That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
The story of the sower of seeds is pretty well-known. You don’t have to be religious to understand the metaphor either. A sower, a planter, goes out and throws some seeds on a path where some birds eventually eat them. Then, the sower drops some seeds on rocky ground; the seeds spring up right away but when the sun comes out they get burned and wither away. The sower also tosses some seeds where there are hardy thorns, which eventually grow too big and thus the seeds cannot grow. And yet, despite all this seemingly bad luck, the sower also manages to put some seeds where there is good soil, and eventually they grow and become food and abundance.
Some Christian theologians or preachers stick with the status quo interpretation of this parable, which is more or less a paraphrase of words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth [that follow the parable] in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, i.e. an explanation like this:
The soil is people’s hearts. The seeds are the Word of God, sometimes called the Gospel, or really, the heart of Christianity itself. Some people hear this word, receive this seed, but immediately harden their hearts and reject it. Others are like rocky soil, immediately accept the seeds but when life gets difficult, they fall away. Still others are like thorny soil and care more about material things and so the seeds don’t grow. And finally, some are like fertile soil and hear the Gospel and receive it joyfully and eventually bear fruit.
So kids, you should be the fertile soil, that is ready to receive Jesus and will bear fruit. Don’t be the rocky ground, or the thorns, or the birds. Believe in Jesus. The end.
Of course, this interpretation [like all] is limited. I mean, I get why so many people interpret the parable this way, but I also must call attention to the harm that absolute or so-called “right” interpretations can cause others. For example, it is very easy [and it happens a lot] for people to start calling others rocky soil, or thorns, or the birds. It’s tempting to say that you are the fertile soil because you believe in Jesus or God or whatever. Isn’t it? Taken to its extreme, that is where this interpretation will carry you.
And yet, I think if we choose to look deeper into the parable [after all, that’s what Jesus taught people to do], we will discover that any of us who have felt/do feel like the rocky ground, the infertile soil, the thorns or the birds—that there is good news for us too, and that we don’t have to believing in a certain way to bear fruit in this life. So as briefly as I can, let me explain. Jesus of Nazareth was telling these stories to people in a particular context, right? In this case, Jesus was speaking to those who were seeking to follow him, his students. These students were eventually going to visit villages and towns where they would encounter people who were of various belief systems and the majority of them were poor or marginalized. Notice that they were not going to the big temples in the major hubs with this movement. And one last contextual thing: please, please remember that all of these Gospel books were written well after Jesus’ death. So all [and I mean all] of the stories about Jesus include commentary and contextual interpretations by the writers, reflecting on how Jesus died and the whole hindsight is 20/20 thing. You know what I mean?
Imagine you are writing a memoir of your best friend’s life. Your friend passed away 50 years ago. You look back on your friend’s life, you talk to people who share experiences with that friend, you gather 2nd and even third hand recollections and tales. And then, you combine all of those stories with your own memories and also your feelings since your friend passed away. That memoir would be just like the Gospels. I don’t say this to belittle the Gospels or to lessen their value, but I must say this because Western Christians tend to have an attitude about the Bible, as if every single word in the Gospels was actually said by Jesus and this makes Christianity the best religion ever. Okay, moving on…
Looking deeper into the parable, here’s what I see. The sower is careless and doesn’t care where the seeds fall.
Otherwise, why not just throw the seeds on the good soil? Nope. The sower keeps tossing seeds this way and that, no matter what. That, my friends, is what God does. God doesn’t say to you: Oh, you’re not good enough, or you don’t believe enough, so no seeds for you! Doesn’t work that way. I also am considering the context of Jesus’ words and what was happening all around. The religious and political powers were real threats to love and acceptance and real bullies too. They had no trouble stealing good things from the poor, marginalizing people who were different or who didn’t fit into society’s tiny little boxes. They also didn’t hesitate to choke out anyone who tried to counter their stringent systems that always favored the rich and the status quo.
So I’m hearing this story beg us to ask this question today, no matter where you are on your journey:
What kinds of seeds are we scattering, and will we be like the generous sower?
What kinds of seeds are we scattering wherever we go, when we interact with others, as we live this life? Are we choosing to scatter seeds of love and acceptance, of peacemaking and friendship, seeds of hope and seeds of grace? If so, will we only scatter them in comfort zones and with those we know? Or, will we choose to scatter our beautiful and kind seeds with reckless abandon, in all places and without hope of reward or ulterior motivation, other than to simply scatter love wherever we go?
Because yes, sometimes when we scatter seeds of love and acceptance all over the place, they will fall on rocky, thorny, or infertile soil. That’s true. But what if we keep scattering them anyway?
For if we choose to be extravagant and reckless like the sower in the story, the seeds will hit the air like glitter and be carried by wind and breath and sheer luck and randomness, and they will fall where the fall and they will land on people’s faces and arms and feet, and because they are seeds of love and acceptance, they will sparkle as glitter does, and they will be light and not heavy, and they will add color and sparkle to the world and to people’s lives. And isn’t that worth the effort?