NOT every seed comes to fruition. The parable of the sower provides three possible places to lay the blame: the sower, the seed, and the soil. We cannot blame the Lord, the sower. Nor can we blame the seed, which is the word of God; for it comes from God, and is distributed by God. The seed, after all, wants to grow. Growth is its nature.
The fault must be in the soil. And that means us; for whatever is falling short and failing always does stand for us. If the seed that is the word of God fails to grow, the fault lies not with that seed, but with the soil into which it falls.
It is easy to answer that we are the problem. That is the default setting in scripture. At this stage in Matthew’s Gospel, though, before the Passion has changed our understanding of human sin and redemption for ever, we have to look back into the past to understand the ways in which humankind has been going wrong.
The Isaiah passage sings a positive message about the word of God. That word has gone out, and it is bearing fruit. All creation is celebrating, along with human beings. Hills and mountains are singing. The trees of the field are clapping their hands. Lyrical visions of this kind (see Psalm 98.7-8) make it easy to see how one might come to imagine creation as a dance, in which mortals join in with everything else that God has made and called “good”.
But there are passages in Isaiah — and the other prophets — that are anything but cheerful. In them, human hardness of heart, and contempt for God’s word and commandment, repeatedly provoke God, and lead to suffering and disaster.
In the epistle, Paul holds these two extremes in tension: the singing hills and dancing trees, and the shadow side of creation. Flesh and Spirit, death and life: where do we fit in? What Paul is attempting feels like a task beyond the normal capacities of words to express our thoughts and feelings. If the Letter to the Romans were as long as Genesis, or Isaiah, it could hardly explain the tangle of principle and promiscuity, generosity and greed, decency and dishonesty which makes up the interior being of every single one of us.
The key to hope and salvation is in that point that I just made about the tangle of competing desires within us — not because I have cleverly spotted something that escaped Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew, but simply because I can write intelligible English, using the first person plural. In other words, I can meaningfully say “we”, and “us”; I am not confined within the boundaries of my own existence, stuck with always saying “I”, and “me”, and “my”.
We have the capacity to imagine being one another, to act for the good of others as well as ourselves; and to feel compassion, not just relief or Schadenfreude (“injury-joy”), for the sufferings of others. Paul could not make it clearer that everything that makes us who we want to be comes from God, from the Sower sowing good seed in us.
If we are soil, I want to know what soil is. Checking the Greek, I find that the word “ge” — from which we get “ge-ology”, “ge-ography”, etc. — means “earth”. That sets off scriptural resonances in my mind. If we want to understand how we are “soil”, we need to go right back to the beginning, and to grasp the fundamental lesson of Genesis: “you are soil (ge), and to soil (ge) you shall return” (3.19, Greek translation).
That statement puts it beyond doubt that the “soil”, or “earth”, or “dust” is us. Rather than labelling ourselves “good” or “bad”, we receive permission to think of ourselves as being in the wrong place, or compacted and pressed down by countless travelling feet until we become rock-like, impenetrable. Then again, the seed may prosper in us, but so may other attractions — or, rather, distractions.
So, the meaning of Jesus’s parable of the sower is rooted in Genesis 3. Somewhere in these readings are clues to why many (not all) are called, and few (not many) are chosen (Matthew 22.14). But for now, we must be patient, and, with each seed that comes our way, help it to grow in us.