Prodigal Farmer

The Rev. Joseph Winston July 13, 2008

Sermon
Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Most of you are probably very familiar with the story called “Little Red Riding Hood,” which goes something like this. There once was a little girl with a red cloak. She wore this cape so often that the other villagers called her, “Little Red Riding Hood.” One day, her mother asked this little girl to travel through the woods to deliver food to her sick grandmother. But before Red left the house, her mother reminded her to be careful since the forest can be a dangerous place. Red promised her mother that she would be alert and she quickly left for her grandmother’s house. All the while a wolf watched Red but he could not come near her because of the villagers. Once she had entered the dark forest, the wolf asked her where she was going. Forgetting her mother’s
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3
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words, Red told the wolf that she was going to her grandmother’s house. In order to distract Red from her task, the wolf told Red to pick some wildflowers because they would cheer up Red’s grandmother. With Red temporally delayed, the wolf rushed to the grandmother’s house. There he pretended to be Red, gained entry into the house, and ate up the grandmother. The wolf now put on the old woman’s clothing and waited for Red. When Red finally arrived, the wolf ate her up. Fortunately, a nearby woodsman heard all the commotion. He ran to the house and when he saw the wolf, he knew what had happened. He quickly killed the wolf and the grandmother and Red escaped unharmed. Did you know that this story also has a moral? This meaning of “Little Red Riding Hood” has been almost completely lost to us because of the distance that separates us from the original story. This fact is clearly seen once we trace the story’s development. The most well know version of “Little Red Riding Hood” is from Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Karl Grim (1786-1859).2 This account published in 1875 is based on several earlier editions of the Grim Brothers, with the first revision being in 1812.3 This text is almost identical to a version published in 1697 by Charles Perrault (1628-1703) in a book titled, Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose (1697).4 Perrault’s tale about “Little Red Riding Hood” also comes from other versions that are at least four hundred years older. However, Perrault’s story differs in three ways from the version we
Anonymous, Little Red Riding Hood, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_ Riding_Hood, July 2008). 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid.
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find in the Grim Brothers. First in this version, Red is an attractive well-bred girl. Second, Red, along with her grandmother, die in the wolf’s belly. Finally, Perrault provides us with the following moral: From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers. And it is not an unheard thing if the wolf is thereby provided with his dinner.5 While it might be shocking for us to hear these sentences by Perrault that frankly tell us what might happen when we talk to strangers, we know that he is speaking the truth. Not only do we warn our children about the terrible dangers of the world but we also still can hear echoes of the double entendre about horrible wolves that eat up little girls more than seven hundred years from when the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” was first told. A similar problem appears in today’s Gospel lesson. We have moved so far away from being an agricultural society that we do not see the obvious problems that the parable contains. The sower that is the farmer in this parable plants seeds in places where they will never grow.6 We all have some grasp of this idea. Common sense tells us that farmers do
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Perrault continues: I say wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort, there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentile, following these young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous! Anonymous, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.

One commentary asks if the farmer is flat out dumb or is he generous with what he has received? S.J. Daniel J. Harrington; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 194.

