1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 ESV)
Relationships can be described from various vantage points – the legal relationship between people; biologically – maybe there is a sharing of DNA in a family or maybe they are linked together by the same illness in a support group; socially; class-wise; educationally; spiritually – whether there is congruence or incongruity. These descriptions tend to be factual, objective, and can last through time.
Relationships can also be described from the inside, so to speak, and which can take into account all the things I’ve just mentioned but speak more about the now, the moment, the emotion. The legal and social descriptions might remain constant but what it’s like within can change so that for example we can all relate to someone saying “We’ve been married for 40 years and yes, we’re happy – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to kill at him at times!” and we understand what such a description means. If a relationship is described as a ‘rollercoaster’ or ‘where opposites attract’ or ‘two peas in a pod’ we again get an understanding of the relationship provided we know what rollercoasters, opposites, and peas in pods are!
We understand things more and more as navigate between what is factual, emotional, personal, and metaphorical. We learn through measurements and metaphor; precision and poetry.
When it comes to religion, the measuring is quite hard because we usually don’t see God or do measurements on him or his actions but instead we have the teaching that has been passed down to us. It is ok to say ‘I believe in Jesus’ which tells us that you have a relationship with Jesus but it doesn’t tell us what you believe about Jesus. To say what you believe about Jesus is to express a confession – a truth that is true irrespective of your feelings or circumstances – and when the Church teaches such a truth we might use the word ‘doctrine’ to describe God and Jesus and all other God-words (theology). Doctrine, however, is often downplayed or minimised today because it is seen as stifling, limiting, controlling and not relevant to what we might personally feel about God or Jesus or religion or faith.
Of course we need both descriptions – those that come down to us from the past – the faith of our ancestors so to speak – which is important unless we are starting our own religion – the confessions and doctrines that encapsulate the truth – and we need the personal words, the poetry, the metaphors because there is mystery in a relationship with God. We need the confessions and doctrines as the banks of a river so that we do not lose our direction and we need the descriptions of the journey – the wonder, the troubles, the concerns, the joys of a relationship with someone we don’t see or really experience.
When Jesus spoke in parables he wasn’t speaking doctrine per se – often thought to be some sort of moral about good behaviour – nor was he describing a situation – telling a story – that you can make of it what you will – anything goes. No, when Jesus spoke in parables he was giving poetic windows into the Kingdom of God and setting about a relationship between him as speaker and the hearer. And Jesus gave clarification of his parables – which he did from time to time – he was setting boundaries on the interpretation, limits on the message.
Welcome to the parable to the sower which Jesus told to the crowds and then clarified for his disciples. We heard it from Matthew’s account of the Gospel of Jesus. It is well known today with the sower, the seed, and the various sites of growth depending on where the seed landed – on the path, on rocky round, among thorns, in good soil – descriptions well known to the audience. If people are thinking what type of ground are they, we can imagine people aligning themselves or others according to what they are experiencing or observing. We get the drift.
Jesus provides his own interpretation – which suggests that the disciples didn’t get the drift! – and the seed is the word of the Kingdom (Jesus doesn’t say which kingdom but we always, I think, add ‘of God’) and these words are heard by people who don’t understand because the evil one has snatched it out of their hearts; on people who don’t embed the word and because it has no roots, when trouble comes there is no endurance; on people who hear the word but it is choked out by all the words about the cares of this world; and on people where it bears fruit of various quantities.
Matthew continues with more parables. We don’t get the disciples’ response, any follow-up questions and answers. We are left to ponder, to imagine, to reflect, and to possibly do something – but what? That is the mystery and frustration and beauty of parables – you have the parable ringing in your ears and there is just you and Jesus again. He has spoken and we can imagine him looking at us and we’re looking at him. The parable will have said something to us – we will see ourselves somewhere in the parable – and there will still be Jesus watching us, silent now, as his words flow within us.
Where do we look? With what do we identify? That’s very much up to you.
Let me point out two things from this parable.
Firstly, that the seed is active and it was doing its work in all cases. That’s the direction of the story. The seed bears fruit. The seed is powerful. Yes, situations attack the seed, the seed isn’t magic, but it is life producing, something that grows a plant, a life, a relationship, fruit – but it can be attacked.
Secondly, paths, rocky ground, thorn infestation, and fertile soil cannot change themselves. They are what they are. In all cases for any change to occur work has to be done on site. It is not within the power of the terrain to change but the terrain can change. In the parable the only power is in the sower and the seed. The sower is sowing and the seed is germinating and growing and bearing fruit.
That’s what the parable says. Often the people are asked, ‘Which site are you?’. And if you’re the first three, then change. And if you’re the good soil, then increase your fruit and yields. Can you hear the law? What do you do if you’re among thorns and suddenly imagining you’re not or squeezing your eyes shut and wanting the thorns to vanish, isn’t working for you? Again, remember at the end of the parable there remains you and Jesus looking at each other, so to speak.
And now we turn the speaker when the parable ends and the words are drifting into memory. He is not irrelevant. Who is Jesus? What is his first words to you? Why is he speaking to you at all in parables? Because he wants what’s best for you and that involves you understanding who you are and where you are in your life. Jesus’ goal is always the same – he wants you to live – and his gardening tools – Law and Gospel, water, bread and wine – do not change – but we do.
If you had heard this parable when you were 10 years old what would you have thought of yourself? How about when you were 30? 50? 70? You might have changed sites over the decades. You might have grown in your understanding of Jesus. But his words about the Kingdom of God and many other things will not have changed. The confession of the creeds and the constant ‘I love you’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘I am with you’ set the boundaries for us to live and grow, learn and grow – not because we are clever or particularly strong-willed – but because that seed keeps germinating, keeps bringing about life, as Jesus keeps speaking to us and looking at us in our lives – our real, day-to-day, messy, up and down, happy and sad, healthy and sick, lives. That’s what parables do – find ways to reach the real us on the inside – and get us to stop and look at ourselves and at Jesus – and what happens next? That’s personal and up to you.
Jesus is speaking. Those who have ears, let them hear!
- Matthew 13:1 - 23