You may have heard the old story. Once a couple were driving down a country lane on their way to visit some friends. They came to a muddy patch in the road and the car became stuck. After a few minutes of trying to get the car out by themselves they saw a young farmer coming down the lane, driving some oxen before him. The farmer stopped when he saw the couple in trouble and offered to pull the car out of the mud for $50. The husband accepted and minutes later the car was free. When they thanked him and paid the farmer for his work he smiled and said, “You know, you’re the tenth car I’ve helped out of the mud today.” The driver looked around at the fields incredulously and asked the farmer, “With all that work, when do you have time to plough your land? At night?….” “No,” the young farmer replied seriously, “Night is when I put more water in that muddy patch there.”
I guess you might share my thinking when I say that the young man should have been rather more concerned with farming – yet I have met such farmers. I met one farmer who told me in all seriousness that the best crop he had ever planted was septic tanks – in other words selling off his farm in lots… yet that should make us uneasy because farms are what ultimately we depend on for survival…just as by analogy we should feel uneasy about anything that might take us away from the tasks that we sign up for in joining this mysterious place of Christian vocation – the Church.
I don’t know about others’ experience but it occurred to me that each time I have heard sermons and expositions on this story the emphasis seems inevitably to go on the different ways the seed can be received. Perhaps this is the passive easy option because the active disciple would surely be at least partly involved in spreading the seed. This raises two interesting questions. How should the seed be spread and where should it be spread? For a variety of reasons both the how – and the where have become very restricted so Jesus story has an intriguing twist in that he has the sower going against the custom of the day and scattering the seed even where it seems unlikely to grow. Perhaps we who seem to prefer the soil to come to us – and reject the possibility of sharing the words and actions of the gospel with those who seem at first sight to offer poor return might find new meaning in the parable if we consider ourselves to have the task of sowing as well as receiving the seed.
The man who went out to sow may well be the most familiar of Jesus’ parables and as we get familiar with a story it starts to lose its novelty – and its ability to make us think. Yet as with all Jesus’ stories there are layers of meaning we can uncover which I suspect might bring back the freshness of this master tale. So looking again at this story from a twenty first Century perspective we look to see what else might be noticed.
We might for example look at what we now know about seeds. From a scientific point of view, seeds, if anything are simply more miraculous than was first thought. Now with genetics beginning to be understood we now know that within each small seed there is a much tinier spot which contains the instructions for the incredibly complex life form which may result when the seed begins to grow. Each part of the new plant whether it be the tip of the root, the energy releasing parts of the cells, the complex hormonal communication system, the instructions for form and function, the parts that will provide strength, the chloroplasts for photosynthesis, mitochondria for the release of energy, starch for the store of energy, these and very many other things are all coded in instruction form.
Yet the instructions still need the right environment – without warmth and water the seed is unlikely to germinate. Without the right chemicals present the genes are not “turned on”. Without a continued food supply of the particular chemicals needed for growth including the trace elements needed in the smallest amounts, healthy and continued growth will not happen. Mind you this growth sometimes happens in most surprising ways. I have for example seen cracked mortar in old brickwork where where plants insist on growing – not even in soil …. This may explain why the man who went out to sow, scattered seed in some unlikely places.
Something else we now know about seed is that when farmers, year after year, only using the same specifically chosen seed and only growing it in one perfect place, they are following a long term recipe for disaster. Only one plant form and only in one preferred in one area rapidly and selectively takes the plants preferred food out of the soil and subsequent generations of plants in the same area rapidly weaken and the soils become deficient in the needed nutrients. Perhaps here we are being warned not to restrict our thinking to those who happen to come to our Sunday service.
If the soil can be used as analogy for the range of ways in which the church might offer the gospel – insisting that all adopt the same formulae of faith – and that all should focus on exactly the same age old traditional tasks would by analogy drain the church of nutrient. In any event, as the needs of the community changed there would be little expectation that the old chosen growth form would still be needed or even relevant.
Jesus knew that people are different. Listen again to the parable:
“Listen!”, he said, “A sower went out to sow. And as he
sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and
ate them up. 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. 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
brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some
Later, as we know from our reading of the gospel today, Jesus explained this parable for his disciples. Basically his interpretation tells us that different kinds of people respond to the gospel in different ways.
But in theory at least we have a distinct advantage because these days we now know a great deal. For example if we see ourselves as the different types of soil into which the seed, (ie the gospel) is made available we might to well to remember that soil can be improved, and not only soil can be improved but growing conditions too can be changed to enhance growth.
To return to the planting analogy, I have been told by keen gardeners that a previously struggling mandarin tree can be transformed with a bit of citrus fertilizer round the drip line of the tree.
So I guess taking the analogy a little further – finding the missing bit might transform the product. For example we might be continually talking about Christianity as service to the community – yet never be providing the opportunity or stimulus for actual opportunities for service.
Something else I learnt from the horticulturalist in my family – who I must make clear is not me!
When they start seed growing at the nursery they really look after the plants – starting with seed trays where they can make sure there is no competing growth from weeds. Then the plants are put in shade houses – this keeps them safe from the hot sun or the wind or those frosty winter days. But here is the thing. If you don’t toughen up the plant by taking it out of the tunnel house as soon as it is big enough – then when it comes to the first strong wind, – or the first really cold day, the plant will die.
This is why if again we go back to the gospel, it makes perfect sense that rather than keeping the young Christian sheltered in the Church where the hardest thing he or she might be asked to do is wave their hands in the air and clap in time to a chorus, we should encourage them to take on some real life challenges – perhaps serving as a volunteer for a time in a third world country, working for a soup kitchen, working with the IHC or the elderly, or even helping with a drop in centre for wayward teenagers.
Adults too need challenges. If we only see Christianity in terms of living in the tunnel house – or if you like, attending Church to do daring things like singing a new hymn – or even attending a leaders meeting – it may be that we need to harden up a little and start seeking to be Christ’s hands and hearts in places of need. It could even be that we should take our democratic responsibilities seriously when it comes to telling our politicians how they should be using our tax dollars. If our Christian promises are to mean anything, sometimes our selfish interests may need to be given second place.
We tend to see humans as superior to plants because we can move around independently – but one reason why I am attracted to Jesus likening us to drawing attention to the growing stimulus for plants, is there is another important difference between plants and animals like humans. We stop growing quite early in life. A tree on the other hand keeps growing right through its life. Just maybe there is another parable here – but that is for another day. AMEN
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR GROUP STUDY
1. Does our church currently give priority to acting on Jesus’ teaching about spreading the gospel?
2. Are those in the wider community generally expected to seek out the Church? – or are the church members taking the Christian message out into the community?
3. Do you think the local community recognises the relevance of modern Christianity? (eg are Church attendances reflecting this perception?)
4. What are the challenges to practical Christian service offered to
a) our young people?
b) the adults in the Church?
5. Do you think a majority of the Church adults are continuing to grow in their understanding and in their confidence to tackle the current issues?
6. List any political issues which should take the attention of modern Christians and reflect on whether or not the current attention towards such issues has the right balance
NB Feel free to respond via the comment box. For example I would appreciate finding out if questions such as the ones offered are of help at the local level.