The Vicar was passing the allotments when one in particular caught his eye. The cabbages were the size of basket balls, the garlic looked like leeks and it was surrounded by an abundance of beautiful flowers. The Vicar had been on the Diocesan Evangelism course, so he said to the old man tending the plants: ‘God has really blessed you with this allotment.’ ‘Aye, said the old man ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it all to himself’.
One of the great pleasures of gardening is enjoying the harvest. Since the Leylandii have gone from the back of our house, the vegetable plot has been transformed. The children love making holes, dropping in broad beans and then shelling them out of the pods when they’re ready. There’s nothing quite like veg you’ve grown yourself, and part of the interest is not knowing what’s going to do well in a particular year. Slugs, birds, disease all take their toll, yet despite many mini-tragedies along the way, there is a harvest to celebrate at the end.
Jesus uses that familiar scenario in this well-known parable. The farmer sets out into his field, dipping his hands into the sack of grain and broadcasting it across the field. The different fates of the seed parallel the various responses individuals may have to the good news about the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps you have had the experience of a late night conversation which turns to spiritual matters. Someone you never thought was interested seems intrigued by your faith, asking lots of questions. Maybe something came of it or perhaps the next morning they’re saying ‘that conversation last night, what was all that about then?’ – that’s the seed that fell on the path and was snatched away before it could take root.
The seed which fell on stony ground makes me think of bringing up children in the Christian faith. You do all you can for them – pray with them, bring them to church, teach them right and wrong. But you can’t make their choices for them and when they leave home, maybe their faith thrives, or maybe it seems to go all quiet, as if the root has faded.
And then the seed amongst the weeds and thorns – that’s a constant real danger. Perhaps someone comes to faith, starts off with a great burst of enthusiasm. But they get a promotion with longer hours, aged parents are getting frail and need support, the children acquire a pony and that seems to occupy every Sunday. You begin to notice they’re not around as much as they used to be, they’re at risk of dropping off the church’s radar. The pleasures and cares of life can choke the seed.
Yet when you look at a field of wheat, yes the plants where the tractor wheels have been are stunted, the field margins are less productive, and the crop that’s planted in shallow soil is of interest only to aerial archaeologists; but there is still a great swathe of growing wheat, with many ears of corn. These are the people who grow in their faith, commit through thick and thin, help, support and teach others. Although there are many tragedies along the way, the parable is a story of growth. As the Isaiah passage says, God’s word does not return to him empty. The Kingdom of God grows and bears fruit.
So why did Jesus tell the parable? After all, when you scatter seed, it lies where it falls. I know this: I have clumps of carrots where toddler hands have let go of seed, and bare patches where it did not fall.
But people are not like seed. If we were plants, we’d be Triffids! We can get up and walk – we can do something about our spiritual response. And we can change – we don’t have to stay in one category but by the grace of God we can move to another.
Jesus told the parable to the crowds, and I think he did so as a preparation, an encouragement to be self-aware. He urges them and us to ask: which seed am I most like? Are there patterns in my own life which could be harmful? What are the spiritual hazards for me?… How can I change my priorities and actions so that I flourish spiritually?
For as the reading from Romans reminds us, nothing can keep us from the love of God. Our loving heavenly Father will not allow anything to keep us from him – as long as we are prepared to be open to him and work with him. He will give us strength to resist temptation, he will give persistence to change our lives, forgiveness when we get it wrong – and we just need to be open to receive it. But he also gives us free will: if we persistently ignore his nudging, sideline the voice of conscience, then he will allow us to go our own way and the seed of faith will struggle. So we must keep deciding to live God’s way: work with him and he will work with you.
Jesus told the parable to the crowds as a warning. He then explained it to the disciples, which gives a slightly different emphasis. Like us, the disciples would be sharing the message of the Kingdom, and they would encounter these varied reactions.
Perhaps there is something they could do to make a difference. If, for instance, the evil one tries to snatch away the word as it is sown, then let us pray against him, pray for those who hear the word. If a lack of roots can put people’s faith at risk, then let us offer opportunities to grow so that new Christians – and old – can nurture their faith. Study groups, lectures, agnostics anonymous, meeting up with friends for prayer – all these things can grow our roots. If worries and wealth can choke the seed then maybe we need actively to support those who are struggling and be willing to challenge those whose decisions draw them away. Jesus tells us about the hazards so we can be proactive and do something about them.
Even so, Jesus himself found that the results were mixed. Surely then so will we. Jesus prepares the disciples: they will know failure and success. Some will reject the gospel, others will seem keen but fade, many will respond with joy, grow and thrive.
Let’s not beat ourselves up if some fade. It’s very disappointing when you share your faith but get no response. It’s even more difficult when a new Christian seems very keen but suddenly loses interest. You can end up blaming yourself or the church, what did we do wrong?
Now maybe we did do something wrong – we can never be complacent.
But the parable of the sower prepares us for the fact that even when the gospel is shared faithfully and in love, it is not always received well. We see that in Jesus own ministry – it’s no coincidence he tells this story when the crowds are so large he has to get in a boat. Yet he is aware this popularity is transient: some will forsake or deny him. For God’s invitation to a new life calls the rich to reassess their values. As God sets spiritual prisoners free, evil fights back. So not everyone will respond positively. Jesus warns the disciples, and us, that this will be the case. Let us not be disheartened if it happens but keep on trying.
Let’s be wise too about where we put our resources. It wouldn’t make sense for a farmer to spread fertiliser over the path – the seed there has already given up. And if he waters the weeds, he’s just creating trouble!
Yet churches can sometimes pour resources into activities that are no longer effective. They have projects that were once great ideas, a decade ago those activities connected and bore fruit. But society moved on, a generation grew up, and that activity (which was once worthwhile) no longer makes sense. Churches can end up maintaining what they’ve always done out of a sense of faithfulness, loyalty to those who’ve gone before, but sometimes we have to recognise that that patch of ground has produced what it can.
For Jesus calls us to a hopeful realism. People have free will and that will be reflected in each one’s spiritual journey. The gospel will receive a variety of reactions – some good, some bad. Sometimes we can do something about that, and if so we should. Many times we just have to leave it between God and people and trust that the seed will bear fruit. Our job is to sow, let us do that faithfully, trusting in God. Amen.