On Matthew 13:1-23

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 6

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY


Sower, Seed, & Soil… and bird poop?  A Parable of Possibilities


Stories seem an appropriate teaching style for the divine.

Stories resonate, stories ground,

stories capture all of one’s senses and emotions.  Stories are fun!

But sometimes it feels like a story raises

as many questions as it answers.

There are loose ends, or parts we want to know more about.

A story often prods, teases, and challenges us.

There’s a richness in story that is never exhausted,

never fully understood.


Still, Jesus shows us some mercy.  In Matthew and Mark,

the parable of the sower is the parable to introduce parables.

And this time, Jesus helps the disciples with the interpretation.

He gives them the code:

The various types of soil represent

the different ears the word of God falls on.

The parable describes the diverse reactions to Jesus in his ministry.


Why do people respond to Jesus differently?

Why do some believe, and others don’t?

Why do some stop believing after a short time?

Why do some stop believing over time?

If Jesus is the truth, shouldn’t everyone be able to recognize and believe in him?


Why do people respond to Jesus differently?


It was a big question in Jesus’ own time,

especially in Matthew’s account.

Communities responded differently to his ministry.

We know that the Pharisees and Sadducees opposed Jesus.

Earlier, Jesus had also called out cities

that did not repent after he visited.


It was a big question of the early church Matthew is writing for.

I wonder if they saw it as regional:

hey Pete, lots of rocky soil in the north.  Lots of sun over there.

Paul, you’re definitely in the weeds!


It’s a question that still haunts us today.

Why does Christianity catch on in one part of the world,

but not in another?  We look at lots of factors:

historical, socio-political – but on the deepest level

we still wrestle with this question.


And the question applies not just between,

but within communities too.

Matthew describes the people in Jesus’ hometown taking offense at him,

and his own family didn’t always understand him.

The early church struggled with divisions, and within our own communities,

there’s a frustrating range of responses to the gospel.


We all know someone who has never believed.

We all know someone was very active in the church for a while,

and then seemed to give up on faith.

We all know someone where trouble, or desire for wealth,

seems to choke their faith.

And we all know Christians who thrive

in varying degrees in their faith.

Why do people respond to Jesus differently?


We might be tempted to consider that Jesus

was saying different things,

leading to the different responses.

Had he preached bad sermons in those cities that didn’t repent?  Did he have an off day?

Maybe the early church sent bad missionaries to certain areas.

Maybe the people we know missed that awesome class.


The parable of the sower rejects this line of thinking.

It affirms that the seed is always the same.

The Word of God is always the Word of God; it keeps its integrity.

It always has it powerful potential,

but it is expressed differently in various settings.

The truth of Jesus is deeper, bigger,

more than something people

just intellectually recognize and assent to.


Instead, the parable of the sower describes the range of responses

as due to hearing the same message differently.

Different ears, different soils.


Now, the agriculture illustration isn’t quite so simple for us today.

What about how a seed is more viable

after passing through birds’ guts?

One study said by 370%!

What about fertilizer?  Transplanting?

What about irrigation, or shade?

What about removing stones?  What about weeding?


Would Jesus still tell this parable today to illustrate his point?

I like to think so.


Because I think all these questions are actually us wrestling

with something really disturbing about the text.

Being compared to soil is disturbing.

Soil is so… arbitrary.

Soil can’t choose to be one type or another.

The story doesn’t allow for choice, for merit.

And soil can’t transform or change itself.  It is powerless.


What does this mean for the countries far away,

the congregation we’re a part of, or for our loved ones?

What does it mean for ourselves?


If you’re like me, you’re trying to sort people into soil types.

Am I lucky I grew up in a Christian culture?

Would I be Christian if I had been born in another country?

My brother is an agnostic, and I’m a pastor.

Yet we grew up in the same house, going to the same church.


How do we know what defines “good” soil?

If you’re trying to grow wine grapes,

soil that makes the vine struggle is ideal.


I desperately want to assume I’m “good” soil, but if I’m honest,

there are some days where I hear the word of the kingdom

and do not understand it.

There are some days where I hear the word

and immediately receive it with joy,

but when trouble or persecutions arise, I fall away.

There are some days when the cares of the world

and the lure of wealth choke any word-inspired action.

Only some of the days do I hear the word and understand it.

Only some days do I bear fruit.

I’m not sure if it’s ever been a hundred-fold, though I hope.


If I’m honest, this text is a metaphor for my internal landscape,

as well as the external one around me.


The parable has deepened the question.  It’s become,

why do I have so many different responses to Jesus?


Instead of answering the questions,

as if we could change the outcomes,

the parable acknowledges the situation.

There’s no explanation of how the soils got to be the way they are:

it just describes them.

But then the parable takes the conversation in a new direction.

The action of the parable focuses us on the sower and the seed.


This sower is not economical.

I mean, the sower isn’t blind.

He sees those different types of soil.

And he still sows everywhere anyway.

Wouldn’t a smart sower use those precious seeds

on soil that will yield a crop?

What kind of sower sows on a path?

On the rocky ground?  In the thorns?

What is he doing?!?


I don’t think this is an empty sort of justice.

It’s not like the sower says, oh look, even though the deck is stacked

I’m going to go through the motions

so that I can say everyone got a chance.

No, this story reveals something different about our God.


Instead of an economical sower,

we have one who keeps showering us with seeds,

regardless of what type of soil we seem to be.

To use one scholar’s description, God is an extravagant sower.[1]


If the seeds are the word of God, God’s good news,

the parable reveals God to be a talkative God.

God’s chatting up everyone,

whether they seem to be listening or not.

And God keeps talking.


I like to think that this extravagant sower is also wise,

knowing his own power and his own creation.

Maybe the sower knows about seeds flourishing after passing through bird guts

and traveling to new lands through bird poop.

In Matthew 13:5, there is a quality to the seed sown on rocky soil: it springs up quickly.

I like to think the sower appreciates that joyful speed,

and knows how to save the plant.

Perhaps this sower knows about transplanting.

Perhaps this sower is also a gardener, and has plans for fertilizer, for shade, for weeding.

Perhaps this sower knows about both grapes for wine

and grapes for eating.

Perhaps God has plans for all the soils in my interior landscape.


And so when we read this parable,

instead of sorting others into soil types

or worrying about the soil makeup of our interior landscapes,

let us cling to the integrity of the word of God,

and the extravagance of God’s love.

Let us cling to his constant conversation,

falling on us each and every Sunday and in our daily lives.

Let us cling to the extravagant sower, who is also a wise gardener.


In my life, this frees me for new possibilities.

I can value not only the part of my faith thriving in the top soil,

but also the speedy growth of the part of my faith

that probably needs some nourishment to form deeper roots.

I can value the part of my faith that has struggled,

even as I accept help to clear the things choking it.

And I can value seeds that I find covered in bird poop.


When we live with confidence of God’s extravagant love

and power in our own lives,

we also learn about how to participate in God’s mission.

We can value and support the fledgling plants we see.

And most importantly, we don’t need to be economical

with God’s word, assuming that this or that person

doesn’t want to talk about your faith story,

that he or she doesn’t want to hear

about the mystery of God in your life.

Rather, I think we are called to imitate the first sower –

indiscriminately sharing God’s word

and trusting those seeds to do their work over time.

Some of the results we will see.  Some we will not.

But don’t forget that God can work through bird poop.




[1] Rev. Elisabeth Johnson (Lutheran Institute of Theology), July 10, 2011 commentary, workingpreacher.com

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