If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Wasteful Sower: a meditation on Mark 4:1-9

The Parable of the Sower brings to my mind the musical Godspell, an oddball, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. When I was in seminary in the 70’s some fellow students and church members put on Godspell at a coffee house my wife, Iris, and I started as a ministry to street people in San Francisco. We dressed up like clowns and acted out, or should I say ad libbed, the parts of the different seeds in the parable of sower. The seed that fell along the pathway was eaten up by a bunch of clucking and arm flapping chickens. The seed that fell on the rocky soil leaped up to life with a smile, but then went limp and withered by dropping to the floor under the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character and a lot of overacting. The seed that fell on good soil bounced up, flexed her muscles, and beamed with joy at the applause of everyone. In this goofy view of the parable the focus was placed on the different responses of the seeds.

There are different angles from which we can view the parable of the sower. Like a camera scanning the parable, we can zoom in close on the seeds lying scattered on the ground. Or we can pull back our shot and capture a view of the different types of soil. Or with time lapsed photography we could watch the different reactions of the seeds. If we were to focus our lens on the different kinds of soil, which is the way Mark's gospel interprets the parable, we might think this parable is about us. As the parable unfolds we might begin to ask ourselves: What kind of soil am I? Am I rocky ground? Do I need to smooth out some rough places in my life? What are the weeds in my soul? What chokes the life out of me? Am I a shallow person? Do I get all worked up and enthusiastic only to give up when the excitement of the new is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we would probably end up either feeling guilty or determined to see how we can beat the three-to-one odds of being poor soil for God's word. By focusing on the soils we may try to cultivate our own lives and become fertile fields for God, which is not a bad thing to do.

But….what if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable is not about birds and rocks and thorns, or about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or the receptiveness of our souls to God’s word? What if, instead of focusing upon the soil, we zoomed in on the sower. What if, by chance, it is a parable about a sower? It is called the parable of the sower, isn't it? The parable would look a bit different from how we have traditionally viewed it. If the sower is the main character of the parable, what might it say about life and God?

If we focused our lens on the sower, one thing we would immediately notice is that the sower flings his seed around rather wastefully. It falls on good and bad soil alike. According to the ancient practice of the peasant farmer, the sower's method is not so unusual. Most often seed was first scattered, then it was plowed under. It seems wasteful of the sower to scatter the seeds willy nilly across the land so it falls along the road, on rocky ground, among the weeds and thorns, as well as on the fertile soil. What might seem wasteful to us was the typical method of sowing for the peasant farmer, who scratched out a living from the dry, rocky Palestinian soil. In order to produce a harvest a lot of seed had to be recklessly, or should I say, graciously wasted. In the parable 75% of the seed was wasted in order to produce an adequate harvest. In that case, the odds of failure with that kind of sowing are three-to-one. There should have been a more efficient and productive way of sowing, don't you think?

If I were sowing the seeds, I would want greater odds of success. I would want to make sure the seed landed on fertile soil. This wasteful scattering of seeds hither and thither would have to stop. With this kind of wasteful sowing the odds of crop failure would be far greater than a fruitful harvest. In my estimation this is bad farming. Don't we all want to be thrifty and productive? We have all been told as children, "Don't be wasteful." Our bosses have encouraged us to be efficient. Those in business try to concentrate their efforts on what is most productive. Don't we all want to decrease the odds of failure in whatever we do? This is not only sound business advice, but good policy for living. Isn't it?

This is the kind of business advice churches are being given from the marketing world. According to marketing strategy, if we want to be a growing, productive church, then being efficient, concentrating on what is productive, and decreasing the odds of failure will keep the church from being wasteful of God's resources. And how does the church increase its growth and productivity? First, by being "market-driven" rather than "product-driven." That is, our focus should be on the needs of the customers, more than upon the product we offer. The soil takes priority over the seed. Second, marketing techniques can help the church be more efficient and productive. Don't spend a lot of time and energy on ministries or activities that do not produce. Increase your odds of success through efficient marketing techniques. One of those marketing techniques would be to focus our outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who would be most likely to join our church---what about targeting white, middle-class families with 1.5 children!

