The Parable of the Sower brings to mind the musical Godspell, a frolicking, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. When I was in seminary a group of us students and church members put on the play at a coffee house Iris and I started in San Francisco back in the '70's. Dressed up like clowns we 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 going limp she withered and dropped to the floor from the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character with 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 version of the parable the focus was upon the obviously different responses of the seeds.
There are different angles from which to 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. 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 character? What are the weeds in my life? 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 thrill is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we 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 find ourselves working hard to shape up our lives, so we can be a fertile field for God.
But, what if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable was not about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or about birds and rocks and thorns? 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?
One thing we would immediately notice is 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 it appears as if 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. If you 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 is to focus your outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who will be more likely to join your church.
One proponent of such methods of church growth reads 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 your 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 thirtyfold harvest. There you have it all. No wastefulness, greater efficiency, concentration on what is productive, and increasing the odds of success. The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church which is conformed to the world and more concerned about growth than faithfulness. 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 that they will avoid bringing those issues into their new relationships. Why waste energy and invest time on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts. 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 from their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.
There is more unproductive soil than productive and a lot of good seed gets wasted, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal 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 is bad soil which produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, consumerism, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. It's a waste trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. So, why waste good seed on unproductive soil? This seems to be the way life is. More seeds 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?
Waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life from the wide expanse of the universe to the tiniest of seeds. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. There appears to be a lot of waste. The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but there’s only one we know of which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Or bend down and pick a dandelion puff. It is filled with hundreds of seeds with perfect little parachutes designed within them that take the seeds on streams of wind to reproduce their kind. And yet, only a few seeds perchance find soil to grow. Seems like such an amazing design to waste so much seed. Whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And a designer that uses the wind and chance to reproduce a plant seems wasteful, doesn’t it! It often appears that 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 to be worrying about the odds of success or failure. The sower 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.
Well folks, God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the life giving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God sends the rain on the just and unjust 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. The 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 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 would honk at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones would yell out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old farmer!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers on the corner and they tried to smoke them. 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 this parable.