Persistent and Extravagant
Three of the Gospels record a story from Jesus that’s come to be called the Parable of the Sower. While the occasions seem to differ some, the elements of the story are consistent. In all three tellings, a farmer – the sower – goes out to plant, that is “sow,” seed. The sower does this using the pre-industrial method of hand-scattering the seed on the ground, much as is pictured in Vincent Van Gogh’s painting.
This sort of planting doesn’t allow for very much precision and in Jesus’ telling, some of the seed (maybe a lot of the seed?) lands on ground that is unsuitable for growing: on the path, among the rocks, and where the thorns are growing.
Historians of agriculture tell us that in the Galilee of Jesus’ day, sowing came before plowing and that the path and the thorns were likely to be broken up by the plow as the seed was planted more deeply in the ground.1 This would solve the problem of the sower’s wastefulness, but that seems to be beside the point for Jesus. In Jesus’ telling, three out of the four possible conditions don’t result in a harvest; the seed is eaten by birds, or it sprouts but the poorly rooted plant is dried out under the scorching sun, or the weeds deprive the seedling of what it needs to grow.
Jesus allegorizes the seed to the redeeming and life-giving Word of God – which is love himself – and the message seems clear, though the crowds gather around Jesus, hanging on his every word, some people don’t get it and won’t get it. That’s just the way it is.
Yet as we read or hear this story for ourselves, a story designed to present facets of meaning in a compelling and memorable way, it may be helpful to consider the possibility that the field is our own lives, both as individuals and collectively. As I reflect on myself, I must acknowledge that the soil conditions in Jesus’ story describe aspects of my own being. Though there have been times when I am oriented by my awareness of the graciousness of God’s love for me and can settle in on a day of grateful creativity, there are many days when my life looks more like the well-worn path of incessant but thoughtless busyness, the shallow fascination with the next new thing, or when it feels overwhelmed with the awareness of the evils of the world, both in and around me.
Here, agricultural historians and anthropologists might provide us with insight. There are days and times when we are not optimal soil, when the peace-bringing message of divine love and meaning for our lives together is snatched, burned and choked into irrelevance by what seem to be truer realities – our need to stay ahead and the pressures of daily life. Yet, the sower is undaunted. They continue to throw the seed anyway. Then they plow up the whole place, maybe even breaking up the path, changing it from its well-worn efficiency into deeper rooting soil.
Maybe you’ve had days where some unexpected disruption has broken things up in your life and inspired some fresh thinking about what is true, right and good. Maybe you’re in the midst of those days right now.
Those are times when the seed of divine grace takes root and, in hindsight, we thank God for the plow.
Feb. 16, 2022
1Jeremias, Joachim. 1963. The parables of Jesus. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 11.
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