Let us open our hearts and our minds in the spirit of prayer:
God of abundance,
you have planted seeds within our hearts;
seeds of love, hope, gratitude, peace
and so much more.
Thank you for these gifts of faith.
We pray they will take root in our lives
this day and in the days to come.
(Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1,
July 2008, adapted)
Can you imagine a day such as today? It is hot. Crowds have gathered near a home on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Word has spread that Jesus is in the house and that he may come out and share some stories with the people who have gathered. They wait with anticipation and hope. Some of them have heard Jesus’ stories before and they want to hear more. Some are here for the first time as they’ve been encouraged by others to come and see for themselves the teacher who their friends and neighbours are talking about. The crowd is hushed as Jesus emerges from the house and sits beside the sea in front of them. There are so many people that some have trouble seeing him and so they crowd closer. Jesus, realizing that it will be difficult for everyone to see and hear climbs into a boat and rows a little way out in the water. Now everyone can see him and hear him. The water is a good conductor of sound and the people settle in on the beach in this natural amphitheatre. The crowd is quiet. They are ready to listen intently to whatever Jesus has to say.
This is the setting for today’s Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ favourite method of teaching was through storytelling. He was well known for telling parables that caught and held people’s attention. Jesus talked about things that ordinary people would have been familiar with such as: light; salt; yeast; mustard seeds; fishing nets; fig trees. While using ordinary examples from daily life Jesus’ stories always held surprising, sometimes shocking, reversals of the common wisdom of the day. The deeper meanings of the parables were usually not evident when taken at face value and further reflection was required to discover the uncommon wisdom they contained.
This was a subversive way of teaching. Any Roman soldiers who may have been on hand to control crowds would hear what they’d take to be simple stories about the challenges of daily life, nothing more. But, Jesus’ parables always pointed in some way to God’s Commonwealth where all were valued, respected, and free to live life fully in God’s Way.
For those who discovered the underlying meanings of Jesus’ parables it was clear that God, not Caesar, reigned.
The Gospels contain many of Jesus’ parables. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel there are seven parables recorded, The Parable of the Sower is the first of these accounts. We know this was an important parable for Jesus’ followers because it is recorded in three of the Gospels (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:5-8) and in the non-canonical gospel of Thomas (Thomas 82:3-13). Jesus also gives emphasis to the parable when he begins by saying, “Listen!” and ends with the challenge “Let anyone with ears listen!”.
The first listeners of this parable would have understood the difficulties of subsistence farming. It would not have been surprising to them that the farmer in the parable scattered his seeds in what may seem to us a casual and random fashion. It was common practice, in Jesus’ day, to scatter seeds before the land was tilled. If the land a subsistence farmer had available was of poor quality he would likely have scattered the seeds everywhere he could with hopes that some of them would take root and flourish. Farmers knew from experience that there are no guarantees in life. So many factors contributed to the yielding of a good harvest: the quality of the seeds; the quality of the soil, the amount of sun and rain and so on. A poor yield could easily happen regardless of the skill of the farmer. What would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners was the incredible yield from the seeds that fell on “good soil” being “some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. Such abundance would have been so extraordinary as to be completely unbelievable and this would have gotten people’s attention.
Some of Jesus’ listeners would have known that Jesus often used exaggeration to get people’s attention and point to the miraculous ways that God’s spirit is at work within ordinary everyday life. Jesus maintained that God’s commonwealth would be revealed in surprising ways in the everday occurrences of life for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Those who chose to could be attentive to God’s activity and participate in whatever ways they could to advance the actualization of God’s Commonwealth on earth.
Over the centuries, many interpretations have been attributed to the “Parable of the Sower”. Some say the Parable of the Sower would be better titled the Parable of the Good Soil or the Parable of the Seeds with interpretive emphasis on either the sower, the soil or the seeds. As early as the second generation, in Christian communities, various interpretations of this parable emerged. One such interpretation is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 13:18-23). Scholars generally agree that the interpretation offered comes from the experience of Christian communities facing adversity and rejection. The tone of the explanation is judgmental with blame being placed on anyone who hears the good news of the Kingdom of God and rejects it and its messengers.
