Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
Stories – how many of us love a good story? Stories can be those we read, fact or fiction, or those told to us, & I’m sure we’ve all got our favourites. When I was younger, I loved the story ‘Little Women’. I also enjoyed reading the ‘Mallory Towers’ series & the ‘Chalet School’; & I often read stories by Enid Blyton – ‘the Famous Five’, ‘the Secret Seven’. I’m sure children today have their favourites too, like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Captain Underpants’, ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, the many books of Roald Dahl or David Walliams, & for the younger child ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or ‘the Cat in the Hat’, or one for our church warden ‘Not now Bernard!’ (& I’m sure Louis has one of his favourites with him today).
When we think of stories we often think of fiction, something which is untrue, & yet we hear about people’s life stories, or stories of amazing things which have happened, or people have done (there have been many of these over the past few months); there are many news stories or stories told by word of mouth – all different types of stories. They are designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the listener or reader & are accounts of incidents or events.
One of the greatest story tellers was Jesus Himself. He told over 60 stories which make up 1/3 of His recorded teaching in Matthew, Mark & Luke’s Gospels. In fact, most of the Bible is made up of, not doctrine, but stories, true or fictional.
The fact is they are all there to illustrate points. They warn or give hope; calm & reassure; scare or inflame – they provoke a reaction within us. They are told to help us to understand our world & the way individuals, groups, factions & hierarchies ‘tick’ & relate to each other. Many are moral tales, showing us how to behave. Some illustrate arguments, or engage our emotions & teach us to care. Some might attract, excite, amuse & entertain us, or puzzle & even alienate us. They may show us heroes to follow or villains to shun. They may open our eyes to great beauty & goodness, or to evil & ugliness. They broaden our horizons because we can travel to other worlds, other dimensions, & experience things impossible by other means. They can change our thinking, our ways of seeing, our behaviour, even our society, by provoking us to ask questions & to ‘think outside the box.’
Jesus’ stories do all of these & much more. He was the supreme storyteller – at meals, on journeys, to crowds as part of His teaching, in disputes as part of His argument. No other literature had stories like His because they were, & are, about life, ordinary life, seen from God’s perspective, & because ‘God’s thoughts are not our thoughts’ pinning down the exact meaning for us isn’t easy.
Which leads us to today’s Gospel reading & the Parable of the Sower. Parables are not only stories used to illustrate points, they also contain metaphors & similes. They paint vivid pictures & set the scene for stories but contain riddles revealing hidden truths & need to be unpacked carefully to understand their meaning. Here’s a couple of modern-day ones to get you started: I’ll give you the answers later. ‘How does Moses make his coffee?’. ‘Which Bible character had no parents?’
Seriously though, the parables are about knowing & relating to God & to one another. This kind of knowledge involves dialogue, questioning, empathising, listening, using your imagination, & above all, praying.
So why did Jesus use parables to communicate with others? During my LLM training & on teaching days since, I’ve sat through many lectures on how to communicate the Gospel well in our postmodern world & one of the things we have frequently been told is to use stories & images to communicate the message, to make it pertinent to modern times, & to tell our own story. Jesus used stories with different images to communicate to different people &, while we might find them difficult to understand, the crowds He spoke to found them clear & authoritative because He used everyday examples of the time to explain His points.
And here, In the Parable of the Sower, He does the same thing. Jesus speaks to mainly poor, ordinary people who had seen Him healing & working miracles, heard Him proclaiming God’s Kingdom was coming & thus saw in Him hope for the future. Here He speaks to them using things they can see, which they can relate to, which they have experience of in their lives, & His main topic for the crowd is the Kingdom of Heaven.
According to Stephen Wright in “Tales Jesus Told”, in this parable He was addressing mainly poor farmers whose land had been stripped from them so they were forced to grow their own seed on marginal land – around the edges, on paths, in stony places & thorn bushes. The image of sowing seeds in these different environments would therefore have significant meaning for them.
A modern-day equivalent might be the current farming situation in Colombia. I watched Simon Reeves this week on TV reporting on increased poverty amongst peasant farmers whose fertile land had been stolen by drugs barons there, leaving them with poor soil where it was difficult to grow crops. Even when they did manage to do so they couldn’t manage to get them to the towns to trade because of poor road links. Colombia has been involved in over 50 years of this conflict, claiming more than 200,000 lives over land ownership.
