A Parable of Triumph or Tragedy?
July 10, 2005
Is the parable of the sower a positive or a negative parable? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Like many of Jesus’ parables, this parable can be read in different ways. Therefore it is up to us to decide which way to read it. Some would conclude that it is a tragic parable because much, if not most, of the seed does not grow. It is eaten by the birds of the air, choked by the thorns, or scorched by the sun. But others would see it as a positive parable of growth, because the seed that falls on the good soil produces a bountiful harvest of a hundred, sixty, and thirty-fold.
I believe that Jesus is calling us to hear the parable positively, to see it as a parable of growth. The parable is carefully shaped to fit the contours of our lives. After all, the parable is not about agriculture, but about human existence. It is not about seeds, but the Kingdom of God.
What this parable tells us about our life is this: We will never succeed in all of our projects and goals. We will never fulfill all of our hopes and dreams. We will never remain connected to all of the people who we love. Some of our hopes and dreams will not grow and will disappear as quickly as the seed that was eaten by the birds. Some of our projects and goals will start to grow, but then become scorched and wither away because of lack of root. Some of the people that we love will not love us in return. Others will form a relationship with us for a while but will not be able to adjust to new circumstances. In time our relationship with them will suffocate, like the seed that is choked by the thorns. Either because of our own mistakes or because of other circumstances, many of the hopes and dreams that we have will not come to fruition. Much of what we desire will be lost like seed that does not grow.
But this parable also includes a harvest–a rich harvest. For all the seed that does not grow, there is other seed that produces a hundred, sixty, and thirty-fold. I believe Jesus is calling us to focus on the harvest. For all the goals, for all the relationships, for all the dreams that were never fulfilled, this parable calls us to remember all of those realities that did grow, that did bless us and sustain us still. We must not focus on the parts of our lives that have failed or live our lives in guilt and self-pity. We cannot base our lives on all the what-ifs. What if – I tried harder? What if – circumstances were different? What if – I made another decision? All of these what-ifs have no future. Attaching our lives to them is as useless as crying over spilt milk or over seeds that never grew.
Instead of lamenting about all the things in our life that did not happen, this parable calls us to rejoice in the things that did happen—in the goals we were able to achieve, in the hopes that we were able to realize, in the relationships that still support us to this day. They are God’s gifts to us. There might be many of our hopes and dreams that did not materialize, but the ones that did are enough to provide a bountiful harvest, a rich life.
So is the Parable of the Sower a comedy or a tragedy? It all depends on how you read it. The same is true of our lives. We can choose to focus on all of our dead dreams and wrap ourselves in despair. Or we can choose to accept the harvest that has been given us with thankfulness and joy. How do you choose to live your life? What do you choose to see–a triumph or a tragedy? Only you can decide. Let those who have ears to hear, listen.
The Parable of the Sower
July 13, 2008
Matthew 13: 1 – 23
Many years ago when I was in the seminary studying the bible, I was not very impressed with today’s parable of the sower. It seemed to me too obvious and to predictable. Some seed falls here, some seed falls there, some seed grows, some does not. Ok. Fine and good, let’s move on. This parable did not have much impact or meaning for me. Today, after 35 years of living, this parable is one of my favorite parables. I understand now that it not only tells us what we should believe but how we should live.
The key to understanding the parable is to realize who the sower is. We are the sower. We are the sower because we are trying to make things grow. What are we trying to make grow? Any good thing, any noble purpose, or mission or goal which we have in life. We try to make our marriage grow, to deepen it and to make it more life giving. We try to make our children grow so that they become responsible adults, believing Christians. We try to make our work productive to benefit others. We try to keep our family together in unity and respect. We try to care for an ailing person in our home. We try to build a better world, being more conscious of the weak and the marginalized, protecting the environment, supporting the dignity of every human being. Whatever good thing we try to do, whether it is personal or interpersonal or international, we are the sower trying to make things grow.
And here is where the parable is particularly valuable. It describes sowing and what a sower needs to do. The parable tells us two important things about any good effort we undertake. Number one: losses are not the same as failure. Number two: faithfulness is more important than success. Every time we undertake a good effort we need to remember that losses are not the same as failure. In any good effort there will be losses, and some of them will be great. It will be like the seed that falls on the pathway and is eaten up or the seed which flourishes for awhile and then whithers away. A marriage will come to an end. A close friend will die. A great plan will unravel. A dream will fade. All of these losses are a part of life. None of these losses mean that life is without hope or that we should give up. For all the losses, for all the seed that does not grow, other seed falls on good ground and begins to produce grain. A new relationship blossoms. An old friend reenters our life. Life takes a turn and suddenly we are blessed in a way that we had not been expecting. Losses are not the same as failure because for all the seed that does not grow other seed lands on good ground, puts down root, and produces the harvest.
