Before Lent: The Parable of the Sower

The Revd Brutus Green

I tried to work out this weekend how many times I’d preached since coming to St John’s. I estimated it at around 150 sermons. Steve has been here nearly three times as long as me so you’re probably pushing towards 500 from him. That’s a lot of words. Probably, if you’ve not missed a single one of either of our sermons, you’ve sacrificed a full week of your life to listening to the seeds of the Gospel we have, so liberally, sown amongst you. But how many of them have taken root? How many have withered through lack of moisture? How many have been choked by thorns? How many have borne fruit ‘an hundred-fold?’ This is the question asked by the parable of sower. When the word of God has been sown amongst us, has it brought forth fruit or perished on the stony ground? The great Biblical Scholar, C.H. Dodd, put forward that: the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.

Parables may be many things but they are not expositions, or even allegories of, “doctrine” or fact. I say this because I was once at a curate-training day in which the London-based, evangelical priest hosting the day kicked things off by reading the parable of the Good Samaritan and giving a homily on it. His message seemed to centre on the fact that the Good Samaritan must have met Jesus in order to have been converted into such exemplary action. I remember it quite distinctly. I was sat next to Giles Fraser who was about to give a talk about the media. And I was thinking not only has this person entirely misunderstood what Jesus is trying to say about how we perceive the outsider - the theological and ethical point of the story - he has also mistaken that even more important distinction between fiction and reality. Jesus is telling a story.

But, as professor Dodd put it, the parable is there to ‘tease [you] into active thought’. Now I’m sure you’ve all heard the parable of the sower many times before, but I want to begin with a very straightforward misconception: We are not the seed. And, if we’re not the seed, we’re also not the grain. To view God as a sower who tosses people out into the world without a care, some to live, some to die, stands against everything else that Jesus says. Almost uniquely Jesus interprets his own parable here for the disciples. In the interpretation Jesus is categorical - ‘The seed is the word of God’. And if the seed is the word of God, the grain is the fruit of that seed - what is produced when it takes root. It is not then in any sense that we are plucked out by the birds or the devil or left to roast on the hard stones. Nor are we picturesque corn waving in the wind. Less sexily, in the parable, we are the soil.

The parable, then is saying several things immediately. Firstly, that the word of God is universal. It falls everywhere indiscriminately. Secondly, it is the active partner here. Grace is what plants the word of God, and the fruit that comes forth is the work and substance of grace, the kingdom of God. We are passive. It is not to us to produce the works of God, but we are the environment in which the word and works of God flourish or die. The kingdom of God is within us. And so today’s collect: ‘O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do’. The Russian novelist Tolstoy interpreted the parable like this:

the kingdom [of God] is not such as you think, that God will come to reign over you. God has only sown the spirit, and the kingdom of God will be in those who preserve it.

As far as Jesus is concerned, the sort of soil we provide for the Gospel depends upon the state of our hearts; which is to say it depends on what we really want. Jesus is clear about what will cause us to fail in cultivating the kingdom within us. The temptations to self-preservation, to immediate gratification, to an easy life are the things which in the end will pull us away. Anything which replaces our energy for God and the welfare of our neighbours, makes us more shallow; too shallow for the word of God to take enough root to really flourish.

This is at the heart of Jesus’ parable. The word of God is hidden. It is sown in death. It is unrecognised by many. It is a mystery within you. So St Paul suffers his stripes, his beatings, stonings and shipwrecks, all those ‘perils’, all for the sake of the word of God which is within him, and for the care of all the churches. The word of God is within you, but will it endure. Will you cultivate it or will you let it be choked by the weeds of an easy life? Is your soil too shallow to let it take root?

But we should not ask this question of ourselves in isolation. After all, we do not find weeds, rocky ground or good soil haphazardly. Weeds spread quickly; pathways circumvent the field. It is also a question for the Church, and expressly to the Church of England. Is it good soil? Is it fertile ground for the word of God. Or, has it become choked with cares, and riches, and the pleasures of this life? Does it have ‘an honest and good heart?’

This is a terribly difficult question. How do you measure an institution like the church of England? If we measure it against Scripture and 2000 years of tradition that is one thing. If against the current experience of people within the UK, the liquid fast moving pace of modernity in which all manner of change, from technology and culture to global politics and climate, all manner of change is one step ahead of ethical reflection. The parables are one open-ended reusable tool to ask whether we have kept up with the movement of the Spirit of God. So is the Church of England somewhere where we can see corn waving in the breeze awaiting harvest - the fruit of the kingdom of God - which as St Paul tells us are: ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’? Is St John’s?

In a parable that follows the sower Jesus speaks of the wheat and the tares - the crop and the weeds growing together. The parable advises that the two cannot be separated and so both are left until the last day. As with the Church, we all have a mixture of drives and doubtless the good and the less good grow up together; it is to us to try and make the best of it.

So the parable of the sower tells us that the Gospel is is sown on all no matter the state of their heart. It tells us that the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming begins as a seed, hidden in the hearts of people. But it is also a warning, that the temptations to an easy life will always be there to pull us away. It is to us to ensure our hearts are places where the word of God can grow and to cultivate this attitude within the hearts of those we know and the church at large. But it is only a parable, there to provoke us, to ask ourselves - are we shallow? How much are we distracted by our own pleasures, and how much do we care about the kingdom of God within us? What are we doing to help that word of God grow inside us? Amen.