At Sunday Mass we heard the parable of the sower. Afterward, someone asked me the following question: “Since the sower is the Son of Man, Jesus Himself, why would He, who knows everything ahead of time, sow seed He knew would not bear fruit?”
First, let’s review the text:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matt 13:1-9).
So why would God waste any seed on rocky ground, thin soil, or the path?
Perhaps we can only propose some possible “answers.” I use quotes around the word because we are in fact touching on some mysteries and can only speculate. Here are some possibilities:
I. God is extravagant. It is not just seed He scatters liberally; it is everything. There are billions of stars in billions of galaxies, most of them seemingly devoid of life as we understand it. Between these billions of galaxies are huge amounts of what appears to be empty space. On this planet, where just one species of bird would do, there are thousands. Likewise, there are vast numbers of different sorts of insects, mammals, fish, and trees. “Extravagant” barely covers it! The word “extravagant” means “going or wandering beyond.” God has gone vastly beyond anything we can imagine, but He is love and love is extravagant. The image of Him sowing seed in an almost careless way is thus consistent with the usual way of God.
Thus God’s extravagant love is illustrated by His sowing the seed of His word everywhere. Love does not say, “What is the least I can do?” It says, “What more can I do?” Love does not say, “I will give only if I get something back.” If a man loves a woman, he does not look for the cheapest gift to give her on her birthday. Rather, he looks for an extravagant gift. God is love and He is extravagant.
II. God loves and offers the seed of His Word even to those who will reject Him. Remember, as Jesus goes on to explain, the soil that fails to receive the Word is a symbol of those who allow riches, worldly preoccupation, persecution, and the demands of the Word to draw them away from God. Even knowing this, God still loves them. He still wills their existence. Scripture says elsewhere, But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:44-45).
Yes, God loves even those who will ultimately reject Him. Despite knowing this ahead of time, He will not say, “You cannot have my word; I refuse to provide you sufficient grace.” No, He scatters that seed even though He knows it will not bear the fruit He wishes. Further, He continues to send the sun and rain even on those who will reject Him.
This parable shows forth God’s unfailing love. He sows seed even knowing it will not bear the fruit He wants. He wills the existence of all, even those who He knows will reject Him.
III. God is just. Were the Lord to take back the seed that fell in unfruitful places, one could argue that He withdrew His grace and that people were lost as a result. In other words, one could claim that God manipulated the process by withdrawing every possible grace. But God, in justice, calls everyone and offers everyone sufficient grace for them to come to faith and salvation.
IV. God respects our freedom. The various places the seed falls is indicative of human freedom more so than illustrative of God’s intent. God freely offers the grace of His word, but we must freely receive it into the soil of our life. Some of us insist on having stony hearts or immersing ourselves in the cares of the world. God will offer the seed, respecting our freedom to be receptive or refusing. Were He to condition His offer and blessings on us offering the right kind of soil, one could reasonably argue that he was pressuring us or manipulating our freedom.
V. God wants us to persevere, to sow faithfully rather than merely harvesting. Sometimes we can become discouraged when it seems that our work has borne little fruit. The temptation is to give up. There’s an old saying, “God calls us to be faithful, not successful.” In other words, it is up to us to be the means through which the Lord sows the seed of His Word. By God’s grace, the Word is in our hands, but the harvest is not.
This parable teaches us that not all the seed we sow will bear fruit. In fact, much of it will not.
The simple mandate is that we preach the Word. Go unto all the nations and make disciples. St. Paul would later say to Timothy, Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim 4:2). In other words, sometimes the gospel is accepted; sometimes it is rejected. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is popular, sometimes not. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is in season; sometimes it is out of season. Preach it anyway. Sow the seed; don’t give up.
Discharge your duty! St. Paul goes on to remark, sadly, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 4:3-5). Once again the message is the same: preach anyway; sow the seed of the Word; persevere; do not give up; do not be discouraged. Discharge your duty and be willing to endure hardship; just preach! Some of the seed will yield a rich harvest, some will not; preach anyway.
So, permit these “answers.” God sows seed He knows will bear no fruit because He is extravagant, because He loves and wills the existence even of those He knows will reject Him, because of His justice, because He respects our freedom, and because He wants to teach us to persevere regardless of the outcome.