July 15, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “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!”
“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.”
There are things in life we cannot control. Some of those things even get in the way of allowing God’s Word to flourish within us. But to the best of our ability, we should have ears that hear, and we should be soil that is ready.
We’re two for two this weekend in terms of our Scripture passages reminding me of songs. Yesterday, Isaiah 55 put me in mind of the Scripture chorus “The Trees of the Field.” Today, Jesus’s famous parable about the sower who went out to sow transported me somewhere very different—to the Broadway stage and the musical Godspell.
Godspell is fairly famous, but if you happen not to have encountered it, it’s basically a retelling of the Gospel of Matthew with very catchy songs—all with new music by Stephen Schwartz, who went on to become a very famous Broadway composer, and some with new lyrics by John-Michael Tebelak, who really did write the original version of the show as his masters’ thesis in drama at Carnegie Mellon University. Where he didn’t write new lyrics, Tebelak, who was an Episcopalian, borrowed them from public-domain hymns in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal.
The musical has taken on a life of its own over the years; even in 2023, people are still producing it (I saw a production last fall) and still responding to its attempts to bring the Gospel to life in the modern era. Much of the middle part of the show consists of Jesus and his group of followers retelling his parables in fresh ways—and, as in the original source material, the disciples often don’t get it.
Thus, after the disciples tell the parable of the sower but fail to understand it, Jesus shares with them the interpretation he gives in Matthew 13:18-23: the seed is the word of God, and both inner and outer obstructions and events can keep that word from coming to flower and flourish in us. (Godspell is a musical which invites improvisation and tweaking of the text; the disciples generally misidentify the seed as “a baby,” but in one version of the script I found online the disciples also think the seed might be “a stimulus package.”)
The lectionary cuts out Matthew 13:10-17; I kind of wish it didn’t, because it’s in those verses that Jesus gives the outwardly-problematic explanation that he’ll tell his disciples what his parables mean, but not the crowds, because the crowds are those of whom the prophets said “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13, invoking Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2).
I think these verses may best be understood in the context of the parable surrounding them, though. Both 13:9 and 13:18-23 make it clear that we have at least some responsibility for how we respond to the Word—“If you have ears, hear!” (13:9). There are things in life we cannot control. Some of those things even get in the way of allowing God’s Word to flourish within us. But to the best of our ability, we should have ears that hear, and we should be soil that is ready.
Which—to go back to Godspell for a moment, because I promised you a song—is how Jesus and the disciples invite us to respond to this parable in that show. After hearing Jesus’s call to flourish, they launch into the song “All Good Gifts” (one of the lyrics borrowed from that Episcopal hymnal, and dating back originally to the eighteenth century):
We plow the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord
For all his love.
Ultimately, all is grace (even babies and stimulus packages). Our preparation for having good ears, and being good soil, is to recognize that, and to hear, and to understand.
What gifts has God given you?
How can you have ears to hear?
How can you be good soil?
Well, here’s the song, of course—this is the version from the 1973 movie, which places the performance right smack in the middle of modern life in a city park. Listen and ponder the questions above.
(Prayer for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in the Book of Common Prayer) O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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