Jack and Max are walking home from mass one Sunday. Jack wondered whether it would be all right to smoke while praying. (As an aside, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not smoke; I am allergic to cigarette smoke; and I do not encourage any one to smoke. Now, back to the story.) “Why don’t you ask the priest?” asked Max. So Jack asks the priest, “Father, may I smoke while I pray?” “No, my son,” says the priest. “You may not. That’s utter disrespect to our religion.”
Jack tells Max what the priest said. “I’m not surprised,” says Max. “You asked the wrong question.”
So Max goes up to the priest. “Father, may I pray while I smoke?” “By all means, my son.” says the priest. “By all means. Pray anytime, anywhere! Pray without ceasing!”
The moral of the story is that the reply you get depends on the question you ask. And so it is with the parables of Jesus. Depending on the question we ask of them, we can get very different answers.
We get one of Jesus’ parables today, and I thought it might be useful if we began by defining what a parable is. The definition can help us ask the right question so that we can hopefully find the good news that is being proclaimed in the parable.
First, we need to know what a parable is not: a parable is not an allegory, where everything in the story represents something else. It is popular, however, to try and turn parables into allegories. You know, where someone tries to tell us that the sower represents (for example) the military-industrial complex, and the seeds are undercover agents, and the path represents whatever agenda the story interpreter has. The parable as allegory is primarily useful for advancing our own agenda, but it probably isn’t what Jesus had in mind.
A parable can be a simile, comparing one thing to another. When Jesus would say, the kingdom of God is like a woman making bread, that is a parable as simile. It takes something we know – a woman making bread – to help us learn about something we do not know yet – the kingdom of God.
And then we have stories like today’s reading. One of the best definitions I have heard for this kind of parable is that it is an imaginary garden with a real toad in it. The story-teller begins by imagining something fairly common, and then places in it something that doesn’t belong to make your point. Find the toad, and you find the point of the parable. In today’s parable, there are three main ways that people look for the toad.
The earliest tradition, placed in the mouth of Jesus himself by Matthew, is that we are to focus on what happens to the people who receive the good news. Some people live their lives on the hard paths of life, and the good news gets picked off. Some people get excited about their faith, but then there are some rocks, some obstacles in their life, that keep the faith from taking deep root, and their faith withers. Some people are confronted with thorny situations that make it hard to be faithful, and too many thorns means too many wrong choices made. And some people have supportive families, and secure living situations, and opportunities for growth, and their faith flourishes.
But I don’t think that is what Jesus was getting at in this parable. These observations would be true whether we were talking about Christianity or Amway or the Boy Scouts. In any organization, some people will thrive and others will face challenges to continue. And while this may be a wise observation, it is hardly good news. There is no toad in this garden.
Another tradition says we should look at the soil and what happens to the seeds that are sown. When we do this, we see that the better the conditions are, the better the results will be. It follows then that if we improve our conditions, we can improve our discipleship. So we are asked to do our spiritual discernment, and if we are not living as fruitful disciples, we are to consider if we are the hardened path, the rocky soil, or the thorny ground. We are then challenged to consider what we might do to become the good soil. If we are the hard path, we need to break up the soil by practicing the means of grace. If we are kind of rocky in our relationships, we need to remove those obstacles that keep us from making the commitments that allow for growth. If we are thorny around others, we need to quit being so defensive by allowing God to rule over our hearts.
But I don’t think this is what Jesus was getting at in this parable, either. This observation is that all that we need to become better Christians is a coach or a spiritual director who can hold us accountable for our spiritual progress. This is the same kind of insight that would apply for becoming better sales reps, better teachers, or better athletes. And while this might be good advice, it is hardly good news. There is no toad in this garden, either.
So what’s left? If it isn’t the seed or the soil, what’s left in this story to focus on? All that is left for us to focus on is the sower going out to sow seed. Here is where we find the toad. You don’t have to be a master gardener to know that scattering seeds on the road is not a good idea if you want to actually grow something. You have to wonder what the sower was thinking when the seeds landed in the thorns – that this would make harvesting a particularly memorable time? The point is no one would ever intentionally scatter seeds on roads and between rocks and in thorns, and yet that is exactly what the sower does. So what is it that we are to hear in this parable?
I think we have to forget our modern agricultural understanding of farming. Back then, they didn’t use discs and plows to till the soil. They didn’t fertilize the soil. They didn’t clear the land. They didn’t irrigate the land. They didn’t use insecticides or pesticides or weed killers. They didn’t know about row crops. And they didn’t expect more than 7 bushels return on every bushel of seed sown.
