This is the well known parable of the sower – well known, and often ignored!
The agricultural method Jesus described was familiar to his hearers, but perhaps not to us. Seed was broadcast by hand over land which had not yet been ploughed. (This was the way it was done by our neighbours in Uganda, and is still the method in many parts of the world today where the hot sun may dry up bare earth too quickly.) Most paths went beside the long narrow fields but there were no ‘rights of way’ and paths could be formed across them, especially after harvest. The farmer would scatter seed over these paths, and plough them up; likewise he would scatter them over the weed infested land because that too would then be ploughed up. The ‘rocky places’ were where the limestone was close to the surface and the soil shallow and quickly warmed by the sun – hence the rapid germination but poor result.
Our reading does not go on to the interpretation which follows. Only the closest disciples heard Jesus’ explanation of the parable; most of the people would have heard just the parable and then had to try and work out for themselves what Jesus meant by it. His challenge at the end, ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear!’ would have left them in no doubt that he meant them to think hard about it. Fortunately for us, we know what was in Jesus’ mind. But we still have to think hard about what Jesus is saying to us.
Isaiah had quoted God as saying, ‘My word… shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it’ (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus tells us that what God’s word accomplishes depends on how it is received. The implication is that we are responsible for how we respond to the teaching we are given. If we don’t take it in at all, that teaching is like the seed sown on the path. If we listen and respond in the enthusiasm of the moment but do not really let it take root in our lives, we are like the seed sown in rocky ground. In the parable the sun made the plant wither; in the explanation Jesus says it is trouble or persecution that affect us – circumstances seeming to disprove what we’ve learnt, or others’ outright opposition to the teaching. In all these cases the teaching does no good.
In the third case the teaching really does take root. But it too does not result in anything, because we are distracted by our busy everyday lives – our cares and pleasures. Jesus is very realistic. We can be distracted by pressures, worries and anxieties, and equally by having fun! There is no crisis in our faith; it is simply that other things creep in and the teaching recedes into the back of our minds, and ceases to have any effect.
What God is looking for, of course, is the kind of response that takes in what he is saying, and lets it become part of us, changing the way we think and behave. The result is far more fruitful than we could ever hope for!
1) What ‘rocks’ and ‘thorns’ are there in your life these days?
2) How could you improve your ‘soil’?