Sunday 13 July 2008

Sowing on the banks of Lough Derg

1. I’ve had mixed success with my sowings this year.

The problem is hares. We’re used to having them about, but this year there seem to be more than usual, and they seem to be more destructive than ever before. They’ve devoured the young French bean plants, they’ve made a fair start on the peas, and a few nights ago they took an entire row of emerging runner beans, each bitten off a bare inch from the ground! We’re trying to do something about it: my wife has put chicken wire fences around her raised beds, and I’ve ordered a spray from England which claims to deter them. But the yield this year will be poor all the same.

All this came to mind as I looked at today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:1-9, 18-23), commonly called the Parable of the Sower: the hares seem to be playing the role of the birds sent by the evil one to snatch up the seed from the path!

What is a parable? A parable is a story describing a scene from everyday life, which conveys a deeper meaning - when Jesus used them, a spiritual meaning. No doubt Jesus taught so often in parables because they conjure up memorable images, which lead those who hear them to reflect on their meanings, and discover the truth in them for themselves. No lesson is better learned than one you tease out for yourself! Parables are a bit like slow-release fertilizer, gradually yielding up their truth to people who ponder them.

The parable of the sower comes in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels as well as Matthew’s, and in startlingly similar words. Scholars believe the vivid image was remembered and later recorded, and an edited version was the basis of all three Gospel writers' texts. All three Gospels also contain the same explanation by Jesus of what the story means, so we can take it as authoratitive.

So let us in our imaginations picture the scene of the parable, let us reflect on its meaning, and let us tease out its relevance for us now, 2000 years later.

2. So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach.

The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my minds eye as rather like our lake, Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. Imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this prompted his parable; if so everyone could literally see what he was talking about. The sower wouldn’t be using a seed-drill; he would be broadcasting the seed by hand, just as our ancestors would have done only 150 years ago. The seed would be in a bag or a basket, and he would walk steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he could. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he was doing: they had seen it hundreds of times before, and many of them would have done it themselves.

So Jesus describes just what the crowd can all see:

  • Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips each farmed by one family, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower. They swoop down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.
  • Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality.
  • Some parts would be stony: don’t imagine small pebbles, imagine great sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. The soil above the rock would warm early, and the seeds would germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings would soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.
  • Some parts of the field would be infested with perennial weeds: imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which would quickly outgrow the delicate crop, choking it.
  • But other parts of the field would be good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop would have nutrients and water enough. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the grain sown on it.
Jesus said many other things to the crowd that day in parables, we’re told. We don’t know what they were, but I think we can take it that Jesus was ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom’ as Matthew tells us elsewhere (Mat 9:35).

Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

3. Jesus himself explains the parable in terms of ‘the word of the kingdom … sown in the heart’.

When his disciples ask him why he teaches in parables, Jesus gives them this interpretation of the parable, no doubt to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.
  • The seed sown on the path is the word heard, but not understood, which the evil one snatches away, before it ever has the chance to sprout.
  • The seed sown on rocky ground is the word received with joy, but by a person without roots, without character, whose initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution.
  • The seed sown among thorns is the word heard by those who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.
  • And the seed sown on good soil is the word heard by those who understand it, and act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.
Like those who crowded to the lake-shore 2000 years ago, we are the soil in which Jesus sows the seed. On a personal level, the message of his parable remains what it was then: we need to cultivate our characters so that as good soil we yield a rich harvest. Each one of us should try to develop the character traits of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world. Openness so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes. Persistence so that we can withstand trouble or persecution when we answer God’s call. And detachment from the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth so that we are not distracted from acting on God’s call.

4. For Jesus, the sower is one who proclaims ‘the word of the kingdom’.

That is himself of course. But it is also his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, who he sent out saying ‘Proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mat 10:5-7)’. No doubt the twelve took comfort from the parable that even when their teaching seemed to show poor results, enough people would accept it to make it all worthwhile.

Before his ascension Jesus commissioned the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations. Their commission was handed on to others, so that the Church in all its varied denominations still proclaims Jesus’s good news of the kingdom today. In Paul’s memorable words Christians are all part of Christ’s body the Church. Today the Church is the sower. Is there then a message for the Church in this parable? I believe there is.

The Church’s sowing of the seed does not seem to be producing a good harvest these days, does it? The fact is that here in Ireland - and in Europe generally - taking a broad view across all denominations, more and more people are losing contact with Christ’s Church. We see falling Church attendance; we see fewer baptisms; and we see insufficient ordinations to maintain the stock of full time clergy. Of course we need to understand why this is, and we need to do something about it; we also need the Holy Spirit to guide us for this to be successful.

It would be so easy for us to sink into depression about it. Particularly when the lost souls are those close to us. But we should not despair. Jesus himself was completely realistic about the prospects for his teaching, and so should we be as the Church. As Jesus realised, no matter how good a job we do as sowers, the sad fact is that many people will not become his disciples and will not be led to the kingdom of heaven by his or the Church’s teaching. Yet those who do become disciples make up for those that don’t by the rich harvest of good fruit they yield – as Jesus put it, 30, 60 or 100 fold.

5. So to sum up, the parable of the sower remains just as relevant today as it was in Jesus's day. Among the things we should learn from it are these:
  • As Christians we need to cultivate the soil of our own characters. We need to develop the Christian virtues of openness, persistence, and detachment from the world, so that we may yield a plentiful harvest of good fruit.

  • And we should not despair at the state of Christ’s Church today. Rather we should rejoice in the rich harvest of Christian souls we already have, as we pray for God to guide his Church and all of us to be better sowers of the word in future, so that the harvest yields even more.


Stephen Neill said...

I like your take on the text and the description of parables as 'slow release fertilizer' is very apt. Ties in with the notion that if all truth were to be released in one go it would be too much for us - explosive!
I agree about Jesus being a realist about seed falling on hostile ground but I would still want to see this as a challenge and not a statement of the status quo.

Joc Sanders said...

Thanks for your comment Stephen - I hadn't meant to advocate the status quo!
Yet as we accept the challenge, surely it would be wrong not also to recognise all the good being done by unsung Christians already, loving God and loving others, as you quote Chalke advocating on your blog.
Perhaps because they are a bit like oil-tankers, I see little evidence of the institutional Church hereabouts turning to face the challenge. Or am I missing something? What's to be done?

Stephen Neill said...

I think it is something as basic as changing or concept of christianity from membership of institution to following person i.e. Jesus.
However I do take and accept your point about recognising what is already happening - someone described this as 'tour guide evangelism' i.e. pointing out where God is at work already.

Joc Sanders said...

Following Jesus is a good place to start the journey, so. See you along the road (:)!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!