If we strip all that away, we know that this is not a parable about what we can do by our own efforts to increase the yield. And that is a good thing to know. We are not to have the false impression that God needs us more than we need God for the reign of God to come on earth. This is a heresy we hear in the old joke about a pastor complimenting a church member on their garden: “You and the Lord have grown a fine garden this year.” To which the member replied, “Yes, but you should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself.”
The sower scatters seeds on the ground, hopeful that there will be a crop, and then the sower walks away. He doesn’t know what happens to the seeds until he comes back after a reasonable time for the seed to grow. And as the sower in our parable tells us, there are several possibilities as to what could happen to the seed.
Some of the seed might still be sitting there on the hard ground, or at least the hulls after the birds ate the seed. And that’s OK, the sower thinks, because birds have to eat, too.
Looking around a little more, the sower can see that some of the seeds did take root, but didn’t last too long, so there wasn’t much of a plant there. And that’s OK, the sower thinks, because the withered plants would return nutrients to the soil that would help build up the soil for future seeds to take root in.
A little further investigation reveals that there are a few plants that grew up among the thorns. The yield is too little for the pain of dealing with the thorns, but that’s OK, the sower thinks, because there are songbirds that make their nests among the thorns, and the birds’ thanks fill the air with a joyful sound.
And then the sower discovers that in some of the soil, there is much more than the expected 7-fold return on the sowing of the seed. In some areas, there is a 30-fold increase, in others 60-fold, and in others 100-fold. This is so much more than any one could ever imagine! And that’s OK, thinks the sower, because there are people who are hungry and now they can be fed. The sower knows that every blessing is an obligation and calling to do more good.
The sower simply scattered the seed, and God provided food for the birds, nutrients for the soil, songs of praise for the people, and an answer to the prayers of the hungry. This parable tells us that we can trust the scattered grace of Jesus Christ. And as we conform our lives to that of Christ, we too are to scatter grace – even in, and especially in, those places where we may not get the results we consider the best.
Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk, in his book “New Seeds of Contemplation,” wrote: “Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women.”
In other words, all of us are always scattering seeds as we go through life. Our discipleship is defined by the kinds of seeds we are scattering. When we walk through the hard paths of life, we are scattering seeds. When we go through rocky patches, we are scattering seeds. When we encounter people who cause us pain, we are scattering seeds. Our discipleship has to be all the time, and not just when it is easy and bearing fruit.
John Wesley knew this intuitively. As part of his spiritual formation, one of the questions he would ask when examining the activities of his day was this: “Have I done anything without a present (or at least a previous) perception as to how it would reflect on the glory of God?”
This was part of his preparation for praying every morning and evening. We know this because he published a collection of prayers for every day of the week. And in these prayers, every Friday was Good Friday. In the prayers for that day, all the hard paths, rocky ground, and thorny issues that culminated in the death of Jesus on the cross are remembered. Every Friday, every faithful Methodist knew that, because of our sin, all the thorns that made up his crown are knit together and placed on the head of Jesus again.
I think it says a lot about what it means to be a disciple, when we hear these words in Wesley’s Thursday morning prayers, the prayers that come before the pain that we know is coming: “And for the things to come, give me your grace to do all things that please you; and then, with an absolute submission to your wisdom, to leave their final outcome to your hand.”
As a people, we don’t like leaving outcomes to powers beyond our control, even if that power is God. We want to till the soil, spray for bugs, test the soil for nutrients, fertilize as needed, irrigate when necessary, hoe out the weeds, scare away the birds, fence out the deer, and harvest a big crop so that we can say to all, “Look at what I have done.” We want to read the church growth books, and work on the five practices of fruitful discipleship, and do all the other things that will let us be the church that increases 30-fold because we worked the program successfully.
But like the sower in the parable, we know that our job is to simply scatter the grace of Jesus Christ, and let God provide the growth. The life of discipleship begins when we depend on God. That is what the toad in our garden proclaims! When the harvest is brought in, we are to join with the sower in saying, “Look at what God has done.” And that is good news!
The question to ask is not, “Does what I do make any difference?” The question to ask is “Is what I do a reflection of the life of Christ, and the glory of God?” The right question is the difference between a “works righteousness” that does not need God, and a holy response that is powered by God. The right question is the difference between having confidence in our plan for success, and having confidence in the Holy Spirit to complete what God has already begun. The right question is the difference between hoping for the kingdom and bringing forth the kingdom.