(Matthew 13.1-9 & 18-23)
I’m not the gardener in our family, but the parable of the sower still rings bells for me. Over the years, I’ve grown things from seed, most recently a small patch of wild flowers to encourage the birds and insects. I had to clear the patch of weeds and stones before I sowed the seeds, but it was still impossible to tell the weeds from what I had sown when they came up! (But that’s another parable!)
Judging by the number of gardening programmes on the television, this parable will ring bells with other people too. We may no longer be a nation of farmers and agricultural labourers – but many of us are interested in growing things, even if only on our own small plots. So we will all identify with the sower in his problems.
And this, of course, was Jesus’ intention when he spread the message of the Kingdom through parables. As many of us were taught in Sunday School, a parable is ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’. As a good teacher, Jesus told stories about familiar things, which people understood. Their first reaction would be, “Oh yes, I know all about that” but then, “I wonder what he’s really getting at?”
Most recent Biblical scholars have taught that parables were meant to make one point only. In the case of the parable of the sower it is a message of encouragement. The farmer ‘broadcast ‘ his seeds, as was the custom in Palestine. His ground was of mixed quality, with some very shallow soil with rocks underneath, a path around the edge, and although it had been cleared of thistles, their roots hadn’t been dug up. Lots of the seed went to waste – yet his sowing still produced an abundant crop (even allowing for the oriental exaggeration in the story, for Galilee was a very fertile area.) So Jesus is telling his hearers not to worry if their work seems to fail in some areas; God will bless their work and make it fruitful as they proclaim the Kingdom in word and deed.
Jesus ends the story with an enigmatic comment “Listen then if you have ears”. This is his sign that there is something more to what he has been saying than just a story. Jesus seems to have followed the old military precept ‘Never apologise, never explain’ when he preached the message of the Kingdom. He expected his listeners to do some work for themselves and work things out, so he didn’t give them the solution to the meaning of the parable.
So how, then, do we account for the next section of Chapter 13 verses 18-23, which interpret this particular parable?
This section probably comes from the stage in the growth of the Christian community, before Matthew wrote his Gospel, when the faith was spreading into the Gentile world. As Geza Vermes reminds us, in his book ‘Jesus the Jew’, in using parables, Jesus was using a typical teaching method of the Jewish rabbi. Jews accustomed to Palestinian teaching methods would have needed no explanation – but non-Jews would have needed every detail spelt out. Indeed, they might have expected it, since interpreting stories as allegories, when every detail meant something, was the fashion in the Greek world of the time.
Hence the allegorical interpretation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation completely reinterprets the parable. The seed changes from standing for the good news, to standing for different sorts of people who receive the good news. Some are unresponsive and easily tempted, and the message never takes root in them. Others have a shallow faith, make a start, but then give up when things get hard. Some cannot withstand temptation; but there are still enough whose faith takes root to bring great results.
Now, I know that some people are worried by being told that parts of what is written in the Gospels may not be the original words of Jesus. They imagine this is equivalent to accusing the Gospel writers of telling lies. But this is not the case.
We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Jesus when he taught. We believe that the Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures when they wrote. We believe, that if we ask, the Spirit will inspire and guide us when we read. But the Spirit’s inspiration will not override the normal and natural processes of our human minds.
So, whenever we read anything, what we understand is the product of a complex interplay between what was originally said, how the writer interpreted and recorded that, and what we bring to our reading of the passage from our own culture, education, experience and situation. So, people from different cultures and from different times are bound to ‘hear’ different things.
It is the task of Biblical scholars (inspired also by the Holy Spirit) to unravel the different layers of interpretation contained in the Bible, to help us in our reading and understanding. This is not just a modern practice. The scholars of the Jewish nation said of their Scriptures that they had several layers of meaning: first of all there was what was called Pshat - the plain and obvious meaning; then there was Remez – or hint – the implied meaning, referring forward to the Torah and Jewish history; thirdly, there was Drush - the meaning found by philosophers; and lasting there was Sod – the hidden meaning, accessible only to the mystics. So we should not be surprised that God’s Word, conveyed to us through the pages of Scripture, has a new message for each generation of the Church.
So as we read the Bible and receive the message of the Kingdom, we may be led by the Spirit to reinterpret it anew for each new age.
How we do so will depend on our outlook and our personality; but our reading will always be limited by our understanding that the primary message is about God and the kingdom.
So I want to offer you a reading of the parable of the sower, informed by our situation in the world today, to guide us in the way we should spread the Word of God – our seed – today.
Some of the seed falls on the path. Paths are made of earth that is trodden hard. For me, this ground stands for the down trodden peoples of the world; for nations where there is no freedom, for groups in society that are discriminated against. In this sort of situation, the forces of evil find rich pickings. Before the seed of the gospel can take root in this ground, the soil needs to be dug up, turned and loosened – so that the air of freedom and the water of encouragement can circulate, and the plants that come from the Gospel seed can send down roots. In these situations, the work of sowing the seed of Gospel truth will involve first preparing the ground by working for social justice.
The shallow soil with rock beneath speaks to me of those people who are dead inside – who are unable to receive the good news of God’s love because their spirits have been killed by self-hatred, low self-esteem, shame and past abuse. On the surface, these people may seem to be fine, fertile ground – but though their relationships may begin well, they always self-destruct, as their roots come into contact with the dead area inside. There will need to be long, patient works of preparation, often by carefully trained experts, before the Gospel seed can take root here: breaking down the hard rock, clearing the remaining stones away, then enriching what is left with a new topsoil of unconditional love and compassion and acceptance.
The seed which fell among thorns represents perhaps the most common ground in which present day evangelists try to sow the gospel seed. People nowadays lead busy lives, crowded with demands , distractions and temptations – from work, from their social life, from the media and the internet, from within their family. Often they can find no space for the seed of the Gospel to take root. It will not be much good just hacking at these ‘weeds’ when they show above the ground. That would be to do as the Palestinian farmer did, destroying the obvious weeds above ground, while leaving the roots to sprout again, grow up and take over. We need to dig deeper, into the fabric of society, and help to clear away the roots from which these social weeds spring. Also, we can provide – perhaps at first only bit by bit – areas and times of peace and freedom from demands, where the Kingdom can take root a few seeds at a time, and the crop can begin to bear fruit.
But, even this interpretation of the parable of the sower comes back ultimately, to the central message of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. God’s kingdom will come! Our efforts may seem small, our results unspectacular in the eyes of the world. But where God is at work through us, nothing, nothing, can prevent a glorious harvest.