The Parable of the Sower as Sign of God’s Provision in Nature
Readings for Year A—2013-2014 (Reprinted from 2010-11)
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary by Dennis Ormseth
Welcome righteous persons and we welcome Jesus the Servant of Creation!
Welcome and rejection: the lections for the Second and Third Sundays after Pentecost provided a basis for setting out implications for care of creation of welcoming or rejecting Jesus the Servant of Creation and his disciples. Those who welcome his disciples welcome him: to welcome him is akin to welcoming a prophet like Jeremiah, who rewards the congregation “with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation;” it is like welcoming a righteous person, who rewards the gathering with ‘redirection toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation;” it is like giving to vulnerable persons a cup of water, which beyond being a precious gift that sustains life, exemplifies the capacity of the creation to fulfill the purposes of God. Those who welcome the Servant of Creation do indeed receive their reward (see our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday after Pentecost).
Exploit creation and we reject Jesus the Servant of Creation!
Those who reject his disciples, on the other hand, also reject Jesus, the Servant of Creation. For what reason might we reject them? Mainly because we are too caught up in the business of the market place to share his concern for the gifts of creation. Or to put it somewhat differently, we are too deeply enthralled by the vision of a ruling power that can effectively dominate and control creation so that we secure and deliver the resources we need to sustain our lives (e.g., our industrial model of agriculture?). In other words, we completely fail to appreciate Jesus’ humble way of exercising dominion as care of creation, and we disregard his offer to provide the divine “rest” that encompasses all of creation.
Sowing seeds yields an abundant harvest.
The readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost invite reflection on this dynamic of welcome and rejection at a deeper level; they provide additional perspective on the reasons for and the consequences of these responses. Jesus’ parable of the sower locates the responses in a narrative thick with ecological insight. The sower’s seemingly careless hand distributes seed without regard to the terrain into which it happens to fall: “some seeds fell on the path. . . Other seeds fell on rocky ground…Other seeds fell among thorns. . . Other seeds fell on good soil . . . .” Indeed, one might suspect that this sower is blind, so completely does he appear to abandon his rate of yield to chance. His purpose is accomplished nonetheless! The seeds that fell on good soil “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty,” which, while not overly abundant, is sufficient for the sower’s purposes. Scholars argue whether or not the yield should be regarded as “superabundant.” Bernard Brandon Scott, for example, thinks the results “are well within the bounds of the believable. They are an average-to-good harvest.” See his discussion in Hear Then the Parable, pp. 355-58). In any case, it is an abundant harvest.
What good may come from sowing everywhere!
With respect to the seed that falls on path, rocky ground, or amongst thorns, the interpretive emphasis is commonly on the failed results. But if one reads with ecological perspective, there are possible advantages to the sower’s casual practice: birds are fed that otherwise might have gone hungry; no doubt stretches of good soil are utilized that might otherwise have been missed; and it is difficult to discriminate between good soil and poor, as one walks through the field. Indeed, could one really tell in advance which soil was really good and not just average, before it gave up its yield? And might there not also be some variation between seeds as well? From the same hand came seed that produced in some of the good soil “a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” With a sowing so thoroughly characterized by indeterminacy, perhaps there was more purpose in the action of the sower than first meets the eye.
God’s purposes in the sowing will prevail in the harvest
That is Jesus’ point, in our perspective. He knows about seeds and soils, obviously, and he appreciates the complexities of their cooperation in producing the yield the sower wishes so devotedly to achieve. His purpose in telling the story, of course, was not to instruct the disciples in agronomy, but rather to give them insight concerning their outreach to others. Appropriate to their call as disciples of the Servant of Creation, their mission is like a planting. They are as seed cast from the hand of the sower—in some places they will meet welcome and in other places they will meet rejection. Even when they are at first well-received and on occasion drawn into deeply fertile relationships, they will produce responses of wildly differing magnitude. But if the yield is not superabundant, in larger perspective the will of the sower will still be accomplished, because the yield will come in sufficient quantities that the hungry bodies in the sower’s household will be fed. The presence of the Servant of Creation will become known, and the purposes of his Father with the creation will be accomplished, in and through the disciples’ encounters on their journey, however often they meet with rejection.
See how God creates the order of creation
So we are encouraged by this parable to have confidence in the results of our cooperation in the mission of the Servant of Creation. And this encouragement is supported by the psalm and by the first lesson that accompanies it in the readings selected for this Sunday. The selected passage from Psalm 65 is all about the relationships God establishes in the world in the course of creating and sustaining it. The God that creates order out of chaos may seem more the forceful monarch who dominates and controls, rather than the relational creator of the Christian Trinity: “By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (Psalm 65:6-8). But God is also praised because “you visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its [i.e., the Earth’s] furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth” (Psalm 65:9-10).
The creative action of God is continuous!
Here is relevant background, indeed, for the parable of the sower: the soil is good because the Creator has taken care in preparing it! And anticipating the results of the sower’s action, the creation flourishes, whether aided by human hands or not: “the pastures of the wilderness overflow; the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (65:12-13). Thus the creative action of God is continuous; the relational purposes of God are indeed accomplished, with respect to both the creation and its continuing care and development, even to the welcoming of the disciples as followers of the Servant of Creation.
Just look at God’s provision! Earth and people rejoice together!
A similar assertion of divine purpose that is successful over a continuum that includes both creation and salvation comes from Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Stunningly, people and nature are in this instance seen to join together in rejoicing at the accomplishment of God’s purposes: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). And equally remarkably, those purposes include not only restoration of the people to the land but also rejuvenation of the land itself, even to the point of the generation of new kinds of vegetation: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13).
