Overabundant Harvests

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


    A crowd gathers around Jesus. They press in, each trying to get closer to the mysterious storyteller, to touch the garment of the great healer. It’s an age before social distancing. Our Savior, to create breathing room, jumps into a boat and rows out a short distance from the shore. Then he turns toward the crowd and sees their tired faces: peasant farmers who toil to make ends meet, sun chapped fishermen who struggle day by day to provide for their families, young women whose bodies are already old from laboring in the fields. Jesus also sees the discouragement of disciples who’ve witnessed believers turn away. His heart goes out them. Knowing and understanding their disappointments, he tells a story:

 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.   And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

What does that mean, they began to ask themselves? Many are farmers and none had experienced such abundance. What kind of harvest have you received from seeds you’ve sown?

You know, gardening is big this year. I had a hard time finding seeds and plants earlier in the spring when I was setting up my summer garden in my plot at Skidaway Farms. With the lockdown and the limited products available at the grocery store in the spring, it seemed many were returning to their roots. People are digging in the dirt, which is a good thing. And I’ve had a good year. Sadly, the tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are done in this heat—but I’m beginning to get my fill of okra, eggplant and peppers! There are a variety of items to tease my taste buds. And it’s good to work in the dirt.

A number of years ago, I asked a farmer about this parable. I wanted to know what a good harvest of oats—one of the grains of choice in Jesus’ era, would be today. I was told such a crop generally yields between seventy and hundred bushels per acre and that he might use 2 or 3 bushels planting that acre giving a yield of roughly thirty fold.[1] With all our technology and science, tractors and herbicides, a hundred fold still seems out of reach.

The discouraged farmers and disciples listen to Jesus’ message, but they’re confused. They identify with the difficulty of the sower whose seeds are eaten or fall along the path, but they cannot understand where a farmer could have found such good soil to produce a crop of even thirty fold, and certainly not sixty or a hundred fold.  Farmers in Palestine in the first century had it tough. On average, for every bushel of grain they planted they reaped only seven and a half bushels. If it was an exceptionally good harvest, they might gather ten bushels.[2]

Obviously, God would have to really bless the crop if one was to reap 30 or more bushels. And Jesus’ message is just that, the harvest, those in whom the gospel takes root is a blessing from God. As humans, we cannot produce such an effort. But God can and therefore, as farmers know, we do our part and then must be patient, waiting and expecting the best.

This parable is an analogy and it is dangerous to push the analogy too far and think that the seeds which fell in the good soil were lucky while those who fell in the poorer areas were just ill-fated. Such an interpretation would diminish our responsibility for our actions. Perhaps, because the analogy can be interpreted in such a way, Jesus explains the story:

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Jesus’ explanation emphasizes three dangers facing Christians in the world. Those who do not understand the gospel are quickly snatched away by the evil one just like the seeds on the hardened path are eaten by birds. To understand the gospel means more than an intellectual comprehension. To understand, in the Old Testament sense, implies a moral commitment as shown by the author of the 119th Psalm: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”[3] The first seeds lost are those who do not seek to live within God’s word.

The second danger facing Christians is marginal belief. Like the plant which grows in rocky soil, the believer who is not firm in his or her faith might grow up quickly, promising to do great things, only to turn away when times are tough. We’ve seen it happen, haven’t we?  People who get all excited and join the church, then become disinterested, burned-out, or melt away when challenged. We need to carefully strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ, allowing ourselves to get a good root system started. Otherwise, in our immaturity, we’ll try to take on the world and end up overwhelmed and give up.

The third obstacle facing Christians are the temptations of the world. The seeds overwhelmed by the thorns are examples of those who are more attracted to worldly affairs than to the gospel. We cannot serve two masters, Jesus has already told us in Matthew’s gospel,[4] and those who focus on worldly concerns soon forget about the gospel. As Christians, we are to be concerned for the world because God’s love for the world, not because of our own desires. Sometimes we get this turned around and then end up working for what we want and not for what God would have us do.

But this passage is not about avoiding good or bad soil, which is something over which the seed has no control. Instead, it’s a parable about what God can do. Jesus tells of the good soil which produced upwards of hundred fold. I’ve already discussed how such a yield was impossible in Biblical times and unheard of today, so we must conclude that the good soil is even more blessed by God so that it can produce such results. It’s important to understand that a plant is not judged on how it looks while growing, but on the fruit it sustains. Note that both the seeds sown on rocky soil and among the briers grow at first… Often, as with the case of the plant in the rocky soil, such seeds sprout and grow fast, but produce no long-term harvest. Only the seed in the good soil produces a bountiful harvest.

