The Parable of the Sower

The Text: Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

When it comes to parables like the Parable of the Sower, there are some things that are a bit surprising, especially for any gardeners or farmers amongst us. For how many of you would be as reckless with your precious seed as this unnamed sower. Did you notice? He doesn’t seem to care much where it lands. He doesn’t drop a seed here and a seed there into carefully cultivated holes, but instead he scatters his seed to fall wherever it may – on the road, in the rocky ground, amongst the weeds, in good soil.

The Sower, of course, is God, and the seed is his word, by which God’s Spirit comes and takes root in human hearts. And God doesn’t let his word fall only on those who are prepared to hear it. He scatters the seed of his word to fall wherever it may – on the devout, the sinner, the religious, the sceptic – people like you and me gathered here this morning.

The point of this apparently reckless sowing is that, with God, there always is more than enough seed to go around. There is enough forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death for everyone. There is enough Bread of Life come down from heaven to feed the whole world, with baskets of leftovers. There is no need for God to be careful about where he sows the seed of his word and who receives it – he sends it out with this promise: “[That] 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 forth 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.” (Is. 55:10-11).

Sadly, the church today seems to be more interested in spiritual agronomy than in seed-sowing. We are told that what we need for the church to grow these days is to conduct soil studies to tell us the needs and wants of people and where God’s word is most likely to take hold. Contrast that with the picture of the Sower who sows his seed with reckless abandon, broadcasting the death and resurrection of Jesus to the wind, letting it fall wherever it lands.

The Sower sows his seed, and some of it falls on the path. Here the gospel is heard with a hardened heart; a heart that says, “I have no need for this word, for this Jesus, for this forgiveness”. This is an unbelieving hearing. The words are heard, but they ping off stubborn hearts like seeds bouncing off cement.

Now this sclerosis of the heart to the word of God is at work in each of us. This is the effect of what Paul calls our sinful flesh – our inborn pride and stubbornness, our efforts to justify ourselves by putting others down; our selfishness and spiritual laziness. Which is why we get bored with church and find it hard to read our Bibles. It’s also why we want novelty in our worship services rather than the steady reliable liturgy week after week. The angels don’t mind singing the same hymns day and night before the throne of God; but we need options and alternatives, lest the word of God go in one ear and out the other.

The seed that falls on the hardened path is eaten up by the birds (that is, the devil). God forces no one to listen to the gospel, and so he permits the devil to come and snatch it away from those who don’t want it. Luther once remarked that the gospel is like a little local rain shower that is in one place today and moves on somewhere else tomorrow. That’s the way it has gone down through history.

Consider the Middle East, for example, at one time the cradle of Christianity. Now the gospel is barely heard there today (except in a few persecuted pockets). Or consider Europe (and especially Germany), the land where the Reformation took hold with such power over 450 years ago. Look at how little Christ is heard in those great churches today, and how few come to hear it.

And think of our own land, Australia. For all the churches, for all the revivals, for all the religious talk out there, there is less of the gospel heard today in Australia than at any other time in our history. Oh, there are still plenty of churches to go to on Sunday morning, with services designed and scheduled for everyone’s convenience, but unless they go with an open heart to the hearing of the gospel, the precious seed will get pecked away before it has time to take root.

The Sower sows his seed and some of it falls on rocky soil. This is the shallow soil of emotionalism and superficial joy. This is religion based on wants and feelings rather than facts and faith. It is a kind of “lite” Christianity; all of the bubbles but none of the substance; spiritual milk rather than meat. This is the religion of faith without repentance. Everything happens immediately in shallow soil – the seed sprouts immediately and just as immediately it grows. But without root, without depth of soil, the tender shoots are vulnerable. They cannot survive the heat of the noon day sun, but quickly dry up when the cross of suffering comes.

Christianity “lite” doesn’t like to hear about suffering or pain. It doesn’t want to be disturbed by the idea that the good news of the gospel also involves some bad news for our sinful flesh. But the irony is that the churches throughout the world (and throughout history) that grow the most are those that are most persecuted. For only if the gospel is worth dying for, is it worth living for.

The Sower sows his seed, and some of it lands among the thorns, that choke out the young seedlings. This is a conflicted hearing. The gospel is preached and heard, but it is just one voice among many others clamouring for our attention. There are two types of thorn bushes mentioned: 1) the anxieties and cares of the world, and 2) the deceitfulness of riches. The first is the worries that come when a person doesn’t trust God to provide. Anxiety is the prayer that is prayed to the false gods of our own making when they aren’t coming through for us, choking out our prayers to our heavenly Father, who is our only help in times of trouble.

Growing along with anxiety is the thorn bush of greed; the endless pursuit of riches; the desire for more, better, faster, bigger, brighter. St. Paul says that many have wandered from the faith and pierced their hearts on the sharp thorns of greed. Greed consumes our time and energy and resources and attention, until we are no longer able to hear God’s word, to pray, to praise, even to come to the church.

You and I are that field into which the heavenly Sower sows his seed. Our hearts are that soil that he would make into good soil. But no soil (as far as I am aware) is self-tilling, and no human heart is self-softening. For the word to be planted and grow into a good crop, our hearts must first be prepared to receive it.

God does this through the difficulties and disappointments, the disasters and diseases, we face throughout our lives. He does it to clear away the stones of our pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, lust and gluttony; to break up our hardened hearts and to uproot every weed that threatens the fruitful growth of his word. In this way, he teaches us to trust him, to receive everything as a gift from his gracious hand, to recognise his presence and his working, even in the most painful things. And then he sows his seed and waits to reap an abundant crop – a hundred, sixty, thirty-fold.

So when it feels to you sometimes as if God is ploughing you under, let the Parable of the Sower be a reminder that what he is doing is sowing Christ into your hearts. Expect a harvest from the seed that is sown. For the word of God will not return to him empty. He has bought you with a great price and given you his Spirit as a guarantee of good things to come. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then be assured that he will also give life to your mortal bodies – like seed sprouting in good soil – through his Spirit who dwells in you. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.