Psalm 65; Isaiah 55: 10-13; Romans 8: 1-11; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
When is a parable not a parable? When Matthew gets his hands on it. The story of the sower is possibly the best known of all of Jesus’s parables, but Matthew renders it lumpy and restricted as soon as he puts a limited interpretation on it. As it stands, the story is dynamic and challenging, open-ended, and rich. After Matthew has asserted meaning for each individual section of the parable, it becomes thin and uni-directional. The trouble is that having read Matthew’s gloss on the parable of the sower, we can only think of it in his terms – this equals that, each element forever stuck with a particular meaning. So this morning we are going to free this parable from its Matthean shackles, and let it wander around our consciousness to challenge and to change us.
I am not the best person to talk about the success or otherwise of sowing seed. I have very poor results from my efforts and am not that much better at potting on plug plants. I need my gardening efforts to involve fairly established plants if I am going to have any hope of success. This is why I am a parish priest and not a market gardener or the owner of a flower shop. I therefore have every sympathy with Matthew’s sower, who works so hard to grow his crop on unpromising land, only to receive a ¼ return on his efforts. However, that ¼ return has degrees of success, which may well outweigh the losses the 75% of the land produces.
It gets complicated at this point, as it can move into maths. Are 30 fold, 60 fold and 100 fold outcomes greater than the original weight of seed? Does the sower, from these successful patches of land, come away with food for his family and a profit at market?
Then we can ask if Jesus is speaking from experience. Was a 25% return normal for farmers of his day? Israel is a rocky and dry country. It is the migratory superhighway for birds travelling north from their winter feeding grounds in Africa, and the timing of their flights coincides with the planting season. Was this farmer unconsciously providing a useful stop-off for warblers and finches on their journey to their European nesting sites?
And then we could start the blame game. Why hadn’t the farmer prepared his land better? Why were there still rocks and stoney sections in his field? He can’t have been a very efficient farmer, if weeds came up as soon as he planted his seed! Couldn’t he have roped in the local children as bird scarers? He deserves everything he gets if he is so lackadaisical in his farming practices.
But what if the outcome of the sowing is actually better than most? How much interest is being paid to you at the moment on your savings? Advertisers reckon on a 1% success rate on all flyers put through our letter boxes – they would give their back teeth for a 30 fold return from a quarter of their publicity, let alone 60 or 100 fold. This is why this parable needs to be kept open, so that it can properly reflect back on us and our world and enable us to scrutinize our plans, our reactions and our efforts.
Matthew wants this parable to be about spreading the Gospel. He insists that God is the sower, the seed is the God’s word, and the field represents the range of human responses to God’s word. That is fine, it is a fairly realistic account of the difficulties of speaking to people about God, of the numbers who respond positively to his message and who stick around in the Church. But what if we change the meaning of the seed to God’s love, or God’s grace, or God’s forgiveness? What does that say about our God? It speaks of a reckless generosity, an anticipation of rejection and failure yet also of massive joy in those who do respond. Would we dare to be as profligate as that?
And what if we change the meaning to prayer? We become the sower, and our prayers can feel as if they are falling on dry ground or are snatched away by our daily worries and labours. Do we concentrate on the 75% failure rate of our intercessions? Or should we rejoice and find encouragement in the massive return on our successes?
The Church of England has a tag line, “A Christian presence in every community”. In terms of the parable of the sower, that puts the Church of England in the place of the sower – which means all of us who come together to express that Christian presence in our community. This raises questions about our effectiveness, our rejection levels, our failures. How good are we at recognising answers to our corporate prayers? How can we measure people’s awareness of our presence and appreciation of all that we have to offer? Should we be counting up our 30 fold, 60 fold and 100 fold returns in individuals or families, or social influence? We are in this for the long term, even if your Vicar passes through on a breeze and is then gone again. Some of you were here when we arrived, many of you have joined since 2004, the Barn & St Luke’s are very different places now than then. There has been much joy and much sorrow and an awful lot of in between stuff – quiet, faithful lives of witness and service in practical ways, skills revealed and used to the full, a discovery of unused talents that have blossomed for the benefit of others.
What if we applied the sower principle to other areas – politics, education, social welfare, health, even? Is the principle of generosity and grace a useful starting point in those domains? Could you take this into your workplace? And what about family life? The role of parents is to give, and to give, and to give to their children out of love and care, and that doesn’t stop when those children are in their 30s and 40s!
At heart, this parable raises the question: what are we looking for over the long term: net loss or net gain – or more pertinently, what is God looking for over the long term? Does the shrivelled plant of neglect or the seed eaten by birds or the weed-choked seedling break his heart of love? Of course it does, but that doesn’t restrict his generosity. Do the differing levels of response from redeemed humanity cause him concern? Not at all, he delights in any movement we make towards him, of gratitude or of service.
The parable of the sower is about the generosity of a God who loves and forgives and accepts us day after day, year after year, for all eternity. May we live our lives as a generous response to that initial generosity, and so be part of that 30 fold, 60 fold and even 100 fold growth of God in others.
Rev Peter Hart