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not knowingly put down their crops in well traveled roads, they do not plant where the soil does not support their crop, nor do they waste their seed where it will not grow successfully. Remembering the harsh realities of the time can lead us to the same conclusion. Farmers do not throw away seed because it brings them life. In a society that lives hand to mouth, every item of food that is wasted could directly lead to your death. Farmers do not just toss out what might feed you tomorrow. Careful planning during this day and age meant that farmers knew the growing season like the back of their hands. Farmers used this hard won knowledge of what to plant along with how to nourish these plants. Literally, no reasonable farmer would jeopardize his by misusing seeds. Additionally, farmers in this area of the world are part of the economic system known as patronage. In this financial model, your supporter expected to be paid so that he can pay the person above him. This transfer of wealth continued all the way up the ladder until it finally reached the emperor. If you failed to keep your side of the bargain, your patron would respond by using force and intimidation.7 Any farmer that forgot this basic fact about life and tossed out seeds where they could not grow lost a viable way of paying off what he owed. The harsh truth throughout the Roman Empire would be this. Poor performance as a farmer meant that you, your parents, your relatives, your wife, and your children did not eat because the patron took his share before the farmer got his. Obviously, farmers tried to stay
S.J. John R. Donahue and S.J. Daniel J. Harrington; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Mark, Volume 2, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 316.
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out of this situation and planted their seeds where they would grow. Acknowledging the reality that the farmer is being extremely generous with his seed to the point of foolishness allows us to see that this parable is really about God’s actions in the world.8 . Truthfully, one could say that this parable is about the Trinity’s actions in the world. Using this viewpoint, it is clear that this parable is about God the Father. The Father is willing to do whatever it takes in order that the entire universe is saved from our sin. He did this by sending His only Son into the world so that all the world would believe in Him and do God’s will. We already know the cost of this action. The Son suffered and died. This only occurred because of the Father’s extravagant love for us. Matthew’s account has already told us other attributes of this extravagant Father farmer. He supplies the sun and the rain for the entire world (Matthew 5:45). This means that God the Father takes care of every seed that He plants. To those on the road, He provides both light and water. For the ones that find themselves in shallow soil, He gives them the just enough daylight and a light drizzle to keep them moist. To the ones in the brambles, He sends a ray of light that penetrates the darkness and a downpour to make it through the thicket. For those in the healthy soil, the Father supports the seeds with the right amounts of sunlight and drenching rains. The Father also personally watches over every plant in His garden, because He loves all of creation (Matthew 6:26-34, 10:29-31, 18:14). He knows the time
Douglas R. A. Hare; James Luther Mays, Jr. Patrick D. Miller and Paul J. Achtemeier, editors, Matthew Interpretation, (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993), Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 148.
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when any of His seedlings die. But it pains Him when they perish due to hardness of heart, lack of faith, or worldly distractions. Next, the parable is about the extravagant farmer known as God the Son who commanded His entire Church to go into the world teaching, making disciples, and baptizing. This order for us to go everywhere shows us Christ’s deep concern for everyone here on earth. The extravagant love that Jesus has for us is seen throughout Matthew’s account of His birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus brought the kingdom of heaven to both the Jews and the Gentiles (Matthew 4:17, 12:21). In terms of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus goes to every part of the world. To the areas that are hard to penetrate, He brings His Word of salvation. To those who only will stay with Him a brief while, He gives them Good News. Even to the people who are deeply involved with this world, He still comes and tells them that He is there for them. For the healthy believers, Jesus gives them the same gifts as everyone else: the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.9 Finally, this parable is about God the Spirit who gives us everything that we need. Not only does this include our daily needs of bread and water as we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer but the Holy Spirit also gives us our faith in God along with our ability to go and tell others about God. These gifts from the Holy Spirit, which sustain us throughout our lives, are extravagant. It is the Spirit that extravagantly gives each of us our life. Every seed that God
Of course, His followers are expected to do the same things since this is recorded in Matthew Matthew 10:5-6, 10:18.
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plants in the world has the ability to live. It does not matter what condition the soil might be: hard and dry, poor in nutrients, covered with competition, or even the perfect condition. God the Spirit gives life to the seed in every place. Sometimes, we do not want to hear of the farmer who gives everyone what they need. Instead, we would prefer to turn our hearts into soil that causes God’s seed to wither. When we do this, we reject God’s message of love and act like hard soil, rocky soil, or soil that has thorny plants. Some of us might keep our lives so tightly packed with things that God’s seed never takes root. We are the ones who have bumper stickers that read, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” We think that our things will save us the pain of our everyday lives bring but our things cannot love us nor can they give us what we are really looking for. If you look closely, our schedules, either paper or electronic, are full with things that we have to do but we never can find the time to be with God and to learn God’s ways. Others of us might harden our hearts and kill off the young plants before they have a chance to take root and change our lives. We could speak ill of the Church. We might say that we would never darken a door in the Lord’s house because the Church is filled with “those type of people” and that we would never be caught with them. We forget that they are just like us. Still others of us could choke out God’s message with all sort of thorny problems that we pay attention to instead of allowing God to feed the young plant in our hearts. We might be concerned about doing things the right way instead of doing things the Lord’s way. Our actions certainly will stunt the plant’s growth 7

