A few days ago, while reading the Parable of the Sower, I saw something hidden in the weeds that intrigued me. Actually, it was hidden in the method.
First, I want to point out that this parable isn’t really about the Sower, or seeds. In fact Matthew and Mark don’t even use the word seeds in Greek, it was added by the translators (see reference). Only Luke uses “seeds.” Nevertheless, in the end, what we have is a parable about soils.
For a quick review:
A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold. (NRSV Luke 8:5-8)
That’s it; a nice short little story, which Jesus then explains as follows.
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away.
As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. (NRSV Luke 8:11-15)
The explanation given by Christ equates the soil to the heart of the receiver of the word of God.
From the Audience: “That’s me. I’m one of those with an honest and good heart.”
Yes. At this point, we should all pat ourselves on the back for being such good Christians while all of those with hearts of stone or are distracted by the world and are destined to go to hell. Right??
Well, maybe we should slow down a bit.
During the time of Jesus, “Grain (wheat & barley), grapes, figs and olives as well as legumes (lentils & chick-peas), onions, cucumbers, melons, dates, pomegranates, almonds and spices were grown for food.” (From reference 1, reference 2)
Grain seeds are planted by sowing, throwing the seeds so that they are scattered across a large area of ground. This method was used “in hilly regions like Galilee where rock . . . could destroy a cast-iron plow” (see reference). Some of you may have seen a sower use this method while planting grass seed. It is usually used for seed that is relatively cheap and abundant.
Other crops require much different planting methods. If you have ever planted corn or peas, for example, each seed is specifically placed in the soil and covered.
I find it interesting that the Parable of The Soils uses the sowing of grain, an annual grass rather than another crop. Why did Jesus choose this food crop and planting method as analogy for how the word of God is disseminated?
I’m sure that there are many different perspectives on this, but I will address only one that I found interesting.
We sometimes may think (or wish) that we are “chosen,” picked for a certain place and time. Maybe we feel (or hope) that we have a particularly useful mission to fulfill that will make our lives meaningful. That may be the case. I’ll leave that for you (or maybe your posterity) to decide.
From the Audience: “I know that God put me here. I know that I was chosen to come to earth at this place and time.”
Okay, that may be. But, this may not be a useful model for those that are born into a place or circumstances of poverty, disability, disease, war, or civil unrest. The great majority of the people who have ever lived on this earth have suffered greatly when compared those of us who now live in reasonably developed areas. Did God place them on earth to suffer? Is that what God wants for us? If so, those of us that live in health and wealth have missed the boat.
I must allow for a great degree of randomness in the world, and accept it as a powerful operating principle.
Natural forces can largely be seen as random events, even if they are somewhat predicted and inevitable. A tree falling in the woods, due to death, decay, and wind is random (or asynchronous to us) and is of no importance. Unless the tree falls while we are nearby (or under it), then we might thank (or curse) God.
The freewill of other people is no different. The forces of humanity are not unlike the forces of nature, somewhat predictable in bulk, but largely random to the individual. (If you question whether free will is random, you don’t remember your youth or haven’t yet raised a teenager.)
From the Audience: “So, your telling me that God isn’t in control?”
Ummm. Maybe I’ve gone too far astray from the subject at hand. I will intentionally avoid your question and make my point.
Soils and Sowing
The soil did not choose where it was. An aggregate volume of dirt cannot say, “I think I/we will move from this rock to a place that I/we can be home to annual grass seeds.” Even if it could, the random action of sowing would not guarantee that it would even have a “choice” to host a seed. The intention might be rendered useless because the location might be later trampled into a path. Like us, the soil is subject to larger forces which it cannot control.
Whether someone is prepared to receive the word of God may similarly be dependent upon the circumstances in which one exists. The scope of our agency is determined by the “environment” in which we live. This environment encompasses everything from our genes to our geographic location. Even the societal conditions in which we live will make many “choices” for us, of which we are scarcely aware.
The sower may be able to take some measures to prepare the soil, but then he must throw the seeds into the wind and hope that some of them take root.
From the Audience: “So, your telling me that the reason that I am a Christian is random?”
That might be one way to look at it, but mostly the point I am trying to make is that before we become proud and arrogant about being “good soil,” we might want to acknowledge a few things.
- Forces and events way beyond our control put us in a position where receiving the word of God was even a viable option for us.
- No matter where we find ourselves, we must act to become the best that we can be, and even the best Christians we can be.
- Non-Christians, those who may refuse the Gospel, and those that fall away, may be doing so because their circumstances do not even make a Christian life viable.
- Regardless of where someone is, we have the same duty: to show love and concern.And Lastly:
- While the first generation of seed was cast by THE Sower, those that follow are sown by us (and sometimes we don’t do a very good job).