The Parable of the Seeds

If we are to model our own sowing after the sower in Jesus parable we will share the message of God’s kingdom extravagantly and indiscriminately, not judging which people and places are worthy of them and which are not.

 

 

This is not the kind of parable I’d expect would be delivered at the sea shore.

Matthew 13:1-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!” 10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ 16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. 18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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. 22As 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. 23But 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.”

The Sower in this story is either extremely reckless or extremely generous. But what are we to make of this parable of such exaggerated waste and reward? In those days seed was broadcast, by hand, and most farmers would be very careful to make sure that all of his seed landed carefully only on the good soil where it could grow. So the shock of this parable is immediate: some seeds fell on the path! Gasp! And if that wasn’t enough, some seeds fell on rocky ground! And then some were cast among the weeds! When will this waste end? Finally, some seed fell on good soil. Surely such wastefulness will be punished in the end. But no. The yield is projected at 100, 60, and even 30 times, when the normal yield at that time would have been 4 or 5. Is that what this story is all about — extravagant generosity, extravagant even to the point of being wasteful? Or perhaps, extravagant even to the point of giving seed to all regardless of pre-conditions. You and I might not waste our efforts on the down trodden, the thorny, and the hardened, but God does! We aren’t alone in our quandary, even the disciples are confused and must ask Jesus for an explanation.

When asked, Jesus turns their attention to the soils: the soil of the pathway which is rock hard – the birds feast on the seeds which can’t penetrate the soil; the soil of rocky ground where there is no depth and despite the delightful immediate response there is the unavoidable inability to develop roots; the soil choked by overgrowth is rendered fruitful—the cares of the world are too great. Of course the Good Soil hears and understands and bears fruit and impressive yields. And, of course, we like to think of ourselves as the ‘good soil’ seed bed that has already received the seed and is already fruitful. Unfortunately, it also gives us rationale for those who are not among the ‘elect’. So our official, literalist, allegorical explanation is that the sower is Jesus, and the seed is the Word of God, and some of us are more inclined to hear it than others because we’re all different kinds of soil, etc. etc. And in some ways that’s a good interpretation. We can look around at one another and know exactly why some of us stay in the church and some of us leave. Right? Because it depends on the kind of soil we are. Right? We can say: Well, I’m not surprised they’re falling away: she’s just rocky ground, she doesn’t have any roots to sustain her; he’s just packed earth, nothing ever reaches him; she was choked by riches, he was scorched by worries; you can’t keep them as members if they aren’t good earth to begin with.

That might be a helpful explanation of our parable; nice and neat. The problem is that sometimes things aren’t nice and neat. Why do some of us stay and some of us leave? Well, maybe it isn’t only about us; maybe it’s also about the church. Could it be that sometimes the church isn’t good earth, and it is hard for seeds to grow. The church can be like thorns, choking the life out of people. The church can be like rocky ground, with no depth of support. And just to keep things interesting, the church can be frozen, packed earth in which seeds actually come up anyway, even though we can’t begin to imagine how. I don’t think that I’d like to be part of a church that finds a reason for someone else’s exclusion.

In real life, all of us are – at one time or another – all four of the soils: worn down and down trodden; hard hearted and shallow; thorny and stunted by bad luck and bad influences. Have we not all had Good News snatched away; had an initial burst of enthusiasm fade at the first sign of trouble; had Good News get worn down by unrelenting cares and troubles? The Good News is given even in the midst of various troubles and woes, faults and failings.

That explanation refers to the soil, not to the Sower or the Seed. And besides that it is a city boy’s concept of farming – look at those yields he expects and there are way more problems with sowing seeds than those listed by Jesus. How about too much moisture and the seed rots? How about too little moisture and the seed doesn’t germinate? Or it gets eaten, not only by crows but by micro organisms? Or it gets diseased so herbicides and insecticides are used to treat the seeds.

