When we hear this parable we are taken to a nice story based on agriculture and arable. We get a nice glimpse into Jesus’ context and we think it’s all very simple. However, if we think this then we’d be wrong! Those who first heard Jesus tell this story might have been furious when they unpacked its meanings. It’s still powerful and still rather unsettling for us.
Context of Conflict
First there is the context. This parable and its interpretation are sandwiched between stories of opposition to the Gospel. Chapters 11-12 contain multiple stories of opposition and misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 13 concludes with Jesus’ hometown rejecting him. The parable in between these rejection and opposition narratives may be an answer to the question “why does the Gospel find good soil to grow among some people but not among others?” The flip side of this question is, what are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship? Matthew was compiling his Gospel in a hostile age and tried to encourage Christians, mainly from Jewish backgrounds, who were misunderstood by their Jewish friends and gentile neighbours. So conflict is in the background and living out one’s discipleship in difficult times is in the foreground.
So given that context the striking thing for me about this parable is that it’s about God’s generosity. God, the sower, sows where he wills with a wonderful lack of planning and preparation. The soil hasn’t be ploughed, fertilised or prepared. No market research has happened if it had then the sower wouldn’t be scattering seed on the path, in shallow soil or amongst thorns. How crazy is that? How wasteful?
If the modern Church was doing this we’d have had some planning meetings, we would have strategized where best to plant the precious seeds, we may have even had a focus group or two in order to test the market. Instead, the sower extravagantly, maybe foolishly, throws her seed into the air without a care where it lands. The seed is sown and scattered to the winds.
Jesus’ original hearers might well have got very angry as Land is used again and again in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the Jewish people. Indeed some more right wing Israelis still do this and use the idea of God giving the Promised Land to the Jewish people as a reason to deny Palestinians their rights. The Sower, takes no care where the seed goes. He doesn’t just put it on the land, but on the path. The seed could fly over borders, the wrong people might be given seed – indeed maybe the Sower isn’t bothered about borders or ethnicity. That makes people hot under the colour now but in Jesus’ time there would have been some huffing and puffing as he preached.
- Maybe the idea is that we should, in our individual lives and in our life as a church, scatter the seed hither and thither without regard to the type of people we give the seed too.
- Maybe we should scatter with the type of generosity that God as sower does in the world.
- Maybe we’re not to worry too much about the effectiveness of the project but just to do it. After all, that’s the strategy the Jehovah’s Witnesses have used for years – door knocking or, nowadays, standing in the street in busy places or at railway stations just handing out their literature, not being concerned to find the right type of person, or the right area, just scattering their seeds. Maybe we need to be as bold with the Gospel.
Different types of soil
Jesus spoke about different types of soil; the hardened path where the seed is carried off straight away by the evil one, the shallow soil where no roots could be put down so the person who hears the Gospel with joy runs off at the first sound of trouble, the thorny soil which chokes the plant as a metaphor by those choked by what their wealth can buy and the good soil.
Might this be a reality-parable? The four conditions of the land might represent the conditions we often experience in life. We are always gadding about trying to make things ‘right’ to sow the seed.
The Church introduces more programmes to turn us from extinction to mega-churches. We have plans and projects in order to make the field as fertile as possible. The reality is, however, all these different conditions exist and love is sown into all of them, not by us, but by the sower. Every condition is a possible growing place and is given as much chance as any other; the sower sows but isn’t responsible for how the seed then does.
Indeed, when Jesus explains the parable, he doesn’t explain the sower, he explains the soil. The seed falls on different grounds regardless.
There is a temptation that we would target our limited resources to those areas that will bring the biggest impact or return, carrying out cost/benefit analyses to aid our decision making, but this is not how it is done in the Kingdom. The Good News is given and offered and we are invited to grow no matter the condition we are in, the culture we are in, the land we are in, or the church we are in. The Good News is universally given and generously offered by the divine sower.
When we sow we don’t necessarily know what condition the soil is in. We only see things at one level. We may share practical love with someone at the food bank not knowing much about their lives. I find myself talking about my faith and how I make sense of things with some Muslim friends. I’m not doing it to deliberately evangelise – I’m interested in how they make sense of things in their tradition. I don’t know how the soil of their heart is; that’s not my responsibility. We may invite people to church; it’s our responsibility to invite not to judge the result.
So what are our responsibilities from this parable?
First, I think we need to emulate the Sower, God, in the extravagant generosity where the seed is scattered without regard to cost, planning, or effectiveness. The sower trusts that her work will pay off, but isn’t hung up on results. Every time we pray for someone to respond to the good news; every time we invite someone to come to church; every time we share our faith we’re doing the work of the sower. Every time we’re kind to someone else, every time we seek to make the world a better place, every time we put our money where our faith is then we’re doing the work of the sower. We don’t need to plan, strategise or ponder, we just need to sow.
Second, we need to take responsibility for our heart’s poor soil. We can’t change the soil for others but we can for ourselves.
- Are our hearts hardened to the Gospel or are we open to its life changing possibilities?
- Do we allow the Gospel to develop deep roots in our lives? Do we pray outside of church, do we let our faith effect our lives, do we give, do we engage with the Bible and the truths of our faith in our everyday life? Doing these things, makes us better disciples and deepens our roots.
- do we, in our materialistic world, resist the temptation to be taken in by what our wealth can buy? There is nothing wrong with being comfortable if we, at the same time, help others to be comfortable too. Wesley famously told his followers to earn all they could, save all they could and give all they could – it’s the last part that’s particularly important.
An attitude of generosity coupled with the everyday practice of discipleship helps our hearts be the good soil that Jesus spoke about. We have to take responsibility for our own growth – and in doing so we respond to the Sower who scatters the good seed in our lives.
Will you pray with me?
O God our disturber,
whose speech is pregnant with power
and whose word will be fulfilled;
may we know ourselves unsatisfied
with all that distorts your truth,
and make our hearts attentive
to your liberating voice,
in Jesus Christ,
Amen. (prayer by Janet Morely in All Desires Known)