I have been reflecting on the parable of the sower, which I understand to be an ironic parable about living fruitful and unfruitful lives. A farmer scatters seed – which represents the good news concerning the kingdom of heaven – on his field. Some of the seed falls on the path, on well-worn compacted ground, and is eaten by the birds before it can have any impact. Some of the seed falls on rocky places, where the soil is shallow, resulting in quick initial growth that does not survive to maturity. Some of the seed falls among thorns, which choke the wheat as it grows. And some of the seed falls on good soil, and grows to bear a harvest. Jesus draws out a point about four different types of people; but parables work on several levels, and most of us are a mix of all four.
Here is the root of the irony: the path, the rocky soil and the thorns are all necessary. In fact, they are essential for sustainable farming.
Fields were divided between the community into family strips with paths running between them. No paths would mean two things: firstly, that the farmer would have no community to help him; and secondly that the ground would be compacted indiscriminately, and thus in time compacted across the whole field. The path represents community, and community shapes what we can receive of the kingdom of heaven. There are things that I can receive only because of the community I belong to; and yes, there are things that I will be unable to receive because of the community I belong to. That is not in itself a problem, as fields with no paths, rocky ground or thorns are unsustainable. The irony comes when community that is meant to help one another hear and receive God’s word works against that – perhaps by creating too many paths (as where a local congregation looks to make too many wider connections) or by refusing to use paths (as where members of a local congregation don’t submit to one another).
Land available for farming was steep, and only farmable by terracing it. Stone walls were built to bank the earth, and those walls required slabs of rock near the surface to provide a firm foundation. No rocky places would mean no terracing to prevent soil erosion. The rocky places represent foundations. We need foundations, such as bringing children to baptism, or nurture courses for new Christians. They are essential, but on their own they are inadequate. The irony comes when foundations are not integrated with the whole field, and encouraging early growth – initial response to good news about the kingdom of heaven – is lost before people reach maturity in their faith.
Farming was, often, a subsistence activity, and the farmer would want to ensure that his crop was not consumed by wild animals. Thorns were planted around the edges of fields as a deterrent, to protect the harvest. No thorns would mean that the harvest was exposed to threat. The thorns represent protection. Jesus points out the irony of looking to wealth to provide protection, rather than to God – that rather than providing protection, wealth proves to be a prison. It is the misplacing of hope for protection that is ironinc, and not the presence of thorns. Indeed, the parable highlights a further irony, that where there are no thorns surrounding the field, the seed that falls on the rocky places is exposed to fear...
The good soil represents that part of our lives that is fruitful. But it is only fruitful long-term if community, foundations and protection are in place and doing what they are intended to do. The irony of the parable of the sower is not that there is a path and rocky places and thorns on the farmer’s field, but that good and necessary things can themselves become obstacles.
What might we say about the good news concerning the kingdom of heaven? We might say that in the kingdom, we find community that helps one another hear and receive God’s word. And we might ask whether our community is truly a kingdom community or not...We might say that in the kingdom, we have firm foundations for sustainable long-term seasons of growth. And we might ask whether our community is truly a kingdom community or not...We might say that in the kingdom, we find shelter and protection from predators. And we might ask whether our community is a truly kingdom community or not...And we might say that in the kingdom, we experience fruitful lives – the fruit of which is further expressions of the good news concerning the kingdom of heaven to scatter in other peoples’ lives. And we might ask whether our community is truly a kingdom community or not.