Readings: Jeremiah 1:1,4-10; Psalm 70; Matthew 13:1-9
Sometimes the Lectionary edits the Bible readings in ways that are not helpful. With Matthew 13:1-23, however, the division into three parts over the next three days is very helpful. Today we hear a parable about a sower sowing seed. Tomorrow we hear a short discourse by Jesus about his method of teaching. And finally on Friday we will hear an interpretation of the parable which Jesus gave in response to a request from his disciples.
Hearing this parable today, detached from the rest of what follows, gives us an opportunity to let it speak more directly to us, perhaps in a fresh way, before we move on to hear the interpretations that came to accompany it. What would be the impact of this parable if we only heard it just as it is heard today? I suppose you might call it a 'phenomenological' approach to the parable - what does it present to our eyes and ears?
We hear about a sower and the seed he sows. What happens to the seed is familiar, the experience of farmers and gardeners everywhere: some seed is lost to the birds, some seed falls on ground too rough to support it, some seed does well initially but is quickly entangled with weeds and briars, and some seed flourishes, having found good soil in which to grow. 'Listen, anyone who has ears!', Jesus concludes. Well we all have ears, but he seems to be calling us to perceive something deeper than the surface meaning of the story.
What would we make of it if we had just this part of the text, without what we will read tomorrow and on Friday? To what would we apply it, taking it for granted that a teacher like Jesus is telling the story to illustrate something important about human life and experience? There is the good thing that is scattered and there are the different ways in which it does or does not flourish. It seems to be beyond the sower's control whether the seed flourishes or not: he just has to make sure that the seed is so generously scattered that as much of it as possible falls on good soil.
It is the question at the end that alerts us to the need to seek the moral of the story, its deeper spiritual or religious meaning, 'listen, anyone who has ears'. Depending on our knowledge of the Bible our minds will go in different directions. We might think first of the land given to His chosen people by God, the land in which they were to settle, which they were to cultivate, and in which he promised they would enjoy prosperity and security. There is uncertainty about that prosperity - some seed sown does not flourish - and so there is a question about trusting in God to assure success.
We might think next of the Jewish way of referring to genealogy and descendants - the seed of Abraham, the seed of David, and so on. Perhaps the moral of the parable is to be found here. There will be some successes in the people's relationship with God and there will be some failures as well. Seed carries the promise of life and the continuation of life from generation to generation but sometimes contexts and circumstances see to it that this promise is more or less fulfilled, sometimes perhaps not fulfilled at all. But the simple endurance of the people across the centuries - the persistence of their seed - is itself a confirmation of the presence of God with them. This is the sign given to Ahaz in Isaiah 7, for example, a young woman will bear a child. The continuation of his line is the sign - ordinary, undeniable, the birth of a child - that God has not abandoned the House of David.
These reflections might draw us back towards Deuteronomy and the promises God there makes to the people, that they will flourish, be prosperous and be secure, and the line of their descendants will be assured, if they are faithful to the covenant. In the middle of such texts we find this one which fits with what Jesus says at the end of the story about the sower:
You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt ... the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders; but to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear (Deuteronomy 29:4).
The people have seen and they have failed to see. They have understood and not understood. They have heard but have not heard. That is puzzling enough. Even more puzzling is the comment that 'the Lord has not given you a mind, eyes, ears' to understand, see and hear. Does it mean the sower has not done the work he should have done to prepare the ground so that there will be more good soil for the seed to find? Does it mean that it is God who must also prepare the ground for the reception of the seed, giving us a mind to understand, eyes to see and ears to hear?
But now we have moved into thinking of the sower as one who must not only scatter the seed but prepare the ground. And we begin to see what it might mean morally or spiritually: if we are to appreciate the gifts God gives us, to know what God is doing for His people, then we need the Spirit of God to enter our minds and hearts and to inform our eyes and ears.
In today's first reading not only will the Lord be with Jeremiah to protect him, the Lord will put His words into the mouth of Jeremiah. The Spirit enters into the prophets and the Spirit enters into all who are baptised. In this way the ground has been prepared, the soil has been made ready, and all we need do is clear away obstacles that remain to prevent the full flourishing of the life promised in the seed God scatters.
Lord that we might see! Lord that we might hear! Lord that we might understand the life you have already so generously sown in us!