“A sower went out to sow,” said Jesus. “Right” said the crowd, “we know about sowing – here’s a story for us”. I’m willing to bet that every single person in that crowd grew-their-own to some extent, just as many of us do today. They were probably more expert at it than us too, because they depended on the food they grew for their survival.
Jesus went on. “Some of the seed fell on the path, some of it fell on rocky ground, some of it fell among thorns and some of it fell on good soil…” And I can just imagine that crowd muttering, “well, he wasn’t a very good sower then, was he?”
I mean, fancy sowing your seed on the path! It’s not going to grow there. Or on the rocks – didn’t he know his field well enough to know they were there just below the surface? Or amongst the thorns? The weed that’s referred to is the acanthus – bear’s britches to us. It is a great, big spiny thing. You can’t miss it, even in the spring. What kind of sower sows his seed so indiscriminately as this? Most of this seed doesn’t stand a chance. He gets a good crop in the end, but frankly it seems to be more by luck than judgement.
The crowd went home with this puzzling story running around in their heads that day.And let’s remember that all they had was the story. The explanation was only given to the disciples, later on, in private. But Jesus said that if the crowd had ears to hear, they would hear the voice of God in it anyway. So I wonder, what did they hear? What might they have made of it? I’d like to suggest two things that they might have taken home with them that day, two things that were worth picking up from this.
The first is that, to put it baldly, you win some and you lose some. This sower might have seemed particularly blasé about his sowing, but even the most careful farmer wouldn’t have managed to get every seed through to maturity and a fruitful harvest. There are many obstacles to a seed’s growth, however much trouble you take; ask any gardener.
The same is true of the rest of life. Some things go right and some things go wrong. Some people go right and some go wrong. And it is often difficult to fathom out why, even in hindsight, let alone beforehand. We can come up with all sorts of explanations why people succeed or fail, live good lives or live bad lives. Perhaps it’s in the genes, or their upbringing. Perhaps it is society’s fault, or government’s fault. But however much we mull it over, crunch the statistics, argue among ourselves, we can never really predict who will end up in trouble, making a mess of their own lives, and causing pain to others, and who will end up triumphing over the challenges that face them. We can make a link, for example, between poverty and crime, but many people live in appalling circumstances and yet wouldn’t dream of stealing, while the very rich may fiddle their taxes to accumulate money which there is no way they really need. Some people live exemplary lives facing all sorts of struggles for many years but are then pushed off the rails by some comparatively small thing – who would have thought it?
Human beings are fallible; human life is prone to frailty, and that puzzles and bothers us. We’d like to be sure of ourselves and others, to know for certain where the good seedbeds are – who and what we can trust – but life’s not like that.
You win some and you lose some. The early church for whom Matthew was writing this Gospel knew that very well. They came face to face with their frailties on a regular basis. They lived with the ever present threat of persecution. They wanted to stay loyal to the message of Jesus, to have courage in the face of trouble, but the reality was that some of them caved in under pressure and turned away from their faith. That was a real challenge to the rest of the church. Why did one stand firm while others seemed not to be able to? How did you know who might betray you? And people wondered about themselves too. When the chips were down, when the time of trial came how would they respond? Would they betray others?
You win some and you lose some. Whatever else this story was, it was an accurate observation of the way life was, and still is – uncertain, unpredictable, uncontrollable.
But if that is all we take away from the story, then it is a pretty gloomy tale. Fortunately there is more to be found in it, a message of grace which helps us see our frail and fallible lives in a different light. To understand it we need to go back to that rather blasé sower and have another look at him.
As I said earlier, my suspicion is that the crowd were probably pretty unimpressed by this man. He sows blindly, indiscriminately, not seeming to care whether his seed falls on good ground or bad. Why on earth would he act like this?
There are two possible answers. The first is that he is a compete fool who knows no better. The second is that he knows that he has an unlimited supply of seed. If that is the case he can afford to throw it around without any need to ration it or worry about wasting it. If you have unlimited seed, it is actually worth sowing as indiscriminately as this – in fact you would be a fool not to - because there is always a chance that between the stones, in a space between a clump of weeds, at the very edge of the path, one stray seed just might grow in a place where you never imagined it could. I have a magnificent clump of hollyhocks growing in a tiny crack in the paving by my garage. There’s no way it should survive, but it does. I’d never have sown it there myself, especially if I only had a few seeds, but it put itself there and it seems to be perfectly happy.
The parable of the sower tells us that God’s love is infinite, inexhaustible. He doesn’t need to ration it, and those who try to spread that love, in word and deed, don’t need to ration it either, second-guessing where it might grow and where it might be wasted.
At the time of Jesus there were many who felt that God couldn’t possibly want to spend his energy on people who, in their eyes, didn’t deserve it. What did God have to do with tax-collectors, prostitutes and all the other ragamuffin sinners who hung around on the edges of society? What good could they do him? Why would he bother with them? But that was where Jesus seemed to put most of his energy. His critics were scandalised. And yet the seeds Jesus threw around with such abandon took root in the cracks and crevices, finding good soil among the thorns and stones, in the lives of people who no one would ever have thought of as places where a crop of righteousness might grow. And those unlikely people became a community which spread across the world, taking that message with them as they went. That growth could only happen because Jesus, and those who followed him, were so indiscriminate in their seed sowing, refusing to prejudge the soil on which their words and deeds might fall.
It is no different for those of us who are called to sow God’s seed today – and that means all of us. The minute we try to calculate and ration, to work out who might be worth spending time with, who might be worth listening to and talking to, we begin to dwindle. I’ve seen it happening in churches where, perhaps, people start making judgements about those who come asking for baptisms or weddings. “Oh, they just want a pretty backdrop – they aren’t really interested in Christian faith. It’s just a social occasion” people say. It’s no surprise that the families concerned get the message that they aren’t welcome, and the genuine interest that brought them to the church is snuffed out. The truth is that we don’t know what God is doing in people’s lives; all we can be sure of is that he loves them because they are his children, and he welcomes them, so we should too.
Just this week a report came out in the media about the singer Lily Allen, who got married in her local parish church recently. Her young life has been, to outward observers, a bit of a mess, a wild life. Many people assumed that when she opted for a church wedding it was just for the pretty setting, but that turned out not to be the case at all. Last year she had suffered her second miscarriage, and the local vicar, whose family had been through the same trauma, got in contact to offer his support if she wanted it. His non-judgemental quiet care made a deep impression on her, and that was why the wedding happened where it did. That might not represent a lasting turn-around in her life but it is a testimony to the importance of just loving those around us – not judging, not calculating, just loving and letting God do the rest.
We have no idea what is going on in other people’s lives; we often have very little idea what is going on in our own. Soil that looks rocky or thorny, or too trodden down for the kingdom of God ever to take root might produce a crop that will surprise us. The story of the sower tells us that though we win some and we lose some, God never gives up on us, never sets limits on his love for us, and he calls us to be just as generous as he is, both to ourselves and to those around us who need our love.