Many of Jesus’ listeners were farming peasants. These may not have been learned people, but we underestimate their intelligence at our peril. There were things they knew: among these, farming, sowing, and growing were paramount to their day-to-day survival.
Jesus is speaking, in our parable, to a ‘great crowd’ gathered from a number of small villages. Luke tells us little about them other than their location and perhaps their motivation. Jesus has been on a speaking and healing tour. What he has done and said has sparked their interest. He has taught about God and God’s Kingdom. He has cast out ‘evil spirits and infirmities’
These people have gathered to hear and see one they struggle to pigeon-hole. Is he a teacher? A healer? From God or devil? Heaven or Hell?
And Jesus addresses them with a parable. These short stories often stretch reality inviting the listener to seek an interpretation beyond the literal. Perhaps Jesus characteristic ending to these stories can be understood as an invitation to careful consideration: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen”.
A first-century farmer would immediately know that this was not a lesson in sowing technique. Seed was a precious commodity. To waste the potential held in each grain was to dance with danger. By the time some was eaten, some sold, and some stored for the next season, there was little left. For many seed was the only hope for feeding a family. Every grain was a precious link to next season’s harvest.
But here we have a farmer who seems generous, foolish, even ignorant in technique. His seed lands everywhere: on the path, among the rocks, and on the unbroken, weed-ridden ground. Perhaps it is surprising any made it onto the clean, prepared, ‘good’ soil at all!
Luke leaves us to wonder what the crowd made of this unwise farmer. No doubt some really did just write it off as a silly story or gave up mining it riches for other interests. For many mulling over this story may have seemed futile – a looking with no hope of perceiving.
Even the disciples did not understand without some clarification. But all too soon they are alone with Jesus and get an insider’s account of their Rabbi’s intention.
It would seem Jesus’ parable makes reference to all that he has been doing – teaching and healing across Galilee. He sees himself as a sower – not scattering seed – but the very word of God. He is scattering widely – even where little preparation has been made. It may look foolish to seasoned farmers.
Of course, it may also be understood as generous, far reaching, an act of grace to, and hope for, all.
Indeed, not all the soils – the people – are ready to receive. Although the same word of God lands in each place it is the soil that makes the difference. Some are so hard that no penetration is possible. Others offer some depth but not enough to sustain growth. Still others are distracted and choked by other options.
And then there are those who ‘…hold it fast in an honest and good heart…’. Their harvest still takes time and may even test their patience. But it bears fruit. It allows the seed of God to do what it is intended to do.
Of course, this story leaves us asking of our own lives. What distracts us from the seed God is planting? Where are we too hard and closed to hear? What depth do we offer to God? Where is the potential for God’s fruit to blossom in us?
And perhaps the most pertinent question of all: Do I hold the word of God fast in an ‘honest and good heart’?
These are more than nice, religious questions. They have the potential to go to the very core of our openness to God.