The Parable of the Extraordinary Harvest

Message for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (7/16/2023)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


The word of God has a seventy-five-percent rate of failure.

That’s one way to interpret Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel from Matthew today. According to his famous parable, three-fourths of the farmer’s seed will yield nothing, which means three-fourths of his investment and labor will go to waste. Faced with those odds, would you keep farming?

In a first-century agrarian economy, you likely wouldn’t have a choice. As Warren Carter explains:

The [Parable of the Seeds and Soils] evokes a common scene of a male peasant trying to eke out a living in generally inhospitable conditions…. [In addition to the poor ground] are other [unmentioned] obstacles: rent, tithes, taxes and tolls, seed for the next year, a household to support. Crop failure meant borrowed money; indebtedness meant defaulting on the loan, loss of land, and virtual slavery as a laborer.[1]

For the majority of farmers in Jesus’ time, the circumstances are dire and the barriers to success are high. But success is imperative; sowing and reaping are matters of life and death.

Interpreters of this parable have often focused on the four different types of soil, which is reasonable given the allegorical explanation in verses 18-23: different soils represent different responses to the “word of the kingdom.” The evil one and persecution and worldly cares and the lure of wealth prevent people from receiving the word, nurturing it in their hearts, and bearing fruit for God’s harvest, God’s kingdom come on Earth as in heaven. Thus, Jesus’ listeners are urged to reflect on our own receptiveness to the word: “What kind of soil am I?”[2]

But, the latter half of today’s Gospel is probably an addition to Jesus’ original teaching, and thus one of many possible readings of the parable in verses 1-9.[3] If Jesus’ message is primarily an exhortation to “be good soil,” then he’s awfully cynical about our prospects, isn’t he? Three-fourths of his efforts will be for naught because three-fourths of his audience will reject the message for one reason or another. Christ sows the word of the kingdom unsparingly; even so, he has no illusions about the likely outcome.

But, is Jesus being cynical, or just realistic? After all, his teachings in Matthew chapter thirteen “follow nine chapters of ministry, which has often met with rejection, hostility, and unbelief.”[4] The seventy-five-percent rate of failure is a grim estimate, but it’s consistent with Jesus’ own experience.

And, isn’t that true of God’s dominion in every age? Disciples in every generation imagine the world as God intends it to be, a world of shared abundance where grace and life are strong enough to overcome suffering and death. But in every generation, suffering and death remain obstinate. Oppression and anxiety and selfishness are everywhere apparent. “Do not underestimate any of these killers,” warns Matt Skinner. “They do not yield ground without a fight. They make the work hard.”[5] In fact, they may make the work seem impossible, and the reign of God nothing more than a pipe dream.

But, if Jesus is realistic about the obstacles, he’s also insistent about the final product: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” It’s not just that twenty-five-percent of seeds produce grain; it’s that they produce a massive surplus. A hundredfold return is prolific, a farmer’s dream. It’s the kind of yield that could change a peasant’s life and the life of his community. So, the parable ends with a thrill of hope, anticipating “the final establishment of God’s just reign,” to quote Warren Carter again, “which will provide abundant resources for all and will destroy the cycle of poverty.”[6] Success is imperative; sowing and reaping are matters of life and death.

It’s been called the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Seeds, and the Parable of the Soils. But, maybe we should call it the Parable of the Extraordinary Harvest.[7] In spite of serious barriers, the word of the kingdom will find a way. That’s the promise. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when God’s dream for the world meets with resistance, but neither should we be immobilized. The work has always involved struggle and loss, but in the end it’s bound to succeed.

And, who knows where and when the seed will take root and grow? The good soil isn’t always self-evident, so life takes root in unexpected ways. Trace Haythorn tells the story of a friend, a photographer for the Associated Press, who reported from Ground Zero in the days following the destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001. As the chance of finding survivors faded, so did the rescuers’ hopes, and “the photographer found it harder and harder to capture [their] images.”

One afternoon of another cloudless day, as he walked down the sidewalk in what had once been the shadows of the towers, he glanced down. There, in the crack of the sidewalk, a dandelion poked its way into the new light. It was not anything spectacular. In fact, the image itself was quite humble. With the roar of the machines and the shouts of the rescuers only a few feet away, the photographer fell to his knees and burst into tears at the realization that life, even in such a place as this, will persist.[8]

Let anyone with ears listen. The chances of success are slim, still God sows the promise of abundant life more widely than any of us can imagine. The toil is hard, and the disappointments are many. But, since there’s no scarcity of seeds, there’s no end to our hope for the harvest.

[1] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 282.

[2] M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 303.

[3] Ibid. 305.

[4] Carter 284.

[5] “At Work in the Fields of the Lord,”

[6] 283.

[7] See Talitha J. Arnold, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 236.

[8] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 196.

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“Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil”; text and music: Handt Hanson, b. 1950; © 1985 Prince of Peace Publishing, Changing Church, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

“O God, Whose Word Well-Planted”, Text and music © 1990 Augsburg Fortress

“As the Grains of Wheat”; text: Didache, 2nd; Marty Haugen, b. 1950; music: Marty Haugen; © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.

“For the Fruit of All Creation”, Text © 1970 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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