored Lazarus begging at his gate. And the man who dropped dead over the blueprints for his bigger barns to store his bumper crop of grain. St. Paul warned that some people, pursuing riches and gains, had forfeited their own souls.
One good test of how weedy your soil is is to ask yourself what keeps you from receiving the Word and the Supper every time it is available? What prevents you from worshipping? Whatever that is, you have identified the weeds that are choking the Word and preventing it from being fruitful.
Again, the American soil has not been conducive to the Word being fruitful. So many options, so many important things to tend to, so many ways to amuse ourselves literally to death. We are a nation of ABC Christians – anything but church. We teach our children to do the same thing. They learn at a very early age to put play and work ahead of worship. So why then are we surprised when the Word seems to return void in them and they so easily forsake their Baptisms? Even our churches have gone weedy, concerned more with property and programs than with repentance, forgiveness, and the world for whom Christ died.
If the church dies in this country, it will not be for lack of resources but for lack of repentance. It will have choked to death on its own riches.
And then there is the seed that falls on good soil, soil that has felt the blade of the plow. Broken and turned under soil. It yields a harvest – one hundred, sixty, thirty. It’s the only condition of the soil that is fruitful. Soil that is plowed. Dead soil.
Think about that for a second. Soil is dead. The life and vitalities and energies are not in the soil but in the seed. Seeds are embryonic life. Soil is dead. It’s made out of dead stuff. And death is the medium in which the seed springs to life and grows and yields fruit. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was referring to His own death on the cross where He laid down His life for the life of the world. For your life too.
The only soil in which the seed of Gospel, that is Jesus, is productive is dead soil. Plowed under soil. Broken down soil. Soil that can say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Our hearts must be broken. Our hands emptied. Our minds cleared before the Gospel of Jesus can bear fruit – 30, 60, 100-fold.
Soil can’t plow itself. Wouldn’t that be great? Self-plowing soil. Gardening made easy. But you gardeners know what you have to do – digging, turning, rototilling. Hardtack cannot turn itself into good soil. Rocks do not automatically clear themselves from a field. Weeds do not pluck themselves. Sinners, children of Adam steeped in Adam’s sinful condition, cannot make themselves receptive to the saving Word of Jesus. They will not let Him in no matter how many times He knocks. We do not naturally and willingly repent. We must be driven to it.
The rototiller of God’s law must plow us under. We need to be broken, turned six feet under, crushed if the Word of Jesus is going to be fruitful in us. This is why the apostle says, “We rejoice in our sufferings.” This is why you ought to rejoice and be giddy glad when someone confronts you with your sin, when you feel the pangs of guilt and shame, when you get caught red-handed, when you get the taste of your own death in the form of sickness and weakness, when you die to this world losing goods, fame, child, spouse, when the mirror of the Law holds up the ugly truth of what you are in yourself apart from Jesus.
When you find yourself afflicted, persecuted, suffering, whatever it is that plows you under and threatens to kill you, Rejoice! Rejoice! That’s right! Get down on your knees and thank God for your suffering and misery. You’re being plowed under by God. You’re being turned into good, productive soil!
No, it won’t make you happy. You won’t feel good about yourself. You won’t have anyone to blame but yourself. You won’t like it one bit when you come to the realization of how poor and miserable a sinner you actually are. I don’t think it was a happy moment when the apostle Paul wrote, “Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?”
The good news is that God does not leave the plowed field to lie fallow. The sower sows the seed. Recklessly. All over the place. The word is preached whether men like it or like it not. Whether they listen or listen not. Whether they believe it or believe it not. The Divine Sower casts the word of Jesus, the good news that in Jesus there is forgiveness, life, and salvation. That in Jesus there is no condemnation under the Law. That in Jesus there is peace and hope.
This parable calls for patience on the part of the church. We preach the Word. We baptize. We call men to repentance. Few seem to hear it. Most of it pings of hardened hearts. Some of it gets a shallow, superficial hearing. Some gets choked out by riches and cares. Hearts grow cold. People fall away. We get discouraged. We stop trusting the Word and start doing it our way instead of God’s way. We try to make the Word more palatable, more pleasing, more relevant, more entertaining.
Instead, we ought to pray that God stir up trouble. That He afflict them and us with a godly grief that leads to repentance. That He run the plow of the Law straight through their hearts and ours.
And the promise in all this is that Word of the Gospel, that Word who is Jesus, never returns empty but always accomplishes HIs purpose. You’re dead in yourself but alive to God in Christ. You no longer live but Christ lives in you. Dead soil and living seed means a good harvest – 30, 60, 100-fold come resurrection day. You can count on it.
In the name of Jesus,