God the Sower will achieve God’s purposes for creation
Thus far, we note, the parable’s meaning is located entirely within the large frame of the relationship between Creator and creation. If the sower is God, humans are present within the narrative of the parable only as the seed and its yield for the household of God. So also psalmist and prophet rejoice in God’s works for the whole creation. This great frame was perhaps suggested by the author of the Gospel when he noted that Jesus told the parable as he “sat by the sea,” having gone “out of the house” where he had been meeting with his disciples. This is a message for everybody; indeed, it is of relevance for everything, for all creatures. So also, according to the parable, irrespective of the results of individual instances of human interaction, in the end, the seeding of the reign of God will produce yields sufficient to achieve God’s purposes for the creation.
Does the parable of the sower portray the theory of natural selection?
For the contemporary reader, it needs to be acknowledged that another meaning entirely might be drawn from the parable. We have suggested the possibility that the sower is blind and that his sowing is pervaded by indeterminacy. These are hints of an evolutionary reading of the process that would find no basis for attributing purpose in the sowing at all. The parable contains a good share of the elements needed for an argument for the theory of natural selection! The match between seed and soil is largely a matter of chance, and the variation in yields suggests the possibility of superior seed to be selected for the next generation. The yield is in any case readily explained as the result of a complex process governed from the beginning to end by natural process and contingent fact. If the intent was to tell about a ”supernatural” sower and account for the difficulties those who believe in such a being might have in being accepted, the outcome of the story is barely credible.
Especially problematic under such a reading would be the suggestion that so much seed should go to waste, the vexing question of an evolutionary theodicy: if its creator is the benevolent source of all good, worthy of praise by all creation, why is the process of nature so inherently wasteful of possible good? The occasional failure of the entire harvest, under such an indeterminate process, might easily result in famine throughout the land. The question, once raised, quickly escapes the bounds of reflection based on the parable. With respect to our focus on care of creation, we might ask: Why is the possibility of creation’s diminishment in any measure, seemingly built into its very structure?
Rejection of Jesus the Servant of Creation thwarts the harvest
We cannot pursue this discussion here; see Christopher Southgate’s extended analysis of the problem in his The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. We raise the question primarily to note that the lurking in the background of the telling of the parable is an anxiety about the success of God’s purposes in the ministry of Jesus the Servant of Creation, an anxiety that surfaces in the interpretation of the parable that Matthew presents as follow-up teaching of Jesus to his disciples. At fault in the failure to understand “the word of the kingdom,” is “the evil one” who comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path”; or alternately, weakness in the face of persecution causes the initially eager follower to fall away; and “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” choke the initially avid reception of the word.
God’s empire is an alternative to the Roman Empire
Rejection of the Servant of Creation has multiple sources, and their collective cultural power is strong. In this reading, it should be noted, a door is opened to introduce a variety of other factors: unmentioned, notes Warren Carter, but important for his interpretation of the parable as a critique of the imperial domination experienced by the sower who is “trying to eke out a living in generally inhospitable conditions,” are “other obstacles: rent, tithes, taxes and tolls, seed for the next year, a household to support. Crop failure meant borrowed money; indebtedness meant defaulting on the loan, loss of land, and virtual slavery as a laborer.” Carter clearly has in mind the oppressive culture of the Roman Empire, which sought to dominate and control all aspects of society, including, we need to add, its relationship to the creation that sustains it. The parable, Carter rightly suggests, “concerns socialization into an alternative culture constituted by God’s empire and in conflict with the dominant values and structures of the surrounding cultures” (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 282, 286).
It is unfortunate, however, that in the context of the parable itself, the birds and the sun have been, retroactively as it were, turned into adversaries of God’s purposes: the bird that snatches away the seed is “the evil one who snatches away what is sown in the heart”; the withering sun is the “trouble or persecution” which “arises on account of the word.” While it may be true that in relatively unknown Hebrew texts there is precedent for viewing birds as ”agents of the devil” (because they are known to eat seeds important for human consumption) the view is heedlessly allegorical and anthropocentric. It leads too easily to the supposition that the creation itself, beyond the human being, has been turned against the will of its creator, an interpretation of the consequences of the “fall”—that is, in the view of recent interpreters of the Genesis text, no longer viable (See Terry Fretheim’s discussion in his God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, pp. 70-89; and Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, pp. 28-34).
Accordingly, we have double reason to rejoice with the “mountains and the hills before us” as they burst into song, and to clap our hands “with all the trees of the field,” when “good soil” turns up to rescue us, creatures of the dirt that we are, along with all the other creatures, including the birds (Genesis 1:7). If further reflection on the cause of rejection beyond what has been offered here and in our comment on the texts for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, the reading for the second lesson from Romans provides a basis for exploring the inner struggle that humans experience when humans are alienated from God’s creation and turn it into an enemy of the Spirit, the giver of life (an orientation to the creation referred to as “living according to the flesh”). Because the eighth chapter of Romans is listed for reading on the next two Sundays, however, we defer discussion of that possibility to our comments on those texts.
Our alienation from creation contributes to our rejection of Jesus as Servant of Creation.
In conclusion, we note that this parable of Jesus, drawn as it is from an agrarian experience of life, implies a culture that is deeply counter to our modern, industrialized orientation to nature. It is the tension between these two cultures that we encounter in every aspect of the environmental crisis of our times: do we live and work and have our being within God’s creation? Or do we seek domination and control of nature, in pursuit of entirely anthropocentric purposes? Naturally, this culture of ours is not receptive to the Servant of Creation or his disciples. We cannot expect it to be, nor can we simply be content to adapt to its destructive power; we must hope for a restoration of the creation by the God who knows and loves it, and be willing to be enlisted in that mission.
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288