That same day 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!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. “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.”
I marvel at how we turn everything into a competition. Not a week goes by that I am not invited to compete in some way or another to win something or t’other. It is little wonder then that when we come to parables of grace, like the one this Sunday, we compulsively look for the competitive spin in them.
The story as I understand it in a time before farm co-operatives where you can go and order your Monsanto, Du Pont or Sygenta seed, tells of a sower, who was no doubt also the farmer, going out to sow. The seed that he was sowing would have been carefully hand selected (there was no mechanization) from the best of the previous season’s seed. It would have been carefully stored and protected from damp (not so difficult in a desert climate) and insect infestation (more difficult in a pre-irradiation and pesticide world). After tilling the soil and preparing it for sowing the sower would have waited for the the optimum weather conditions and then on the right day gone out to sow.
I cannot remember the first time I heard this story, because it was one of those that children hear from their earliest times in Sunday school. I do remember a picture of the sower from my childhood, it was on a memory verse stamp that was licked and stuck into the memory verse book. I also remember that throughout my childhood, the parable was taught as being about the quality of the soil and not about the qualities of the sower!
You see the parable has some wonderful content for ever-competitive learners and educators to dig into, if you can bear the pun? All through my childhood I was asked and asked myself, “What kind of soil are you? Are you bringing in the best harvest of all that God has invested in you?” The Ol’ time balance sheet, so indicative of Evangelical religion was firmly drawn in my life. I had to balance the books or be damned. Quite literally!
It was only in the last twenty years as I lived with this passage, that I have come to realise that as with so many other parables of Jesus, this story was designed to illustrate the Divine domain of God in a way that would evoke strong emotions in the hearers.
Just like the shocking story of the waiting father welcoming his profligate son, so the sower of the parable is a prodigal too!
To take preciously gleaned, cleaned, stored seed and sow it so recklessly that it falls on the path, in the rocky wastes and amongst thorns is prodigal at best and downright unskilful to boot.
This is a story that would have shocked those early agrarians for the sheer waste of good seed. To then have the sower identified as God would have been shocking indeed.
In a shame-blame religious culture where the righteousness of people was measured by their position on the pyramids of power, prestige, and privilege; to even think that the word of God could come to those who seem to be so easily overcome by the Evil one, or by the cares of the world was a scandal. Yet this is what the story suggests.
The seeds of grace fall indiscriminately into the lives of all God’s children. The outcome of that gracious sowing will not be immediately known. One never knows what may come of profligate grace.
To make of Christ following, an exercise in soil inspection, is to pave the heart, and attempt to throttle the power of God.
Still the sower sows wildly day by day, some hear and some are hardened, some see and some are blinded, yet the sower wits not, and sows on and on in gracious abandon.
Thank God, the Prodigal Sower.