On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
In the Gospel lesson for today we have the familiar story of The Sower. As we just heard, Jesus says that a sower casts seed on four different kinds of ground: first the packed ground of the footpath, second the ground that is full of rocks, then the ground that is thick with thorns, and finally good fertile, well-tilled ground. Depending on where they land, the seeds are eaten by birds or spring up quickly and then wither away and die or they get choked out by the thorns. However, some of them, roughly a quarter, take root in good soil.
In the longer reading, Jesus explains the parable, explaining why some folks are faithful and others are not. Those of us who have reflected on this parable over the years worry about what kind of ground we are. We get concerned about how many birds are in our field, how many rocks, how many thorns. We have firm talks with ourselves and prayerfully try to figure out how to turn ourselves into well-tilled, well weeded, well fertilized fields for the full reception of the sowing of God’s word.
It’s awfully easy to see this as a story that informs us that the odds of being faithful are 3 to 1 against us. We may start stewing about what we need to do to beat those odds.
This parable is often heard as a challenge, a challenge to be different, a difference that comes about by doing a good and thorough personal inventory which leads to repentance and amendment of life. I’ve often prayed that my heart would be fertile ground for the word of the Lord so that I would be open to fully receive and ultimately bear a good yield for the furtherance of the Kingdom.
In reflecting on this parable, we note that there are times when we are like the well-trampled pathway. We’ve become hardened. We don’t want to hear God’s word and we certainly don’t want it to sink in; we are just not interested, we are not available for God the Holy Spirit to speak to us, even to bless us and empower us.
We don’t want to be bothered— thank you very much— and you can almost hear the devil chuckle, “This is too easy” as we putter or lurch around in our disobedience. Sometimes we do it with our feet up watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen.
Sometimes we are like the shallow soil of the rocky ground. We get enthusiastic and determined to be faithful. But it’s all based on feeling good, so that when things don’t feel so good, we dry up, we wither. There’s no root system, we haven’t built on our sacramental foundation which in part is meant to sustain us during the dry spells; there’s no discipline of daily prayer nor works of mercy; there’s little or no financial generosity. We are shallow. Jesus is explicit: such a person has no root, but endures only for awhile, and when trouble or persecution arises…that person immediately falls away.
Sometimes we are like the thorny ground. Our intentions are good, we start off right, we get involved, we even try to be steady in our weekly Mass attendance and other acts of faithfulness that the Church prescribes. But pressures with the job, with the family, with recreation, with life in general just get to be too much and we literally get choked out. This is a dangerous time, too. For thorns and thistles and weeds in our life not only rob us of spiritual nutrition, they also make us feel guilty and resentful and we tend to pull away even more.
I don’t think I can count the number of people I know who have excommunicated themselves because they were being choked out by the cares and pressures of the world: all too often the lure of money and power and feeling good, of succumbing to the oppression of an all consuming “busyness,” or maybe just by abiding by our own selfish agendas and not God’s.
A choice is made and the choice is to stop being fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord, the one antidote to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sadly what is given up is nourishment from the Eucharist, true food of life and for life and along with the abandonment of the other sacraments and regular daily prayer, generous stewardship, and the love and comfort of the Christian community. When this happens something within shrivels and sometimes even dies.
But sometimes we are like the well-tilled fertile soil. We are open, we are receptive and we are prepared to accept all that God has for us. We are useful for the kingdom and our bountiful harvest blesses God and others who receive what God has produced in us to offer to them. We have been empowered for discipleship. It is a wonderful experience of what it means to be faithful and fruitful.
Showing how we may be at times the beaten path, the rocky soil or the thorn-filled field and even the good fertile field is basically the standard interpretation of this parable.
But there is another dimension to this parable. Remember that for centuries it has been known as the parable of the Sower which means that we may have it backwards when we focus only on ourselves and our response to the word of God. This parable is primarily about the sower and not just about the various kinds of soils, or the birds and rocks and thorns and even the devil. We need to ask, “Is there another point that Jesus is making? What else could he be saying?”
I suggest this: what if this parable is also about the incredible extravagance of the sower who does not seem to be fazed by the hard path and the birds and the rocks and the thorns? What if the sower intentionally flings seed everywhere with a kind of reckless abandon, a holy abandon, what if he delights in feeding birds and whistles at the rocks and nimbly picks his way through the blackberries, what if he sings hymns of joy, beaming and brimming with good will as he just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty and at harvest time the produce will fill every barn in the community to the rafters?
If this parable is also about the largess of the sower as well as the different kinds of ground, then we have something really important here. How do we respond to such incredible generosity? What happens when our hearts are so full of gratitude that tears start to well up? Perhaps we will be motivated to express our gratitude by praying more, by being more faithful in Mass attendance, by choosing to extend ourselves more in our acts of charity, by digging deeper for the financial needs of the Church and of the poor?
If this interpretation is applicable, and the focus is not just on us and our shortcomings but more on the great and kind and incredible, even mind-blowing, generosity of God, the prolific sower who is not stingy with his grace, who casts the seed of his word everywhere, upon good soil and bad, who is more joyous and generous than he is judgmental or even practical, who seems to keep reaching into a bottomless seed bag, and flinging out the seed, covering the whole of creation with the fertile kernels of the word of truth.
You and I would not do it that way of course. If we were in charge, we would devise a more efficient operation, a neater and cleaner and more productive one that does not waste good seed on birds and rocks and thistles. We’d concentrate only on the good soil and what we could do to make it that way.
But if this is the parable of the sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that God has another way of doing things, a way less concerned about our productivity and more about loving us. In response maybe we could even trust Him to take care of us and the terrible state of affairs this old world is in. Now that is really Good News!