My word that goes from my mouth shall accomplish the thing for which I purpose.
Do any of you remember “Meadow in a can”? Anybody ever plant a “meadow in a can”? It’s such a wonderful vision: You buy this can the size of a coffee container with a gorgeous label, full of seeds, and you scatter it in your backyard, right? And poof! A wildflower meadow worthy of a Monet painting. If you’re like me, you rough up the soil a bit with a rake, scatter the seeds, and wait impatiently. Nothing happens. Or maybe something happens: A few cornflowers if there’s enough sunlight. After a while you read the fine print on the can, and learn that success depends on the soil. It is possible to make your garden look like the picture on the outside of the can but it takes a lot of care and time. It would indeed be a miracle for one to throw the seeds on the ground and end up with a wildflower meadow.
Today we hear one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables, the Parable of the Sower. It is the first of a series of parables that Matthew’s Jesus tells. We’ll have more to come over the next few weeks.
Parable means, literally, to put something along side something else. Today’s parable puts God’s action with respect to our formation as hearers and proclaimers of the Word alongside the traditional planting practices of the Ancient Near East. Fortunately for us we have, alongside this parable, many images of the sower to draw from. Van Gogh alone painted almost half a dozen different versions of the Sower. I wanted to share this image—which most of you already know—because it reminds us how very different sowing seed was in Jesus’ time from how it is now. (It’s a gift; take it with you.)
Parables are not allegories; parables are meant to surprise us and expand our thinking, not tell a story in code. Let’s see where this one takes us. If we drew from modern day planting practices to explore this parable, we wouldn’t get very far. (Hence the Van Gogh image, which isn’t trying to be a first-century farmer, but helps.)
I know enough about 21st century farming to know that they don’t plant seeds the way they used to. First, all soil is good soil—by conventional 21st century American standards—by the time seeds are planted. At best, soil is treated with a vast array of nutrients. At worst, soil additives include pesticides and growth hormones. Then it is plowed into perfect rows by gigantic machines, and seeds are planted not by a sower but by a drill, a miniature jackhammer engineered to plant hundreds of seeds per minute at a particular angle and depth so that each seed is most likely to germinate. With these methods, a crop yield of thirty fold or sixty fold or even a hundred is not considered a miracle but a requirement.
Today’s parable is also often called “the Parable of the Soils,” which is perhaps more accurate, although I think it is both. The parable of the sower and the soils. The inherent ambiguity of the parable is reflected in where we might place ourselves: are we the sower, or are we the soil? Or are we the seed? In his interpretation of the parable, Jesus suggests that the seed is both the Word and the hearer of the Word. Isaiah tells us that the Word of God is seed that goes to accomplish God’s purposes. The soil is the context of the word, what I sometimes call the soup. The marinade. And that context, that soil, is each of us. Each of us has a different way of absorbing the word, depending on where we are in our life’s journey. How I hear the word of God is impacted by the fact that I am a mother, I am a white woman in a privileged position, that I live surrounded by water, that I am formed anew every week by our liturgy, and by the fact that I have spent the last week listening to stories of people who cannot find a place to live in our city. I don’t know if this is good soil or bad soil, but it is my soil. The soil is also us.
I said a moment ago that parables are not stories in code, but are meant to expand our thinking in some new direction. I think we experience this expansiveness when we place ourselves in the position of the sower. Yes, the sower is God, and yes, we are called to be imitators of God in Christ. There are many, many paintings out there of the Sower. I picked this particular version because there are so many different contexts. Soil that has been tilled, soil that has not been tilled. Water, which nurtures the soil; water, which might wash away seed. The city in the background, maybe beckoning, maybe encroaching on the life of the sower, his soil, and his seed.
The sower’s work is to sow seed, all of it, everywhere. Nothing is held back. If the sower has any seed left in her bag at the end of the day, she has not done her job. The sower doesn’t carefully seek the good soil, the sower sows everywhere. Post-industrial era planting is all about precision and prediction; sowing the word of God is not. The sower sows with abandon. This is what I believe Jesus wants us to do. There is so much working against us. Our time, just like Jesus’ time, is filled with shallow places where the word of the Kingdom cannot take root, filled with thorny spots that threaten to overpower seedlings, hard places where it looks like nothing can possibly grow. We can’t actually do much about this. But most thorny plants themselves have shallow roots—that’s why they need the thorns. And often hard-packed, hard-worn paths are made of good soil. Now is not the time for discouragement. Now is the time to sow, to sow with abandon. In spots we will be disappointed. In spots we will be wonderfully surprised.