July 16, 2017
By Lucy Reid
One of the first things I learned when I was studying New Testament theology was that if there’s a passage in one of the gospels like this one, where Jesus tells a parable and then explains the meaning of it to his disciples, you can be virtually 100% sure that the explanation was added later by the gospel writer, not in fact provided by Jesus. It’s like a comedian telling a joke on stage: she doesn’t go on to explain why the joke’s funny. If she has to, it hasn’t worked. Jesus’ parables were vivid stories that he told to illustrate his teachings, not riddles needing explanations.
But as the parables of Jesus were remembered and retold in the early church, and eventually written down 30 to 70 years after he first told them, their meaning had sometimes become obscure by then, because the original context had been lost. So an interpretation was added that made sense of the parable in a new context – a story for the growing Christian church, for instance, in place of a story for Jewish peasants.
And that’s what we have in the parable of the sower: we have the original, very memorable story first, about someone sowing seeds, with different outcomes for the seeds, but then we have a later explanation given, where each element of the story is seen as having a symbolic or allegorical meaning, and it’s rather laboriously unpacked. And what we end up with is that it’s all about sowing the seed of the word of God, and people’s different responses. It’s become a rather churchy parable, about evangelism and discipleship.
But originally it was much simpler than that: it was about God’s purpose and how we can trust it. Someone scatters seeds, and some take root while others don’t, but in the end there’s a harvest. It’s a teaching about trust. And it’s like other sayings and stories where Jesus teaches about trusting God:
– “The kingdom of God is like someone scattering seed on the ground, who then goes to sleep and gets up day after day, and the seed sprouts and grows – he doesn’t know how.” (Mark 4:26, 27)
– “Look at the birds: they don’t sow or reap, but your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)
So much of Jesus’ teaching was that God is with us, God loves us, God’s kingdom is right here for us to step into and find abundant life. So we can trust that even when the wheels are falling off the bus and things are going wrong, we’re not alone, we haven’t been abandoned, and God’s loving purpose will unfold.
If we could actually believe that, wouldn’t it be a relief? – knowing that even if our efforts don’t seem to be bearing fruit, or we can’t make things turn out right, it’s OK, we can stop trying to be masters of the universe and let God be God.
This is how Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese puts it, in his book of meditations called Embers:
The single hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn is that the greater, grander plan is not mine to create or know. If I am in ceremony and prayer for the right reasons, I leave all that up to Creator. When I surrender outcome, all things good and pure and peaceful come to me. My job is to choose what appears. Easy to say but hard to do, to get out of the way enough to allow the energy to flow.
Can we learn to pray, and surrender the outcome to God, then get out of the way?
My son Ben has introduced me to the concept of emergence – allowing things to emerge as you go along, rather than planning everything to death. It can seem chaotic and vague and uncertain (like chasing a butterfly), especially in a culture like ours that prefers linear planning and setting measurable, achievable goals (like pinning a butterfly onto a board). But as I look at nature, I see things emerging and adapting and unfolding without any blueprints or strategic goals or mission statements. In nature things just are, and they live and die, they evolve and grow. We call that sort of growth organic for a reason.
And I believe that fundamentally God operates through organic emergence: seeds are scattered, some die, some wither, some do well, and God creates the harvest in the end. Humans are born, some thrive, some are crushed, some struggle, but we’re all held in God’s hand for a loving ultimate purpose. The individual process isn’t being controlled by a puppeteer God who make some people suffer and gives others an easy life: that’s not who God is. We create much of our own suffering, and some of it comes randomly. But all our lives are encompassed and held in God’s love.
Practise letting go of outcome.
Practise sowing seeds and standing back to see what emerges.
Practise praying rather than trying to control.
You will be amazed. (A deeply religious response.)
And one more thing: there’s a seed in us, trying to grow if we’d let it.
The seed of God is in us.
Now the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree;
and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree;
and a seed of God grows into God. (Meister Eckhart)