3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Parables are like jokes; they consist of a story that carries the hearer along expected pathways, then takes a sudden and surprising turn. In a joke, that turn makes us laugh as we reframe what we have heard. So the parable tells a story, and in the ‘surprise’ we are forced to reconsider what we assumed at the beginning. It prods us to see God, ourselves and the world differently – if we have ears to hear; sometimes people don’t get the joke.
So what is the surprise in this familiar parable of the sower and the seed? (Just as familiarity can kill a joke, it can kill a parable.) A sower sowing is no surprise. Neither is the fact that when you sow there is an inevitable and unavoidable loss to birds and weeds and the path. The surprise in this parable of Jesus is the extravagance of the harvest. Instead of “you still get a modest return, enough to feed your family,” you get a harvest far beyond anything you could imagine. A 100, 60, even 30-fold harvest is nothing less than miraculous. Such a harvest is incomprehensible.
So Jesus is out here, healing a few who are sick and preaching to villages in the backwater of the world. And his word is mocked by some, ignored or corrupted by others, and hated by still others. From such meager sowing one might expect a few followers, but the fruit of this word is beyond all comprehension. The world is forever changed. We are forever changed.
We tend to hear a moral imperative in this story: be good soil. Don’t let the evil one snatch away the word from you. Don’t let it get choked by weeds. But the message is in the surprise: despite all the obstacles, the word that is sown will reap a harvest beyond all imagining. The parable is not about us; it is about the power of God’s message.
We lose faith in the power of grace sometimes. We lose faith in compassion, in forgiveness, in charity, in kindness. We lose faith in the gospel. Against the might of Rome, against the ‘hosts of wickedness in heavenly places’ (RSV), how can a message of love and forgiveness prevail?
“A hundredfold” says Jesus. “A hundredfold.”