Usually the Parable of the sower is read with the explanation following it in verse 18 - 23: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart. That is what is sown on the path. As for what is sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But for what is sown on the good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
Scholars agree that this explanation is of a later date and does not come from Jesus, but from the context of the communities of the early Church. The explanation does not appear in the gospel of Thomas, a version of the gospels that tends to list the sayings of Jesus much more cleanly and without embellishment of story, which suggests that this parable, received in a different community, may have met with different ways of interpreting it.
The context of the communities in which Mark, Matthew and Luke are written is very much a context of a young, enthusiastic missional environment - impatient and disappointed with the lack of progress in their mission effort. Why doesnt the gospel that changed their life take root in the life of others more? The explanation they come up with in response to this situation is this: Clearly in some cases the evil one is at work, others miss the resilience to stand against persecution and in others yet again the word gets choked by the cares and lures of the world.
Only a limited number seem to really be able to receive the word and bear fruit. And when they do the effect is truly miraculous.
If we however, read the parable without the explanation something subtly different happens. The judgement that is passed in whom the word does not take root and does not come to bear fruit is no longer there. Jesus presents the parable more as an observation of the facts of life. There is less frustration in it and more room to move.
Some seeds fall on the paths and the birds come and pick them up, some fall on rocky soil where they dont have much soil, and they wither away when the sun rises since they do not have much depth of soil. Others fall among thorns and the thorns grow and choke them. Yet others fall on good soil and bear fruit, hundred, sixty or thirty fold.
I dont know how difficult it is for you to let go of the traditional interpretation for a moment and look at what Jesus said with fresh eyes. Even though that interpretation can be easily applied to the Church today which also, very much, feels the frustration of sowing seeds and not seeing much return for its effort. Either because there are others with seemingly better offers, or because it proves too hard to stand up to the pressures of a secular society that ridicules our faith, or because the lures and wealth of the world choke the gospel out of us. The only thing perhaps that remains in that interpretation the question what exactly bearing fruit hundredfold means and who it applies to. In the context of the Uniting Church probably the output in the sense of social justice and community building to be regarded as an important indicator of that. And then we have something to be proud of: The Uniting Church is the biggest provider of care in the country, way ahead of the Salvation Army and other institutions like Anglicare.
In the more evangelical churches the numbers of people brought to Jesus would have great weight, and if we were to look at bearing fruit in that way, the Uniting Church would look a lot less favorable, but we all agree, dont we, that living the gospel is, in the end, not in the numbers, but in what we do and more specifically in what we do for others.
But lets leave all of that aside for a minute and listen to the original parable without the interpretation we all know so well and is so easy to apply in a way that makes us feel snug, safe and proud. Boy, are we bearing fruit! And arent there a lot of others who arent!
Some seeds fall on the path, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some fall among thorns, and some fall on good soil.......
As he does often, Jesus relates to agricultural practice everybody in his time and his audience would have recognised and wasnt half as sophisticated as our agricultural practices today.
Often land would be let to lie fallow for a while between crops, with paths crisscrossing the field by the time the sower came. Rocks were very difficult to remove and would keep surfacing forever in most fields. The scorching mediterranean sun was forever killing young and vulnerable plants that hadnt had a chance to take root enough or didnt have enough top soil to take hold of. And without spraying, weeds were everywhere, and not only at the edges of the field. Any of you who have tried to grow organic vegetables will know this: Leave it, even for a couple of days, and the weeds will have taken over! Making it impossible, in some cases, to decide which is which and what is what.
Let anyone with ears listen!
Jesus is talking to great crowds, all potential good soil for the seed to be sown in. They have pushed him of the beach into a boat, so many are there! And in that context the parable is not an expression of frustration and perplexity about the lack of success of the Churchs missional work, but it is a question, a challenge, put to those on the beach to hear and take the parable to heart.
Let anyone with ears listen!
They all know: Tamped down paths are part of any field that has lain fallow for a while, rocks, thorns, youd only be very lucky if your field would be spared of those. Bearing fruit a hundredfold is impossible, sixty highly unlikely and thirty something to dream of in a very very good year. Those are the facts any sower has to bear in mind. Growing stuff is hard!
Looked at it in that way in the parable Jesus recognises that although he may be sowing his seeds generously, they may not all and not all with the same ease grow and come to fruition. He also recognises that as a matter of course there will be things obstructing growth where he sows his seeds, things that will hamper growth and threaten a good yield. In the great crowds that have come to listen to him there are tamped down paths that will be hard to conquer, rocks that will get in the way of roots penetrating deep into the soil. That there will be thorns overgrowing and choking all good intentions and initial determination to let Jesus words take root in ones life.
They would also all have known that only a good plowing and subsequent tilling of the soil would have made any difference with that. The paths that over the months have developed crisscross through the field need to be plowed under, the rocks need to be removed, the soil turned and turned again, the thorns need to be pulled out and here again the soil needs plowing deeply, cutting and churning any remaining roots of thorns that could threaten the new crop until all life has gone out of them.
Let anyone with ears listen!
I believe the challenge is still there for us who are gathered here to listen to the words of Jesus and called to yield hundredfold.
To be the good soil.
Good soil is something that needs work. Because if we just leave the word to fall where it will, inevitably it will meet with tamped down paths, shallow rocky soil and thorns. There is plowing to be done, stones to be removed, thorns to be pulled out, in our personal lives and in the life of the Church, if the seed is to grow and bear fruit.
The surface of our well trodden paths needs to be ripped open and turned over to prepare it for new growth, the rock hard bits of belief and convictions that have been in our field forever but in fact prevent growth have to be taken out, other things that grow in our field and choke new growth need to be uprooted.
For those who want to yield richly from the seeds Jesus sows in their lives there is no such thing as complacency or contentment. A field that yields needs constant work and attention, needs to be plowed and cleared of anything that may hamper growth. Incessantly and interminable. Amen.