From the 2011 ForeWords archive:
I returned last weekend from a 1,700-mile road trip. Let me tell you, there’s a whole lot of corn growing between western Missouri and east-central Michigan! Mile after mile the lush cornfields stretched out, interspersed by a fair number of soybean fields. There was also the occasional wheat field, and the farther north we got the less likely it was to have been harvested.
Anyway, it looks like this will be a bumper year for corn. But then, the season’s not over. I do recall that in early June my wife and I traveled from Kansas City to Omaha for my annual checkup at the transplant center there. We saw a lot of lush cornfields along Interstate 29 then, too. Today many of those fields are underwater as the record Missouri River flooding works its way downstream. Mother Nature can be fickle–and sometimes ferocious. As well, I’m not sure how much of the corn we saw will eventually end up as food for humans or animals and how much will be turned into ethanol (that’s probably a discussion for another blog posting anyway).
Even as someone who grew up in the Midwest and has certainly never been a stranger to the sight of vast acreages growing corn, I was struck by the awesomeness of hundreds, perhaps thousands in some cases, of acres of land under cultivation with a single crop. Of course, I’m fully aware of the enormous costs undertaken by farmers for seed, chemical fertilizers, and giant equipment to plant, harvest, and transport to grain elevators.
In central Michigan, because of an unusually rainy spring that delayed planting, the corn plants were still just a few inches high in their long, straight rows. Here in western Missouri the cornfields recalled the scenes in the movie Field of Dreams, where long-dead baseball players moved in and out of their magical existence through towering stalks of corn.
Those are the images in the back of my mind as I read this week’s Gospel lection. Jesus’ parable of the sower is arguably his most well-known. Most likely, the allegorical explanation that comes a little later in chapter 13 was added by a later commentator rather than Jesus’ own work. It’s perhaps good to keep in mind a certain wariness about turning any of the Gospel parables into allegories, if for no other reason than to do so tends to limit the possibilities for deeper meaning. And let’s be honest here: Jesus was all about deeper meanings.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! 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 thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! –Matthew 13:1-9 NRSV
There are many ways to interpret this parable, but one of the most common is to understand it as a template for evangelism. We’re to get out there in the world and spread the seed of the gospel, being careful to plant the seed in the most advantageous places–among those presumably most receptive. It doesn’t take much imagination to assign individuals or groups we’re familiar with as “rocky ground,” “thin soiled,” “thistle infested,” or “most likely to be eaten by birds.” The “good soil” will produce the greatest abundance, of course; therefore, if we want the church to grow and prosper we should direct our attention there.
But what if this isn’t about us being the sower? Perhaps Jesus was simply echoing a long tradition in the Hebrew Bible of God as sower (Genesis 1:11-12, Jeremiah 31:27, and Hosea 2:23) in this parable. If that’s true here, why would Jesus be talking about wasting a good deal of the seed/Word if the whole point is to reap an abundant harvest?
Maybe, just maybe this story isn’t really about evangelism efforts and strategic plans. Maybe it’s just about grace. And if it is, then what might that say to us about our attitudes toward so-called rocky places? Or what if we’re like the seeds the sower scatters? Well, I don’t have definitive answers to that. But I do know a little about divine grace, because I’ve been on the receiving end more than a few times. None of us ever deserves grace, yet God continually provides it.
Perhaps it’s simply a human characteristic or tendency that when we pick up the Bible to read we automatically think it’s all about us–primarily as individuals, less so as communities or even the human race as a whole. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I read this passage of “a sower went out to sow” as “God went out to scatter grace,” it turns everything upside down.