St Stephen's

Sunday 11th July 1999

Year A 15

Isaiah 55: 10-11; Rom. 8: 18-23; Matt. 13: 1-23

Sower and Seed

The Parable of the Sower and the Seed gives us a chance to ask ourselves why Jesus used such parables so often in his teaching.

The first clue to answering this question, a question which the disciples asked, you remember, when they said "Why do you talk to them in parables?" is contained in that short but crisp command which Jesus gave at the end of the parable itself: "Listen, anyone who has ears!"

Jesus was pointing out to them the vital difference between listening and hearing. If we're not totally deaf then we can hear that someone is speaking to us; but the ability to understand what they are saying depends on whether we are really listening to them or not, and, given that we are listening, how hard wee are prepared to apply our minds to what is being said.

"Now, listen carefully to me". How often we have said that to our children, or had it said to us when we were younger! What it means is "Don't just be aware that I am speaking to you; concentrate hard so that you can follow my instructions because they are really important."

Or how often in later life have we heard an announcement being given out over the loudspeaker at a railway station and yet failed to understand it – either because the system is faulty, or because the announcer has such a strong accent, but usually because we simply haven't been listening.

People who just don't listen to the Word of God learn nothing about what it is saying to them. Those who listen carefully, even though they may not at first understand everything that it is telling them will certainly learn something particularly if they ask someone else who has more experience in it to help them.

But Jesus, like St Paul and St Peter and St Barnabas, was quite clear in his mind that it was a waste of time talking to those who for any reason were unwilling to listen. "Shake the dust of your feet as a testimony against them" advised Jesus. "We're going to the Gentiles now," said Paul to the Jews whose closed minds prevented them from listening to the Good News he was bringing them of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

So the first part of the Parable of the Sower and the Seed makes two related points. Firstly it highlights the fact that a lot of seed is going to be wasted anyway because the Word is falling on deaf ears; but secondly it flags up the fact that the crop which results from the seed which takes root in fertile ground, in the hearts of those who "hear the Word of God and keep it", far exceeds any wastage which may have happened at the sowing stage. Even if ninety percent of the seed is wasted, the successful ten percent's yield of an hundredfold more than makes up for the wastage.

Jesus then continues his parable to tell us more about why the seed got wasted; and the way he tells us shows why he used parables so often. It's because most people if they can only be given a picture to look at or think about will understand, and remember, the lesson very much better than if they are given mere words to think about.

Consider the seed that fell by the wayside and was gobbled up by the birds.

Jesus could have said of course, if he'd been addressing a group of sociology students, "in my experience the audio-intellectual concentrations span and memory-retention capacity of some people is much shorter than that of others": and perhaps they would have understood what he meant. But for you and me how much easier it is to understand and remember something in picture language. "Learning's like sowing seed: some falls by the wayside and gets eaten by the birds" or "Sometimes what people hear goes in one ear and out of the other".

Everyone knows exactly what is meant by such picturesque expressions, just as they know that picture language is not to be understood literally.

So parables are neither more nor less than teaching-aids, easy to understand, easy to remember but which in every case must be "unpacked" by the hearer (with help from others if need be) if people are going to learn from them.

Let's now look at the other two unproductive sorts of earth mentioned in the parable: the thorny ground and the stony ground.

"Some seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it".

It's no good, is it, trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ if our other interests are all the time crowding him out of our lives. There'll only be one loser in the end – ourselves. If obeying the will of Jesus is always being given second or third place in our list of priorities, whether in favour of our job, our home, our car, our family or our pleasures, then it's quite certain that his word will get "choked out" and sooner or later disappear off our list of priorities altogether. Nothing wrong, mind you, in having a lot of interests: but the only way we can truly say "Jesus is Lord" is when he reigns supreme in our lives.

If it is God's purpose for us, as St Paul says, that we should be "set free from being slaves to decadence "in order to "enjoy the freedom and glory of the children of God" then allowing ourselves to become choked-off God by the worries and lures of this world is certainly the wrong way to go about it. Instead of a corn-harvest we shall produce a thorn-harvest!"

And then what about the seed sown on top of the stones?

Well, of course, at first sight it looks as though it's doing really well. It springs up immediately and looks very much as though it's going to fulfil its purpose.

But then things start to go wrong. Trouble comes, as it is bound to do, and the young disciple starts to get disillusioned. Fr Ellis, a wise priest from earlier in this century used to call this experience The Bump and warned his confirmation candidates about it all the way through their preparation.

The Bump can take many forms. It may come as some kind of misfortune: a friend or a relative dies suddenly or unexpectedly; one is made redundant; the parish priest who has been such a help to us leaves to go to another parish and we don't find his successor nearly so easy to get on with; or may be some scandal, real or alleged, arises about the behaviour of someone belonging to our church.

No matter what causes it, the Bump is bound to put people’s faith to the test; and the thing it will test is precisely how deep that faith has become rooted in the person who is being tested.

If' we've managed to put down decent roots then neither the Bump nor the scorching of the sun can harm our faith; if on the other hand our growth is superficial – all on the surface, so-to-say – then no matter how impressive our faith may appear to others, or to ourselves, it stands as little chance of coming to fruition as the seed sown in the rocky soil.

So that is why Jesus used pictures and parables to help people learn.

Firstly: because they describe pretty accurately what actually happens in real life;

Secondly because, being easy to understand and remember, they form a common language between people of very different intellects, cultures and traditions. You only have to use phrases like "falling by the wayside", "coming down to earth with a bump" or "lacking depth" and everyone who uses whatever brain they have will know what you are talking about.

Thirdly: parables and pictures provide us with a simple test of how seriously people want to learn about our faith in Jesus Christ.

Those who are willing to apply their minds to studying the pictures and parables we set before them, even if they can't understand them fully, will turn out to be the people whose lives yield a rich harvest for the Word of God.

But those who won't listen, who simply can't be bothered to think about these things for themselves will, sad to say, continue to live barren and unproductive lives.


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