03/14/21 “Sower, Soil, Seed”

Mark 4:1-9

Jesus had had a busy and, perhaps, stressful few days. Since healing Peter’s mother-in-law, he had begun a preaching tour in Galilee that drew enormous crowds. He had healed people of leprosy and paralysis and demon possession, named his twelve-person inner circle, and upset the Pharisees enough that they were already planning to destroy him. Even when he was at home in Capernaum, people gathered around his house in such great numbers that he and his disciples couldn’t even grab a bite to eat. Then some scribes came down from Jerusalem, claiming that the only way he could possibly do what he was doing was by the power of Beelzebul.

Rumors began to circulate that he had lost his mind, so some of his relatives tried to rein him in. Finally, his mother and brothers and sisters showed up, fearing for his mental health, but they clearly didn’t understand him any better than the nosy neighbors or the more hostile scribes and Pharisees.

He preached the same message about God’s kingdom to everyone, but not everyone received it in the same way. Some people grasped it like the life preserver it was. Some feared his power and wanted to destroy him. Others loved him but couldn’t quite get their heads around what he said and who he was. This all must have been on his mind as he began another teaching session beside the sea, telling the crowd a story—a parable, one we know very well.

A sower goes out to sow. The seeds meet with different fates: some fall on the hardened ground of the footpath, exposed to marauding birds and, according to Luke, the feet of passersby. Some fall on rocky ground that prevents them from putting down strong, healthy roots that can reach the moist soil below. Some fall among thorny weeds that strangle them and leave them as scrawny, fruitless plants. But some seeds fall into good soil and repeatedly produce fruit in lavish quantities.

It seems like a simple enough story. But parables are interesting creatures. It used to be that all parables were assumed to be allegories—stories where everyone and everything in them stood for something else. And, as it happens, Jesus kind of treats this story that way later on, when he explains it to the disciples. The seeds are God’s word.  The seed sown on the path are immediately thwarted by birds who are stand-ins for Satan. The rocky ground represents trouble and persecution that arises on account of the preaching of the word, causing new believers to turn away. The weeds are the ordinary things of life that edge out the word and deny it the life-giving resources it needs. And then there’s the seed that falls on good soil, where word can flourish and reproduce itself in ever-more generous ways.

While parables can be allegories, they are also more than allegories. They’re more than puzzles with pieces to fit into their proper places. They are enigmas to be turned over in our minds as we approach them from different angles, discovering what each new perspective can reveal to us. They’re like plays that let us try acting out all the parts, to see where we fit into the story. So, today, we’re going to step into the three roles of this parable-play: the sower, the soil, and the seed.

First, the role of the sower. The one detail in the parable that Jesus doesn’t explain is the identity of the sower. Who is the sower? It seems obvious that the sower is God, or God in Jesus. But is that the only way to imagine this story? Parables also have another quality. They allow multiple possibilities to exist side by side. In fact, the word “parable” means “two things thrown alongside each other.” So, one possibility is that the sower is God, but another possibility lying right alongside that, is that we could be the sower.

The only thing we know about the sower in the story is how he sows the seed. He doesn’t seem very careful in how he distributes it. Ancient farmers did have plows that could till the ground before sowing; Jewish sources credit Abraham with that invention. Our sower could have placed the seed in ground that was prepared to accept it, and then carefully covered it up. But instead, he seems to toss it willy-nilly onto ground that was packed down or rocky or full of weeds right along with the moist, loose, fertile soil. He scatters his seed everywhere, lavishing it on good soil and suspect soil alike.

And isn’t that how Jesus sowed the word of God? He didn’t pick out the people who seemed like the best candidates for embracing his message. He preached in the synagogues to the faithful Jews gathered there, sure. He accepted invitations to the homes of the Pharisees, who should eagerly have welcomed Jesus’ words. But he also sowed the word among lepers, and tax collectors, and women of dubious reputation, and maybe even the children who sat on his knee. Even his closest companions were a rather questionable lot, as they would demonstrate over and over. Jesus never seemed to concern himself with choosing a receptive audience. Instead, he sowed his seed everywhere, with abandon. There’s a word to describe this kind of profuse, lavish, even reckless way of sowing. It’s the word “prodigal.”

We are commissioned to be sowers of the good news of the kingdom of God. “Proclaim the good news that ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’” Jesus commands his disciples in Matthew (10:7). “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” Jesus says in the longer ending of Mark (right after he scolds the disciples for their stubbornness and lack of faith).

If Jesus is a prodigal sower, and we’re commissioned to carry on his mission, that means that we need to be as prodigal in our sowing as he was. And isn’t that a relief? We don’t need to concern ourselves with choosing the best or most likely places or people to invest our time and efforts in. We don’t have to bear the weight of choosing the places that are most likely to yield an abundant harvest. We don’t need to fret over efforts that appear not to pan out.

