Jeus used parables to tell them many things. “Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty.” And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!” (Matthew 13:3-9)
A sower went out to sow, and he threw his seed … everywhere!
He threw it all over the place – some went where it was supposed to go, some fell into the bushes, some went on the road, a lot of it – he probably didn‘t know where it ended up, except that there was none left in packet. This guy threw his seeds everywhere!
Now, I don’t know a lot about farming. I remember many years ago at our church, my friend David Irwin was preaching at the wedding of his daughter to our youth worker, and he told us how, at the beginning of his own marriage, he had made a decision that if he ever found himself entangled in domestic strife, where he was feeling so angry with his partner that he was about to behave in a way that was uncontrolled, or say something that he would later regret, he would go for a little walk outside in his garden. And he said, “I found, over time, that the outdoor life agreed with me”.
I have found, conversely, that the outdoor life does not agree with me. Despite the fact that I am (technically) the manager of a farm, I have found, nonetheless, that I am not much good when it comes to camping out under the stars. If I had to kill stuff in order to survive, I wouldn’t. And when it comes to sowing and harvesting crops, I don’t have a clue!
Mind you, I do have vague memories of planting seeds in a pot-plant type of arrangement, but even that was quite a while ago. Perhaps I was helping my kids with a school project, or perhaps it goes back to one of my own school projects, but what I do remember is that you dig up a little soil and then you plant a nice neat row of seeds, and then you cover them back over, and pat down the soil, and give the thing some water. I don’t remember what happens after that (something is supposed to grow, I suppose) but I do remember that it was a rather meticulous art.
If that’s how I learnt it in school, at any rate, it was certainly not the same school that this guy in the parable went to. He just reached his hand deep into his seed-bag and threw that seed all over the place like a human sprinkler!
And some fell on the road. And life is like that. Sometimes you pour your heart into someone and the whole thing just goes nowhere.
I remember some years ago now a guy called ‘Johnny’. And we were trying to help him out, and we knew he was a recovering heroin addict, but he assured us that he was no longer on the stuff, and he appeared to be clean, and so we gave him a bed in the back room, attached to the rectory, and I helped to get him a job washing cars, and things seemed to be going ok.
But then things started to go missing, and then we had a serious break-in where Ange had her camera stolen (the one she received as her 21st present) and she had her jewellery stolen (that was left to her by her ancestors) and there was just the one obvious suspect.
And we confronted Johnny with this, and he was horrified that we would suspect him, and he pleaded his innocence, and he said how hard it was for him to accept that we could think this of him – that he would be capable of doing such a thing after all we had done for him – and he cried, and I accepted his story, and we embraced. And then two days later the police came around looking for him, and they lifted the mattress of the bed we had given him to sleep on, and there were the receipts from the pawn shops – hundreds of them – for all the stuff he’d stolen from us and from others during the short time he’d been with us.
Sometimes you throw out your best seeds but they just bounce off the road. It doesn’t go anywhere. The birds eat it.
It’s not always like that of course. Sometimes you do get a real response, and the seed takes root, but the soil is shallow, and while you get some very encouraging signs for a while, it doesn’t last. As Jesus says, in His own commentary on this parable, “he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:21)
I appreciate here how Jesus says ‘when’ tribulation or persecution arises, and not ‘if’ trouble or persecution arises, for, must surely, trouble does come.
I’m not sure why that is the case, and I’ve reflected on it often here, but we know that this is indeed the way it works. There is no reprieve for the godly from the pain of this world – far from it! On the contrary, it is a promise that we receive from Jesus that we will suffer. “If the world hates you, says Jesus, just remember that they hated me first!” (John 15:8)
That’s the way life is. Good people suffer, and good people suffer because they are good people. And you know I’m not one to suggest that I’m perfect by any means. I’ve made lots of mistakes – many serious and terrible mistakes – but I continue to find that the things that bring me the most pain in this life are not the things that I’ve done wrong in this world, but, ironically, the very things I thought I’d got right!
Why is it that way? I don’t know, but troubles and persecutions will come. That’s for sure. The only thing that is not clear is whether you and I will survive them.
