|The St. John's Bible illuminates the NRSV text with the Sower parable. |
Amusingly, a scribal error left a line out of this particular page,
so they added the omitted line of text in the lower margins,
showing it being towed back into place by one of the parable's birds.
So you buy the best seed you can afford, you hope to have a good season of the right mix of rain and sun, you hope for a decent price when it’s time to sell to the grain elevator. You go to extraordinary lengths trying out the latest techniques (or locally, the latest cannon). But deep down, even the most religiously indifferent farmer will say muttered prayers, “Please, O Lord, no hail. No floods. No drought. No grain price crash. That’s all I ask. Amen.”
The parable of the seed scattered is not a good one to tell. It gets worse before it even thinks about getting better. New Testament scholar Warren Carter points out that of all the seed scattered, three-quarters of that seed “will come to naught.” This is not a story I pick up the phone and call my retired farmer dad to say, “Have you heard this one?” The seeds that “come to naught”, besieged by birds, thorns, stony ground, none of that really makes for delightful conversation with dad. Instead, the parable reminds a farmer about those times when you glumly survey the dashed dreams of a bumper crop just disappearing before your very eyes.
It makes that one quarter of seed, the seed that produces considerable crops, that much more important. Go down to the grain elevator and listen to the old timers, retired from running combines, but not from running their mouths, holding court over greasy glazed doughnuts and stout coffee in mugs marked “John Deere”. Then you will hear of the “little seed that could”: “Oh yeah? Well, I put in that seed in the worst land I had, Roy, and I came away with the best yield ever.” “Earl, you got eighty bushels an acre? Try ninety two!”
The parable goes from bad (birds, thorns, rocks) to overwhelming (100 fold, 60 fold, 30 fold). The parable adds an unexpected plot twist to end the story of harsh reality (the likelihood of crop damage, low yield, and crop failure) on a much different note. The seed that could have failed just as easily as all the rest, but it did not. Instead, the retired farmers drop their doughnuts on the floor as the young whippersnapper shows up with a truck overloaded with seed. “How many fields did you cut to get all that?” one asks. “About half of the first one. I’ve got three more fields just like it.” With that, the John Deere coffee mugs clink together like champagne glasses on Wall Street.
The parable of the seed reminds me of the concept of “euchastrophe”. You have heard of “catastrophe”, where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The British writer JRR Tolkein, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, suggested that there are stories that end on unexpected but abundantly good notes. The parable plays out the story of a sower who scatters the seed, the unfortunate reality that not all seed takes root or really has a chance of growing, let alone being harvested. Then there is the seed that literally hits pay dirt. An abundant harvest is the last thing that you are prepared to hear when everything else is a tale of woe. Then “euchastrophe” strikes, and you couldn’t be happier!
In the words of parables scholar Bernard Brandon Scott, the parables of Jesus offer the listener a chance to “reimagine the world”. You know the world of crop failure all too well, but this notion of an abundant crop, even with the odds against you, well, that seems to require a bit more engagement on our part. We have to take what we know as “how the world works” and see God in the middle of that world, pretty much disrupting it. Abundance in times when there ought to be not much at all is not the stuff of reality. This parable presumes that with God in the fray, things will go according to an altogether different plan!
Hence, we have the conversation after the parable. The parable itself could have been just there to hear and interpret, but Jesus offers a bit more insight about this parable. He tells the crowds who gather that you might think you have listened to the parable, but many of you have not heard it. If you have to ask, you might not get it at all. Then, he whisks away to talk with his inner circle, leaving the crowds to mull what he has said.
The parable of “a sower goes out” appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, however, each one of them puts their own spin on the parable. Here, Matthew adds quite a bit of interpretation about this seed and the mostly bad, save one, places where it was sown. Jesus tells the disciples to pay attention to where the seed never took root. The seed is “the word of the kingdom”, in other words, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of Heaven, this vision of what Jesus’ ministry was bringing into the world. Those who take it deep into their hearts, the results are amazing. Jesus says, “ But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Have you met someone who lives out this parable? We can name the saints, great and small, who have contributed greatly to the cause of the Gospel and the mission of the Church. Scattered with astonishing liberality, the seed works in mysterious ways. You see it germinating as that person who has “no time” makes time to ladle soup at a homeless shelter. The seed takes root when a retiree finds that it’s kind of fun to read to kids down at the library. The seed buds when that youth on a mission trip becomes less of a vacation and more a summons to a vocation.
Just like scattered seeds, the Word does not flourish everywhere it is given. Whether it is sin, apathy, or temptation, some folks simply will not hear the Word and take it to heart. We can also name some folks that we know who have not lived out this parable, who, for a variety of reasons, have very little interest in the faith, keeping it, living it out, or confessing it. For every baptism, every confirmation class, every parish record book known to be on file throughout the Church universal, it might seem that this parable’s mulling over crop failure seems a bit apropos.
Then I recollected a sermon I heard years ago given by Fred Craddock. Craddock turned this parable into a very careful reminder that we should not get too caught up in labeling folks as to whether or not they were likely to be crop failure. He reminds us that it is God doing the work, not us, so we would best leave things alone. What looks like crop failure instead might turn out differently, might be the seed that caught on and created a good yield by the time that the harvest rolls around.
Fred Craddock observes, “No farmer puts a seed in the soil and then screams at it, ‘Now, come on, get up!’” Instead, we take a step back and let the growing process happen. It is not for us to question whether the crop will fail or show a big yield. We could try to shout at the seed and the soil to perform, but again, it’s that curious mystery where we cannot predict the yield, only to take Jesus at his word that with attentiveness to God, great things become possible.
Some folks might want to prejudge the crop even before the seed is scattered. Others might think that the soil will never be good enough, or there is always too many birds and rocks and thorns to contend with. Instead, let the sower do her work.