The parable of the seed and the sower is very often understood as a description of what might be called “personality types.” The parable contains descriptions of various classes of people, some of whom are affected by evil (Mt. 13:4), some of whom are like rocky soil with little depth (Mt. 13:5), others of whom are like potentially good seed choked by thorns (Mt. 13:7), and still others of whom are like seed that prospered because it fell on good ground (Mt. 13:8).
Jesus’ own words lend credibility to this interpretation of the parable as a description of how different types of people react differently to hearing God’s Word. He said that the seed that fell on rocky ground represents the person who welcomes God’s Word joyfully but later abandons faith when faced with suffering or persecution (Mt 13:21). He made similar judgments about the other classes of people described in the parable.
Another common interpretation of the parable says that it is a description, not of human personality types, but of God’s personality. Again, Jesus’ own words lend credibility to this interpretation. He said that the “seed” represents “the word of the kingdom.” (Mt. 13:19) The parable doesn’t directly identify the sower as being God, but there is an indirect identification with God, or God’s appointed messenger (Jesus), or Jesus’ disciples. While the sower in the parable can represent multiple agents, the origin of the action of sowing God’s Word in the world is ultimately God. In this interpretation, God is seen as generous to the point of being profligate – sending God’s Word lavishly upon the earth in the hope that some few might hear and respond in faith.
These two interpretations take very different approaches to understanding the parable, but both have a certain degree of validity. I suspect, however, there is meaning in the parable that lies beyond these two interpretations.
The first interpretation is based on a commonsense observation possible for anyone to make. It is an observable fact about human nature that personality and temperament vary widely between individuals: some are prudent and others are foolish, some persevere despite suffering and others succumb to life’s burdens, some are responsible and others are untrustworthy, some are religious and others are faithless. This interpretation of the parable does not require one to have faith in Jesus as Lord.
The second interpretation might require a little more religious sensitivity than is required by the first, but it can still be affirmed in the absence of explicit faith in Jesus. The person who is “spiritual but not religious” as well as the one who embraces no more than western culture’s bland theism can agree that some people are attracted to religion, while others are not. It is no great act of faith to affirm that God is overly gracious toward creation; the materialistic values system of the “Prosperity Gospel” is based on this assumption.
Does this parable have anything to say beyond mere commonsense anecdotes? Is there truth here about the lifelong project of discipleship to which all the baptized are called? An affirmative answer to these questions might be found by considering the message of the first reading for this Sunday.
The prophet Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf and says, “my word is not powerless; it will accomplish the outcome I intend.” (Isa. 55:11) Unlike the commonsense acceptance of the differences between individuals and the generic acknowledgement of God’s basic goodness, this statement from Isaiah requires explicit faith in the God who redeems God’s creation. If one is willing to believe that God’s word necessarily, ineluctably, unerringly accomplishes God’s will in the world, then one has also to maintain a strong hope for the future of the world; this requires an explicit act of faith in Jesus as Lord.
The Scriptures proclaim that God is more than a cause of division among people and that God’s goodness is more than a generic benevolence toward the world. The Scriptures proclaim that God does, in fact, redeem the world and, therefore, it is necessary to be hopeful about the world’s future.
Take a moment to give yourself a personality test, not the test of asking which type of soil in the parable most closely corresponds to your personality, but rather the test of asking whether or not you hold onto firm hope for the world’s redemption.
No faith is required in order to evaluate oneself; no faith is required in order to evaluate other people. A disciple’s faith is required, however, to believe that the seed that is “the word of the kingdom” (Mt. 13:19) will redeem unfailingly the world that often seems so faithless. Beyond the mere commonsense level of interpretation, this parable asks us to live with the same hope that led Jesus to the Cross for the sake of the world’s redemption. The parable says that those who have a disciple’s faith also possess God’s own hope for the world.
A disciple’s faith maintains a hope that is undaunted by the experience of evil in the world, or the experience of anxiety, suffering, or persecution. A disciple’s faith trusts that God’s word always and everywhere accomplishes God’s will.