I wonder if, like me, some of you have suffered anxiety on account of the parable of the sower – or, rather, on account of its interpretation.
The interpretation we find in the gospels turns the image of the sower, freely broadcasting seeds that fall in four different places with four different results, into an allegory: it treats every element in this homely agrarian scene as a cryptic symbol, as something that stands for something else and needs to be decoded by someone in the know.
The seed, Jesus is said to have said, is ‘the word of the kingdom’, and the four different places on which it falls are four different kinds of hearers of the word – four different kinds of people, that is to say. And here’s the bit likely to induce anxiety: three out of these four kinds of people are no good. They are deficient, lacking, constitutionally unable, it seems, to understand the word, whatever it’s about, and ‘bear fruit’, whatever that means (the decoding still needs a bit of decoding, it has to be said).
What happened to the Jesus we met back in Matthew, Chapter 6, the one who said, ‘Do not be anxious about your life’? Now he’s telling me I may be the wrong kind of person altogether, and it sounds like there’s nothing I can do about it. Plus, loads of other people are no good too. Worse yet, I’m supposed to believe that the birds – the awesome and delightful birds – in this parable stand for ‘the evil one’.
I just don’t think Jesus said that.
Happily, I’m not alone. Many Bible scholars think that the interpretation of the sower should not be attributed to Jesus; they think it was probably added to the sower saying after Jesus died, during the early days of the church. The reference to ‘trouble or persecution’ is one giveaway, as is the preoccupation with spreading ‘the word’, an emphasis that points to an already well-developed teaching about Jesus himself and a concern with enrolling faithful multipliers of the faithful – a concern with building up the church, in other words. Also compelling is the fact that the famous Gospel of Thomas, a non-narrative sayings-of-Jesus document that includes versions of many canonical sayings but seems to represent an independent line of transmission, knows the saying about the sower but not the interpretation.
You may disagree with me and these scholars, of course, but I’d like to invite you, nevertheless, to try a thought experiment: try pretending you’ve never heard of the interpretation. Set it aside for a while and return to the image of the sower on its own. Re-read Matthew 13: 1-9 with fresh eyes and an open mind. If that were the whole of what Jesus had to say about the sower, what might he have hoped his hearers would have ears to hear?
In their Reflections for last week, Joy and Ian pointed out how Jesus made a parable out of what looks like a proverbial saying – one that seems to poke fun at childish petulance. Jesus compared his contemporaries to imperious children who don’t get their way when playing at make-believe weddings and funerals. When John the Baptist came, living on locusts and wild honey and calling for repentance, people complained that he was too severe and would not preach joy and thanksgiving, as at a wedding; then when Jesus came, eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, people complained that he was too indulgent and would not preach woe and lamentation, as at a funeral.
The sower, I suggest, may be another case of a proverbial situation made into a parable.
If you grew up in the countryside, or if you’re an experienced gardener, you may have heard the following old rhyme, or one of its many variants:
Plant your seeds four in a row:
One for the mouse,
One for the crow,
One to wither,
And one to grow.
I suspect that when Jesus described the sower and the four different fates that awaited the seed, he may have had something like this proverb in mind. By that, I don’t mean that he was just giving out gardening tips. I mean that he was playing on what everyone who heard him already knew: that many of the seeds a farmer sows never reach maturity, so in order to grow anything, it is necessary to sow generously.
This is what I take away from the parable of the sower. I think Jesus is trying to reassure us that this world – the Kingdom of our heavenly Father – has been sown generously, that it abounds with life and growth and that, even when new life is diverted, or snuffed out early, or overwhelmed, there is also much that thrives. I think the parable of the sower is very much in line with the sermon on the mount and with the Jesus who tells us not to be anxious. It even reminds us of one of the ways in which our heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air: by giving them a portion of the sower’s grain.
This is not a facile ‘don’t worry, be happy’ philosophy, however. The sower is a hard saying. Almost impossibly hard sometimes. Hard for the parent whose child has died. Hard for the family whose painstakingly built business has failed because of Covid-19. Hard for the flood victim bereft of all she ever worked for. We all know that nature is cruel. We’ve seen the David Attenborough specials that show how new life is beset by perils on all sides, reminding us that to have been born at all is already to have prevailed against mind-boggling odds.
Most things don’t make it. Most things don’t make it. What are we supposed to make of that?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus exhorts us, as he so often does, to imitate God. Just as God has sown generously, we too should sow generously. We should pray for the grace to be open-handed as the sower: to remember those who are down when we are up, to share bounty when we have it, to give other living things their due, to trust the power of life even when death strikes, to love faithfully and forgive freely, to offer more than is asked, to invest in a tomorrow we may not live to see, to expect and let go of failures, to try again…and again…and again.
Jesus gives us the sower to think on when all our efforts seem barren. Something will get through. Something will get through.
‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!’