Proper 10(A): Did You Hear Me?
By: The Rev. Anna Tew
Do you ever get the feeling you’re just not being heard? Where you express an idea, and your conversation partner repeats it back to you, and it’s clear that they didn’t fully hear you?
Although it’s true that women pastors, LGBTQ pastors, young pastors, and pastors of color may feel this way most often, I think all pastors and preachers sometimes get the feeling that they’ve been seriously misheard. For example, we may preach a fiery sermon on inclusion and love just to be met at coffee hour with, “Thank you, Reverend — I really hope those people heard you.”
And though you may smile and nod, if you’re like me, you at least inwardly sigh and respond, “It’s like you didn’t hear me at all.”
If the Bible were a person, she’d feel this way a lot.
Too often, we hear what we want to hear rather than what’s on the page.
The Parable of the Sower is so well-worn that it’s difficult to find much that’s new to say about it that hasn’t been said already: good soil is a place where the Good News can grow and bear fruit in a person’s heart. Other factors can choke out the Gospel’s potential in our lives.
Some commentaries, however, in an attempt to say something new, contradict the text and misunderstand the parable. Some make a point of how great it is that the sower isn’t careful, sowing the seed in every place. These (mostly) liberal-leaning commentaries give us all of the warm fuzzies that we’re used to in progressive church: an inclusive God who does not discriminate, carelessly throwing grace all around.
Let me be clear: I do believe in a God who scatters grace everywhere. The problem is that, if we consider the images that Jesus uses in this particular parable, a God who carelessly scatters seed on the path or among thorns is cruel at best.
Jesus actually says in the middle of our pericope (in the section left out of today’s reading), as if almost making fun of our attempts to explain the parable without actually hearing it: “You will indeed listen, but never understand… look, but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14 NRSV). It also ignores a reality of sowing: seeds do fall everywhere. It’s not meant to be some heartwarming detail that some seeds didn’t land in exactly the right place: it’s just part of throwing seed.
The problem with celebrating the sower’s indiscriminate sowing and leaving it there (in addition to betraying a lack of agrarian understanding) is that Jesus in this parable goes to great lengths to describe the ways that each poorly-sown seed dies. The image of the careless sower generously scattering seed that begins to grow only to get snatched away and die decidedly isn’t Good News, despite any initial warm fuzzies.
So how is a preacher to find Good News within this text?
Well, we can deduce one thing by the sower’s indiscriminate sowing: that the seed is plentiful. If there were a shortage, the sower would not have been so careless. The Gospel is indeed abundant and scattered everywhere.
Still, we cannot ignore that some of the seed that is scattered dies. This is a fact of farming. To praise an indiscriminate sower simply for being indiscriminate is to not hear what Jesus actually says about the results. It is to pay no mind to the end game. It is to not understand farming.
So what is the Good News?
Jesus is speaking to a large crowd by the sea, but he’s also speaking to his disciples, and they will intermittently have side conversations about these parables. After Jesus says “They will listen, but never understand,” Jesus also says, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16, emphasis mine).
This doesn’t mean that the disciples are exclusively special or that they always understand; the reality is quite the contrary. What Jesus means to do, I believe, is to call them to awareness of where they have landed, through no virtue of their own: in a place where their hearts may grow and bloom. The disciples are meant to understand their community as good soil, not because it’s exclusive, but because they stay near to the source of life, Jesus, and to each other. They are the seeds that fall together where life and joy may grow and thrive. This little cohort of disciples is good soil, where seeds fall into the ground and spring up to new and abundant life. There is opportunity and love and joy in community.
And what about the seeds which fall on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns?
I believe that the parable may be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Jesus isn’t damning some people to waste away forever, languishing from the lack of growth. The reality is that harmful forces in our lives can choke out Good News, consume our joy, and trample self-love and love for neighbor.
We’ve all done our time in poor soil.
The Good News is that community around Jesus gives us a chance to grow. I believe the parable implores us to plant ourselves in good soil, in loving community, where love for self, God, and neighbor may grow and bear fruit.
The sower does indeed scatter seed everywhere, and the conditions in which we find ourselves determine the level growth that is possible.
So let us create within ourselves and our communities good soil: encouraging questions, embracing change, yielding new life. And may God, the source of all life, continue to bring the joy of resurrection with each new leaf. Amen.
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.