According to David Ewart, the calling of the community of faith is be constantly open to having our worn down places ploughed up, turned over, loosened up; to having our rocky places named and removed, and our shallowness deepened and enriched; to having our thickets of cares and anxieties plucked out and space clear for new growth. Who knows, maybe instead of eking out the bare minimum to stay alive, we might be showered with God’s extravagant wastefulness.

If we are to model our own sowing after the sower in Jesus parable we will share the message of God’s kingdom extravagantly and indiscriminately, not judging which people and places are worthy of them and which are not.

Of the two images early Quakers used most in their preaching, one was that of “the Light”. The light is not a person’s own mental powers, it is the experience of Christ or Spirit within a person and it functions like a searchlight peering into a well or a candle entering a dark closet. The light searches out sin and all human motivations, to show a person who they were. Just as frequently Friends also spoke of “the Seed” as something planted within a person enabling them to respond to the Light once the hard soil of the heart was broken. This is the Seed of God, not of any human nature. With little understanding many Friends today speak of this as ‘that of God’ in everyone.

Early Friends, all too aware of the uselessness of self made commitments, stayed away from words like ‘conversion’ and ‘recommitment’, or ‘self redirection of the will’ or ‘empowering of one’s will through grace’. Perfect obedience to the Light was a possibility, but not an instantaneous sanctification, rather something growing within, like a Seed, which challenged all human will and which like a ship’s hold full of rice, once sea water was introduced, would break open the whole vessel. Early Friends inner experience had less to do with forgiveness and reconciliation than with surrender to this seed, the crucifixion of self will, and obedience to leadings. No greater example of this is found than in the writings of Marmaduke Stevenson, one of the Boston martyrs, who described in a tract what compelled him to risk capital punishment. He wrote that it was as ‘a friend of truth, and a sufferer for the seed’s sake…’ that he challenged the rulers of Massachusetts because, he believed that “the Seed is held in bondage under the merchants of Babylon…”.

Another Friend, Stephen Crisp, wrote of the inner conflict of each new call to ministry and the role of the Meeting in guiding those who felt led: “but there was a contrary nature and seed in me that was of this world, and not of God; which inclined to evil, and unto the way and manner of this evil world, as most all suiting the carnal mind and an eye began to open in me that saw what was acceptable with man, rather than what was well pleasing to God. And that eye being daily ministered unto by the various objects and examples of vanity, a delight sprung up in that which was evil, and my senses became exercised with vanity, by which the pure seed became oppressed and grieved from day to day, and began to cry out against me; and condemnation began to be stirred up in me, and fear entered where before no fear was, and the pure innocence was lost”.

He continued: “So after long travail, strong cries, and many bitter tears and groans, I found a little hope springing in me, that the Lord in his own time would bring forth his Seed, even his elect Seed, the seed of his covenant, to rule in me; and this was given me at a time when a sense of my own unworthiness had so overwhelmed me in sorrow and anguish, that I thought myself unworthy of any of the creatures; forasmuch as I was out of the covenant of God…”

Francis Howgill, one of those numbered with the Valiant Sixty, said of the seed: “Friends, you must wait to have judgment set up within you, and this is he who is the judge and the light of the world. Wait to see the law set up within…and the rebellious nature yoked (earthquake and thunder). Wait in patience for the judgment, and let the Lord’s work have it’s perfect operation in you; and so as you turn to him who has smitten and wounded you; he will bind up and heal. And give up all to the great slaughter of the Lord, to the Cross…. And as the earth comes to be plowed up, the seed which is sown comes up; and, the rocks broken, the water gushes out. You so will see that some promises will arise in you to the Seed which is coming up out of the grave and so the love of God will appear in you, and you will be stayed, and see hope in the midst of calamity.

