“A sower went out to sow”.
Anyone who has spent any time in the church at all will be familiar with the parable of the sower. It’s a beloved parable, not least because it’s one of just a handful of parables where Jesus goes back and explains what he meant – a great gift that guides us in interpreting the other parables of scripture. And, it helps because the farming image comes back again in the letters of Paul: one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth; only God can wrap the full potential and beauty of a strong, fruitful plant into such a small package.
The sower is a wonderful image because it’s so down-to-earth, so simple. Seeds are planted, some are eaten by birds, some spring up before others but are scorched because their roots can’t reach water, some are choked out by weeds, some grow and produce a mighty harvest of grain.
They’re familiar words.
But sometimes, familiarity gets in the way. Sometimes we become so familiar with what we think something says that we actually miss something important. Just as a prophet isn’t welcome in their hometown, or the hardest thing we can do is try to speak the truth to our own families, familiarity can cloud the message. So I invite you this morning to look at this parable with fresh eyes.
What’s up with that sower?
One of the obvious questions with this misunderstood parable is “what is that sower doing?”. Seriously, what sort of a farmer wastes seed like that? If we stop to think about it, most of those seeds never had a chance from the start.
You know I’ve got a garden planted behind the Rectory. When I bought my carrot seeds, I borrowed a roto-tiller and tilled a deep bed, mixing in some rich black dirt; I raked it out to make sure the water wouldn’t wash the seeds away; I planted those little carrot seeds in a neat row, and sure enough, almost every one of them sprang up and is now a leafy stalk with a little tasty orange root growing by the day in that soft, well-prepared soil.
But, come on – if I bought that carrot seed but just started wandering around throwing them here and there, no one would think I’m being generous. You’d think I’m foolish, even wasteful. If I threw carrot seed in the parking lot, you’d think I’ve lost my head; if I threw carrot seed on the grassy front lawn, you’d think I’m insane. Those seeds never had a chance!
…And there’s the big misunderstanding so many of us bring, even without thinking about it, to this parable.
For many of us, yes, we understand that God is unceasingly generous and merciful, but at the end of the day, we see God as a bit of a foolish farmer, wasting seed. After all, we say to ourselves, we’re just the dirt in this story: it’s not the dirt’s fault that no one tended it, or that it was full of rocks or thorns. Perhaps, as we see people snatched away or scorched or choked by the cares of the world, we think “well, that’s just how it is; God scatters the seed, but sometimes he doesn’t give any growth. He’s a generous farmer scattering seed, but sometimes the soil just isn’t ready.”
But, right off the bat, something there should smell fishy: anytime our understanding of God’s merciful desire to adopt us as his sons and daughters takes us off the hook, we can be guaranteed that we’ve missed the point.
And the same is true here.
If we step back, if we peel back the years of comfortable sermons we’ve heard on the topic, if we look at the actual words of Christ, one thing should jump out at us: at no point does it say that God is the farmer; at no point does it say that God owns the soil, that it’s His fault the soil was left rocky, or shallow, or full of weeds. God, in the parable, is just the sower – the hired hand scattering seed on the land allotted to the farmer.
If God isn’t the Farmer, who is?
Sowing seeds in Jesus’ day wasn’t like our backyard gardens or our commercial farmers today. Planting seeds in neat rows is a modern invention, impossible without modern tools. No, rather it was the farmer’s job to wait for that first heavy rain of the Middle Eastern spring, then, as quickly as possible while the moisture was still on that hard crusty, sun-baked top layer, hitch up the oxen to the plow, and plow up the soft soil underneath. The seeds from last year’s harvest were stored in the large granaries owned by the king or the wealthy land-owners, and once the farmer had done the back-breaking work of overturning that hard soil, removing the rocks and weeds, then a sower would come behind with the bags of seed borrowed from the storehouse of the king. Seed was broadcast – thrown evenly from one border of the farmer’s field to the other. And then, the farmer was to plow the field again to bury the seed, dragging branches behind the plow as a rake to smooth out the ground. For every bag of seed borrowed to the farmer, the farmer owed that much seed and a portion of the harvest back to the king’s storehouse at harvest.
Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, in this parable, God is the sower. The sower’s job is to take the good seed from the king’s storehouse and scatter that seed evenly from one edge of the allotted field to the other.
