A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 16th July 2023
(Is.55: 10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23)
Our gospel reading today from Matthew tells of the well-known parable of Jesus – that of the Sower. Parables were one of his favourite ways of teaching those who flocked to listen to him. The three synoptic gospels record almost 40 parables he used. Clearly those who heard them were fascinated, compelled by them; and we heard just now that such great crowds gathered to hear him that Jesus had to get into a boat to be at a vantage point to speak to those assembled on the beach. In using parables he was in a long tradition of Jewish teachers.
But what were parables? They were short, often intriguing stories, generally using scenes which would have immediately recognisable in daily life – farming scenes like today’s sower, the field where a rival had sown weeds among valuable wheat, or the barren fig tree; every day experiences like the woman sweeping her house to find a lost coin, or little sharply-drawn stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. They were intended to leave hearers with nagging questions, inviting them to go on thinking rather than just casually listening. Some people reluctantly realised that he was pointing at them. Others, including the disciples, often appeared not to understand them, not to get the point.
Sometimes gospel writers added an “interpretation” of the stories, as Matthew has done in today’s reading. Certainly for many centuries commentators and preachers provided extended “explanations” of what they saw as allegories – stories with a deeper, hidden meaning. I am pretty sure that today there will be many sermons exhorting congregations to ask themselves where they fit into the story: are they like seed fallen on rocky ground or among thorns? Are they good soil where seeds mature well and yield a good harvest?
But scholars are not at all sure that this is what Jesus intended in his use of parables. Obviously telling stories and painting word pictures is good teaching style. They fix themselves in the hearer’s mind. I must have heard many sermons in my life – as I expect many of you have. But I regret to say I remember few. I do best when I read something and can go back to it and brood on it. But those who listened to Jesus were hearers, not readers of books. Stories and pictures were the best ways of implanting ideas and questions in people’s minds. It seems likely that leaving aside the gloss or interpretation provided by the gospel writers, Jesus told his parables in a straightforward way, leaving the audience to figure meanings out for themselves. Actually centuries of interpretation can blunt the immediacy of the parables for us. Take the example of the story of the so-called Prodigal Son. That description has passed into folk law. But if we read the story with fresh ears, as it were, we realise it could be called the parable of the loving and generous father, or even the parable of the self-righteous and mean older son. All those meanings are present if we think about the story at any length.
But let’s return to the Sower. Certainly those people gathered on the lake shore would have recognised that this was a story with a deep spiritual meaning. Our reading from Isaiah reminds us that there was in Jewish tradition the theme of the Word of God acting powerfully on and in the world like the process of sowing seed and watching it sprout and grow. “… 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 succeed in the thing for which I sent it..”
Here the context was a vision of the return of the people of Israel from captivity on a journey which was the return to a kingdom where even nature itself would sing and clap its hands in praise. But Jesus’s parable was more problematic. Of course it is possible to concentrate on the fate of the seeds in different places where it fell. But there is a more basic question. What was the farmer doing in the first place to chuck seed on to rocky ground, on pathways or among obvious thorny scrub? Those of us who are gardeners do not just throw seed around. Seeds are expensive and valuable and we do our best to sow them where they will grow – first in seed trays, pots or prepared seed beds. In Jesus’s context seed would have been a very significant resource for a farmer’s livelihood. It would have been carefully stored and then sown. So what was this farmer doing broadcasting his seeds any old how? Maybe one of the core meanings of the story, before the interpretive straight jacket offered by later commentators, was the incredible generosity of God – almost reckless in its range – offering His Word of love in the most unprepossessing of places as well as fields likely to yield up a good harvest.
This vision of God’s boundless generosity surely lies at the heart of our epistle too. Paul, the trained writer and theologian, writes in more measured style, without the preacher’s use of story and imagery. But the message is similar. We have been offered through Christ the choice, the opportunity, of life re-fashioned, re-orientated. It does not matter who we are, or where we come from in worldly terms. What is utterly central is that we are offered such grace that it can only be described as the spirit of Christ living and working within us. Stony ground, shallow soil, thorn-infested places, can be made new and fruitful. Or to quote from an earlier part of Isaiah (ch. 35): “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom … it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”