One proponent of such methods of church growth has read the parables as marketing strategies and tactics. He sees the parable of the sower as portraying a marketing process "in which there are hot prospects and not-so-hot prospects." In other words, there are certain kinds of people our church should target for the best results. Plant your seeds only in the most productive soil. Finally, according to the market-driven approach to church growth, success is measured primarily in numerical growth. A hundredfold harvest is better than a thirty-fold harvest. According to this scheme, megachurches are on the right track. Maybe that’s why the Mennonite conference I once attended in Kansas held up an 18,000 member congregation in Southern California as a model church. If we read Jesus’ parable of the sower as marketing strategy for the church, then we should follow marketing principles: Don’t be wasteful, seek greater efficiency, concentrate on what is most productive, and whatever else you do, do what you have to do in order to increase the odds of success.

The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church, which is conformed to our affluent-bigger-is-better-culture. The church becomes more concerned about growth than faithfulness to the gospel. Contrary to what Henry Ford once said, what is good for business is not always good for religion. Success may not be the name of the church's game.

Come to think about it, in real life it seems like there are more failures than successes, more waste than growth. Doesn't life reflect the odds of this parable. The odds are against us. Odds are against all those people who grew up in angry, abusive, distant, or neglectful families of ever being whole persons and having healthy relationships. My wife and I should never have adopted our two children and invested so much time and energy in their lives when odds were against them. And why should anyone waste time and energy on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts, right? Haven't you heard we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine? How many people have you seen who really changed their lives in a positive way from something you said or did compared to those who went on producing the same old negative garbage in their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.

A lot of good seed gets wasted on unproductive soil, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal and spiritual growth. We waste more energy on trivial pursuits than on productive, meaningful activities. There is a lot of unproductive ground in our lives. Someone right now is probably thinking, "Yeah, you're right. A lot of my life seems to have been wasted. After all these years, what have I really accomplished?" Another listener could be thinking, "I know what you mean. I've been a Christian for a number of years, but my life is still rocky and full of weeds." What a waste!

Consider our society. It’s bad soil. It produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. What can be accomplished by throwing a bunch of tiny seeds around? The problems in society are just too big and bad. Politicians don’t seem to change their mind. People don’t change their ways. Isn’t it just a waste of time and energy trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. Too many weeds and so much unproductive soil. This seems to be the way life is. Odds are more seeds will land on rocky, thorny, weed-infested soil than on fertile ground. The odds are against us. So, why waste good seeds by tossing them to the wind?

But, you know what, waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. Can’t you see all that waste out there? The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but there’s only one of those stars, at least that we know of, which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Take a look through the lens of a microscope at the seeds of human life. Seems like a lot of waste there. I remember watching on the Learning Channel a study of human reproduction. The narrator said, "In the reproductive process millions of human sperm, literally "seeds," die as they touch the acidic walls of the uterus." Each of those human seeds bears the potential of becoming an individual human life. Thousands more seeds die along the journey to the female egg. In the end only one sperm out of millions of seeds penetrates the egg to become a unique human being. It takes millions of wasted human seeds for one to finally be productive! In terms of per-unit productivity, it seems like an awful waste of seed. Now, don’t you think that whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And whoever thought up this hair-brained method of reproduction should be considered wasteful! From where we stand it sure looks like it takes a lot of wasted seed in order to be productive.

If we focus on the seed or the soil in Jesus’ parable, things do look pretty grim. Productivity has a slim chance. The odds seem to be against us. But, before things start to look too hopeless, let's turn our lens back on the sower in our parable. The sower pays little attention to the condition of soil, or the pathway with human footprints. He seems to ignore the weeds, the thorns, and the hungry birds. He doesn’t seem worry about the odds of success or failure. The sower simply tosses the seeds everywhere on good soil and bad soil alike. He appears to be oblivious to the types of soil on which the seeds land. And the sower isn't stingy with the seed. With wild abandon he throws handfuls of seed across the field like stars flung across the sky. To us the sower appears to be recklessly inefficient and extravagantly wasteful.

