SOWING OUR SEEDS
“Listen!” That’s a word meant to prick up the ears of the hearer; a word meant to get people to pay attention. And where do we hear, “Listen!”, but in Jesus’ first parable in the Gospel of Matthew. (You can read the passage here.)
The parables, for me, represent in blazing color the fact that scripture is not to be taken simply at face value. It is meant to be worked through, to be wrestled with, to be mined for meaning and relevance. The parables not only defy an easy understanding, but they are designed to be thought about and reflected upon. How do we know that? From the word itself. The Greek is paraboley, and means to compare – literally “to put things beside each other”.
With this parable, we have a little easier time than with many. While the parables, in general, use concepts that would have been very meaningful to people of that time, but not so clear to us today, this one makes use of symbols that are just about universal. We hear about seed, paths, rocky soil, fertile ground – in short, we hear about agriculture. That should make it easy to understand – right? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
Here’s a general rule that I use for reading Jesus’ parables: if I interpret it in such a way that there is nothing surprising, discomforting or even shocking about it, it’s time to go back and read it again. The pattern to Jesus’ parables is that they end in a significant reversal of the listeners’ expectations. Part of the task of reading parables, then, is to see where they disturb us.
This Sunday’s parable is about a sower who goes out to sow seed. A farmer sowing seed. There’s nothing really surprising about that? Farmers sow seed all the time. And anyone who knows anything at all about what a plant needs to grow won’t be surprised to hear that seed cast in the middle of a path, or on the rocks, or among thorns doesn’t grow. So that isn’t the message of the parable.
On the surface of it, this is a story about a farmer sowing seeds in a way that we might consider extravagantly wasteful. That extravagant sowing of seed is read to be an analogy of God’s extravagance in sowing grace. That could be the surprise-that is, unless we understood the method of farming in Jesus’ time-as well as today in some parts of the world.
I have seen this process myself in indigenous villages of Central America and Mexico. A farmer walks the fields and sows seeds by hand from a shoulder bag. It’s not very accurate – seed goes everywhere – on rocks, on the path, in patches of weeds and some on fertile soil? To me it seemed highly inefficient and wasteful. The farmer follows this process by tilling the fertile soil with a rough, shallow plow pulled by a donkey. Disturbing the soil allows some of the seeds to get covered by dirt and, ultimately, to grow. The other seeds falling on rocks, paths and in thistles, or are left above the ground where the birds eat it. That’s a lot of seed that will never grow. What is the point of farming in such a way – it’s a waste of effort and seed? “Don’t they know any better,” I asked myself?
Having spent time in Iowa – the corn capital – there are some things I learned about corn – fortunately or unfortunately. On average, a farmer will plant about a third of a bushel of seed per acre. A third of a bushel of seed corn is about 30,000 kernels. In an average year, the yield will be about 150 bushels per acre, or a 450 fold return. Each kernel of seed, then, produces 450 kernels of corn – and that is average. Have you heard more about corn than you cared to yet?
Well, there’s more.
The cost of producing an acre of corn averages about $420. Of that, $22 is the average cost of the seed – about 5%. The cost of labor is about $80 an acre on average – that’s another 20%. The rest – 75% – is the cost of technology – machinery, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.
Let’s go back to our Central American farmer. This farmer doesn’t have technology expense – the fertilizer comes from the donkey and other livestock, if he’s lucky enough to have them. This farmer doesn’t have labor expense in that sense either – the farmer invests time and effort, but doesn’t usually get paid – payday comes at harvest time.
And the payday isn’t anywhere near as abundant as it is in Iowa. Rather than a 450 fold yield, this kind of farming produces a yield of 50 to 100 fold. The family eats some of the crop, barters some of it for other foods, and sets aside some of it for next years crop. The seed that’s planted was saved over.
The cost of the seed isn’t cash – it’s hunger. If the family ate all the corn, there would be no seed for next year and, therefore, no food next year. So the family eats a little less so they can plant another crop. In rural Central America, as in the Middle East in the time of Jesus, current hunger is the price of next year’s crop – it is the investment made so they don’t starve.
