Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 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. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears[a] listen!’
‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 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.[c] 22 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. 23 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.’
I have spoken about the parable of the sower before. Or more particularly about one image from this parable, which is lodged in my mind: the image of the weeds which grow up, blocking out the light, choking the plant – weeds explained by Jesus in the translation I am used to as “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.”
This image has spoken powerfully to me over the years as I have seen the effect of sudden wealth on people I have worked with in business and worried about its possible effect on me. The initial pleasure shifting into unease, preoccupation with self and, suspicion. And so I have argued that giving money away, reducing the number of our possessions, can be seen as a kind of spiritual self-preservation, a way to block our ears to those deceitful whispers, to hack away at the weeds which choke. Even if compassion fails us, we give out of dogged faith in God’s wider goodness. It’s a message which merits a reminder in these crisis-hit and anxious times.
But today I want to reflect on the parable as a whole.
And in a sense my earlier preoccupation starts in the wrong place. Many Christians have seen this not as the parable of the sower but the parable of the grounds. And then they have worried, “Am I the good ground or the bad? The odds look 3 to 1 against me! Help! I need to do some serious weeding if I am to be worthy of this seed, if I am to be a good Christian.”
But I want to suggest to you a very different way of understanding this parable, recognising that it’s focus is the sower and the seed they sow. I am indebted here to the wonderful book by James Farrar Capon on the parables. And the themes he draws out are of a gospel word which is catholic, seemingly small, which contains an invisible life, and which invites a response which is strangely passive.
Catholic first of all because the sower is recklessly indiscriminate. They have carefully set aside this precious seed from the previous year’s harvest. And yet it is scattered not just on the good ground, but everywhere, in equal measure. In an echo of the same point, Jesus uses the image of sowing seed again later in this same chapter and there he makes clear that the field where the seed is sown is the whole world.
And the seed, Jesus explains, is the word. Our reading from Isaiah speaks of this word which comes from the mouth of God. It is an image amplified in John’s gospel, for whom the Word is Christ himself.
The sower therefore is God the father. So the Christ is sown everywhere, in all of God’s creation, rendering all of it sacred. It is sown in the skies and rocks and in the trees and plants, it is to be found in insects, birds and animals, and it has been carefully sown in the hearts of every human being. It is truly catholic. Never should we presume to bring the seed of God’s word to any place or person – it is already there.
Secondly, the seed is small. The presence of the word, the Christ among us, appears, in the world’s eyes, as a tiny, inconsequential thing. Jesus uses this image of a seed in many of his parables for the presence of God – and the other metaphors he uses, such as yeast or salt, have the same quality.
Thirdly, the seed contains an invisible energy, out of which life explodes, out of all proportion to its size. But this life only emerges once the seed has been placed in the ground. And so this image of the seed speaks to us of the life that is to be found on the other side of death. Our physical death and also spiritually, as we are reconciled to God and our fear of death is surrendered in the arms of his love.
This brings me to our response and my frantic weeding. In Jesus’s image, we are the ground, an oddly passive image. In his explanation, Jesus describes the good ground only in terms of receiving and understanding – the action, the energy, is all with the seed, not the ground.
A hard, spiritual lesson is captured here. For do we not return, again and again, to the urge to works, to action, to justify, to be makers and masters of our individual destiny? And time and again, when we fail, we turn back to God and learn that God’s grace alone is sufficient. As Paul says in our reading from Romans 8, it is the spirit of life in Christ Jesus which has set us free.
The simple plea to receive and understand is harder than it seems. Many will falter – and here Jesus simply describes what he senses is coming rather than in any way expressing God’s intention. But in the end, the fullness of the harvest will be beyond our imagining.