July 16, 2023 Sermon: The Indiscriminate Sower

Rev. Steve Hollaway
First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2023
Matthew 13:1-9

This morning we want to focus on a single image that Jesus highlighted, the image of the Sower. To help you focus, we are distributing postcards of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “Sower with Setting Sun.” Van Gogh painted or drew thirty versions of the Sower—more than any subject other than his own face. The first time he painted a Sower, he was imitating one by Millet, a French painter who did a lot of paintings of rural scenes and peasants. Millet himself said that his painting was tied to Matthew 13, the parable of the Sower. 

You may not associate Van Gogh with religion, but in fact, he was the son of a very strict pastor. As a young man, he went to theological school for a year, then spent two years as a missionary pastor in a very poor coal-mining community on the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. Vincent was 25 and extremely earnest in wanting to follow Jesus, but not adept at meeting the expectations of a church. He wanted to live like the poor, so he wore rags and sometimes slept in the street. His personality was eccentric and may have shown signs of the mental illness he later developed. Within two years, the board who hired him let him go. It was then that he decided to concentrate on his art. 

I tell you that story because I find it hard to believe that the image of the Sower that Van Gogh obsessed over could have had nothing to do with the Sower in Jesus’ story. Just look at that picture. It’s the most cheerful of all the versions, with its mix of yellow and light blue. Both the rays of sunlight and the strangely blue soil are painted in short strokes.  The Sower strikes me as a happy man, spreading the seed widely. Perhaps for Vincent he is not a preacher but an artist, planting seeds of beauty everywhere. The yellow sun on the horizon—impossibly large—seems to me to represent God, the source of all light. I think you could use this postcard as an icon or aid to prayer. 

Years ago, my daughter gave me a framed and matted copy of this postcard which still hangs in my living room. I always read it as an affirmation. “This is you, Dad, sowing the word, sowing kindness. I’m proud to have a pastor like you as my father.”

If you’ve heard the parable of the Sower before, you probably noticed that I only read the short story itself and not the explanation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation is not part of the parable. Parables are usually stories that stimulate thought, and they are just put out there, not given an interpretation. If you have to explain it, it’s not a very good story. A parable is like the stories rabbis told or even the koans from Zen masters. You just make of it what you will, and scratching your head might be an appropriate response. And this story of the Sower—maybe I should say the image of the Sower—doesn’t seem to need an explanation.

At some point between Jesus’ time and the writing of the gospels, an idea took hold that the parables were riddles. They were told in code that only insiders could understand. If you just read the parables straightforwardly with modern eyes, this simply does not seem accurate. The whole discussion in this chapter about why Jesus told in parables—and it’s in the three synoptic gospels in various forms—frankly seems to me to be off the mark, if I dare say so. These stories were never intended as riddles to obscure the truth but were intended to clarify truth and stimulate thinking. 

This whole code thing led to reading parables as allegories. A parable is a story which makes you think; an allegory is a story in which every detail stands for something else. The explanation of this parable makes it about soils rather than the Sower. The seed is the word, the birds are the devil, the seed on rocky ground is believers who don’t have depth, etc. I’m not saying this interpretation is wrong, but that it’s not necessary and limits the parable. Most scholars today attribute the explanation to the early church rather than to Jesus.

There were many centuries when reading the parables as allegories was standard practice in the church. Take, for example, Augustine’s reading of the Good Samaritan. To us, it seems to be a story about someone loving a neighbor across ethnic and religious boundaries. But to Augustine, there was a deeper allegorical meaning. The man on the side of the road is us sinners. The Samaritan is Jesus, who rescues us from sin, and the inn is the church to which Jesus carries us and pays the price for us. You can make a sermon out of that, but it has almost nothing to do with Jesus’ original purpose in his discussion of loving your neighbor.

I want to get back to the original parable of the Sower, a man spreading seed by hand. This is the original use of the word “broadcast,” throwing the seed over a wide area, sowing indiscriminately. Jesus makes it clear that the Sower is not being careful about where he throws the seed. He’s nothing like some of you who plant gardens and dig a straight row, then bury the little seeds an inch deep in prepared soil. This Sower just puts it out there and lets the seed fall where it will. Given that, it is not a surprise that three-quarters of the seed fails to produce. It lands on the hard path, in rocky soil, and in the weeds. What is surprising in this story is that in spite of the Sower’s apparent carelessness, he still gets a bumper crop! A hundredfold return on the seed is probably a fairy-tale-level return, modeled on Isaac’s return on his harvest in Genesis. But this is a story, after all, not a historical account. 