Our purpose isn’t to be digging up the thorns. Instead, we’re to encourage growth and deep roots.[5] Jesus also emphasis this later in this chapter, which we’ll look at next week, with the parable of the weeds amongst the wheat.[6] Judgment belongs to God, we’re to encourage growth and trust in the Almighty.

You know, when I was a kid we always had a large garden. Even though we lived in suburban America, my mother still thought she was on the farm… Every year, it seemed, she was in a contest with her mother and mother-in-law to see who could can the most green beans. Continually, throughout my childhood, they competed and set new world records for the number of quarts of green beans they canned. Why our family needed 75 quarts of green beans was beyond my comprehension-then and now-especially since everyone else was also busy canning them. They couldn’t give them away so after being forced to snap the beans, the beans were forced on us kids all winter long. This was in the ‘60’s, a time when Nuclear War seemed like a real possibility. I assure you, the thought of the bomb wasn’t nearly as frightening as living in a cellar eating green beans out of old Mason Jars… Now you know why it is I don’t like green beans. As for the green bean casseroles, I’ll steal an onion ring off the top, if you’re not looking, and leave you the rest.

Green beans aside, it takes time to produce a good crop. In my garden at the community farm, where I refuse to plant green beans, I am constantly pulling weeds, fighting fire ants, and trying to scare away birds. None of us have Jack’s magic seeds, we can’t plant a seed and have it grow up overnight. If we want a good garden, we must take the time to tend to it. The Christian life is similar. We must nourish ourselves continually, being constantly on the lookout for that which keeps us from focusing on Christ. And when we nourish ourselves—by studying God’s word, praying, worshipping, keeping the Sabbath, striving to be generous, and to show grace to all—we open ourselves up to be used and transformed by God. And God can use us to sow more seeds in the world which, if nurtured, will lead to more transformations, which offers the world hope.

But remember this is a parable. Don’t despair, thinking you are in the wrong soil. Don’t give up if things don’t go the way you feel they should. It’s easy to get discouraged and depressed. Instead of us seeing ourselves as seeds, we should see ourselves as the one who sows the seed. Even though God has blessed us, and for this we should continually give thanks, when we look around our community and across the globe, we see many people who are in need and not being reached by any Church, people who don’t know the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

You know, the disciples must have felt the same way as we do before Jesus told them this parable. After hearing his words, they realized God was with them.  Sure, there were many people who rejected Jesus’ words. Sure, there were those who seemed so eager to follow Jesus, but had no roots and quickly fell away. Sure, there were guys like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus, but just couldn’t let go of the world.[7] But there were also blind men who could see and those who had been lame were walking. The disciples must have understood what Paul would later say: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[8]

Jesus’ story encourages us not to give up. Keep sowing the grain. Even in face of meager results, be true to the gospel and continue to praise God and proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life.[9] For we never know when God might provide a harvest of a 100 fold! That’s our job. Even amid doubt and despair, even during a pandemic, we claim this world for God. We believe that God is working out things for the best, and we pray God will give us a harvest. So let’s do our part and sow the seeds of the gospel. When you can offer hope to someone, offer hope. When you can help someone, help them. Do it all in the love of Jesus and give him the credit. Amen

[1] Wayne Kent, Ellicottville, NY.

[2]Douglas Hare, Matthew: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1992), 152-153.

[3] Psalm 119:34.

[4] Matthew 6:24.

[5] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 254-255.

[6] Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

[7] Luke 18:18-23.

[8] 1 Corinthians 3:7.

[9] John 14:6.

14 thoughts on “Overabundant Harvests”

  1. A garden can be a joy.
    Hard work but rewarding.
    Even if you don’t have a garden fresh herbs can grow on a window sill 🙂

    Hope you are doing ok.

    All the best Jan

  2. Every summer my grandparents would shanghai all their grandkids and cart us off to their garden. It was especially hard work, even worse was when we had to pick butter beans.

    Great message!

  3. Great interpretation of the parable, Jeff. So timely right now. The garden metaphor and the pandemic with the message of God seem to fit together today. I smiled at your description of your mother’s green bean ‘situation’ and how you’d sneak the onion ring off the top of the casserole.

  4. “the thought of the bomb wasn’t nearly as frightening as living in a cellar eating green beans out of old Mason Jars”

    Hahaha! – that line made me laugh.

    My parents had a big garden every summer too. My mom mostly put vegetables up in freezer bags in the freezer, though, instead of canning them. We all helped with keeping the garden weeded and the produce picked. I miss those days. I agree that it is good to work in the dirt.

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