God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the lifegiving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God wildly sows the seeds of the kingdom without an eye to the nature of the soil. God is recklessly, extravagantly, graciously wasteful with good news, scattering it upon productive and unproductive soil. And odds are God can turn the odds around. God isn't worried about success or failure. God sows the seeds knowing that even though the patches of good earth may be small the harvest will be plentiful. The sowing will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold!

Once upon a time a certain farmer went out into his field to sow seeds. A servant had previously plowed neat rows in which to plant the seeds. As he tossed the seeds into the furrows, some of the seeds fell outside the lines. This didn't seem to bother the farmer. As a matter of fact, the farmer rather enjoyed throwing the seeds willy nilly across the straight furrows. The farmer got so caught up in the sheer joy of tossing the seeds hither and yon he hadn't noticed that he had walked right off the boundaries of the field. That crazy fool of a farmer walked out onto the roadway leading to the city, grabbing handfuls of seeds from his burlap sack, flinging them here and there and everywhere, laughing and singing as he walked along. Some of the seeds landed on the asphalt and were run over by passing cars or were eaten by crows. Other seeds fell among the weeds or onto the chip bags, cans, and other garbage strewn along the roadside. But, the farmer paid no mind to where the seeds landed. He just kept on tossing his seeds across the wide landscape.

Even when the farmer entered the city streets, it didn't stop him from sowing his seeds. Cars late for work honked at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones yelled out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old fool!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers in the ‘hood and they tried to smoke ‘em. Others fell on the steps of the church and the minister came out….and swept them off. A few seeds fell on a homeless man sleeping on a park bench and he picked them off his worn clothes and ate them for lunch. Still other seeds fell between the thin cracks in the sidewalk and they sprouted into flowers. Others fell in a community garden and sprang up a hundredfold. The farmer sowed his seeds wherever his feet took him until the sun finally set behind the rolling hills. Throughout the season the farmer's bag was never empty of seeds right up until the time of the harvest.

Whoever has two ears on their head, listen to the parable.

This sermon was shared by Rani Wood with her ecumenical community in Perth, Western Australia on Sunday, March 7, 2010. I have posted responses in "comments."


  1. Dear Leo,

    There was a really great response to your sermon. Here are the comments I collected in response to your words:

    · I hear that God is always right there next to us offering everyone forgiveness and ready with open arms when we turn back

    · Thanks Leo, I got that while God plants according to the season, he doesn’t wait for me to get my act together, wasteful Grace!

    · Gives hope to the less than fertile soil!

    · Leo, you showed us that looking from a different angle gives us a different story. I got that is God showers his love on everyone whether they deserve it or not, so can I.

    · I love parables turned on their heads. What new insights we get when we change a point of view. Thank you!

    · Leo, your extended parable of the generous sower is a great picture of God. I think that your critique of church growth movement is spot on(from a fellow Mennonite).

    · God bless you Leo.

    · Thank you for your wise and considered words- they made me think again about this story. One question I have – is it that God does not consider or value success or failure, or is it that how we see either potential for or actual success, is not how God sees it?

    Thank you again for allowing me to share your words with our community church. I look forward to seeing more glorious images and reading more of your inspired words.

    Pax Christi,

    Rani J

  2. Dear Leo

    Just a quick note to offer my appreciation for the wonderful richness your reflection on the parable of the sower brought to our meeting yesterday.

    It's great when technology combines with generosity to allow this stuff to happen!



    Ken Maley
    Pastoral Support
    Mount Hawthorn Community Church
    Perth, Australia

  3. Hi Leo,

    It's out of character for me to get moved by a sermon, cyncial old bugger that I am, but this morning I was. Rani Wood (who I understand has been in contact with you) presented your reflections on the wasteful sower this moring, and it reminded me anew of why Grace is so special. She did a great job. I keep forgetting, despite the fact I'm a musician and titled a CD around the theme of grace (see links below). Thank you for reminding me of God's wasteful, indiscriminate love, otherwise people like me would be truly stranded. I'm part of a small community that is not mainstream, not successful, not a good marketing environment for the Gospel, Inc. But it's my home and I feel loved and accepted.

    Thanks again and kind regards,

    Paul Gioia

    some stuff: