What would you call the Parable of the Sower? I can imagine you’d answer that question by saying ‘It has already got a name. So you’re asking a trick question: it is called the Parable of the sower’
But the problem is that the parable doesn’t really focus on the Sower? So you could rename it ‘The Parable of the seed’ because the story tells us what happens to the seed rather than what happens to the Sower. Or there again, it could be the parable of the Word: because we’re told that the seed is the word of the kingdom. Or you could reject all of the above – the Sower, the seed and the Word – and rename the parable ‘the parable of the soil’ – because it is the soil or the ground that determines how the seed is grown: the type of heart that receives the word of the kingdom.
We all think we know what the Parable of the Sower means. We have read and re-read it. We have heard it read out in church every year – three of the gospels have the parable (in some shape or form) – it comes round again and again in our lectionary. But what is it about?
Tom Wright, in his book Jesus and the victory of God says ’Of all the oddities about the parable of the Sower, perhaps the strangest is this: there is still no agreement on what it was originally meant to mean.’ So be encouraged: the vicar hasn’t a clue, neither does anyone else, and this sermon might be a load of baloney (‘what’s new’ you say’!)
I’ve come across two attempts to explain the parable in the last couple of weeks. The first focussed on the ground where the seed landed. Martyn Percy points out that the sower sowed the seed in the most unlikely places as well as in the ‘good soil’. For him the lesson to be learned is that God doesn’t give up on any of us. God’s word continues to be offered so that it might find its way into the toughest of places or hearts. Nowadays our farmers use complicated, computer-controlled systems to ensure that they plant their seed in just the right place and at the right depth, ensuring that nothing is wasted. The Sower in the parable sows his precious seed on the path, on rocky ground and amongst the weeds: absolute madness? ..or the grace and generosity of God? – take your pick. Martyn Percy (a trenchant critic of the managerialism of the current CofE and concerned for the way the Church of England is spending its money to the detriment of ordinary parishes), goes on to say that if God is prepared to get no return from his generosity then so should we. There are, putting it bluntly, places in this country where no amount of ministry or faithfulness will produce much growth – but that should not mean we only go where we will be ‘successful’: the church must remain faithful to these ‘harder’ places – because God is faithful.
A second interpretation might not allow room for that first one. Bishop Tom believes that the parable echoes an ‘apocalyptic’ style of writing and that this should affect how we interpret it. He gives two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The Old Testament Book of Daniel tells the story of a great statue being put together and made up of four things (gold, silver, bronze and clay). This statue is then felled by a stone that breaks its clay feet: it falls under God’s judgement. The key to understanding this passage is that traditionally these 4 elements were understood to reflect 4 successive Empires: I forget which but lets say the Persian Empire, that fell to Alexander the Great’s Greek empire, that in turn gave way to the Seleucid Empire (as Alexander’s conquered lands split apart) and then the Roman. Four empires in succession that would eventually collapse to be superceded by the coming of God’s Kingdom.
The second New Testament example is the ‘parable of the vineyard’ in which a landowner sends successive servants (reflecting the ministry of the prophets) to collect the produce of his land from the wicked tenants. One after the other, these servants are rejected until the landowner (God) determines to send his son. He too is killed. The tenants fall under judgement.
Do you see the parallel with the parable of the Sower? The Parable of the Sower has four sections: successive failures that eventually result in success. If the parable of the Sower is apocalyptic writing then the focus is on the seed bearing fruit. Another bible reference is important, this time from Isaiah, ‘my word shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish that which I purpose’. God’s ‘Word’ was the Jewish way of speaking of God’s activity on earth. The ‘harvest’ was an image of the Kingdom of God. Where the Sower story differs from the Book of Daniel is that Daniel envisaged a series of epochs or times that would give way to the Kingdom, one after the other. The Parable gives us a picture of them existing all at the same time. The Kingdom is coming not at the end of all things but alongside the hardness of heart and rejection that Jesus’ ministry received. He, not just his teaching, but he is the word of God (God’s active presence in the world). It is people’s reaction to him that reveals their acceptance or rejection of God’s presence and rule.
What do we do with this interpretation? Hopefully you will have your own thoughts as to what this might mean both for you, for us and for the church as you reflect on the parable for the rest of today but somewhere in those thoughts you might consider what sort of ground you offer to Jesus. We might speak of Jesus ‘coming into our hearts’ but might we also ask ‘how far in’? How much does His life really affect mine? Has His life truly taken root? What sort of yield is my life of faith giving? What are the things that might smother faith? What might help His life in me to grow? This story shows us seeds producing more seeds. How truly alike am I to Jesus?…or is the yield that I produce some weird hybrid seed, more me than Him?
And if the story shows us people’s reactions and responses to the presence of the Living Word (with the Kingdom being present in some places whilst struggling elsewhere) then it really shows us what we already know from experience: that there are no hard lines here. What do I mean? Well Daniel and the Parable of the vineyard have everything neatly packaged: four evil Empires succeeded by the Kingdom of God; the rejection of the landowner’s servants followed by the rejection of his son and then judgement. One thing neatly after another. Here the Kingdom is fully present and producing fruit even as it is rejected or not taking root elsewhere. How then are we to act? We are no longer waiting for the Kingdom of God at the end of time. It has arrived. It is amongst us. Having welcomed it we are called to faithfulness. We are the first fruits of the kingdom – the ‘advance party’ (to use another image) – called to bear fruit even as so much of life around us has no room for faith or is distracted from hearing God’s invitation to serve Him. Who knows what the final yield will be, however? Who knows whether the rocky ground will be broken up and produce some yield eventually, or the weeds uprooted so that fragile seeds can find space to grow? Who knows whether those things that snatch away the Word from our neighbours, our family members and friends may overlook just one seed that might take root and begin to grow healthily. We don’t know. That’s for God. Our task is to bear fruit faithfully for him as best we are able: some thirty, some 60 some a hundredfold. And from that fruit, from that seed, to copy the Sower’s example of offering the Word of the kingdom without any reservation: offering Life in all its fulness to everyone in every place in Jesus’ name.
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