In Jesus’ parable, the sower is a subsistence farmer – someone who walked a fine edge between hunger and starvation – and someone with every right to be stingy with the seed. But, there’s something else we need to understand. While in modern farming we spend half of the technology cost on preparing the land, the farmer in the parable couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t it make sense to clear the land of rocks – to clear the land of weeds and thickets? Without machinery, that would be back-breaking work – work that would cost more in time and effort than it is worth. Clearing the land would be highly inefficient.
Well then, wouldn’t it make more sense to spread the seed carefully – making sure not to waste it? That again would require considerably more time and reap less benefit than it is worth. The fact is that, when you farm without technology, being extravagant with the seed is the best and most efficient way to reap a good harvest.
In effect, there is no surprise value in this parable from the manner of sowing seed, the kind of ground the seed falls onto, or the yield the seed that falls on fertile soil produces – these would all have been easily understandable to the people of Jesus’ time – just as they are very understandable to farmers in very poor countries. So, we’re left still looking for the surprise – for the way that the parable should disturb us. And the answer to that comes from who each of the elements of the parable represents.
The primary figure in the parable is the sower. The word “sower” is vitally important. This is not a farmer. In the few instances of either sower or farmer that occur in the NT, we find clues. A farmer is a land-owner – it is the person who owns the land that is farmed. This would be like the story in which the farmer has such a good crop that he builds more barns so he could hoard it.
A sower is a different kind of person. A sower is like a share-cropper. It is someone who does not own the land, but pays rent to a farmer to work the soil. A sower is among the poorest of the poor – a person who owns nothing and scratches out a living from the dirt. A big part of the sower’s cost of producing a yield is giving a significant part of the crop to the farmer – the landowner.
The first surprising detail in Jesus’ parable is that Jesus likens God to this person who is the poorest of the poor, to the person who eeks out a living and owns nothing. This is blasphemy. God was always represented as a monarch, as a member of the elite, as a rich and powerful person who owned everything. Jesus says God is like the person who has nothing – God is like the poorest of the poor.
The second surprising detail is the soil. What is the soil? Jesus says that the crowd is the soil – it is the people of the Jewish culture in that time and place. The poor sower represents God and the soil upon which seed is thrown represents the chosen people of God. And God, who in Jewish thought was the architect of all that happens, did not determine who was fertile and who was bad soil.
In the explanation of the parable, Jesus says that whether the people of God are poor or fertile soil is dependent on their receptivity to the message of God. Elsewhere, in abundance, we are told that the message of God was the person of Jesus. Jesus, therefore is the seed.
So, what do we, in this day and age, take from this parable? God is the sower of the seed – a person who equates with and is represented by the poorest of the poor – the “least of these my sisters and brothers.” Jesus is the seed – the message of God – the extravagant gift of grace. And, we are the dirt upon which God throws the seeds of grace. Whether or not the seed takes root and produces fruit is dependent on us. God does not judge each of us as to whether we are fertile or not – God leaves that up to us. God throws the seed – then God disturbs the ground so it can take root.
Part of this process is being disturbed by God. No disturbance, no fruit.
Will we be impervious to the message – like the path?
Will we obstinately refuse to accept the message of grace? That’s up to us.
Will we be like the thin soil covering rocks?
Will we get a short-lived emotional high from the grace offered, but follow it up by not forming roots and producing fruit?
Will we be like the soil covered by thorny bushes?
Will we accept the seed of grace, but allow our daily troubles or stinginess or quest for worldly success crowd out any chance of growth?
Or will we be like fertile soil and let the seed take root, develop fully and bear fruit?
I think we each have the full possibility within us to be every one of those types of soil. If we choose to be like the fertile soil, there is something else required of us, however. When we grow roots, develop fully and bear fruit, we have completed only part of the task. If we then keep the fruit for ourselves – eat it all up as a personal reward for righteousness – the process will die with us.
Unless we save set aside come of our fruit and allow God to cast it further afield as seed, we bring fruit-bearing to an end. We take the seed – produce fruit – allow some of that fruit to go to seed – and allow God to sow our seed on more soil. That is the process described in this parable.