This leads to the second lesson which this parable offers us: faithfulness is more important than success. Because we are not in control of which seed grows and which seed does not, because we cannot determine where each seed will fall, it is of utmost importance that we keep sowing the seed. We must not stop throwing the seed on the ground. We need to do this even when it seems that our teenager will never listen, or our parents will never understand. We need to do this even when it seems our family will never be reconciled or we will never find forgiveness. We need to keep doing this even when the unborn will not be protected, the poor will not be fed, the environment will not be respected. In spite of all this lack of success, we must keep sowing seeds of peace, reconciliation, justice, and love. Many of those seeds will not grow, but the few which fall on good soil will produce the harvest. Only God can bring about the harvest, but that harvest cannot happen unless we keep sowing good seed on the earth.
The parable of the sower then gives us direction in any good effort we undertake. It tells us not to be paralyzed by our losses, but keep sowing the seed of God’s love in our lives. Ultimately this parable is a parable about freedom, because it tells us we can never change the heart of another person. We do not have the power to establish God’s kingdom. Therefore, our only responsibility is faithfulness. This parable tells us that when we stand before the king on the last day, we will know the one question which he will ask us. Christ will not ask us: “Why did you not change the heart of that person; Why did you not reconcile your family; Why did you not establish justice in the world?” The one question Christ will ask us is this: “Did you keep sowing the seed?”
July 16, 2017
When I was in the fifth grade, I really wanted a dog. “No way,” my mother said. “After a few months you’ll tire of that dog, and I will have to take care of it.” She was right, of course. I will not ask for a hand-count of how many parents quickly became the primary care givers of their children’s pets. That is not my point. Because I could not have a dog, I convinced my parents to let me keep a goldfish. A goldfish is not exciting as a dog. But I enjoyed feeding it and watching it swim around in the little bowl that was its home. Then one morning I got up and there it was floating on the water as dead as could be. We buried the goldfish in the backyard, and after the funeral I asked my father, “Do you think my goldfish is now with Jesus?” “That’s a good question,” my father said. “Why don’t you ask your religion teacher? This is why we send you to Catholic school.”
So the next day I asked Sister Philomena, “Is my goldfish in heaven?” “Not a chance,” she said. “Eternal life is only for human beings. When an animal dies, it’s just dead.” Not very consoling words for someone who just buried a goldfish, but Sister Philomena was not making them up. In the 1850’s Pious IX taught that animals do not have a rational soul and therefore cannot distinguish between good and evil. So animals are incapable of eternal life. This teaching was, by and large, Catholic teaching to our present day. Then in 2015 Pope Francis released his Encyclical, Laudato Si. In that encyclical he boldly states that every creature gloriously transformed will share in eternal life. Now, I like Pope Francis, but I can’t give him credit for those thoughts because Paul says the same thing in today’s second reading. He tells the Romans that when Jesus returns in glory, all of creation will share in that glory with him—all of creation, not just humans, not just animals, but trees and mountains and oceans as well. God made all that is, and God made all that is good. So when Jesus comes to finish his work of salvation, all of creation will be gloriously transformed into a new existence. Paul even uses the image of all creation groaning as in labor pains, because all of creation is ready to give birth to the Kingdom of God.
Now, if we accept Paul’s words, and I think we should, it seems to me that there are two consequences: respect and delight. If all that is comes from God’s hands, then we should respect all that God has made. Respect every creature. Now, all creatures are not of equal value. A baby is worth a lot more than a flea. But every creature in its own way reflects a part of God’s goodness and glory. Therefore, even as we use creation for our own benefit, for our nourishment and technological advances, we should use other creatures with reverence, because they are holy. Creation deserves our respect.
Creation should also lead to delight. In these beautiful summer days we should rejoice in what God has made. When you laugh at the speed with which your dog goes after his ball, or are stunned by how green the grass is, or are suddenly lifted up by the sweet smell of fir trees in the woods, remember all of these creatures are not only good and beautiful—they are eternal.