Manifold meaning

I love watching nature shows on tv, especially the ones the BBC has produced in recent years. They combine solid science, great camera work, and good story telling to create stunning visual experiences. These documentaries take viewers close enough to see the face of an ant milking an aphid and tens of thousands of feet above ground to show how spawning herring change the color of the sea on the Alaska coast from steely blue to milky white.

And nothing beats watching nature shows with Nancy, my beloved. We’re looking at a beach full of seals and some of the baby seals with their big round eyes are on their first outing down to the water line, completely unaware of the dangers lurking under the surface of the vast ocean, when suddenly the waters part and a huge Orca swims up on the beach and grabs one of the unsuspecting pups for lunch. Nancy jumps up from the couch, shouting, “No!” and instructing the Orca to leave the pups alone and eat one of the old bulls who’ve done their part for the procreation of the species, or, better yet, become vegetarians.

Another night, we’re watching a large, heavy sea turtle emerge from the ocean in the shelter of the night, heaving herself up the sandy beach. At a point beyond the high tide water line, she makes a nest digging a deep hole in the sand and filling it with dozens of eggs. Hours later, with the same slow determination, the turtle pushs sand back into the hole to protect the clutch, and then she returns to the sea without looking back. Many days later, a small army of little baby turtles push through the layer of sand and without a moment’s hesitation they race toward the water’s edge. It’s a race against death: hundreds of sea birds and crabs have been waiting for this annual feast. But some of the little turtles make it to the water and quickly paddle away – not to safety, though, because the fish are hungry, too. Many baby turtles die within hours of their hatching, more die in the first few days of their life – but some grow up and mature, and years later, the females among them return to the place where they were born. In the shelter of the night, they emerge from the ocean, heave their heavy bodies up the sandy beach and lay their eggs.

Life is awesome and I praise God for the altogether magnificent wonder of its grand cycles and intricate systems and how all things come together just so for the miracle to continue. But when Nancy and I were watching those baby turtles running down the beach, we weren’t just awed by the spectacle, we were rooting for the little guys. One of them was just inches away from the water when a seagull swooped down to grab a little something to eat. Nancy, of course, was on her feet, clapping her hands and shooing the seagull away, and we cheered as the little turtle rushed into the end-zone and the big bird flew away empty. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the seagull to get its food, we just couldn’t stand the thought that this tiny turtle, this miracle of new life should never be more than a bird’s snack, only minutes after hatching. Life is awesome, but life also has very little respect for individuals.

Jesus never told a turtle story. He talked about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, he told stories about fish and rocks, about trees and vineyards, sheep and goats, and all of his stories proclaimed the great story of God’s kingdom on earth a kingdom in which every individual matters greatly. When I hear the parable of the sower I think about extravagance: I think of spawning herring and the little helicopter seeds maples launch in the spring and the delicate seeds of the dandelion sailing on the wind, and I think about turtles, how many of them are born, year after year, and what a deadly dangerous place the world is for them, and how there is, year after year, another generation. They are like seed scattered by a sower, and the same kind of deep wisdom at work in the flourishing of life, says Jesus, is at work in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. We’re invited to trust the extravagance and faithfulness of God.

What do you make of the story of the sower, and where do you find yourself in it? Do you identify with the sower who scatters seed with abandon? Or do you identify with the seeds? Have you felt thrown into places where your life is for the birds, or bound to wither after what looked like such a promising start, or choked by thorns? Have you wondered what it might be like to know that you’re on good soil? Or do you think of yourself as the ground, the four different soil types, wondering how receptive or unreceptive you are to the word of the kingdom?

Every parable contains a multitude of stories, depending on how you hear it, how you turn it, how long you’re willing to sit with it, how deep you’re willing to let it sink in. A man once visited a dying friend, a writer, and he asked him about a particular story that wouldn’t let him go, “What does it mean?” The writer responded, “If I tell you, that’s all you will ever see there.”

When the disciples were facing a difficult time, when all their work of proclamation seemed in vain, when the word of the kingdom they spread seemed to go unheard and unheeded, they remembered the story of the sower, and they asked Jesus, “What does it mean?” He said,

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[1]

This reading of the parable comes with the authority of Jesus himself, but it is not the only meaning, it is not all we will ever see there. Jesus told parables of the kingdom to encourage us to continue to listen and understand and become fruitful in obedience. In a Bible study group, participants let the words of the parable sink in, and then they spoke about what they heard. “I am the sower,” one of them said, “and the seed is my life. The story encourages me to invest my life in the good soil of the kingdom, where it will bear fruit beyond my imagining.”

Another suggested that God is the sower and that the seed is God’s word. “Our lives aren’t always smooth, dark, rich soil. There are times when we have been trampled on so much, our lives resemble hard, dense dirt roads, too hard for God’s word to penetrate. There are rocky patches where hope springs up, only to wither away in the heat of hard days. And then there are times when God’s word really does take root, but the weeds of worldly worries overwhelm the seedlings. The sower, however, keeps sowing. The sower keeps sowing until some of that seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. I love that story – as long as the sower keeps sowing, there’s hope for us.”

And yet another said, “You’re right about the rocky patches. I heard this old Arabic folk tale: When God created the world he entrusted all the stones to two angels. Each had a full bag. As they flew over Palestine, one of the bags broke, spilling half the stones that were intended for the whole world. Sometimes I feel like the angel’s bag broke over my life, leaving no room for new things to grow. I like the thought that God will keep sowing until perhaps just one seed falls on that hidden spot of deep, rich soil in my life, and there it will sprout and take root – like a tree whose roots reach deep below the rocky surface.”

Yet another said, “The story makes me think about how receptive I really am to God’s word. When my faith seems weak, perhaps it is because I have allowed busyness and cares to fill my life, too many distractions and false loves, which threaten to choke off my faith like thorns overgrowing a seed-bed. Or have I become so set in my ways that my paths have become ruts, and I can hear nothing new, not even the word that can break me open?”

So many beautiful, thoughtful, fruitful insights… Jesus scatters parables like seeds, seeds that produce a rich harvest of listening and understanding, a harvest of words and acts of grace that in turn become seeds of the kingdom and doesn’t Jesus encourage us to scatter them with the same extravagant trust in God’s faithfulness that characterized his life? May it be so for you and for me.


[1] Matthew 13:18-23

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