These Parables: The Sower and the Seed

The voice of Christ narrating the parable of the Sower resounds in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. Mark and Luke depict Him escaping the crush of the crowd. Given my estimation of the mass media, I relish the King James Bible’s word for that throng of people: Our Lord avoids “the press.”

Matthew joins Mark in painting a vivid picture—more typical of Luke’s chromatic eye—of Christ using a boat as His pulpit in order to be better seen and heard. Christ could whisper galaxies into being, but when He became flesh in time and space, He had to shout to be understood.

His voice speaks now on the printed pages of the Bible, and the letters pulsate; the words have preserved His message for the edification of mankind. We examine them with the same delight that prompted a precocious eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth in 1545 to write to her stepmother, Katherine Parr, of the “most clever, excellent, and ingenious” invention of letters, for by them, “the mind, wiles, and understanding, together with the speech and intention of the man, can be perfectly known,” and the original words “still have the same vigor they had before.”

Elizabeth spoke of mankind in general, but the parables of Christ are the voice of the Man, the second Adam, speaking in decibels we can never fully comprehend outside of the revelation vouchsafed to the Church.

One way that the Church interprets the parable of the Sower is as a reference to its own mission: to prefigure on earth the golden ways of heaven. More practically, the parable addresses problems that have faced Christ’s listeners through the ages. It is a concise synopsis of pastoral theology, in that Christ describes four types of listeners as four types of soil to which falls the seed of His words (although in the instance of one type, the “stony ground,” they are not listeners but merely hearers).

The parable is about receptivity to His grace, more about the soils than about the Sower. The metaphor of the soils is a scriptural affirmation of our Catholic confidence in the existence of degrees of beatitude: There are different degrees of the earth’s fertility, just as there is progression toward eternal bliss for souls in purgatory, and there are ranks of heavenly glory.

Christianity is not a limited corporation: Its word is spread broadly. The Sower flings His grain widely, inevitably dropping seeds along the wayside, for He is willing to risk some to gain much. It is the principle of fertilization: The conception of a child is the articulation of the magnificent generosity inherent in marital love.

The “wayside” onto which some seeds fall in the parable is the path of the proud, who consider the seed, the word of God, out of place or irrelevant. The sun will wither them up. The secular movements, philosophies, and fashions that have come and gone over the ages have failed to heed this curt warning of Christ’s.

The stony ground in the parable is a thin layer of soil that masks rocks below. This soil is superficiality, the seductive cosmetic of obtuseness. Rocky soil is the senselessness of those who channel-surf through life, addicted to shallow entertainment and insubstantial celebrities who, as songwriter Noel Coward wrote in one of his lyrics, have a “talent to amuse” but not to save.

The stony ground is the tourist in Rome whom Louis Bouyer once observed to be more inspired by a Swiss Guard’s plume than by the Blessed Sacrament. The birds get the seed that falls here. To identify those birds, I would suggest you simply read the front page of the daily newspaper. We laud those superficial personalities, and we choose them to lead a culture that is less their doing than ours.

The “thorny ground” in the parable offers no visible danger to Christ’s word, but it hides deadly barbs. The seed that grows up among thorns grows in an illusionist religiosity: the smiley-face lapel button, the wall-to-wall carpeted church, the fey liturgy, the worship of youth. “The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches,” as Christ explains in Mark’s version of the parable, are the thorny soil of the New Age Gnosticism that is as old as Eden on the day the serpent slithered in. The seed that falls here is choked by illusions.

Finally, the seed that falls into the “good soil” in the parable makes a hybrid of heaven and earth; it is the indescribable conversation between God and man, the piercing beauty of the silent canon of the liturgy of life, the Christian drama that climaxed when the temple curtain tore open. The seed takes root in the earth and flourishes, growing upward toward paradise.

The seed itself is simply the seed. It is the blast of objective grace, arriving ex opere operato onto the soil of human subjectivity. In our present theological crepuscule, the Sower does not desire that we deform the good soil of the Church and its sacraments, but rather that we reform our own hearts to better receive the seed of grace.

A curate presiding at a funeral might toss soil onto the coffin and say, “Dust to dust, ash to ash.” This gesture is an amen to the parable of the Sower. Christ told the parable so that each of us might let Him make of our graves what He made of His own borrowed tomb: a gateway to heaven.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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