The parable of the sower and the seed stood as a favorite parable in the early church.
The contemporaries of Jesus gathered around him to learn about the Kingdom. In this gospel passage, the crowd was so great, Jesus had to sit in a boat off shore to teach. But Jesus taught in such a way to cause frustration and insight. Instead of teaching clearly, he allowed the listener to but the pieces together. In this way, the listener (and the reader) could grow spiritually.
The parable of the sower and the seed shocked Jesus’ audience for wasteful planting and the abundant harvest. Ancient people saw waste as an abuse of the rich. When they discussed economics, most ancient people agreed on two points. First, there was only a limited amount of wealth in the world. Second, God (or the gods) willed the distribution of that wealth within a rigid social class system. The rich (five percent of the population) held ninety percent of the wealth and the poor battled for survival. The ancients would consider our modern notions of creating wealth and individual betterment absurd.
Imagine the audience’s attitude toward waste. They would recycle any useful object and pick up any useful seed so they could replant it in good soil. Yet the farmer in the parable threw seed around without thought. Did he flaunt his wealth? Or, did he totally lack common sense?
In the end, however, the harvest vindicated the farmer’s sowing practices. When most people gained yields of two to five times the amount of grain planted, the farmer in the parable gained 30 to 100 times! The yield boggled the mind of the ancients.
Jesus considered this parable important enough to give it two emphatic statements: “Look!” at the beginning and “Those who have ears, listen!” at the end. Why? To emphasize the blessings of God’s Kingdom. God’s blessings seemed as irrational to Jesus’ audience as they do today. God blessed the wicked with riches while the good suffer. Yet, the suffering of the good led to much greater blessings. Such was God’s Kingdom.
Like any good story, the parables of Jesus had many levels of meaning. Jesus interpreted this parable for the missionary ministry of the apostles. In our Gospel, Jesus viewed the sower as the missionary preaching to the crowds. Some in the crowd reject the message outright (like seeds on the hardened path). Others receive the message but are immature and quickly lose interest in the face of opposition (like the seeds on rocky soil which the sun burnt). A third group become Christians but never enjoy spiritual growth, since worries of the world get in the way (like the seeds sown with thorn weeds). The last group grows abundantly in Christ, since they willingly place themselves at risk (like seeds in a deep, rich soil that is turned over and over).
God’s word is sown in the most unpredictable places and ways. God’s word is sown at the family dinner table where the day’s joys and challenges are shared. God’s word is sown in extending expressions of endearment, in expressing understanding and forgiveness, in speaking encouragement, in challenging injustice. In all of these ways, through us, God’s word achieves the end for which it was sent.
Jesus meant his parables to shock and befuddle his audience for a reason. He told parables to make his audience think. Applied to our modern life, the parable of the sower and the seed still poses a challenge.