Samuel Fisher clearly identified the Spirit with the new Seed of Christ, buried until a person’s spiritual rebirth set it free. Robert Barclay in writing of this ‘new birth’ asks “Of what seed comes this birth?” His answer, quoting I Peter 1:23: “Being born again not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, by the word of God which lives and abides forever.” Then he asks: “Is then this Light or Seed sown in the hearts of evil men? And his answer brings us back to our text for today, quoting Jesus’ parable: “Behold, a sower went forth to sow. And when he sowed, some seeds fell among thorns, etc.”

George Fox wrote that if a Friend will ‘act Truth’, he or she will witness to the Seed buried in each person. In that way, lives preach. And that fact for early Friends was much more important than the refusals to pay tithes, participate in war or doff their hats. Quaker social ethics has never been a mere sum of particular concerns and protests; it has always been a part of a totally opened life, inseparable from the proclamation of repentance. Fox wrote in 1661 “All Friends everywhere, live in the Seed of God, which is the righteousness itself and inherits the wisdom, and is the wisdom itself; with which ye may order, rule and govern all things which (God has put) under your hands, to his glory.”

In a sermon in which he speaks of how Quakers used the term “Seed” he is to have said: “…and by faith in this Seed every age had access to God and came up to God, and came atop of the Serpent’s head. And so through Christ we’re reconciled to God…. This seed is Christ that was promised to break the serpent’s power. This seed is come…

What follows are exerpts from early Quaker writings, some of which has been included above.

Early Friends and ‘the Seed’

James Nayler wrote: “And now the holy Seed is called forth to appear in its colors against the Man of Sin; and with the sword of his mouth does he make war, and with the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning does he consume the filthy and unclean spirits.”

Marmaduke Stevenson, one of the Boston Quaker martyrs, defending the ministry which would take his life introduced a tract he wrote with this sentence “Out of the dark ways and worships of the world He concluded the tract, written in the Common Jail of Boston in July of 1659 identifying himself.

William Robinson was hung under the same sentence by John Endicott. In his final statement he wrote: “…for the cause is the Lord’s that we go in, and the battle is the Lord’s,…. Friends, the God of my life and the God of the whole earth did lay this thing upon me, for which I now suffer bonds near to death. He by his almighty power and everlasting love constrained me and laid this thing upon me, and truly I could not deny the Lord, much less resist the Holy One of Israel. Therefore all who are ignorant of the motion of the Lord in the inward parts, be not hasty in judging in this matter before you hear the truth the Lord God of heaven and earth commanded me by his Spirit, and spoke unto me by his Son, whom he hath made Heir of all things. And in his life I live, and in it I shall depart this earthly tabernacle, if unmerciful men be suffered to take it from me. And herein I rejoice that the Lord is with me, the ancient of days, the life of the suffering Seed, for which I am freely given up, and singly do stand in the will of God….”

We can forgive Friend Robinson his verbosity as we read from a letter he sent to Friends as he was about to be hung: “The streams of my father’s love runs daily through me from the holy fountain of life to the seed throughout the whole creation. I am overcome with love, for it is my life and length of my days, it’s my glory and my daily strength….You children of the Lord feel me wrapped up with you in the pure love which destroys the love which is in enmity with God, which warreth against the Seed which proceedeth from the father of love, the God of truth…”

Richard Hubberthorne, called by a Quaker opponent ‘the most rational calm-spirit man of his judgment that I was ever publicly engaged against’, a short, weak and soft spoken mediator and leader among Friends, only weeks after meeting Fox penned this line in a letter that is steeped in scriptural reference: “And the Son…is calling me to forsake all, to take up the daily cross to all that which is carnal and natural, and to be not of this world….And pray for me that the bond woman and her son who pleads for freedom because he is of Abraham may be cast out and the true seed, the pure birth (which is the true Son of the eternal God) may grow.”

