Matthew 13:1-9;18-23 (Isaiah 55:10-13)
The Parable of the Sower
I am not a gardener. I love gardens, but I tend to take the more relaxed approach: minimal work for maximal enjoyment. It’s false, of course, and I do like it better when I put more of an effort in. And even I have appreciated the wonderful opportunities for growing new plants, as we have been blessed with the weather this spring and early summer – bearing in mind, though, that it has not been so for many who simply haven’t got a garden, or the time to look after a single plant. We have been finding ourselves in a very strange time, and even in the easing of restrictions we can see our world has changed. From bustling cities, congested roads, car parks and group gatherings, we have been moved to another place: that of solitude, empty community spaces, and different ways of communication. This in itself is not a new thing. From the beginning of the Christian era, many have aimed to leave behind the pollution, busyness and noisiness of closely inhabited spaces like cities, to be closer to God, and to renew their appreciation of the Gospel in the stillness and solitude of the wilderness. In fact, many have seen going back to nature as going back to God. This is also what the parables do.
A parable, we are told, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Or a story about something familiar, with a hidden meaning. Many of the parables Jesus told are based on the regular rhythms and everyday events of rural life of the day. The way in which seeds grow, the signs of changing weather, bird and animal behaviour – all are turned into starting points for Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. But, of course, only if interpreted correctly. These stories need to be seen in a certain way. The Hebrew root of the word ‘parable’ can have a sense of something mysterious or hidden, and that needs to be explained. Jesus’ teaching in parables is in the context of what people knew in their world: the illustrations and analogies related to their everyday lives in a natural way. To recognize the power of the parables, we must try to enter that world. And that takes me to somebody you will have heard of: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
Although most will know him as a painter, not many know that as a young man Van Gogh had a passionate interest in Christian theology. His work and travel took him abroad, first as an apprentice at a firm of Parisian art dealers, then as a teacher at a boys’ school in Ramsgate, and eventually he set out to become a preacher. However, as others confirmed, that was not entirely successful. He found that he was not able to put into words the passion for his subject. And in the end, it was not words, but images, that proved to be his chosen means of communication. Via Amsterdam and Belgium, and some time in Paris, he left behind the urban life and settled in the south of France, where he witnessed the change from a very cold winter into spring, and the great annual transformation of creation. Some of his greatest works date from this period, and at least four of Van Gogh’s paintings bear the title ‘The Sower’.
‘A sower went out to sow’. The implication of Jesus’ little story seems clear: there’s nothing wrong with the Gospel message – rather, people respond to it in different ways. On some it has no effect; others respond gladly but lose interest. Only in some cases does it truly take root. Its impact on people seems to depend on whether they provide the right soil in which it may grow. And when the Gospel really takes root, it grows and bears fruit. The parable of the sower provides us with a framework for making sense of how the preaching of the Gospel has a different result on people. It also gives us a challenge, of critiquing ourselves as to the kind of soil we are providing for the seed of the Gospel. Part of the agenda of Christian discipleship is to review our priorities and commitments, to see if we have allowed something else to displace God from his proper place in our lives. I have a tub with a nice outdoor plant, but it keeps being ‘threatened’ by a thistle, which grows amazingly fast, if I don’t stop it. I have tried several times to get rid of it; each time, some of its roots seemed to stay in the soil, so I have to take drastic measures to ensure it goes for good. Martin Luther once offered a helpful way of checking whether we have allowed ‘weeds’ to grow: ‘Whatever your heart depends upon, and wherever your heart is fixed – that is actually your god.’ Where do our security and affection really lie and what or whom do we really trust?
Let anyone with ears to hear listen! Let us pray:
Lord, help our seed of faith to grow. May we provide good soil in which it may grow; slowly, yet surely. And may we bear fruit, that others may know of the joy and peace of your kingdom. Amen.