And, in spite of how we might be used to hearing this parable, at no point does it say that we are the soil. After all, soil is just, well, dirt… you can’t expect much from dirt… and certainly not a relationship or a lifetime of discipleship.
No, my friends. We are the farmer, the one responsible for the dirt. We’re the one to whom a field has been allotted, and which the king expects we will tend. It’s our responsibility to have the ground plowed and the rocks removed, to have the thorns weeded out, and to have the soil of our own lives ready for when the sower comes with the good seed from the king’s storehouse. The Sower – Christ – is doing as he was commanded: scattering the seed evenly from one corner of the field to the other. It’s the farmer’s job – it’s our job – to have that thick, sun-baked crust broken and ready to receive the seed. It’s our job to go back through our own fields and plough the seed under so that they’ll have deep roots. It’s our job to make sure the field has been weeded so the sprouts aren’t choked by thorns.
That’s the extent of God’s patience and mercy, and his desire in giving us free will to freely choose to become his sons and daughters: Christ will faithfully scatter the good seed, again and again, year after year, season after season, in the hopes that we will have chosen not to sit idle, or to let our field grow in with weeds, or to stumble around drunk with bellies filled on another’s harvest, but that we will have our field ready. Because, when the time comes for harvest – and that time is coming – we will need to give an account for the seed that has been lent to us. The time comes when we must pay it back, with a portion of the harvest, into the king’s storehouse.
All that to say, when we look at ourselves, when we look at the fields allotted to our family members who have gone astray, when we look at those around us whose fields are as dry and dense as a well-worn path, or overgrown with weeds, we’re not to shrug and say, “oh well, I guess God didn’t give the growth”. No, the seeds from the king’s storehouse are always ready to sprout. With God all things are possible… after all, haven’t you ever seen a little evergreen tree sprouting horizontally out of the side of a cliff? Seriously, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places.
But we’re never to take ourselves off the hook. God invites us into relationship with him. God offers us the opportunity, season after season, to let that seed take root. But, as the farmers that we are, responsible to tend and keep and have dominion over the soil we’ve been given, it’s on us to cooperate. It’s on us to have our soil ready to plant, to bury the seeds deep in the furrows of our hearts, and to tend the field, knowing full well that we are the ones responsible to repay, to make account for, to offer back a portion of the seeds we’ve been given.The Good News.
The bad news, as we read this parable with fresh eyes, is that we’re not off the hook. We’re not the dirt. As farmers, it’s up to us to prepare and tend our own field, for which we will give account. That’s the reality: we can’t blame the lack of growth on anyone else; after all, the good seed can take root in even the most unlikely of places if it’s given a chance.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, while God won’t force us, he does have a plan to help each farmer prepare that soil. When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, when you renewed those vows, you accepted God’s call to be a labourer in his vineyard; that call to come alongside another, to step into their field, to help them prepare and tend the soil. That’s what Paul means when he says one planted, another watered; it’s our task, as those sent forth by God’s Spirit, as those whose seeds are already sprouted and have taken root, to step into another’s field and help them clear the weeds, to help them break the boulders, to wake them from their slumber when that spring rain of the Holy Spirit is falling on their field and the time has come to prepare the soil for planting, to get down in the dirt in our mission field and work to prepare even space for one of the Lord’s good seeds to take root – even on the side of a cliff – to produce fruit, knowing that each stalk produces hundreds of seeds, as our rocky fields become fertile, fruitful land bearing much fruit for the king as we learn, year after year, to be better stewards, better farmers, better able to share our God-given knowledge and experience with those struggling around us.
My friends, as we look to the year ahead, a year where everything as we know it will look different, this is a call to action: once we know our seeds have sprouted, once we’ve tended our own field, watering it with the daily dew of prayer, and weeding it with daily study of God’s Word, we have work to do: God is scattering seed all around. I’ve seen seeds taking root in the most unlikely of places. Some are waiting to be planted, while the ravens pick away at them. Others have found receptive soil because of this pandemic, but unless those seeds are lovingly plowed under to grow deep roots, the plants will shrivel.
We’re the farmers. We’re the labourers in Christ’s mission field. The seeds have been scattered. Let’s get to work, for harvest always comes sooner than we expect.
My exegesis follows that of Cyril of Alexandria (from Matthaus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche, in ACCS, Manlio Simonetti, ed.), and John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew as found in Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.