Part of the Sunday Retold series, based on the readings some churches follow, with passages from my books The Bible Story Retold and Prayers and Verses.
This week it’s
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23, the Parable of the Sower
Please feel free to use any of my material that helps you, saying where it is from.
The Sower Vincent van Gogh
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the
creation of the world.”
I love this small commentary from Matthew’s gospel – it opens up for us all kinds of insight into Jesus’ storytelling. Things hidden since the creation of the world are spoken out – spoken out in stories. How extraordinary is that!
Matthew’s reference takes us right back to the beginning – perhaps we can wonder what these things hidden from the beginning are. Perhaps Jesus is unlocking meaning, and truth, showing us a natural world which is also a mirror in which we see our own experience, and a window into the mind of God. These parables, parables of the kingdom, reveal things about the nature of God, of the kingdom Jesus tells us is near, very near, and even within us. Things which have been hidden, up till the moment the stories begin.
Story works, as we know, very differently on the mind and heart from rational argument. We remember stories, they stay with us, working deep in our imaginations. Many of us remember this one – the parable of the sower. It draws from lived experience – or it did, before so many of us ended up so far away from the rhythms of planting, and growing, and eating. You could even say that the story itself is, in some ways, alive.
Stories reveal their meaning slowly, over time. The words of God can grow, unfolding within our own hearts, like the secret growth of the seeds. Not fast food for the soul, but a banquet – it takes time.
But, why didn’t he just say what he meant? we can ask. Not every meaning can be spoken out like that, for a start. There are different kinds of meaning. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want people simply to agree with his point of view, or perhaps he knew they weren’t ready to hear…. not all at once. Perhaps he wanted to hold out a possibility even to those whose hearts had been calloused by the hardness of life – the possibility they could be transformed by a new way of seeing the world. Metanoia, the Greek word usually translated repent, means to change your thinking – change your mind in a deeper sense than we usually mean it – change the whole orientation of how you see and understand things. Even if they could not hear the meaning when they heard the story, the story would stay with them, ready to reveal meaning when the time was right.
As we read it, it can help to set to one side what we think we know of what it means – to allow our rational thinking mind to be stilled, for a while, and to respond with the heart, with the imagination.
Stories can help us make sense of our lives, they open us up to a deeper kind of reality and truth. When we are ready. It takes time. Don’t rush to an explanation.
Once, when Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he told them this story.
“One dry, bright day, when the wind was still, a farmer went out to sow seed. He took handfuls of grain from the flat basket he carried and, with a flick of the wrist, scattered seed, hopeful for its growth. But some of the seed fell on the path, where the passing of many feet trampled it, and the birds swooped down and ate it. Some fell on dry rock. After the soft rains, it swelled and sprouted. But then it withered, for its roots could find no water. Some landed among the thorns, which grew so fast that they soon smothered the tender new shoots. But some landed on good soil, where it grew up, and ripened. When the time was right, the farmer came back and harvested a crop from it, a hundred times more than was sown.”
After the crowds had gone, and Jesus was left with the disciples, they asked him “What does that story mean?” And Jesus answered:
“The seed is the word – God’s word. The seed that fell on the path is like the seed that falls in some hearts – it’s snatched away by the devil before it takes root, before those people begin to believe. The seed that falls on the rocks is seed that falls where there is little depth – at first, God’s words bring joy to those people, but there are no roots, and when trouble comes their faith withers away. The thorny places are like hearts choked up with worry, with riches and pleasures. There’s no space for God’s word to grow. But some seed does fall on good soil – the word takes root in hearts that are ready, and they hold on to it. In time, the word gives a rich crop in people’s lives, and they are fruitful.”
From The Bible Retold
So, I don’t want to say too much – just these few things.
I love the way the sower is generous – it is the nature of the sower to scatter the seed. Seed is light, it lands lightly on the earth. It speaks to me of an abundant, overflowing God, who gives, but does not impose the gift.
Secondly, I wonder about the soil. We tend to respond to this parable individually – thinking about the state of our own hearts. And Jesus’ interpretation points us that way. Maybe, in our communities, we can also ask what things make this soil in this place good, or poor? Are there rocks we can remove, is there compost we can dig in, are there thistles we can pick before they set seed? What stands in the way of people being able to receive – for new life to thrive with them? Is there anything we can do about it?
And, of course, we can ask the same questions of ourselves, and our lives.
We can engage in soul gardening.
Then, I have been wondering about what this word might be.
What are the seeds that Jesus is speaking of?
What did Jesus mean when he talked of the word, and of Good News?
As we read the gospels, these are good questions to hold in our minds.
Often, Jesus spoke of the good news of the kingdom of God, which is much closer than we think. If I wonder what it is like, as well as looking at the parables, I often think – it is like the presence of Jesus – what he said, and did, how he lived, what he showed.
Isaiah 55:10-13English Standard Version (ESV)
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
This is one of the other readings given, to be read alongside the Parable of the Sower. It is worth spending some time reading it slowly, meditating on it.
Speaking of meditating, you might like to look at the second of the Van Gogh pictures.
Notice the figure is in darkness. Who has been a sower into your life? Who has brought love and hope, new growth, life itself? Can you thank them, or give thanks for them?
Are there ways you can sow good things into the lives of others – with a light generosity?
Notice the way the sun hangs over the sower’s head – does it remind you of anything? make you think anything?
How do you respond to the use of colour in the picture?
Can the light of love and goodness warm what you do today?
How do light and dark interact in the growing of a seed?
Can you nurture new life in yourself and others today?
Can you connect with living growing things?
The Sower – Vincent Van Gogh
Help me to be patient as I wait for your kingdom
and your righteousness:
as patient as a farmer who trusts that the rains
will come in their season,
and that the land will produce its harvest.
Keep my hopes high.
Help me to pray to you and to praise you.
The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun, the rain, the appleseed.
The Lord is good to me.
Attributed to John Chapman, planter of orchards 1774-1845
We can do no great things,
Only small things with great love.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta 1910-1997
from Prayers and Verses
May the God of growth and new beginnings bless you and all you love today.