This week’s gospel gives us perhaps the most famous parable of all time. I recall it being the first reading I ever had to preach on as a curate. My heart fell: what more could you possibly say that hadn’t been said before about the sower!
Sometimes, though, perhaps all a preacher needs to do is just to restate the obvious, which is what I’ll do this morning (although as I do it, perhaps something I say might jog some new thoughts and responses).
Today’s story is called the parable of the sower – but this isn’t its title. You could just as well call it the parable of the four soils. The sower casts the seed far and wide, and it has variable results depending on the nature of the soil. Matthew’s gospel goes on to explain that the parable describes Jesus’ experience of the different responses people had to his ministry.
Let’s take the parable apart piece by piece and let me invite you to notice whether there are particular moments of connection for you.
We start first of all with the image of the sower casting wide the precious seed gathered and set aside from the previous year’s valuable harvest. Of course, the sower is God the Creator who makes life so abundantly, spreading it across the world; and it is God in Jesus who gave flesh to God’s presence in such boundary-pushing ways that grace was spread way beyond the conventionally righteous; and it is God the Spirit at work today continually bubbling up in creative goodness throughout the world spreading goodness is beyond any boundary of culture, creed or colour.
And, what’s not said, but implied, is that this happens every year: what the sower does is not a one-off: the broadcasting of grace is always what God does.
So, the parable begins with an image of abundant, even foolhardy generosity and, naturally, this gives rise to a question for us: is our experience of God a continually generous, risk-taking, profligate God, or do we start with a somewhat miserly, careful controlling image…?
Next there is the seed: what is this? Well, obviously it is the good news of God’s Kingdom. Put simply, this is the message of God’s ideal vision for individuals and for the earth. One summary of it is found in the Beatitudes which you could call the headlines of God’s manisfesto.
If I might paraphrase, according to the Beatitudes, God’s kingdom is found where the poor are placed front and centre; where those who grieve and are broken by loss are bound up; where humility rather than arrogance is rewarded; where those who are hungry, and hungry for justice, are fed; where peace-making and acting mercifully to one another are the default; where humans are motivated by goodness rather than evil. This is the vision of the kingdom, the message, the invitation, the seed that God spreads. It is of a world being transformed by humans living in new divine ways.
If the sower casting the seed is about the invitation to this new way of living, the parable then goes on to explore in the symbols of the three soils why humans might respond differently, or perhaps, even, respond in different ways at different times in their lives. Each of the soils describes a disposition of the heart.
Why does the invitation to a different way of living not always take root? Well, says the parable, some seed falls on hard, compacted, soil. This suggests to me that the human heart might need to be broken open and made receptive to the invitation to live differently. Sometimes life will do this to people anyway: an experience of personal suffering or exposure to another’s hardship might cause the heart to be dug over, to break open, and to yearn for a better way of living, to be receptive to the vision of a new way of living, to act with compassion. But sometimes we may need to be reminded, for the heart can harden over again. It is possible to be insulated from the urgent call to live differently.
I was reminded of this recently when I heard again the story of the young Buddha. The story goes that before his enlightenment the Buddha’s father did all he could to shield his son from any sight or experience of suffering. It was well-intentioned but this insulation would have kept the young prince ignorant in the protective bubble of the family’s palace. It when only he was being driven outside the palace in a chariot that the young prince was accidentally exposed to human aging, to suffering, and to death, and only then did the young prince feel the pull to enlightenment, to live differently.
From time to time, then, a certain re-breaking of the hardened heart might need to occur to receive the invitation to live divinely. I notice in myself the understandable temptation to hide away from discomfort (I’ll say more of that later, for this is not an altogether mistaken thing to do). Jo and I in our parenting try to carefully expose our boys to films and plays that show them what life is like outside of their mainly comfortable life, hoping to crack open their hearts just a bit, to allow the seed of the vision of the kingdom to take root.
Of course, it might also be, that the soil of the heart has been compacted by being trodden down: oppression, abuse, mistreatment can also cause the heart to harden up in defence. Its breaking open to dare to receive good news can be a long and difficult process. But it can happen, good news can take root even then.
So: it seems to me that the heart must be receptive to the vision… here is another moment to pause and take stock: does the image of the hardened heart say anything to us?
Next in the parable, some seed falls on rocky soil. It springs up but it doesn’t last long for the sun scorches it. This suggests, I suppose, that sometimes we might show an initial enthusiasm for the message of the kingdom (after all, who doesn’t want humans to change for the better?). But for that message to be really transformative, it can’t be superficial, it needs to go deep into our identity because otherwise when difficulties arise – and they will – the hopeful message will shrivel up.
Perhaps this part of the parable speaks of our responsibility, our need to take the vision seriously and make it part of our identity. But we might add that the image also suggests that there might be times when shade is needed lest the vulnerable seed is scorched by life. That shade might be to protect another person from financial hardship; from the heat of life; to give respite and rest.
Let’s pause for a moment with this question of shallow roots and scorching heat.
The third type of soil speaks of weeds that choke up the vision of the kingdom growing is us. The interpretation describes these as ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth’. I shan’t say anything more about the latter, for I’ve already suggested that being too comfortable can dull us to the demands of the kingdom. But about the ‘cares of the world’ it seems to me that the vision of the kingdom might not bear fruit because there can be too much care, or concern, or anxiety. It is possible to be distracted by too much need. Perhaps, as I hinted earlier, this is the flip-side of the metaphor of the hard heart. I remarked to Joanna recently that I noticed that I had stopped listening to the news on the radio in the morning. It was just too much. I was still aware of what was going on because I read the news regularly, but instinctively I realised that too much information can be paralysing. Too much care or worry would be like weeds that choke up that gentle, vulnerable vision. We need enough care but not too much.
I realise I might sound like an old conservative now, but increasingly I find the need simply to sit down and be still: prayer, as self-care, is like clearing the ground of those things that choke the good news in us and stop it growing. Making this a habit might be as boring as weeding, but for the vision of the kingdom to bear fruit within us it needs time and space.
Do weeds of care choke the seed in us?
The 4th soil is the good soil: the heart in which the vision of the kingdom takes root. What does a fruitful life look like? I cannot but help think of the list of fruits of the spirit that Saint Paul gives us.
When the seed takes root in a life, its fruit is seen where:
people are loving to one another; where joyfulness is cultivated; where people act peacefully; where there are habits of patience, acts of kindness and generosity; where we learn to be more trusting and less suspicious of God and others; where there is gentleness in our relationships and self-restraint.
When the seed of the Kingdom vision takes roots these qualities, and many others will grow, in us and around us, and through us…
The sower sows the word. Let everyone with ears to hear listen. Amen.