Sowing seed is a deeply frustrating thing to do. Recently we decided to grow sunflowers. “Sow the seeds in pairs,” the instructions said. “When they germinate, take the stronger plant and put outdoors.” It was clear that the seed seller was looking for no more than a 50% success rate.
I also tried to patch up the mess that winter, excess rain, and the dog had made of the lawn. I must have chucked several kilos of grass seed in the bare patches. Maybe my expectations were over-optimistic, but the results were disappointing. It took ages, pigeons must have scoffed at least half of it (judging by the time they spent on the lawn), and the results were not at all the lush verdant green that I had hoped for. The patches that grew best were where there had been nothing at all, and the ground was cleared. The worst bits were where I had tried to fill in gaps.
Sometimes I wonder if this is part of the creative design. After all, a tree or plant produces thousand – even millions! – of seeds over its lifetime, and probably not more than 1% (if that) manage to grow to maturity as a new plant.
The parable of the sower is therefore one that makes perfect sense to anyone who knows plants and nature. Jesus lived and worked in a society deeply connected to the land and its rhythms. He also knew that telling stories made principles a lot easier to remember than if he talked philosophy at them.
There are many many ways to read and understand this parable, and indeed Jesus spells out his intended meaning in his explanation to the disciples. God searches for us indiscriminately, like a farmer sowing seed. He reaches out to us all. Some say we are the soil – good, bad, indifferent – to the Seed of the Word of God that He sows in us. Will we produce an abundant crop? Or are we like the seeds themselves? Will we grow a harvest, growing more seed in ourselves as we mature, or will the inevitable challenges and troubles of life (or indeed its pleasures and distractions) turn us away from God, instead of towards Him? Will we develop into the likeness of God?
The truth is that life is full of both challenge and distraction, both pleasurable and difficult. Challenges are there to give us opportunity to grow in strength of character, to build the muscles of conscience, knowledge, and compassion. We can either face and embrace those challenges and grow, or we can turn aside from them and slowly wither and atrophy into bitterness and weakness. It is not easy. And Jesus never said it would be.
However God is the great Gardener. He adds compost, He waters the plants, and does all He can to help them. But He can’t grow for them, and whilst soil can be improved, it remains soil. In the same way, though life’s journey is one we have to make ourselves, we are not alone in it. Jesus offers to be our Companion, through the Holy Spirit.
Gardening is still frustrating, and my lawn is still patchy. But the sunflowers that made it – four of the six – are thriving in the sunshine. I can’t wait to see the flowers, their golden beauty turning to follow the sun through the sky, filled with wonderful seeds for the next generation. Endless possibility!