Just about all of Jesus’ parables are presented in the gospels as pictures of the kingdom of God. So this one seems to say that even if it seems that we are foolishly indiscriminate in our planting, God will still give the harvest. Many of Jesus’ parables are told to defend his ministry from his critics. Here he seems to be saying, “You may think I’m nuts just preaching to anybody and everybody and to the wrong kind of people. But wait and see when God brings the harvest of the kingdom. You can’t know what will grow and what won’t.” You might remember that the three famous parables of Luke 15 are told because people accused Jesus of eating with sinners. His stories are about the priority of the lost—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. 

In Matthew 13, Jesus has already been rejected by many of his listeners, including his mother and his brothers. Some say he’s of the devil. Soon his own hometown synagogue will reject him. Even though there is a crowd listening to Jesus at the beach, there are plenty of critics. Some people are saying “What’s wrong with your ministry, Jesus? This isn’t working, is it?” Jesus’ response in this story is to say, “Number one, you don’t understand how the world works and how unpredictable life is. Number two, you don’t have faith that God will accomplish what God wants in the end.”

Because Jesus’ ministry is indiscriminate and not focused on the best people, people ask him “Why are you wasting your time teaching these people? Is this any way to build a successful institution?” The Sower is an answer to that.

When I was a pastor in Northern Kentucky, I served a formerly prosperous church—in some ways like this one—where many of the church members had moved out to the suburbs, while the church’s neighborhood was working-class. The nearby elementary school was 90% free-lunch kids. But my youth pastor and I, along with some women volunteers, made a major effort to focus on the kids in the neighborhood—inviting skateboarders to skate in our parking lot, for example, or hosting a neighborhood Halloween party. Before long, we had about 50 local high school kids in youth group, almost all unchurched, tattoos and all. We had over 70 elementary age kids in Wednesday night Bible club with a supper, almost all with no connection to church. To me, this was an absolute miracle, God bringing the harvest after indiscriminate sowing. But I did have church people coming to me and saying, “We’re worried about the wear and tear of all these children in the church building. And besides, what’s really the point of reaching these children? Their parents are never going to come, and they are never going to tithe.” 

The Sower in the parable is first of all Jesus. “This is what my ministry is like. Don’t you think I know that three-fourths of the time my message won’t take? I am not going to be careful with my seed because I have no fear of running out. I am not going to plan carefully because I’m working with a sense of urgency. I am spreading the message of love and God’s reign indiscriminately because I know God does not discriminate. I do not have a target audience. I am not limiting my work to the group with the highest response-rate or to my donor base. Guess what? God is blessing it! God will bring the response God wants. It may seem crazy, but it’s all good. Trust in God and spread love.”

There is of course a second meaning to the Sower. Jesus says, “This is who I am, but this is also who you can be.” The Sower is also you. We are called as individuals and as a congregation to be like Jesus, to be indiscriminate, to be free with the seed rather than restrained. Too often churches like ours get anxious and careful. We don’t want to waste effort or people and least of all money on things that might not bring a harvest and strengthen the institution. I think Jesus wants us to recover the joy of the Sower in Van Gogh’s painting, to get the Hakuna Matata spirit of trusting God for the harvest. Honestly, we can’t tell by looking which person out there is hard or rocky or weedy, or who is fertile and ready to grow. I think Jesus wants us to be less cautious about offering new life in him and offering community to people we don’t know yet. Are we worried about people thinking that we are too religious? What if people think we are too loving, too merciful, too peace-loving, too hungry for justice? The word of the day is “indiscriminate.” Go out and sow indiscriminately. 

ABOUT REV. STEVE HOLLAWAY: Reverend Stephen (Steve) Hollaway has been a member at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church since he and his wife Becca moved to Baltimore in 2018. He is a retired Baptist pastor with over 30 years in the ministry and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. In his time at First & Franklin, he has become a key figure in the church, making frequent appearances as a guest preacher, serving on the Finance and Peacemaking committees, and leading the Adult Education program on Sunday mornings. Additionally, Steve is an accomplished poet, with a heart for establishing and promoting arts programming in his community.