We tend to be sparing and calculating when it comes to our sowing. We’re overly concerned about picking out the right place, the right time, and the right recipients. We worry about efforts that seem to produce only straggly results or no results at all. But if we follow the Savior’s lead, acting as sowers of God’s word, we see that our job is simply to spread the seed, in the same generous, lavish, prodigal way Jesus did and trust that some of it will bear fruit.

Let’s change roles now, and take up the role of the soil. This is the angle I’ve always heard this parable preached from. Listeners are encouraged to identify what kind of soil they are. This isn’t a bad question to ask, especially during Lent. Our answer may even change as our lives change.

At times, the soil of our souls is so hardened and packed down that the word of God just bounces right off us, gobbled up by Satan before there’s any chance of it taking root in us. Other times, we may seem like welcoming soil, but things start to get rocky when our friends raise their eyebrows at what is growing in us, or our families ask us to prune back the Jesus stuff a bit. Often, we are shallow soil, and the seedlings that quickly sprout wither and die back. When I think about the thorny soil, I often picture parts of my yard where the weeds are the healthiest things growing there. The soil of our souls can be the same way. The concerns of daily life, whether big or small, happy or stressful, grow thick and strong, and they crowd out the more desirable seed, depriving it of nourishing time in prayer and study.

At the same time, we may be the very things that create difficult growing conditions in someone else’s soul. Our own lack of concern or hypocrisy can be the trampling feet that harden their hearts. Our skepticism at someone’s change of heart can cause it to wither and die. Our expectations and priorities can strangle a newfound faith.

In the sermons I’ve heard that encourage listeners to figure out how they are less than hospitable soil, the listener is also encouraged to make corrections—to break up the hardened places, remove the obstacles, dig out the weeds. But I read an interesting observation about this kind of message. I’m no farmer, as you know, but a person well-acquainted with agriculture wrote that no farmer expects the soil to correct itself, unaided. That’s the job of the farmer—to till the land, to drain the wet places, to add the necessary nutrients, and get rid of the weeds. When, after thoughtful reflection, we recognize that we could be better soil than we are, or that we are impediments to others, that’s the time to ask the Master Gardener to help us become the kind of soil that will allow the divine seed to flourish in us, and to help others flourish as well.

It’s probably rare for us to claim that we are fertile soil, even when we rightfully can; it seems a little presumptuous. But there are times in our lives when we are good soil—soil that is warm and welcoming, open to whatever the Spirit sows in us. Our spirits are free of obstacles that repel the word as it’s given, and we’re eager for every opportunity to nurture what’s growing in us. We shouldn’t hide or deny these times. They are times to celebrate and cherish—times to rejoice in what God is causing to grow in us. Those times are life-giving when they happen, and the memory of them supports us when we find ourselves in less fruitful times.

We’ve entered this story in the role of the sower. We’ve entered it in the role of the soil. Now, let’s take on the role of the seeds. Just as the sower sends the seed into the ground, Jesus sends us into the world. We are bearers of the word—the seed Jesus wants to sow. Just like dandelion seeds carried into the world by their feathery parachutes, we don’t determine what kind of soil we will fall into. Just as in Jesus’ day, the word of God is received differently by each person who hears it. One heart may be too hardened to receive it. Another may be eager to accept it but is unable to stand up under scrutiny or criticism. One may desire it, but the ordinary activities of life leave no room for it to grow. We may find ourselves in situations where what we produce is leggy and pale, or withers, or never makes any headway at all.

But, we may enter into the life of someone who is ready to hear the word and encourage its growth so that, surrounded by others, their heart will become ever more receptive. You’ve probably heard the saying that you may be the only Bible some people will ever read. We may be the only seeds that Jesus uses to plant the kingdom of God in someone’s heart. The words we speak and the lives we live may be the seeds that result in miraculous growth in someone else as their faith grows deeper and stronger. The words we speak and the lives we live may be the seeds that will produce a bountiful harvest for the kingdom.

It’s important to remember that when Jesus speaks of the sower’s seed, he’s not talking about individual seeds. He’s talking about batches of seed. That means that we don’t bear either the joy of fruitfulness of the burden of fruitlessness alone. The marvelous harvests the Jesus speaks of come from multiple sowings of many seeds. in the same way, kingdom harvests are the fruit of the community of believers. One seed does not a harvest make. One person does not a harvest make. It is the community together that increases and yields thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

Parables offer us many paths toward growing closer to Jesus. In today’s story, as in all Jesus’ parables, we are blessed when we step into each role, allowing each one to reveal something new to us as we try them on in turn. By giving us this parable, Jesus helps know him and ourselves better as sowers who spread the word lavishly wherever we go to whomever we meet, as soil where the word is planted, and as the seeds that Jesus sows among those who need his words of life. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young