One of the most fruitful and enjoyable ways to read and explore stories in the Bible is to identify with the experience or viewpoint of a particular character in the story. You can do this on your own by reading the story over and over again, each time from the perspective of a different person or even an object. It’s even more fun and enlightening to do this with a group of people, reading the story through and then letting each person say who or what they most identify with and why they are drawn to that person or thing. It’s an excellent way to begin to get at the multiple layers of meaning and the different perspectives that are so often a part of any story whether it’s from the Bible or from somewhere else.
The parables Jesus told are particularly open to this kind of exploration. Most of them, unlike the one we hear this morning, come with no explanation. Jesus just puts them out there and lets his hearers do what they will with what they’ve heard…or more precisely, he lets the Holy Spirit work with the story in each listener to reveal the meaning that person needs to receive in the moment. The parable of the sower actually begins a new section of Matthew’s gospel. In the first 12 chapters he preached what we commonly refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, that long but engaging set of teachings that begins with the beatitudes and goes on to touch on many aspects of what it looks like to live faithfully. At the conclusion of this long teaching, Jesus sets off and travels all around doing deeds of great power: healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the gospel reading for today omits the eight verses between verse nine and verse 18. It’s in those eight verses that the purpose of the next section of the gospel actually begins to unfold. “Why in the world do you speak to people in parables?” the disciples want to know. Jesus explains that he speaks in parables because the people are not meant to understand, in fact they can’t understand. He tells them he speaks in parables because it’s them, the disciples who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear. He closes with these words: But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. I can almost hear the dead silence when he stops talking. I can almost see their blank stares of incomprehension, of not seeing or hearing or understanding at all what the parable is about. So Jesus goes on to explain it to them in the rest of the reading for today, explaining how the various places the seeds fall are like the different ways people can hear and yet not hear.
In the seventh century a Christian remembered as St. Maximus the Confessor wrote about this parable but from the perspective of the sower. He said that if we would love God, we must also love our neighbors as well. No surprise there. But he went on to say that if we would love our neighbors the same way God loves them, we must love them equally. We cannot distinguish between the good and the bad or the deserving and the undeserving because God’s love makes no such distinctions. In other words, a sower who spreads love like God does is “unattached” in his love of others. He indiscriminately and generously gives to all kinds of ground, all kinds of people. He does not pick and choose to attend to some kinds of ground, some kinds of people but not to others. He can sow with abandon and a carefree spirit because he is not attached to getting a return for his work of love. This kind of sower revels in loving everyone he meets.
I am convinced that one of the most difficult things for you and me to wrap our minds around is the spiritual quality called detachment. We are trained and shaped from our earliest days to expect something in return for what we give. We teach our children, as we were taught, to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us. After all, that’s what it says in the Bible. Be nice to other people if you want them to be nice to you. Share your toys with others if you want others to share their toys with you. Saint Maximus the Confessor takes this a step further…a giant step further. Be nice to other people whether they’re nice to you in return or not. Share your toys with others even if no one shares their toys with you. We are given freedom to shower others with love and compassion, generosity and mercy, without any expectation of return when we experience the unconditional love God has for us. Detachment is not about being unfeeling or cold or uncaring. It’s about loving freely with no strings attached. It’s about the joyous freedom that allows us to love any and everyone, especially those who need most to be loved. We can do this because we just don’t need any payback.
You and I often come to this parable of the sower from the perspective of the various soils because that’s the way Jesus explained it so long ago. In fact, preachers often exhort us to think about what kind of soil we might be. That can be a helpful approach as we try to understand what it is in us and in our lives that makes it so difficult for the love of God to take root and flourish in us. But maybe, if we can focus for once on the carefree, joyful abandon of the sower, the carefree joyous abandon of God who takes immense pleasure in loving us beyond our imagining, in loving us with no strings attached…maybe, if we can focus on that, then we can find that spark of boundless generosity that God planted in us before we were born and set it free to grow and flourish and bear fruit.