“The parable of the sower” is the first and longest of seven such stories in the 13th chapter of Matthew. The images Jesus uses in these parables are very different: weeds, a mustard seed, yeast in a loaf of bread, treasure buried in a field, a priceless pearl, and a net let down into the sea. And yet, all are parables of the kingdom. In these wonderfully diverse yet simple images, Jesus is teaching his listeners that the reign of God may be very different from their expectations. In these parables Jesus seems to suggest that the kingdom may be much more mysterious and inclusive than we have imagined.
In our reading today we initially hear the parable itself, unadorned by any commentary. A sower casts seed on four kinds of ground: first the close packed ground of a footpath, then ground that is full of rocks, then ground that is full of thorns, and finally, on good, rich, fertile soil. Depending on where it lands, the seed is eaten by birds, springs up too quickly, withers and dies, gets choked by thorns, or takes root in the good ground and is fruitful.
Then our lectionary skips to Jesus’ own allegorical interpretation of the parable. It appears that this is not a story about plants and seeds after all! So what is it that Jesus is talking about? The real subject of this parable is the in-breaking reign of God: the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it; the kingdom of God, as Mark and Luke refer to it. But Jesus’ explanation of the parable doesn’t really make it any easier for us or the disciples to understand.
And then there is the overwhelming sense that somehow this story is about us—our response to God’s kingdom. When you hear this, don’t you begin to worry about what kind of ground you are? I wonder how many birds are in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns. It’s easy to become obsessed with cleaning them up and trying to turn oneself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized piece of ground ready for the sowing of God’s word. Is this parable actually a challenge to improve my life, a reminder that I need to clean up my act? Even though we usually hear it that way, I don’t think that’s the point.
In fact, I think we usually get it backwards, just like those first listeners did. We hear the story and we think it’s a story about us. But what if we’re wrong? What if it’s not about us at all? What if it’s about the sower? What if it’s not about our successes and failures, but rather the extravagance of a sower who flings seeds everywhere? What if it’s not about the birds and rocks and thorns, but about a sower who is not fazed in the least by such obstacles and instead just keeps on sowing, confident that there is more than enough seed to go around.
If this really is “the parable of the sower,” as Jesus said, and not “the parable of the different kinds of ground,” as we like to think, then the focus shifts from us and our shortcomings to the generosity of the sower. Evidently, this “sower” is not obsessive about the condition of the fields, not cautious or judgmental, not even very practical. The story is about a sower who appears to be willing to continue reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with fertile seed of his own making, what the parable speaks of as “the Word of God.”
So who do we usually identify as the sower? We think its Jesus, don’t we? And we have in our minds an image of Jesus—and then of ourselves as his disciples—going around sprinkling something called “the Word of God” on places that haven’t yet received it. But wait! Don’t we usually identify Jesus himself as “the Word of God”? Well if that’s true and Jesus is the Word of God—the scattered seed in this story—then who is the sower? Well, there’s really only one other choice, isn’t there? It has to be God, the one whom Jesus spoke of as Abba, “Father.”
The parable of the sower means that Jesus has already (and quite literally) been sown everywhere in the world—and completely without our cooperation or consent! But don’t we usually act as if we have to “bring Jesus” to those without faith, when in fact all we had to bring was the Good News of what Jesus (“the Word of God”) has already done, what Jesus (who was already there) already accomplished in his life, death and resurrection.
The mystery of the kingdom is not something separate from Jesus; it is so closely identified with Jesus that we can even say that Jesus is the kingdom. And the final culmination of God’s reign rests entirely on our recognition of Jesus, especially as it is operative in the mystery of his presence in all human begins. (Don’t forget the powerful imagery in the parable of the Great Judgment when Jesus reminds his followers, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”)
But having said all that, let me return to the theme of our response to God’s free gift of grace, our response to “the Word of God,” Jesus, the Christ. The most obvious point of the parable is that the fullest enjoyment of the fruitfulness of God’s seed is available to those who interfere with it the least. Jesus tells us that those on the good ground are those who simply hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit. It’s not that they do anything; rather, it’s that they don’t do things that get in the way of the Word. It’s the Word, and the Word alone, that does all the rest.
Nevertheless, it is the response to the sowing of the Word that is the final thrust of the parable. And this is as it should be, because the purpose of the coming of the Word into the world was to produce people in whom the power of the kingdom will bear fruit. The biggest difference made by various responses to the Word (indicated by the types of ground on which it is cast) is the difference those responses make to us, for us, and in us. Our response decides not whether the Word will achieve its purpose (that’s already assured!); rather it’s simply a question of whether we will enjoy the Word’s achievement, whether we will welcome the Good News—or whether we will find ourselves in opposition to it.
To go back to agricultural imagery, this story is really all about bearing fruit! Plants that do not bear fruit are not cut down or punished in this story; they are simply missing out on their own fullness their own maturity, even, in some deep sense, on their own life. And so it is with us, Jesus seems to be saying.
If we make deficient responses to the Word, we do not get ourselves in trouble with God; rather, we simply fail to become ourselves, to fulfill all that we are called to be. Remember in John’s Gospel how Jesus points out that the branch is not able to bear fruit unless it remains connected to the vine? Similarly, he says his disciples cannot bear fruit unless they remain “in him.”
In terms of this parable, it would appear that what is needed is that we do not put obstacles in the way of the seed, but that we simply “abide” in the power of the Word. Jesus reminds us that our goal is not the accomplishment of some work, but just bearing fruit by the grace of God. In this parable Jesus calls us to experience our own lives as a mysterious gift that God freely and abundantly bestows upon us.
And that seems to be entirely fitting, because the parable is told to us by none other than the Word himself. After all, Jesus did not come to give us some assignment, but rather, to invite us to the great marriage feast of the Lamb, to bring us home rejoicing to his Father’s house. God wants us to be whole and happy; and the parable of the sower says God will unfailingly have us so—if only we don’t get in the way.