In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we listen to Jesus sharing the parable of the sower. It is a reading we have all heard many times – about the sower who sowed seeds on various types of soil, and the results of his sowing. Today’s reading ends with Jesus sharing that the seed that fell on rich soil “produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
Often, when we hear this parable, we put the focus on ourselves, wondering if we are good seed, or whether we are sometimes like the seed sown among thorns, hearing the word, but getting distracted by worldly anxieties and desires such that the seed bears no fruit, and so forth. In other words, a focus on us and our reception of the Word. That may be helpful, but it is not the only way to read the parable.
I once heard a talk by Fr. Brian Massingale, which encouraged a different way of thinking about this parable. What follows are the notes I took during his talk.
In first century Palestine, sowers did not plow or prepare their ground before planting or sowing seeds. (They had no tractors, no hoes.) They sowed seed expecting and knowing there would be a certain amount of waste, and that there would be obstacles to a good harvest. (Birds, shallow ground, thorns, etc. – the things we hear about in the parable.)
The people hearing Jesus tell this parable, familiar with this technique, would know exactly what to expect when the seed was sown, meaning that the details of the seed being sown on different types of grounds do not really add much to their knowledge. The details about the seed’s growth or lack thereof, in a sense, are only the necessary set up to bring us to the conclusion.
The kicker, or the punch line, Fr. Massingale suggested, is the penultimate sentence of the passage that the seed that fell on rich soil, produced fruit, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
A hundred, or sixty or thirty fold. In those days, do you have any guess what a typical good harvest would be?
Sevenfold is what you might reasonably expect given all the obstacles.
A tenfold harvest would be an incredibly good harvest and cause for celebration.
Jesus’ parable, however, provides an amazing contrast – the contrast between present obstacles and awesome fulfillment. An over-the-top harvest. A harvest of 30 times would be amazing; 60 times, astounding; 100 times – breathtaking. This is a statement about the harvest that would have astonished Jesus’ hearers. Never would they even dream of such a result. Jesus’ conclusion is so over top as to be outrageous, and therefore memorable.
The Kingdom of Heaven, God’s vision is like a sower who acts, knowing all the obstacles, yet confident and assured of its future realization. And because of this confidence and assurance, the sower acts now to help realize its fulfillment. The visions’ future realization grounds confident action in the present despite the knowledge of the very real obstacles that exist.
So the parable is a call to act now with assurance, to acknowledge the obstacles but to carry one with confidence.