This week in Faith in Real Life, the group discussed the Parable of the Sower, from Matthew’s gospel. It’s among the most well-known parables, but as Vernon Gramling asks in this week’s blog post, how does the meaning of the story shift if we move from thinking about the quality of the soil, to thinking about the actions of the sower or the role of the seeds themselves?
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.
2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore.
3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.
4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.
6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
This parable is so familiar that it might be hard to view it with fresh eyes. For me, this parable has been formative. Very early in my pastoral journey, it helped me see the reality and promise of the Gospel.
The first question I asked in FIRL this week was ‘Where do you enter the story.?’ Do you think first of the role of the soil, the sower, or the seeds in the story? It will make a difference to what you hear. The beauty and art of parables is their multilayered and often paradoxical meanings. They can speak to us in different ways at different times. Here are some examples.
The primary interpretation of this parable that I was raised with focused upon the soil. In fact, in some commentaries it is called the parable of the different soils. Typically this interpretation is about us. How do people receive the word of the Lord? Do we dismiss it? Do we have initial enthusiasm that can not stand the test of time? Do we have religious routines and rituals that strangle the word into sterility? Or, do we let it grow and multiply in our hearts. There was almost always a strand of moralism that categorized each of us. The good Christian is open to God’s word. The less faithful among us resisted and impeded God’s word. (That is almost too obvious but it is of course, true.) The risk is that we will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide who among us is good or bad soil. It implies categories that we and others fit into.
The problem is not the category or the fact of difference, the danger is our oversimplification and assigning moral labels to the differences. As soon as we make our individual differences into measures of ‘goodness’—better than/ less than—we are in trouble.
While it would seem perfectly obvious that being receptive to the word is better for us. In real life all of us have been variable receivers of the word. We have all fit each of these categories at different times of our lives. To suggest that we or anybody else fits into a single category diminishes the complexity of people. At its worst, it leads to blame and self blame when we realize we fall short of being ‘good soil’.
If we enter the story from the point of view of the sower, there is a different emphasis. By our standards of planting, this sower is remarkably inefficient if not just plain foolish. Leave aside for a moment that this was a common way to plant in the first century, it still means that a lot of seeds do not make it. Only a quarter of his seeds become fruitful plants. If we see Jesus as the sower, or ourselves as the sower, what does this say about the kingdom of God? We could argue that we need better cultivation or perhaps some focus groups to become more efficient. But I prefer to think it tells us that the gospel is offered to all—no matter how it is received. God’s loving is in no way dependent upon what we do with it. We can be obstinate, shallow or compliant in form instead of substance. None of our responses change God’s offer of new life.
The nature of love is that it always includes choice. There may be terrible consequences—sterility and death. But they are the natural consequences of our ability and willingness to receive. God does not withhold love because he is dealing with sinners. And for us, as sowers, we seek to do likewise. We do not get to choose who deserves our love. That is a standard most of us are incapable of emulating. But it is the call.
Finally, we can enter the story as the seeds—the bundles of potential life that are cast into the world to produce fruitful plants. Each of the seeds contain the possibility of growth. In every encounter with one another, there is the possibility that love will grow. But it turns out, love fails more often than it succeeds. Sometimes we are rebuffed or rejected before a word is spoken—and love dies. Sometimes there is an immediate connection but the relationship can not tolerate the stress of time and conflict—and love withers. Sometimes a relationship can look ‘perfect’ from the outside (see Facebook posts) but the disconnections and fracture lines are hidden. Far from the abundant life that we are promised, life becomes a stoic maintenance of appearances. Each person can work dutifully on what they are supposed to do but completely fail to nurture the relationship—and love is a barren illusion. Only the minority of time does love bear fruit—but when it does, it multiplies by one hundred, sixty and thirty fold.
I love the grittiness of this parable and I love the hope it offers. If you are going to believe in love, you can not afford to be naive. It’s going to be hard. You will be rejected. Sometimes your hopes will soar and almost without warning, you will be desolate. Sometimes you will settle for a counterfeit version. Those real life experiences can break you down. Those real life experiences can make it nearly impossible to re engage in planting. Anyone who has lost someone they love or anyone who has had a relationship break in anger and distrust knows how painful and lonely it is to have love turn to ashes. And sometimes that pain makes it impossible to do anything.
I have men and women who struggle desperately with ‘why’? They ask what did they do wrong? Why do they make bad choices? Why did cancer strike? Why did their partner betray them? We have to ask those questions but at the end of the day, we have to grieve. The one we loved is gone. We have to face that loss and decide if we can bear such risks again. And the terrible truth is that any new relationship will run the same risk. It could happen again. We can be vigilant but we can never be safe from that risk. This parable does not pull any punches. There is no sugar coating. But for me, that is the integrity of the Gospel. It describes the real world with clear eyes.
The only way love can grow is for us to risk all of the times it does not grow. But the promise is that it is worth it. When love does take root, the abundance is beyond imagining. Love blossoming is the joy and meaning of life. It is just hard.
Each of these entry points into the parable provide insight into the new relationship with God that Jesus taught— and each are incomplete in themselves. But taken together, the parable describes a God who loves us, a realistic description of our difficulty receiving love, and a realistic description of what it means to love in the world. In nine short verses, we get a glimpse of the kingdom.
Persevere through the many ways that love can die. May God’s love enable you to keep planting. It is the way of God and it is the way of life. Trust the promise that love matters and it matters how we love. Let it be so.