A short sermon on Matthew 13:1-23 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 1/1/23, New Year’s Day, amid a series of reflective exercises. The manuscript is edited below for reading. This sermon was not recorded or live-streamed.
Every few years, a fully-grown beech tree produces about 30,000 beech nuts. They have a spiky outer husk. Each nut holds the potential to grow into a healthy, mature tree, but most of them won’t. The vast majority of these nuts, in fact, won’t ever become a mature tree. Some will never take root; some will grow for two or five or ten years but be choked out by other competition in the forest.
In fact, over the course of its lifetime, the average beech tree will only produce one mature offspring. Thousands and thousands of nuts will go to waste.
One of the many incredible insights in Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees is that, regardless of the species, most mature trees only produce one healthy offspring, no matter how many seeds they produce. Poplar trees might produce more than 50 million seeds every year, and still, over the lifetime of a poplar tree, it will likely only produce one healthy offspring. All those seeds scattered around the world, and seemingly so little to show for it.
Today’s parable from Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is concerned with agriculture, not forest life, but I think the economics of scattered seeds are universal. When it comes to reading the teachings of Jesus, I tend to search for a moral imperative. (Maybe you do, too!) When I read a parable like this one, immediately I want to identify what my job is: How do I become the good soil? It seems like the easiest way to answer that question is to try and figure out what went wrong with all the bad soil, using Jesus’ interpretation.
The seeds on the path represent people for whom the message about the kingdom of God never took root in the first place. The rocky soil describes those for whom the word is shallow, doomed not to last. The thorny ground refers to those who get distracted and discouraged and who lose sight of the word. It would seem like what is necessary to be like the good soil is to be someone who “hears the word and understands it.”
What surprises me about this parable, though, is that Jesus never says, “Be like the good soil.” Nor does he say, “Don’t be like the bad soil.” In fact, the closest thing we get to any kind of takeaway or instruction from this parable is, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
It sounds like the point of this parable isn’t about the soil at all. The main character in this parable is the sower and the seeds. All that talk about the different kinds of soil is merely a description of the way things work, almost like a science lesson. Let’s spend a moment thinking about the sower and the seeds.
The sower is, you might have noticed, a fairly inefficient farmer. He scatters the seeds all over the place, even in places where the seeds are destined to fail. We have to imagine that this isn’t a one-time event, either; the farmer must be sowing seeds year after year after year. What Jesus tells us is that the one who is sowing the message about the kingdom of God in the world is lavishly generous and indiscriminate. The sower doesn’t take any time to define insiders and outsiders, or to evaluate anyone’s moral character or pedigree. He just keeps sowing and sowing and sowing. There is nothing stingy about God.
If the seed represents the message about the kingdom of God, like Jesus says, then the seed may be as inefficient as the sower. In The Parables of the Kingdom, one of my favorite writers, Robert Farrar Capon, describes this parable and says:
Once again, this is not our idea of how a respectable divine operation ought to be run…Given our druthers, our pet illustration of the kingdom would probably be a giant nail—driven into the world, appropriately enough, by a giant hammer in the hand of a giant God. Something noisy and noticeable. But a seed? Oh come now.
Seeds work slowly and invisibly; you have no idea whether they’re growing or not until the fledgling plant begins to poke up through the surface of the soil. So it is with the message about the kingdom of God, in this parable—it works slowly and invisibly. You might not know it has taken root until it begins to push up through the surface and surprise you.
This morning, at the outset of a new year, we’re making time to reflect on our own hearts. We’re trying to cultivate our own inner soil so that the seed of God’s good news might take root in our hearts. It’s a fruitful and important practice of reflection, even if Jesus never said, “Go and be like the good soil.” As we reflect together, let’s remember first and foremost that God the sower is generous and indiscriminate. God is persistent and creative and faithful, and God continues to sow the seeds of good news in our lives whether we are ready to receive it or not.
Let’s remember, too, that the word of God in our lives does not come as a hammer and a nail; it comes as a seed. There are ways that God is at work in your life that may be invisible to you, for now.
I have to make a confession: I love New Year’s Day and all the promise of resolutions, new habits, new goals, and new rhythms. Every year I let myself believe that this year will be different, that I’ll finally achieve everything I want to achieve and that I’ll optimize my life.
I am starting to suspect that the good news of God for each of us is probably much simpler and deeper than all the projects that we design for ourselves, or even our best-intended new year’s resolutions. I think often of the story in Matthew chapter 9, a few chapters before this one, where Jesus is eating dinner with tax collectors and other rejects. The religious leaders get upset and try to start an argument. Jesus tells them, among other things, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” It’s almost like he’s telling them, “If you want to understand what’s happening here, don’t overthink it. You could spend the rest of your life just meditating on that simple phrase, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”
I wonder if the word that God has been planting in your heart is just as simple, just as modest, as a little seed. The kind of thing you might spend your entire life trying to learn what it means. Something like: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Something like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Something like, “I have called you by name. You are mine.” You hear it, but you refuse to believe it. Or you believe it, but only as a vague platitude, not as if it’s actually true. Or you believe it deeply, but you get caught up in all the important and valuable obligations of your life, and then you start to doubt it again.
If we were to let those truths take root in our hearts, if we could give them the space they need to breathe and grow, they might flourish into something extraordinary in the soil of our lives.
It seems like such a waste, and such a loss, that a beech tree will create thousands and thousands of seeds that will never grow into trees. But it’s the seed that does take root that matters—because just one seed can grow into a beech tree as tall as 70 feet, with a wide canopy of shady leaves, living hundreds of years. Most of us would be lucky to create something in our lives with that much staying power.
So, yes, let’s take care to cultivate rich soil in our hearts. Let’s welcome the gentle, quiet seeds of God’s work in our lives. Let’s remember, above all, that God the sower is generous and patient. We need only to receive.