Those ‘who have no root in themselves’, as Jesus puts it, do not survive. The trial is just too great, the pain overwhelms us, hope just cannot be maintained, despair sets in, and so the fire of faith flickers and dies.
And some seed falls into the thorn bushes!
Again, you might wonder why it is that the sower bothers to throw seed in the direction of the thorn bushes but He doesn’t seem to be interested in discriminating
The seed takes root and begins to blossom, but …“the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (13:22)
It never ceases to amaze me the same great scourge of greed that destroys individuals and families and churches today is exactly the same scourge that destroyed communities and strangled faith 2000 years ago, and I imagine that it was much the same 2000 years before that!
I’ve often wondered what they would have thought, had they been able to see into the future – the people of Biblical times. I wonder if the people of Jesus’ day had been able to get a glimpse of the general level of prosperity enjoyed by people (in this country, at least) in the 21st century. I imagine that they would say, ‘well … there will be no more reason for greed or theft or worrying about the deceitfulness of riches in that day!’
Yet, of course, as wealth increases, greed grows in proportion. And so just as in Jesus’ day, individuals and communities could be destroyed by greed, so likewise today – people lie and steal, pour themselves into jobs that they hate, gamble everything they have from loose coins to beach-side properties, and so destroy both themselves and their families with their rapacious appetite for worldly wealth.
And so human life atrophies, communities break down, marriages break apart, and faith falters as the seed dies, choked by the weeds of riches.
And some seed, of course, falls in the good soil!
And the temptation at this point, I think, is to get caught up in thinking about where we find ourselves in this story? Are the seeds that are hitting us just bouncing off – having no effect whatsoever? Or am I shallow in my faith. Will I survive the trials ahead? Am I the good soil that’s going to produce a bountiful crop or will my underlying love of worldly wealth be my undoing?
And while I don’t want to suggest that such forms of self-questioning are always unhelpful, I think the trick in this story is actually to find yourself with the sower distributing seed, and the key thing to recognise is that he throws that seed … everywhere!
This is the parable of the sower. It is of course also a parable about seeds and about different types of soil, but most fundamentally it’s a story about a sower, and a sower who just doesn’t seem to accept the sensible and logical boundaries when it comes to knowing where he ought to put in his effort!
A more sensible farmer would surely have focused all his efforts on areas of his field where he was most likely to get a positive response. Not this guy! This guy doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about where the seeds fall. He just seems to want to get a lot of it out there! And quite frankly, the only alternative is to be a sort of spiritual prostitute!
Someone said to me once, ‘You priest are no different from prostitutes. You’ll give yourself, body and soul, to someone, but you charge a price, and the price is change. No change, no love. Sorry!’ And we can’t be like that. We can’t charge a price for our love. We can’t give ourselves only to people who we know are going to make a meaningful response. Our calling is simply to give of ourselves, and leave the response in the hands of God.
And sometimes it works great. And sometimes you fall flat on your face. That’s just the way it is. And it’s not your fault when it doesn‘t work! Sometimes the soil is good and sometimes it’s shallow, and sometimes the seed spouts and looks fantastic and other times it withers and dies, and that’s not really something that we have a lot of control over. Our job is just to keep on sewing seed!
And we can’t always tell where the best soil is anyway! We all know of people of whom we expected great things, but where we ended up being very disappointed. On the other hand, sometimes you get wonderful surprises.
I mentioned that guy, Johnny, a little earlier – the guy who received the best love we had to offer and who nonetheless lied to us and stole from us, and we never did see any of those family heirlooms again. But I did see him again – about 10 years after the theft!
He showed up at our front door one day. He said he’d driven around the block countless times, summoning up the courage to come and see me, as he wanted to apologise. And he told me about the years he’d spent in prison since I’d last seen him, and he told me how his time with us had been the turning point, and how he’d found faith. And he introduced me to his family – to his lovely partner and two lovely children.
It seems that a seed was planted all those years ago, and while I haven’t seen this guy for a while now, he did promise that he’d join us here for church one day. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not discounting the possibility that that seed might still have a few more shoots to sprout!
A sower went out to sow, and he threw that seed around – some fell on the road, some went in the shallow soil, some fell into the bushes, and some hit good soil and generated some amazing fruit! You who have ears, hear!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2008.