Monday, July 14, 2014

The Parable of the Sower

A sower casts seed on four kinds of ground: first, on the packed ground of a footpath, then on ground that is full of rocks, then on ground that is thick with thorns, and finally on good fertile ground. Depending on where they land, the seeds are eaten by birds, or spring up quickly and then wither away, or get choked by thorns, while only some of them, perhaps only a fourth, take root in good soil. Hearing all that, it is easy to start worrying about what kind of ground I am on with God—how many birds in my field, how many rocks, and how many thorns. How can I clean them all up, how can I turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of God’s word? It is easy to start worrying about how the odds are three to one against me—those are the odds in the parable, after all—and begin thinking about how I can improve on them by cleaning up my act.

It has been known for centuries as the parable of the sower, which means that there is a chance that we’ve got it all backwards. We hear the story and think it is a story about us, but what if it is not about us at all, but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures, and birds and rocks and thorns, but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, scatters it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, delights at patches of good soil—and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?

If this truly is “the parable of the sower” and not “the parable of the different kinds of ground,” then it begins to sound quite new. The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity and strategy of our God—the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.

Of course, we would not do it that way. If we were in charge, we would devise a more efficient operation, a neater, cleaner, more productive one that did not waste seed on birds and rocks and thorns, but concentrated only on the good soil and what we could make it do. But Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is another way to go about things, a way that is less concerned with productivity than with plentitude—a sign of his Father’s mercy, of his holding nothing back for our good, for everyone’s good. The seed is the Word of God, and this surprisingly is how the divine Sower acts.

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, (after Millet),  1881, pencilinkwatercolor, Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. Reflection by Father Dominic.