by Br Julian McDonald cfc
The disciples came and asked Jesus: “Why do you tell stories?” He replied: “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever a person has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge people towards receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.” Matthew 13, 1-23
The parable of the sower is a parable with a difference. To begin with, it is the only parable to which Jesus himself gives an extensive explanation. Moreover, as he begins to explain it, he refers to it as “the parable of the sower” (Matthew 13, 18). Yet, the main focus of the parable is on the seed and the soil. Interestingly, the word parable comes from Greek parabolē, which means “to throw alongside”, and a lot of the seed thrown by the sower in the parable seems to end up alongside or only near where it would be most productive.
In our reading of the parable itself and in our considering Jesus’ explanation of it, on which images are we being invited to reflect – on the sower, the seed, the soil or, indeed, on all three? In this parable, Jesus takes images from daily life, with which his hearers would have been familiar, and “throws” them next to a new idea – the kingdom of God – which he wants his audience to think about. Many in the crowd would have been living in the hope that, when the Messiah eventually came, he would restore Israel to its former grandeur. In the parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God, the new Israel, to something less spectacular. Put simply, Jesus is saying that God will sow the seeds of the new kingdom of God, but the harvest will depend on the receptiveness and quality of the soil on which the seed lands. This calls for further explanation.
To those of us who have a part-time interest in gardening or an invested interest in crop-growing, the parable sower’s style of broadcasting seed might seem extravagant or wasteful. But perhaps Jesus is holding up to us a sower who is the image of a lavish and extravagant God whose generosity knows no bounds. Perhaps Jesus’ sower represents the God of the creation story in Genesis, the God of abundance whose graciousness, love, mercy and compassion are limitless.
With that in mind, one meaning we can take from this parable is that Jesus is inviting us to imitate the God of abundance who scatters everywhere the gifts of mercy, love, compassion and forgiveness, so that they are available to everyone, even to those who are hiding away in the most unexpected of places. We have all had the experience of seeing flowers and other plants blooming in places we least expect – in cracks on well-used footpaths, in crevices on building walls, in roof guttering. The way of nature is very different from that of well-organised gardeners. Seeds are scattered by wind and insects, and through bird droppings, sometimes falling on rich soil, at others landing in places where they simply do not stand a chance.
In these times when Covid -19 restrictions are being loosened in some locations, we see people returning to the familiar security of their churches and places of worship. I wonder what might happen if we were to move out instead of in, and take the seeds we carry – seeds of concern, of compassion, of listening ears, of encouragement, of brotherhood and sisterhood – to those who have been starved of healthy, wholesome human contact and of the simple items of food and toiletries they have done without. That doesn’t look much like restoration to power and glory.
When needs become apparent in times of crisis, we are often inclined to place on government the responsibility for addressing them. And that is how it is now in many nations around the globe. Citizens are calling on their governments to feed the hungry, to protect the most vulnerable, to provide benefits for those whose jobs have been lost. But our default position is that help is to be provided only for “the most deserving”, and it lands to politicians and bureaucrats to decide who belongs in that category. We give lip service to the need for fiscal responsibility and watch as available resources are spent on where, when and how public money is to distributed. Yet a close look at this parable of the sower, seed and soil reveals that this is a parable that flies in the face of over-cautious, over-careful, calculated regulation. God gives freely and without calculation in the hope that divine beneficence will find good soil, but with no assurance that this will actually happen. After all, when we look at our own lives, we come to see that we have not always been good soil for the seeds God has scattered in our direction. The extravagance of God’s distributing is surely a challenge to all of us who call ourselves Christians to distribute extravagantly in our turn.
But there is still one more facet of this parable that calls for exploration: What exactly does good soil look like? In what conditions does the seed that both God and we scatter actually flourish? These are questions that Jesus does not address in his explanation of the parable. But surely a proper understanding of this parable implies that we have to take measures to stop the troubles and problems of our life circumstances from stifling our growth and the growth of those who depend on our care. It is surely our responsibility to create the conditions that will allow God’s word to take root in our lives and produce the fruit that will transform our lives and convert our minds and hearts.
In his explanation of the parable, Jesus seems to equate the seed with the soil (the person) that receives it: “What was sown among briars is the one who hears the message, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of money choke it off. Such a one produces no yield” (Matthew 13, 22). Yet, isn’t it true that when seed germinates both it and the soil combine to produce something totally new? However, on reflection we can conclude that good soil needs nothing more than an openness to hear, the imagination and creativity to envision something new, and the conviction and resolution to act.
The source of good seed for all of us is the Gospel. It contains all we need for our growth and development as disciples of Jesus. Yet, we know that God’s word can be stifled by our own assumptions and prejudices, and contamination by the expectations our culture can impose on us. While we all have our own favourite parts of scripture and our personal understanding of God, we still have to be ever open to be surprised by the ability of God’s Spirit to show us new meaning in the readings we encounter Sunday after Sunday when we sit expectantly in the pews. How open are we to being surprised this week?