Once again Jesus began to teach beside the sea. A huge crowd gathered; so he got into a boat and stationed himself on the sea, with all the crowd on the shore looking out to sea. 2He taught them lots of things in parables. This is how his teaching went.3‘Listen!’ he said. ‘Once upon a time there was a sower who went out sowing. 4As he was sowing, some seed fell beside the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on the rock, where it didn’t have much soil. There was no depth to the ground, so it shot up at once; 6but when the sun came up it was scorched, and withered away, because it hadn’t got any root. 7Other seed fell in among thorns; the thorns grew up and choked it, and it didn’t give any crop. 8And other seeds fell into good soil, and gave a harvest, which grew up and increased, and bore a yield, in some cases thirtyfold, in some sixtyfold, and in some a hundredfold.’9And he added, ‘If you’ve got ears, then listen!’
From where I am sitting I can see, out in the autumn fields, the farmer harvesting the corn. It isn’t all in yet; some of the fields won’t reach their full growth for another few weeks. But when I walk down the lane, or drive through mile after mile of golden grain gently waving in the wind, there is a strong sense of fulfilment. As far as the farms are concerned, this is the moment the whole year has been waiting for. This is what all the hard work has been about. It’s time to draw it all together and celebrate the goodness of land, rain, sunshine and fresh air, all contributing to the great harvest.
It is not surprising, given that ancient Palestine had an almost entirely rural economy, that the theme of harvest was a powerful image in the ancient scriptures, pointing forwards to the time when God would fulfil his promises at last. What’s more, when things had gone badly wrong – when God’s people had gone away into exile in Babylon – some of the prophets spoke not just of a coming harvest, but of a fresh ‘sowing’. God would ‘sow’ his people again in their land, so that the new harvest, when it came, would be the result of a fresh act, a renewal of the covenant.
This, I believe, is why Jesus chose to speak about, and Mark chose to highlight, this idea of the seed being sown – and much of it apparently going to waste. With this famous parable, Jesus is saying two things in particular. The crowds were eager for the first, but not for the second.
The people who crowded to the shore to hear him (the northern shore of the sea of Galilee, around Capernaum, has several natural amphitheatres where someone speaking from a boat can easily be heard by thousands) had, indeed, come in the hope of hearing the first point. As for the second, they may have found it not just unwelcome but incredible. Perhaps that is why Jesus had to say it in ‘parables’, teasing stories ending ‘if you’ve got ears, then hear’. When you say that sort of thing, you expect people to hear you hint that ‘I am saying some-thing important but cryptic here, and you’ve got to decode it . . . perhaps because it’s dangerous’.
The first thing, for which his hearers were on tiptoe with excitement, was the good news that the ‘sowing’ was indeed happening at last. Jesus’ kingdom-movement was indeed the long-awaited restoration of God’s people. The hints, signs and symbols that Jesus had been putting out were true. This was the moment! Everything was going to be different! God would liberate his people at last!
But the second, so surprising and unwelcome, was that God’s great kingdom-action, bursting in upon them through Jesus’ words and works, was not having the effect that one might have imagined. The seed was being sown, but a lot of it seemed to be doing no good at all. Birds were eating some of it. Other seed produced quick-growing plants without any root. Other seed was choked by thorns. Jesus is under no illusions, and he wants his hearers to be clear as well: yes, this is God’s long-awaited new work, but no, it doesn’t mean that God’s people can simply be affirmed, or their national aspirations underwritten, as they stand. As the ancient prophets had always warned, when God finally does the new thing he’s promised, it is bound to be a work of judgment as well as mercy. That is what Jesus’ contemporaries (just like us) don’t want to hear.
Jesus was warning his contemporaries that, just because they were Jews, just because they were, as it were, part of God’s team – and, as well, just because they had suffered for their heritage – that didn’t automatically mean that they would be the sort of soil that would produce a great harvest. They might well find that Jesus’ kingdom-message was exciting, while they were listening to it, but not immediately relevant to this or that situation in their lives . . . Or they might think it was so exciting that they should rush off and do something right away, but with-out really thinking about it . . . Or they might try to combine following Jesus with all the usual concerns of everyday life . . .One way or another, things would go wrong. Even though God’s kingdom-project was indeed going ahead, many of those you might have expected to be front and centre in taking it forward would, like T. S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, mysteriously be ‘not there’.
Now this, I believe, was a very specific and urgent warning to Jesus’ contemporaries. God’s kingdom was going ahead – there really would be a bumper harvest, thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. But they might not be part of it, however much they thought it was theirs by right, and however much enthusiasm they felt for it at the moment. As so often, however, what was specific to Jesus’ first hearers can then be ‘translated’ as the message we need to hear, and to speak, today. Anyone who knows the state of Christian faith and life in the wider world today can be in no doubt that, despite the decline in church attendances in the Western world, the seed is being sown in all kinds of ways. New, enthusiastic movements are springing up all over the place. This parable issues a warning, not least to the leaders of such movements: how deep are the roots going? What protection are you offering against the birds and the thorns? Today’s excitement can easily become tomorrow’s boredom, or worse. Some of the ‘new atheists’ were once – for a short while – keen Christians. Evangelists, church planters and pastors, take note.
Grant us, sovereign Lord, to nurture the seed of the word, to guard it and let it grow, and to bring forth a harvest to your glory.