Every year my wife and I drive to Omaha, Nebraska, from our home just east of Kansas City, Missouri, for my annual appointment at the Nebraska Medical Center where I had my two liver transplants 16 years ago. We take our camping trailer and stay for a few days at a wonderful state park between Omaha and Lincoln. It’s not just about sitting down with my doctor and discussing health/medical issues. Naturally, the trip brings back a rush of memories from two of the most difficult months of my life. We also think of the two unknown donor families, whose loved ones died, most likely under tragic circumstances. I don’t know any of those details and probably never will. And so, there’s an emotional component to this trip, as well.
We follow pretty much the same route each year: north on Interstate 29 through the northwest corner of Missouri, cross over into southwestern Iowa for a few miles, then head westward across the Missouri River into Nebraska heading for Mahoney State Park. We will seee a lot of cornfields on our journey. At this point it could well be another bumper year for corn. We’ve already received considerable rainfall this summer, and if much more falls in coming weeks there could easily be a return of flooding. We’ve witnessed that, too, in previous years. Mother Nature can be fickle–and sometimes ferocious. I’m not sure how much of the corn we will see may end up as food for humans or animals and how much will be turned into ethanol (that’s probably a discussion for another blog posting anyway).
Even as someone who grew up in the Midwest and has certainly never been a stranger to the sight of vast acreages growing corn, I am always struck by the awesomeness of hundreds, perhaps thousands in some cases, of acres of land under cultivation with a single crop. Of course, I’m fully aware of the enormous costs undertaken by farmers for seed, chemical fertilizers, and giant equipment to plant, harvest, and transport to grain elevators.
All these images swirl in my mind as I read this week’s Gospel lection. Jesus’ parable of the sower is arguably his most well-known. Most likely, the allegorical explanation that comes a little later in chapter 13 was added by a later commentator rather than Jesus’ own work. It’s perhaps good to keep in mind a certain wariness about turning any of the Gospel parables into allegories, if for no other reason than to do so tends to limit the possibilities for deeper meaning. And let’s be honest here: Jesus was all about deeper meanings.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! –Matthew 13:1-9 NRSV
There are many ways to interpret this parable, but one of the most common is to understand it as a template for evangelism. We’re to get out there in the world and spread the seed of the gospel, being careful to plant the seed in the most advantageous places–among those presumably most receptive. It doesn’t take much imagination to assign individuals or groups we’re familiar with as “rocky ground,” “thin soiled,” “thistle infested,” or “most likely to be eaten by birds.” The “good soil” will produce the greatest abundance, of course; therefore, if we want the church to grow and prosper we should direct our attention there.
But what if this isn’t about us being the sower? Perhaps Jesus was simply echoing a long tradition in the Hebrew Bible of God as sower (Genesis 1:11-12, Jeremiah 31:27, and Hosea 2:23) in this parable. If that’s true here, why would Jesus be talking about wasting a good deal of the seed/Word if the whole point is to reap an abundant harvest?
Maybe, just maybe, this story isn’t really about evangelism efforts and strategic plans. Perhaps it’s just about grace. And if it is, then what might that say to us about our attitudes toward so-called rocky places? Or what if we’re like the seeds the sower scatters? Well, I don’t have definitive answers to that. But I do know a little about divine grace, because I’ve been on the receiving end more than a few times. None of us ever deserves grace, yet God continually provides it.
Perhaps it’s simply a human characteristic or tendency that when we pick up the Bible to read we automatically think it’s all about us–primarily as individuals, less so as communities or even the human race as a whole. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I read this passage of “a sower went out to sow” as “God went out to scatter grace,” it turns everything upside down.
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.