Francis Howgill, one of those called the Valiant Sixty, who spread out over Great Britain in a lengthy piece said of the seed: “Friends, you must wait to have judgment set up within you, and this is he who is the judge and the light of the world. Wait to see the law set up within…and the rebellious nature yoked (earthquake and thunder). Wait in patience for the judgment, and let the Lord’s work have it’s perfect operation in you; and so as you turn to him who has smitten and wounded you; he will bind up and heal. And give up all to the great slaughter of the Lord, to the Cross…. And as the earth comes to be plowed up, the seed which is sown comes up; and, the rocks broken, the water gushes pout. You so will see that some promises will arise in you to the Seed which is coming up out of the grave and so the love of God will appear in you, and you will be stayed, and see hope in the midst of calamity.

And as you come to be redeemed from under the bondage of sin, and come above the bonds of death, and the pure principle lives in you, there will be a delight in you to do the will of the father, who has redeemed you for sin and its law to righteousness and its law…. It leads to true peace, and will reveal in you the immortal Seed, which came not by the will of man…This is the son of God, who leads out of time; and this is he whom the father revealed in Paul. This is he of whom I am a witness, in whom I have redemption by the blood of the Cross. He is my sanctification, justification and wisdom…”

Stephen Crisp, in writing about the inner conflict of each new call to ministry and the ole of the Meeting in guiding those who felt led, wrote: “ but there was a contrary nature and seed in me that was of this world, and not of God; which inclined to evil, and unto the way and manner of this evil world, as most all suiting the carnal mind and an eye began to open in me that saw what was acceptable with man, rather than what was well pleasing to God. And that eye being daily ministered unto by the various objects and examples of vanity, a delight sprung up in that which was evil, and my senses became exercised with vanity, by which the pure seed became oppressed and grieved from day to day, and began to cry out against me; and condemnation began to be stirred up in me, and fear entered where before no fear was, and the pure innocence was lost”.

So after long travail, strong cries, and many bitter tears and groans, I found a little hope springing in me, that the Lord in his own time world bring forth his Seed, even his elect Seed, the seed of his covenant, to rule in me; and this was given me at a time when a sense of my own unwrorthiness had so overwhelmed me in sorrow and anguish, that I though myself unworthy of any of the creatures; forasmuch as I was out of the covenant of God…”

Baxter, Burrough, and Fisher, in their writings pulled on this image of the seed. Fisher, following Paul’s reclaiming the Genesis’ 3 language of the Seed of the serpent and the Seed of the Woman, clearly identified the spirit with the new Seed of Christ, buried until a person’s spiritual rebirth set it free.

Robert Barclay in writing of this ‘new birth’ asks “Of what seed comes this birth?” His answer, quoting I Peter 1:23: “Being born again not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, by the word of God which lives and abides forever.” He asks: “Is then this Light or Seed sown in the hearts of evil men? And his answer brings up back to our text for today, quoting Jesus’ parable: “Behold, a sower went forth to sow. And when he sowed, some seeds fell among thorns, etc.”

George Fox wrote that if a Friend will ‘act Truth’, he or she will witness to the Seed buried in each person. In that way, lives preach. And that fact was much more important than the refusals to pay tithes, participate in war or refuse to doff their hats. It is Friends’ positive testimonies or moral stands that most clearly demonstrate Quaker ethics as a whole fabric centered on Truth, and inseparable from the proclamation of repentance. Quaker social ethics was never a mere sum of particular concerns and protests; always it was a part of a totally opened life. Fox wrote in 1661 “All Friends everywhere, live in the Seed of God, which is the righteousness itself and inherits the wisdom, and is the wisdom itself; with which ye may order, rule and govern all things which (God has put) under your hands, to his glory.”

There is a sermon of George Fox that explicates his understanding of how Quakers used the term “Seed” and interestingly enough it was written to establish the role of women among Friends. In it he is to have said: “…and by faith in this Seed every age had access to God and came up to God, and came atop of the Serpent’s head (referring again to the Genesis 3 passage). And so through Christ we’re reconciled to God…. This seed is Christ that was promised to break the serpent’s power. This seed is come…”

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