Then Jesus began to teach them many things in parables.
Don’t you just love parables?
Those quirky images of everyday life interwoven with an edge, an observation, a twist.
Stories designed not to answer a question, but to ask a different one.
Playful, often humorous pictures that sometimes seem clear, but whose meaning seems to twist away or change direction when you try to look more closely.
I love parables, and I love the parable of the sower. Jeyanth, on the other hand, does not. When, yesterday, I mentioned that we were looking at this parable he responded “but I’ve heard that like five million times already!”
And let’s face it, allowing for a little hyperbole, it’s true. We’ve heard this one a lot of times.
And it’s more or less de-rigueur when preaching on it to say that although this parable gets called “The parable of the sower”, it’s really not about the sower at all – it’s about the soil. It’s a parable about the different soils, the different ways that people respond to the good news of the Kingdom.
And of course, that’s totally true.
The soil in the story describes the human heart. The place into which the good news is sown.
And the reality of the world is that the soil of human hearts – indeed, I suspect the soil within a single human heart – is always a mixture. It’s not all goodness and niceness and happy potential crying out to be set free, as the more optimistic philosophies would have it. And nor is the heart universally hard, resistant, selfish, as the pessimist might suggest.
The soil is mixed. And on one level at least, the parable serves as a challenge to consider what soil we offer to the seed of the kingdom of God.
The seed, Jesus explains, is the word, the message, the offer of the kingdom of God. It’s traditional to think of this in terms of sort of evangelistic proclamation – but I suspect it’s a lot broader than that. It might, of course, be the call to first respond to the good news, to make that fateful decision that you will be one of Jesus’ people. But it might again be another word, decades later, calling you to a new insight, a new challenge, a new act of love or service or discipleship.
Or perhaps it might be an unexpected act of love or grace falling upon you – how will you respond, the parable asks, when someone seeks you out and asks your forgiveness for wrongs that long ago divided you? How will that seed fare in your heart. Or when someone challenges you to step up to a new challenge in service of others? Or when someone simply show an unexpected act of love; visiting you when you are sick, helping out when you needed it. How will you respond that a new “word” of the Kingdom, a new demonstration of God’s grace?
And Jesus offers four answers. Not, I suspect, as an exhaustive list, but as a challenge. How will you respond when a seed falls in the soil of your heart.
Sometimes, we simply don’t – or won’t – hear. The adversary, that force (spiritual, physical, economic, whatever) which is opposed to the advance of the Kingdom, takes the seed, the word, the act, away before we even recognise it for what it is.
Sometimes we hear and we respond enthusiastically – perhaps too enthusiastically. We jump on the bandwagon without doing the work of putting down roots. Or perhaps we hear only the fun bit of the message, and miss the call to discipleship, to repentance, to servanthood.
Or perhaps we respond, but only until other things crowd it out – care of the world, the lure of wealth, the desire for something else – recognising that the call of the kingdom is sometimes away from these things, away from the path that might lead to the greatest material benefit.
But sometime, just sometimes, a seed falls in rich soil within us. It grows slowly but surely, like the corn, or the mustard tree, and bears much fruit; creates the multiplier effect, the “pay it forward” of the Kingdom.
But there is always another angle, of course, and I wonder if perhaps we might see this story as the parable of the sower as well?
Because the great thing about this story, at least on the surface, is that the sower seems to be completely rubbish at his job. He chucks his seed out with no concern whatsoever for the ground it falls on. He doesn’t seem to be worried that three quarters of his seed gets wasted. He isn’t selective – he throws out his seed crazily, irrationally, in all directions.
And I wondered why.
And I wonder if perhaps it’s because he knows that good soil can be found in unexpected places. Because even on the path there may be patches not so hard trodden that the seed cannot take root. Because even amongst the weeds there will be some places where the seed can outgrow the thistle. Because even the rocks hide patches of rich soil.
And he knows that the rewards, the benefits to be reaped from even a single grain that unexpectedly grows, far outweigh the cost of sowing prodigally.
And perhaps that itself is a powerful image of the way the Kingdom grows. And how we grow it. Not so much by careful targeting, but by unreasonably lavish acts of love, gifts of grace, sharing of story. Not by trying to work out who might respond to the word or act of grace, but by offering it unconditionally, and rejoicing when the mysterious workings of seed, soil, sun and water turn the seed we throw into a hundred more.