Glynn Cardy 8th October 2023
The Parable of the Sower tells of a farmer, like in Van Gogh’s painting, throwing out seed upon the ground. It’s a typical agrarian image that endures. The parable and its interpretations offered by the gospel writers and editors Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are unclear about who the farmer might be. The farmer could be God, or Jesus, or the audience, or even you and me.
Likewise the seed too is not well explained. One author calls it ‘the Word of God.’ Such a phrase has its own history. Jesus, particularly in the 4th Gospel, was said to be ‘the Word of God’, and unfortunately its often narrowly interpreted.
It might be better to substitute ‘the energy of God’ for ‘the word of God’ to point to how Jesus was, how he acted, how he loved, as well as his spoken words, as all being part of being a part of the energy of God.
Personally I prefer the metaphor of heartbeat. Which is to suggest that the love, the justice, the hospitality which we call God has a rhythm. A beat. A pace. And the spiritual life is about aligning our rhythm with that rhythm. So when we act, for example, with kindness towards another, our heart is beating in time with the heart of God.
So therefore rather than thinking of the seed in the parable being holy sayings, or divine sparks, we could think of the farmer, the throwing, and seed as all being in rhythm with the heartbeat of God – giving, sharing, and planting hope.
As I said the parable is not explicit about who the farmer is or the seed. What it does say, and the gospel writers expand upon, is the ground upon which it falls: the hard ground of path, the rocky ground, the ground with thorns, or the good soil. Mark uses these four categories of ground to differentiate between different groups and classes who existed around the time of the Roman-Jewish War (66-70). He has the scribes and pharisees as the hard ground of the path, the twelve male apostles as the rocky ground, the powerful and privileged as the thorny ground, and the expendable and outcasts as the good soil.
I don’t really want to expound on and explain Mark’s categories only to say that he was writing to challenge his audience rather than damn them. So, for example, he was warning the powerful and privileged that their resources and riches can be like weeds, choking the goodness out of their spiritual lives.
I would instead like to focus on the farmer, for that is whom I believe this parable is asking us to emulate.
Firstly, the farmer displays a radical open-heartedness. He or she does not hoard the seed but distributes it generously, indiscriminately, even wastefully.
There is an encouragement here for us too to be reckless, passionate, and to take risks on behalf of a person or cause. To stand up when everyone, including when all your conditioning and upbringing, is telling you to sit down, shut up, and behave. To protest. To offer yourself to something or someone other than yourself. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centred, self-serving, and self-protective life I lived.”
To offer your life to others with open-hearted generosity.
But understand that when we live that way, we soon learn how little we know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service we must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. Ignorance and failure are doorways. Clinging to what we already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, we must cultivate and cherish the beginner’s mind: walking straight into our not-knowing, and taking the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn.
For an open heart is a vulnerable heart.
And church at its best is a training camp for open-hearted living.
Secondly, to live this way in rhythm with the generosity of God, we need, to quote Socrates, ‘to live an examined life.’
Just as I mentioned about valuing ignorance and failure and integrating it into our knowledge and success, so we can do with all the alien parts of ourselves. As the spiritual teacher, Parker Palmer, puts it, “Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.
Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.
As church we aspire to be broken-hearted people, where our hearts have been broken open not broken apart. And when we open our heart each day to take in life’s little pains and joys, noticing our weaknesses and our wisdom, giving thanks for all, we increase our capacity for love. This opening our heart is an exercise we church people call prayer.
When I read the newspapers each morning, I worry about the sort of leaders the world has, and maybe more importantly, the sort society applauds. Are they leaders who have embraced their brokenness, their shadows, their weaknesses, and integrated them into their lives? Or are they still trying to project themselves as all-proficient, impervious to criticism, always winning, always smiling and in control? When will we learn the crucial upside-down truth of Jesus: to be powerful is to be vulnerable, the path to a good life is open-heartedness.
And when we befriend the alien and disreputable within ourselves (the bits we struggle with and don’t like), we can extend this courtesy of friendship to others and treat their shadowy otherness with the same kindness that we do our own. Or in church language, be hospitable to the strange and stranger inside your home so you can be hospitable to the strange and the stranger outside your door. In this way our training in love will defeat the marketeers of fear.
Thirdly, the farmer wasn’t motivated by progress and productivity and a desire to build a successful and booming business. Otherwise he or she would never have wasted the seed on the untransformed gravel path, rocky ground, or thorny patch. No, the farmer was motivated by something else entirely.
The big jobs, the big vocations, in this world are about spreading love, justice, and peace. They are about building sustainable communities and nations of love, justice, and peace. They are about building a global organisational culture that prioritizes love, justice, and peace, the fruits of which are felt in every place of poverty and hardship and where the earth, skies, and oceans are suffering.
These are the big jobs worth doing.
We all want our work to make a difference, but to do so we must refuse to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. I suspect the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Rather than effectiveness our goal should be faithfulness. Faithful to that heartbeat of giving, sharing, and planting hope.
And remember we won’t get the big jobs done in our lifetime. But we will, grace willing, have tended some trees, coped with some weeds, and planted some seeds.