Seed corn on modern farms comes with a clearly marked germination rate: a measure of how many seeds will begin to grow if planted, and what proportion of the seeds might be duds. In the parable of the sower, Jesus explains three situations in which the seed of the Word does not produce a successful spiritual plant, along with one situation in which it does produce fruit. This has tempted Christians to believe that evangelism might be expected normally to yield only a 25 percent success rate. As comforting as this statistic can be to those who have labored long in their mission field but have yet to see fruit, it is neither the point of the parable nor an accurate understanding of ancient farming methods.
Sowing in Jesus’ day was done not in the long, neat rows that grace modern farms, but by hand-scattering. In unpracticed hands much seed would be lost, but experienced hand-sowers became very efficient. Farming then, as now, consisted largely of managing scarcity: too much seed out of bounds meant a diminished harvest. Jesus’ audience probably would have known that seed was generally thrown in the tended field where it belonged. Yet with the inevitable inefficiency of hand-scattering, some seed would fall outside the prepared area: on a footpath, or in a rocky spot, or among the weeds of a fallow field next door. It is of these seeds that our Lord speaks, explaining why those whose souls are like the outlying areas should fail to produce spiritual fruit despite the life potential in the Word that falls on all ears.
As a sower’s intention was to keep the seed to the prepared ground, we can see that God tends and cares for his own in the same way. The spiritual nourishment we receive from God normally falls upon souls prepared first by the diligence of the Sower and his laborers and continually maintained in fertility by careful attention to Holy Scripture, corporate worship, sacraments, private prayer, and spiritual discipline. In such souls the Word of God inevitably takes root and produces fruit. The gospel’s germination rate is really very high when it falls where it belongs. Jesus challenges us to be sure we are a field well cultivated, and to help the Church be the same.
But because the sower is God, a “hard man who reaps where he did not sow,” no spiritual fruitfulness goes ungathered. Evangelism is not about managing scarcity but bestowing spiritual abundance. God freely loves and calls even to the packed-hard, rocky, and weedy souls, so that if there is any possibility at all of fruitfulness, it will be found and developed. While the germination rate among these souls may never be high, God is hopeful and never turns away the person who turns to him. He sends laborers into the field to find a breakthrough for the abused, wounded soul; to dig up the stony obstructions that keep us from following Christ; and gently to awaken a soul languishing from its own neglect. Such were all of us until the Lord of the harvest began to tend us. All labor in God’s field leads to a harvest, and any harvest is worth the labor.
Look It Up
John Chrysostom, in the second book of his treatise On the Priesthood, discusses the difficulty of tending souls.
Think About It
In Jesus’ parable, weeds represent worldly values and wealth. To what extent must the tended ground of the Christian soul be free of these spiritual weeds?