By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Those of us who have much experience with church have probably heard Jesus’ parable of the sower a hundred times… maybe more. The farmer goes out to sow his crop, Jesus says. He throws his seed willy-nilly. Some of it falls on path, and before it has time to work its way into the hardened ground the birds come along and have a three-course meal of it. Some seed falls on rocky ground. It yields a quick result, but the soil is thin. When the sun comes along the crop withers like a football lineman in pre-season two-a-day workouts. Some seed falls into ground covered with thorns. As soon as the crop emerges, the thorns choke it to death. Thorns have a tendency to demand their own territory, don’t they? But some seed – some seed – falls on good, fertile soil and brings forth a bountiful yield.
But let’s focus for a moment, not on the various kinds of soil, but on the sower. Jesus’ sower is definitely not a 21st century farmer, is he?
Today’s farmer uses lasers to level his field. Today’s farmer uses expensive equipment and implements that would challenge the budget of the U.S. Defense Department. Today’s farmer knows the minerals in the soil of his fields better than he knows the back of his hand. Today’s farmer measures and judges, tweaks and tests his soil to make sure that he gets the very best results from it.
Today’s farmer is nothing like the person Jesus talks about. Jesus’ sower just takes his bag of seed, goes outside, and starts tossing indiscriminately.
So… Jesus wasn’t much of an agronomist, was he? What does he know about farming? He was a carpenter, for goodness’ sake. And when he tells this story, he’s sitting in the prow of a boat because the crowds have gathered around him to such an extent that the boat is the only place he can go without being crushed to death. That boat is a far piece from the nearest farm, let me tell you.
But that’s the way Jesus is. He doesn’t give erudite lectures on the latest nuances of theology. He doesn’t take an arcane passage of scripture and pick it to the death, the way the scribes up in Jerusalem like to do it. He takes the simplest of images, those things that occur in everyday life, and weaves images around them of what the kingdom of heaven is like. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or yeast that is put in bread dough. It is like a hidden treasure, like the pearl of great price or a net thrown into the sea. Jesus draws pictures that are easy for the mind and eye to see, and for the heart to embrace.
But I wonder if this story of the sower is familiar to the people who hear it. You see, they know a little bit about agriculture and farming too. Many of them, no doubt, do just that very thing. But even first-century farmers were more careful than this fellow Jesus is talking about. They may not have had lasers and chemicals and computers, but they knew a thing or three about how to put seed into the ground. You don’t do it by just tossing it up in the air and praying that some of it will land on good earth.
But Jesus’ sower did. I can imagine that many of Jesus’ hearers had smiles on their faces. “That’s not the way I’d do it,” they’re thinking. “That’s not the way I’d do it at all.”
But that isn’t the point, is it? The point is, this is the way God does it when it comes to sharing the presence of his kingdom.
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Barbara Brown Taylor retells the story. It’s not that she improves on it necessarily, but it might just shed some fresh light on what the parable is about…
Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.
Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided just to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.
Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into this field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full-fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.
Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed pouch and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that did not seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.1
Those of us who are going to Thunder Bay later this week no doubt will be seeing a lot of hard, thorny, weedy, rocky ground. Then why do we bother to go? Do we go just to give our youth the experience of seeing those who are worse off than they are? If that were the case, we’d just load them up in the church bus and drive down to Asher Avenue… in the daylight, of course. Do we go so they can earn a merit badge for good deeds? These youth have already served a meal at the Compassion Center, and have worked hard on other projects as well. They have their badges. Do we go so they can experience what it’s like to visit another country? Some of them have already done that. Besides, Canada won’t be all that different from what they know and experience right here. At least we speak the same language.
No, we go because we’ve got our bags full of seed and we’re looking for a place to sow.
Some of our seed will fall on hard ground and our effort will come to nothing. Some of it will be cast among thorns, and will be choked to death. Some of it will be tossed into the midst of weeds, and some will land on rocks. But some of what we do will find its way into the soft, accepting soil of hearts that are begging to know of God and the good news of redemption that only Christ can give. And that is why we go.
There is good earth where we go, and that is why we do it. In fact, everywhere you turn – whether it’s Thunder Bay or the Kroger down the street – there’s just enough good earth to keep you going, to keep you reaching into that pouch filled with seed, and casting it about. There is just enough good earth out there to make our effort worth it, even if some of our seed yields nothing.
You see, we’re not responsible for the results. Our job – our only job – is to throw the seed.
Let the one who has ears to hear, listen, and let all the hearers pick up their seed pouches and begin sowing. God, in his mercy and grace, will see that some of it lands on good earth.
Lord, send us out – send us all out – to cast our seed of hope and encouragement and redemption in Jesus’ name. Then give us the patience and faith to leave the results up to you. Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), pp. 28-29.