The Parable of the Sower
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[a] listen!”
The Parable of the Sower Explained
“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.[a] 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 don’t have OCD … but I (like many) struggle with some compulsive behaviour issues … I can rarely walk away from my car without unlocking and re-locking it. I sometimes have to re-check that the front door of my house is locked (which sounds fine until you realise that I may have driven 5 miles back to my house to double check it.) Certain things have to be unplugged before I can go to bed.
These habits can be annoying when I’m at home but they tend to get worse when I’m in other people’s houses. It would seem that I feel a heightened sense of responsibility for their property and often end up checking that doors are locked and windows are closed long after everyone else has gone to sleep.
As with so much of life, issues like this can subtly go deeper or grow stronger without us realising it. During my last trip to Montreal, it became very clear that I was going to have to start dealing with this before it got worse. A church had put me up in an apartment for a week and, as I was leaving the building one night, I felt the need to go back and check that I had turned the oven off.
You might think this is reasonable … but you would be wrong.
As some of you will know, I don’t do a lot of cooking. The chances of the oven being on in general were pretty slim.
The chances were even less in this particular apartment … because it had no oven.
Such is the nature of my inner disposition that I can find ways to worry about things that don’t exist. Apparently I feel a responsibility for the world that even includes fires caused by imaginary appliances. They somehow come under my remit as self-appointed guardian of all that is ... and all that is not.
I have no idea where this sense of responsibility comes from but I’m trying to work through it and the questions that come with it. One of these questions is something that we all need to ask and that we answer by our lifestyles, even if we’ve never consciously thought about it:
‘Where does my responsibility begin and end?’
For people like me, I feel overly responsible too often and need to let go. For others at the other end of the spectrum, they need to realise that their actions have consequences. (Interestingly, in other areas of my life, I am part of this group.)
Which brings us to this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 where Jesus tells the story about a man sowing seed. The seeds are the word of God that the sower hopes will take root and bear fruit. The different types of ground that the seeds fall on speak of different kinds of people, hearts and situations that shape whether or not anything will come of these seeds.
When I was younger, I remember hearing this passage preached on and being asked to reflect on whether or not my heart was ‘good soil’. I remember being encouraged to ‘sow seeds’ and not to be disheartened if nothing came of it. I remember people saying that we sow and God brings growth. There is truth in all these things but I’ve been reflecting on a different question recently:
‘Where does my responsibility begin and end?’
Has God called me to be a sower of seed? Or am I called to pursue growth, transformation and change?
If I am merely a sower then my job is done once the seeds leave my hand … or once the words leave my mouth. But if I am called to be a builder of the Kingdom then I am called beyond seeds.
I am called to impact and transform the soil. This, I believe, is what mission looks like. It goes beyond buying megaphones and billboard space. It goes beyond holding John 3:7 signs at Croke Park and asking people on public transport ‘What think ye of Christ?’
If the seed sown on the path that is eaten by birds is a message that has been received but not understood then, it would seem to me, the problem lies as much (if not more) with the sower than with the soil. Mission means making sure the message is embodied and explained in a way that makes sense to our culture and our world.
If the seed that falls on rocky ground does not go deep enough to endure, the problem lies with the sower who did not clear the soil of rocks rather than the seed. Mission means giving people the opportunity, support and resources to go beyond an emotional conversion experience into a life of discipleship and growth.
If a seed falls into good soil but is choked by weeds and thorns then why did the sower not clear the weeds in the first place? Mission means creating community where faith can be lived and experienced rather than quashed as soon as it starts to develop. Mission means being inclusive of those who grow up among thorns and it means making space for the other.
If what I’m learning is true, the Parable of the Sower is not an explanation for why some seeds bear no fruit and some mission fails. It is a critique of the belief that mission is done when seeds are sown and words are thrown.
Mission, it would seem, cannot be done while standing up and looking down.
It must be done on your hands and knees on hard ground, on rocky soil and in thorny places.
It is, after all, the Parable of the Sower ... not the Parable of the Soil.