Travelling west along the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, less than a mile from the ancient fishing village of Capernaum (in and around which Jesus performed many miracles), is a place called The Bay of Parables. It’s a little off the beaten track and one has to walk away from the road for a short distance through the bushes to find it. And immediately the ground drops away to reveal a natural amphitheatre sloping down to the water and it’s very likely that this is where the crowds gathered and listened to Jesus sitting in a boat some metres off shore in today’s Gospel reading. Sound carries well over water and with the acoustics in this natural auditorium, the crowds would have been able to hear Jesus clearly.
The Parable of the Sower is the first of many parables told in chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel; the entire chapter is devoted to Jesus’ parables and his explanation of why he taught in parables.
The scripture scholar C.H. Dodd describes a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
While the words in this definition are certainly accurate, they hardly excite the imagination nor are they easy to remember. Jesus uses parables, not only to explain complex realities that are beyond our human frame of reference but also to leave us with a picture in our imaginations that is easily remembered. He uses everyday, well known objects and life experiences to explain spiritual concepts that could not otherwise easily be understood; seeds, soil, farmers, weeds, wheat, fruit, rocks, birds, shepherds, friends, family and enemies, are used to explain the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness, charity and unconditional love.
In telling the Parable of the Sower, Jesus uses as a reference the very place where the people are gathered. The terrain in the Bay of Parables is rocky in parts, sandy in parts, thorny in parts and richly fertile in parts. So he wasn’t speaking about a theoretical field, he was referring to very ground on which they were standing or sitting to illustrate the story of the farmer sowing seed to illustrate how his message, the Word of God, is received by people in different ways. And that parable is as relevant to us as it was to those listening to Jesus in Galilee.
Some of the seeds we allow to grow into our lives are those we consciously choose to nurture at the expense of our godliness. While we might be a regular church goer and by and large consider ourselves Christian, we might also prefer to live by our own word rather than Christ’s word. Our ‘word’ is basically the way we see the world; what we think is true, what we think is important, what we consider to be right and wrong, what we think we need to be happy. And often these choices are quite contrary to those of a disciple. When we follow this route we are like the seed that fell on the path and was eaten by the birds.
The seed that fell on rocky ground could describe those who are enthusiastic but unstable; at some time full of the joy of the Spirit and when the fervour has past, lose interest. There is no depth in their relationship with God.
The seed that fell amongst thorns could describe those who hear the word, have everything they need to nourish their faith, but get distracted and choked by the cares of the world, anxiety, and ambition for material wealth and success.
And the seed that thrives in the soil is an image of those who hear the Word, accept it, act on it and bear great fruit. Jesus’ assertion of a hundredfold yield, according to the laws of nature, is impossible. His numbers suggest a fruitfulness that is supernatural; the reward for hearing the Word, accepting it into our lives and acting on it, is beyond our greatest expectation.
Each of us is like an empty field waiting for something to grow. And in each of our lives there are parts that are rocky, parts that are choked with weeds and parts that are fertile and bear fruit.
We could ask ourselves in which part of our lives we are true to our calling to follow Christ and in which parts we are barren.
Perhaps we’re loving, compassionate and generous in our families, homes and amongst friends but are prejudiced and less tolerant to others outside of that circle; where people of a different colour or culture or religion, or from a different class or sexual orientation fall outside the radius of our love. Or vice versa, where we’re kind and charming in the work place and socially but critical, impatient and short tempered at home. That’s very rocky soil and little will grow in that part of the field.
Perhaps we’re less concerned than we should be about the poor, the hungry, the homeless, lonely and neglected? Are we being choked by the weeds of our concerns for social status, personal comfort and esteem at the expense of love of our neighbour? The seeds in this part of our lives have very little opportunity to grow and flourish.
Seeds don’t produce fruit overnight. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to bear fruit abundantly. I’m reminded of our late parishioner, Peter Shaw who was Baptised and Confirmed here in April this year at the Easter Vigil at the age of 86 and died quite unexpectedly two weeks ago of pneumonia. It took him a long life time to hear and respond to the call of God in his heart but when he did, he embraced it completely.
It might take us a life time too; we don’t know, of course, how much life time we have left. But if we allow the seed, however hard the struggle, to grow in us, we will grow too and eventually the word of God and our own word might become one. And that would be a rich harvest indeed.