God of Wasteful Love

By definition a parable is a simple story that literally means “to throw alongside.” The stories, often agricultural, were thrown alongside everyday experiences in order to shed light on the nature of God, and to exaggerate the contrasts between the way things are and the way God would have them be. The purpose was to “engage the imagination and to challenge conventional perspectives.”[1]

This story of the sower is an especially interesting parable for several reasons. Jesus rarely told parables for which he then gave explanations. As presented here, Jesus told the parable to a large crowd gathered on the beach as he taught from a boat. As presented in our reading this morning, Jesus launched into an interpretation of his own parable. But notice that eight verses are missing (Matthew 13:10-17) between the parable itself and the interpretation. 

The missing verses and the interpretation of the parable are not addressed to the large crowd . . . but to just the disciples.

Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets* of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 

Matthew’s interpretation is that Jesus taught in parables to confuse the unrighteous and even to confound those righteous for whom the understanding was not intended. In other words, the parable of the sower is kind of a super-parable for all the other parables where only the folk representing the “good soil” comprehend – and folk who are hard or kind of rockyor thorny just get left out. 

In the latter part of the first century when these stories were interpreted and written down by the evangelists like Mark and Matthew, they were trying to explain that only the church (the good soil) understood the secrets of the parables. “You want to understand these stories, you have to join up and learn the code.”

But the very idea that Jesus deliberately used parables to confuse and to mis-communicate seems so foreign to the man from Nazareth who came to help people understand God and to reconcile them to God.

New Testament scholar Robert Funk has written, “Jesus’ usual strategy is to do away with the distinction between insiders and outsiders, or, at any rate, to confuse the two so his audience could not readily determine which they were.”[2] Think of the publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan.

So let’s assume for a moment that the parable itself belonged to Jesus, and that everything after, including the explanation, is from the church of the late first century. How are we to understand the parable of the sower?

Well, I’m a gardener and I’ve done a little sowing in my time. I plan my garden. I work hard to have the right kind of soil. I carefully select the kinds of vegetables and herbs I want to grow. And on the back of each packet of seeds are very clear instructions about how to plant the seeds – when to plant, exactly how deep and how far apart. 

We gardeners follow the instructions of David Mallett’s Garden Song that I learned long ago from Arlo Guthrie:

            Inch by inch, row by row,

            Gonna make this garden grow,

            Gonna mulch it deep and low,

            Gonna make it fertile ground.

That’s how most people garden. They plan. They prepare the ground. They lay out the rows, or, if they broadcast the seed like grass seed, they still prepare the soil. And they’re very careful not to cast the seed onto the sidewalk, the path, the rock wall, or the driveway. 

In the first century most farmers were very poor. They couldn’t afford to waste good seed. So they would plan and husband their precious seeds with great care. 

Now remember that a parable is a simple story that means “to throw alongside.” Throw alongside most gardeners’ and farmers’ careful planning, preparation, and conservation of seed with the parable of the sower. Here we’ve got a character who’s slinging seeds every which way. There’s no plan, no tilling the soil, and no care for where the seeds land. They’re on the path, in the rocks, among the thorns – and some just happens to fall into good soil and produces a healthy harvest. 

Most Bible commentaries and many sermons on this text are all about the four kinds of soil. There are hard path people, thorny and rocky ground folk . . . and then there are the good soil people who are the righteous Christians.

But notice that in Jesus’ telling of the parable itself, there’s no judgment about the various kinds of soil. Only the later “interpretation” characterizes the poor soils as morally deficient. In fact, this isn’t a parable about soils at all. It’s a story about a sower who flings his seed to the four winds – with abandon. 

The sower is God, and this is a story about the extravagant, over-the-top, wasteful love of God that falls equally on us all. Some of us are ready for it when it lands on us and some aren’t. But this sower just keeps slinging seed until all types of ground are covered.

But like the gospel writers of a later era, we Christians keep trying to bring up the question of worthy or unworthy ground. Are you worthy, are you clean, are you righteous, and have you dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.” Do you have the correct creed and catechism, follow the bishops’ teachings, the 10 Commandments, the four spiritual laws, and the 39 Articles? 

This parable invites us to stop, give it a rest, and just bask in the extravagant, abundant love of God.

And if we then have to do something with this teaching, follow Jesus lead. Don’t invent and invest in a system to determine who’s in or who’s out, worthy or unworthy. But like Jesus, “live fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intends us to be.”[3]

[1] See note on Matthew 13:1-53 in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2003, p.1769.

[2] The Five Gospels, Funk, Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar: New York, Macmillan Publishing, p. 192

[3] Bishop Jack Shelby Spong, numerous citations.

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