The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soil
In Jesus’ parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, the sower is the one who represents God’s active sovereign reign in and to the world, the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord; and the seed is the word of the kingdom, always new, each seed giving rise to new seed, scattered liberally, with no anxiety that it might run out, no anxiety that it will not all bear fruit, each seed the word that contains a potential expression of the kingdom, for those who hunger.
The soil is the human heart, depicted as a communal field, cultivated land on the edge of the village, within which each family in the village had its own strip. The heart—our ability to choose between good and evil—is composed of both personal agency and interconnection with others. Within the boundary of the field is found the path, providing connections; the rocky soil, providing foundations; and the thorns, providing boundaries. Connections, foundations, and boundaries are inevitable, and can even be good; but what has been good for us is not necessarily just and fair towards others; and what has been good in the past may need transforming. (The Lectionary pairs this parable with Isaiah 55:10-13, which depicts a vision in which the Lord sows; in which connections are renewed, creating paths that enable us to share joy and peace with one another; foundations are reimagined, reminding us of God’s faithfulness and encouraging us to praise his holy name; and boundaries are replanted, securing a place of shelter and healing rather than being a cause of enduring pain.)
As the seed is scattered, some are snatched away before we even register them. Some are received with joy, taken up with enthusiasm…and abandoned when proclaiming them results in trouble. Some sprout but, while still vulnerable, are chocked by our anxieties and our love affair with wealth and the comfort and status wealth promises. And yet, some words bear fruit, again with varying results.
An example: in this season, the sower is scattering seeds of racial justice. Some falls on the path, where social connections quickly mobilise in a defensive, dismissive response: “Black Lives Matter? No, All Lives Matter!” Some falls on rocky ground, a jumping on the bandwagon of a movement in the news cycle—perhaps even a buying of books, a subscribing to podcasts—but a moving-on just as quickly as we took-up the cause. Some falls among thorns, and is choked when enthusiasm wears off and hope—which always remains—has dirt beneath her fingernails and sweat on her brow. And some seed produces a harvest of righteousness, feeding the hungry and investing in sustaining future generations…
The Parable of the Seeds
In the parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, both the sower and the seed are good, while the soil is varied. In Jesus’ following parable, two sowers are at work, with two kinds of seed. The custodian of the field sows good seed, which will bear a harvest of grain. But he has an enemy: and the Greek word here emphasises a person resolved to inflict harm, motivated by a deep-rooted and irreconcilable hostility. And under the cover of darkness, this enemy sowed seed of his own: and the Greek word identifies darnel, an inedible and potentially poisonous ryegrass that closely resembles wheat. Indeed, it so closely resembles wheat that the only way to tell them apart with certainty is to wait until the grain is ripe, at which point wheat grain is brown and darnel grain is black. This, then, is a subtle sabotage; the field is not captured by force, but the anticipated harvest is less than hoped for. It is a long-term strategy to persuade the owner of the field to abandon it for loss. (I have been to Galilee and stood in a field abandoned to darnel.)
What is surprising, even to his own servants, is the owner’s response, which is to let both grow together, even accepting the partial loss. To be proactive rather than reactive; to be true to the vocation of custodian of the field he fully identifies with, and not caught-up in the games of the one committed to causing him harm (hurting him by hurting the field which is essentially interchangeable with his own personal identity as custodian).
A parable is a comparison: if you want to know what x is like, consider y. If you want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like, says Jesus, consider (the sower, who is) the Son of Man. This is the title he gives himself (drawing on prophetic tradition) as representative of a faithful remnant community. In other words, the loving rule of the king of the universe is exercised on earth in the lives of persons in community focused on Jesus. And this community is active in the field, which is the world, the entire scope of human life, activity, and divinely mandated authority. Jesus says, the good seed are ‘the children of the kingdom’, that is, those who belong to the kingdom. This is multi-layered imagery, in which the community focused on Jesus is both the (rightful, opposed) custodian of the field who sows good seed, and the good seed that is sown: this is a community that reproduces a harvest for those who hunger for righteousness, so revealing the very kingdom of heaven they belong to and participate in…
The backdrop to this parable, as with the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, is the clear distinction between those who welcome and those who reject Jesus—and, by extension, his disciples—and the consequence of such rejection. That consequence, for the nation, will be that, having rejected the one who comes in the name of the Lord, they will find themselves judged, crushed by the might of Rome. The first and primary horizon of the explanation of this parable is the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which brings to a decisive end the ‘Second Temple Judaism’ of Jesus’ day. In this moment of existential crisis, those who are revealed to be ‘children of the evil one’ are gathered-up by heralds of the Son of Man and consumed with fire, to the lament of their families.
It is a stark image, emphasising the stark choice between life and death. It is an image in continuity with the tradition that God will judge the nations that surround his people…starting with his own people—and judging them by a stricter measure—a vision in continuity with the exile into Babylon, and eventual fall of Babylon.
But it is also a story of rescue, of protection over the lives of the children of the kingdom, of the promise of continuity for the faithful remnant community beyond the imminent judgement—in continuity with the exodus from Egypt. And alongside that, a story of purification, where that judgement will consume that which does not produce a harvest, that which consumes nutrients and land without giving anything back.
Crisis—genuine national and international existential crisis, such as the times we are living in—reveals the human heart; the ways in which our accumulative choices, for righteousness or wickedness, ultimately shape our souls and our communities into something that embraces Life, or Death. In the end, we get what we desire.
The custodian fully identifies with the whole field. Do we identify with the whole world, or just our small corner? Do we lack love for those in our neighbourhood; elsewhere in our nation; or of other nations?
Who do we judge as being darnel, while considering ourselves as wheat?
Conversely, do we consider ourselves as darnel, of less worth than others who, in contrast, we consider to be good wheat?
How might we view the times we are living in through the lens of biblical imagination, in particular relating to crisis and judgement?
What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)?
What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)—that we are ignoring?