and might end up killing it outright Although Goal knows about every possible problem that might befall us here on earth, God continues to lavishly give us both the attention that we need to live along with the Word of the kingdom. The dictionary has a word for this type of behavior: prodigal. God is recklessly extravagant on you and me to the point of completely exhausting all of His resources. This is the definition of prodigal and this is exactly what every member of the Trinity does for you and for me. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit love you and me so much that they continue to expend time and energy on each and everyone of us. It does not matter to God what kind of person we are. If we are hard soil, rocky soil, thorny soil, or even if we have been blessed with good soil, every member of the Trinity is there with us and working on us. God never gives up on us. This action culminated in Jesus. Every last drop of God was pored out on the cross so that you and I could live. Here on the cursed tree God gave all that He could. There was nothing else left. He gave His life so that His creation could live. The sheer nonsense of this action is overwhelming. The farmer died so that the seeds might live. But it is much more than that. The farmer gave everything to the seeds including all the lost ones (Matthew 18:11-13). The farmer who planted the seeds now serves the seeds (Matthew 20:28b). This is the story of the prodigal farmer who gave everything away so that His seeds might be saved. 8

It is possible that some people here today were surprised to learn that “Little Red Riding Hood” is really a story that warns girls about the evil wolves that stalk the forests of this world. But this is the function of the story. “Little Red Riding Hood” has survived all these years because it gives parents a safe way to talk about the horrors that their children might face. It is also probable that the farmers in the audience some two thousand years ago were amazed when they learned about a farmer who took the time to plant seed in places where it would never make a return on what had been invested in the seeds. Had this farmer been either you or I, their doubt about someone like this would have been completely justified. However, this prodigal farmer is like no other. God the Father gives God the Son anything that that Son asks for. His will is that we live. We see this spelled out in the Bible. However, if this action was just limited to the pages of a book, it would be nothing more than a fairy tale, which quickly would be forgotten because no one had experienced it. Christianity has lasted for these two thousand years for one reason. Somehow, someway, the followers of Jesus know that this story about the prodigal farmer is true. Maybe you have seen it in the lives of others. Perhaps you have felt something change deep inside of you. It could even be that you benefited from the work of a group. In the final analysis, it does not matter.10 The Son has come to you and
If someone cries fire in a crowded theater, then the individuals must decide if they reject the message. At some later time, an investigation can show us if the fire was really present. When Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven (God) is at hand, we must decide if we are going to reject His Word. But unlike an investigation into a theater fire, we cannot see if God is really present among us unless God reveals God’s self to us. Thus, the secrets of the kingdom are not “taught but revealed.” Hare, Matthew Interpretation, p. 149.
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saved you. The Spirit has come to you and given you life. God the Farmer has done this for all of creation. The Farmer also has a plan for you. Jesus wants you to work with Him in the world. You might be asked to go into areas that are hard to penetrate. You might be sent to areas with rocky issues. Maybe you might be placed into situations that are thorny. It could even be that you will be blessed by being sent into areas with good soil. But no matter where you are placed, remember that God the Farmer put you here for a reason. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”11

References
Anonymous, Little Red Riding Hood, (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Little_Red_Riding_Hood, July 2008), Last accessed on July 12, 2008. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991). Hare, Douglas R. A.; Mays, James Luther, Patrick D. Miller, Jr. and Achtemeier, Paul J., editors, Matthew Interpretation, (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1993), Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching.
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Philippians 4:7.

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John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Mark, Volume 2, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

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