And so it has been, throughout the generations, that Christians have viewed their experiences through the lens of Jesus’ parables seeing themselves, and others, in various characters in his stories. Over the years I’ve done this myself with today’s parable. I’ve thought about who is the Sower – is it God, Christ, us? I’ve wondered about who or what the seeds might represent. I’ve pondered what constitutes good soil. All of these exercises are interesting and informative but in the final analysis I think that Jesus was pointing beyond the characters in the parable itself to the abundant harvest that is as mysterious as it is miraculous. None of the other factors in the parable alone could yield abundance on thier own – not the sower, the seed, or the soil. The miracle of new life in abundance is God’s domain alone. And, as Jesus knew very well, this abundant life was often found in unexpected people and in unexpected places. It takes the eyes, and the heart of faith, to see beyond the outside facade of real life to understand and glimpse God’s Commonwealth emerging moment by moment and day by day.
This vision, informed by faith, requires dispelling any pretense of superiority and a letting go of any notions of judgment against the character of other human beings. In the terms of reference of today’s parable, it means not trying to judge what would be good hospitable soil and what would not be worth the time and effort to try to cultivate.
In Jesus’ day, there were people who were viewed as non-persons who were so marginalized they were deemed disposable. These were exactly the people Jesus was drawn to because they needed to hear a word of good news. They needed to know they were God’s beloved no matter what other people thought of them.
This same kind of ministry is embodied by many people of faith today in many places in the world. This week, as I’ve been reflecting on the Parable of the Sower, one contemporary story has come to mind. The story begins with a Jesuit priest named, Father Gregory Boyle, who lives in Los Angeles, California. Father Greg, as he is affectionately known, began serving as pastor of Delores Mission Church in East L.A. in 1986.
That year Father Greg presided at the funeral of a young man killed in gang violence. In response to ever increasing gang violence, heightened by the LA riots in 1992, Father Boyle responded by creating the Jobs For a Future program that offered education, child and human services, and legitimate employment opportunities for those seeking to break away from gangs. In 2001, this initiative broadened and expanded into Homeboy Industries, one of the largest, most comprehensive gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry programs in the United States. Homeboy Industries sees potential in those who are otherwise demonized and despised by society. These are people that Father Boyle says are suffering from a “lethal absence of hope” that leads them to gangs and gang violence. Homeboy Industries offers a way to escape a life of hopelessness and violence through a specialized network of educational programs such as anger management, addiction recovery, and parenting
to name a few. Job training, in one of several social enterprise businesses under the auspices of Homeboy Industries, is a key element in the transition to the regular work force. Former gang members are required to work side by side with former members of rival gangs. Working together, Homeboy Industries members get to know each other as human beings and leave behind former allegiances and grudges. The seeds of new kinships are sown and nurtured and new life emerges from the wastelands of despair and hopelessness. So abundant is the harvest of new life that it is almost unbelievable. Each year 15,000 former gang members go through the Homeboy Industries programs and lives are reclaimed as valued and beloved. Father Greg has written a book entitled, Tattoos on The Heart, in which he shares many poignant and some heartbreaking stories of his experiences with former gang members over the past twenty-five years.
Like Jesus, Father Greg does not assume that “good soil” is only found in the upstanding citizens of the world. Jesus saw potential in every human being – as does Father Greg – as might we all.
The prospect of living into the vision of God’s Commonwealth can be a little intimidating at times. When we can let go of our fears and trust God to guide us we can participate in miracles of love and justice in our everyday lives. We are not required to do everything. We are asked to do something however small and simple. All of the greatest initiatives in the world began with one small step.
With this in mind I’ll close with words of encouragement and wisdom from the late Archbishop Oscar Romero:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
…No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise…
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for …[God’s] grace to enter and do the rest.