In this parable, Jesus is speaking of a similar, familiar situation & uses this to explain & demonstrate His point to His followers about how there are different responses to the Gospel message & to God. The sower in the parable is Jesus & the seed is the Word of God. Here the different types of ground represent the people & their responses to this message. The hard ground represents a hardened heart – this is the person who hears the message but won’t accept it, fails to believe it, & Satan keeps this person from growing in faith at all. I’m sure we all know people like this – we may have tried to sow seeds of faith to them but they just aren’t interested – but my advice would be ‘don’t give up’. You may have been one of these people once and yet here you are today in the midst of us, in Christ’s presence.
The stony ground Jesus speaks of represents those people who hear the Word, they show interest & may ask questions, begin to attend church or join groups but then let the worries & troubles of this world overcome them & so fall away. We all know of these people – those who ask if we have a loving & forgiving God why they suffer, faith hasn’t helped them so why bother to continue. Again, we need to seek them out, speak to them, keep inviting them into the community of faith & help them through their troubles. I’m sure many of us have been on stony ground at some point.
The thorny ground symbolises those people who hear the Word, understand the faith, attend church but in everyday life have lots of other idols & issues which distract them , piercing their hearts so they don’t grow fully in the truth of God’s Word. They find other things get in the way of praying, reading the Scripture & spending time with God so their faith is intermittent & not fully committed. We’ve all been there once, some of us may still be one of these people but we need to nurture each other’s faith & encourage each other.
Then there’s the good soil & Jesus describes these people as those who hear the Word, receive it & act on it. They live a life with God at the centre, not themselves or others, but God. And because everything is centred around God they flourish & grow in faith, bearing fruit & helping others. These are the people Christ speaks about entering the Kingdom of Heaven. You might think this is a bit exclusive but we can all become ‘good soil’ if we help & nurture each other. Remember, all of us are either rocky, stony or the thorny ground unless the Holy Spirit of God transforms us into good soil. There are enough opportunities in this world for us all to hear the message of salvation Christ brings, to have seeds of faith sown within us or to sow seeds of faith ourselves; the way we respond to them is key to the way we live our lives, the key to the Kingdom of Heaven – a kingdom which begins now, on earth. This is what Christ is trying to tell us.
Last week, I found myself reflecting further on this parable & the message it brings as I pondered the wonders of creation while walking the dogs. In many of the fields at this time of year there are several different wild flowers & grasses all growing in different types of soil, all at varying stages of growth & I’ve seen them many times before, yet on this particular day they just seemed to hold a greater beauty & display a more glorious array of colours.
As I bent down to pick up a ball from amongst the plants, I thought how very like people they were. Some were taller than others, some looked more beautiful than others, some were thinner than others, some danced, some stood upright & still, some squatted & hid, some were bent over, some were over-powered or over-shadowed by others, some were sharp & prickly & others stung you when you went near them – well, amongst those plants I’m sure we can recognise ourselves in at least one of them if we choose to. Like us, they were all different, yet they had one thing in common, just like us they were all created & loved by God, each with the ability to produce & scatter seeds.
In amongst those flowers & grasses were also some beautiful, tiny orchids – I mention the orchids because they are difficult to grow in many places & if not nurtured properly could easily become extinct. Yet, here they were growing in the field – wild orchids. How? Because their seeds had been spread by wild birds & other creatures. From the scattered seeds more orchids grew, fed & watered & nurtured by God.
Isn’t that a bit like our Christian faith?
Seeds of faith can be sown anywhere, on any type of soil. The more we sow seeds the greater the faith will grow – we just have to keep on planting & keep on watering & feeding & nurturing them with the knowledge & love of God – the Holy Spirit will do the rest, leading them to become good soil.
So I ask you today to think about how many seeds you can sow this week, & where they may be grown. And I pray that your own faith & life exemplifies the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.
And the answer to those riddles:
‘How does Moses make his coffee?’ (He brews it).
‘Which Bible character had no parents?’ (Joshua, son of Nun)