That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”Matthew 13:1-9 (ESV)
The Parable of the Sower is undoubtedly one of the most well-known passages in all of the New Testament. It’s certainly been the source of many a sermon and Sunday School lesson. As a boy, I believe I must’ve heard this parable dozens, if not hundreds, of times. And unlike many of Jesus’ parables, it seems to have a clear and understandable meaning. Indeed, Jesus even takes the time to explain the parable to his followers—seemingly making it easy to understand. Thus, it provided me with a good pedagogical tool for understanding both my faith and the wider world. Specifically, it gave me some perception on why only some responded to the gospel. At the time it offered me clarity as to why some flourished and others failed, both in faith and in life. In terms of applicability, the Sower just made sense to me. As such, I simply chalked up the spiritual (and materialistic) failures of others as a matter of not having cultivated the right soil necessary for growth—a notion reinforced by many evangelistic sermons. And in this sense the parable brought a certain sense of satisfaction. I was (or so I thought) growing happily in the good soil, producing good grain. Moreover, I had pride in not being among those eaten by birds or among the ones that fell on rocky soil or thorns. I didn’t share whatever failings those seeds had.
In all honesty, I haven’t reflected too much on this parable since then. I’ve had many ups and downs in my faith, and the early satisfaction and clarity brought by this parable has long since passed. And yet, part of me held on to this deterministic idea of being among those planted in good soil. It wasn’t the Sower’s fault that some of the seed landed on poor soil. It was just a blessing to know that I had landed in good soil. Consequently, I didn’t think very much about those seeds snatched up by the birds or those who’d landed among the thorns or on the hard ground. What mattered were those who flourished in the good soil.
Recently, I’ve come back to this parable. And in looking at it again, there was something about it that bothered me very much. In fact, the parable greatly disturbed me. For in reading it again I realized that it contains an element of sadness I hadn’t considered before. Why did the Sower carelessly sow his seed in places that would only bring failure? Moreover, isn’t it the wish and purpose of all seed to grow and flourish? Given the choice, no seed would’ve chosen the path, the rocks, or the thorns. Thus, there’s something cruel about certain seed being given more opportunity than others. A good sower would’ve known better. As such, I came to see those sowed among inhospitable ground as the victims of the story. Shouldn’t those seeds deserve the same opportunities as the rest?
In truth, there’s something unsettling about the idea that some seeds are sown carelessly, or even willfully, onto inhospitable ground. Wouldn’t we all like the fertile soil needed to grow the gifts contained within us? Honestly, I believe we all would, given the opportunity to choose. And herein lies the dilemma, so many of us desire to grow and make our lives into a plentiful harvest. But despite our intense cultivation, our seed fails to grow. The seed of life isn’t allowed to fully germinate due to circumstances beyond our control. There’s something wrong with our soil, which prevents us from realizing our potential. Thus, we can only wonder as to why? Why did the sower place me here—in these circumstances, in this environment, in this community?
Life often feels this way. We wish to grow, therefore we work hard to encourage that growth. As such, we devote great time and energy at making the best out of our circumstances. We believe all that’s needed for us to grow and realize our potential is the right type of soil. Thus, we work and work, wait and wait, but circumstances never seem to fall in our favor. Sadly, many of us resign ourselves to the notion that we’ll never realize our potential. So much so that we come to believe that we never had any potential to begin with. Perhaps the sower was right for throwing us in useless spaces? Consequently, this attitude ripples throughout our being, affecting our lives mentally, physically, and spiritually.
For the marginalized and seemingly forgotten, it can seem that the sower has carelessly thrown them away. When harvesting, no one remembers or even cares about the seed that failed to germinate. This is especially so when the harvest seems bountiful. We tend not to think about the seed that failed to make it into the harvest. Instead, we only think about what’s before us—the successful seed. And thus, the seed on the margins—in those liminal places—grows in frustration and desire. Not only does it fail to produce, it’s also ignored and forgotten.
Essentially, what we desire most is salvation—for the fertile soil that will make us feel whole and useful. Each of us desires the right soil to make use of our gifts—to grow, to be needed. We ask to be carefully planted rather than carelessly tossed away. But it’s easy to feel that our seed was wasted. That our life was a missed opportunity, a perpetual “what if.” Thus, life results in longing for a dream of growth that never occurs. Even worse, we can see how others germinate and flourish while we remain dormant and forgotten. If life is a seed, then how can any seed germinate after failure? Are we condemned to the difficult soil of marginalization and liminality?
I’d like to think that life isn’t so cruel and careless. That perhaps the sower sows multiple seeds in our lifetime. Thomas Merton writes,
Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. [i]
We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening. [ii]
And herein lies the source of our hope, for the Sower continually sows the seeds of our lives. Every day is an opportunity for a new seed, a renewed hope to carry us forward despite all the difficulties and problems we may face. And though the future is indeterminate and cloudy, we can take comfort in the fact that the Sower has an abundance of seed to plant. It’s true that some germinate, and others do not, but this does not mean that anything was wasted. For what remains dormant now may give birth to something beautiful and unique. Therefore, life isn’t a matter of missed opportunities, but a looking forward to the hopeful potential contained within every moment and every day.
As the Sower sows in our lives, so we too have the opportunity to sow seed in the lives of others. We can share our harvest with others, especially with those who are currently struggling on the margins. The work of the Sower shouldn’t imply that we’re only to be passive recipients, ignoring and forgetting those struggling on the periphery. Through our actions, we also sow seeds for others. And through our sowing, we have the chance to extend God’s harvest for all.
Where will our seeds fall?
[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), 14.
[ii] Merton, 15.