I’m not much of a gardener. I do not have a green thumb. I do not have a good agricultural sense. In fact, if someone asked me how to produce a good fruit or vegetable my response would not be about how one would grow the desired plant. Instead, I would likely tell them to get up early on a Saturday morning, take some money out of the bank, and head to the nearest farmer’s market. The fruits and vegetables would be there for the picking!
To be honest, Abbi and I did try our hand at growing our own vegetables once. A couple of years ago, in the days before Noah, we decided we wanted a garden. We enlisted the help of some friends who helped us to prepare a plot of land. Now, what we had in mind was a small garden where we could plant a few things. Our friend had a different idea. We ended up with a 30-yard long and 10-yard deep garden.
It was probably too big for two amateur gardeners, but we did our best to produce what vegetables we could. We cleared the weeds and prepared the rows. We planted the seeds and watered the land. We sowed some seed in some good places and some, honestly, in some bad places. Before too long, to my own shock, we ended up with a good crop of three-foot long squash, some tomatoes, and a few beans.
Many of you have more productive experiences with farming and agriculture. You either grew up on the farm or raising some of your own crops in a garden has been a natural part of your family’s life for as long as you can remember. In this way, you are much like the people of Judea during Jesus’ day. Most of the people in Jesus’ time had to survive through some participation in agriculture and growing their own crops. Jesus used these experiences throughout much of his teaching and interactions with the people.
That is especially the case in our passage for this morning from Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. Jesus makes use of the agricultural background that many hand in order to teach this familiar tale of the parable of sower. As the story goes, Jesus says that a sower, himself, goes out into the field to plant a seed. Some of the seed was planted along a footpath and was quickly eaten by the birds. Another seed was planted in rocky soil and could not survive. Same was the case for the seed planted among the thorn. However, the seed that was planted in the good soil produced a rich harvest of fruit.
Our familiarity with this passage often leads us to focus specifically on that last seed and what it teaching us regarding faithful living. This seed reminds us to allow the seed God plants in our hearts to be the catalyst for transformation in our lives that leads to fruitful lives and ministries. Sometimes, though, I wonder if our familiarity with the passage prevents us from something that Jesus may be saying to the people then and to us today. What if there was something more for us in this parable of the sower than just a recitation of the common refrain of producing good fruit?
To hear what might be in this passage for us we need to do some digging, if you will, around the passage’s context. Things are beginning to heat up between Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus is beginning to experience opposition to his teaching and understanding of Scripture. It was even creating some friction within his family. Not everyone responded positively to Jesus’ words and actions. Some struggled with the full meaning of Jesus’ teaching and the challenging nature of his love and desire for all.
In response to some of this opposition Jesus decided that the time was right to move out towards the seaside. It was there that a large crowd gathered to hear him speak. He decides to speak to them in parables. The parables that Jesus speak have a dual purpose. First, they are an opportunity for Jesus to speak at length, by using the things that people are familiar with to talk more about the vastness of God’s kingdom. As well, Jesus uses this time to respond to his critics and the various responses that are possible to his teachings.
The response begins with this parable that includes four different responses to Jesus’ teaching. We are thankful for Jesus’ interpretation of the passage that helps us to think about what this passage says to us. It is in an interpretation that comes after the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke to the crowds through the use of parables. Taking the interpretation we are given in Matthew 13:18-23 we are able to discern what this parable of the sower might mean for us.
So, what does Jesus say to us through these words? First, the seed is representative of God’s love and the message of Christ’s grace. The seed that falls on the footpath is like someone who hears the message about Jesus’ love and fails to act on it. The evil one comes and snatches away what had been planted. Seed planted on rocky soil that produces an immediate crop but dies quickly is like someone who hears the word and is full of excitement and faith. However, in time of trouble they find that faith is a mile wide and only an inch deep. There is nothing there to strengthen them when they experience hardship. A seed planted among the thorns reminds us when the distractions of this world – money, careers, our own desires – demands more of our attention than our devotion to God. Finally, a seed planted on good soil is the response to the love of God that produces the fruit of a faithful witness. They hear God’s love and it transforms every aspect of their lives in such ways that produces the fruits of the spirit.
All of these responses represent the various responses that come about when we hear Jesus’ teachings and experience his love. These are responses that we are familiar with, because each of us have experienced these responses in our own life. At any moment we could display any one of these responses in our lives. There have been times when we failed to respond to God’s word. There are times when our devotion to the Lord is not very deep. There are moments when the things of the world drown out our love of God. At the same time, we have all experienced those blessed moments when the seed God plants in us led to a deep time of transformation and faith that led us to share the love of Christ through our words and actions with others.
Our question, then, is how does Jesus respond to us when our response to the Lord’s sowing has been found not to produce good soil or fruit? How does Jesus interact with these responses from our hearts?
Think back to my brief experience as a gardener. After we planted our seed we quickly noticed what planting would produce a strong crop and which would not. We spent all of our time working with our good crop. We made sure that the weeds were removed and that the plants were adequately watered. That didn’t leave a lot of time, for us, for the crop that was not doing as well. We let the weeds and grass grow around our failed tomato crop. Our corn never got much attention other than when we pulled out the dead stalks at the end of the season.
I think many of us believe that God only cares for his crop, his people, in the same fashion. That God spends more time developing the good soil and making sure that it continues to produce the fruit of faithful lives and churches. We sometimes do not believe God has time for us when we struggle as a people or a community with our response to God’s love.
It is a good thing, then, that God’s interactions with us are not like how I garden or how we believe the Lord responds to us. God is not like an amateur gardener who only spends time on what is going well. God is always working in us and our church in loving ways that helps us to be people who respond to God in fruitful ways.
God never stops pouring his love upon us. The Lord desires to see in everyone of us, and our church, lives that reflect a seed that has been planted in good soil and produces good fruit. God never stops reaching after us and doing things that enables us to be fruitful witnesses of God’s love through the lives we lead and the lives we share with others. Through the presence of the Spirit working in us, God is at work in removing the obstacles that often are before us so that we may be the people God desires us to be. It is up to us, then, to respond to the sowing the Lord has done in us by desiring to people who are known by our love and faithfulness and our witness with others.
The fact God never stops working and pouring his love upon us gives us hope as we seek to make that response to God’s love every day. We do not have to lose hope or believe that we are unable to produce fruitful lives or ministries. God’s grace is with us. We do not have to believe when our response is not as God would desire that the Lord has given up on us. Jesus never gives up on us, and neither shall we give up on ourselves or the life of the church today. God is working in us so that we may be the people the Lord desires us to be today and always.
In everyone of us, in our church, God has planted a seed of faith in us. God is working in us to make sure that this seed produces lives and ministries that are full of life, vitality, and faith in the Lord. May we never give up on what God desires of us and may we seek to be people who are known by our response to God’s love through the fruit of our heart and the witness of our souls.