Chalk and cheese? No, I don’t like cheese, so chocolate and cheese. Isaiah 55 is one of my favourite passages in the bible and the Parable of the Sower and its interpretation one of the ones I like least. Probably means I should be paying more attention to Matthew than Isaiah?
Isaiah 55, of which, irritatingly the Lectionary only gives us 3 verses, begins with an invitation to the feast – the supreme provision of God for his struggling people and, through them, for the whole world. God invites us “without money and without cost” – a generosity and extravagance that is typical of God’s love and the provision he makes for a suffering world. The original audience knew all about scorched earth – by weather or by enemy action – the horrors of the destruction of cultivation were all too familiar, just as they are today for some people. But God’s promise is for abundance - wine, milk, bread, “the richest fare.” All that is necessary is to respond to the invitation. To “seek the Lord where he is found”. But will we understand what we find? Despite the opinions and theories of eminent theologians, I venture to suggest that we will not be able to understand or to explain the God we have turned to. His thoughts are not our thoughts, he has warned us very clearly. Yet this warning, which began our reading today, follows on immediately from the promise of God’s mercy and free pardon. I don’t think the passage makes sense, without this. We are not going to be punished for not understanding. Instead we must trust in the enormity of God’s purpose for his world – physical purpose in the intricate web of interaction that sustains physical life and spiritual purpose in the subtleties of the spirit, that accomplish what God desires. God is at work in ways which we can see, but which we cannot fully comprehend. Nevertheless, the outcome, for us, is joy. Physical and spiritual joy. And this joy is what God will never allow to be destroyed. It is God’s glory – God’s permanent signal to his world.
So from struggle, hardship and failure come forgiveness, joy, reward, feasting, abundance. This is God’s purpose. Which is why I find – or rather used to find – the Parable of the Sower so difficult. It seems, does it not, to imply the exact opposite of Isaiah? Far from God fulfilling his purpose through his spirit at work in the world, this parable and its interpretation seem to imply that it is up to the recipient to produce the results. God gives us a chance, but we have to prove that we are good soil, otherwise there will be no abundant results. It’s a real challenge, especially if you read the connecting passage, which again our Lectionary misses out. In the missing portion, Jesus links the parable to another prophesy from Isaiah about the deliberate choice of some people not to hear what has become too familiar – people with “calloused hearts” is the exact description. So the implication is that Jesus makes it especially difficult for such people to understand his message by concealing it in parables, which even his disciples find difficult to interpret without help. Yet this parable is obviously very important. It appears in all three Synoptic gospels and also in the Gnostic Gospel of St Thomas. Why then does it seem deliberately to put us all into a state of acute anxiety, lest we prove to be shallow or thorn-choked or just so feather-headed that we can’t retain the message for a moment?
Well, maybe it is all an agricultural misunderstanding? After all, Jesus was a carpenter, not a farmer. If he had been a farmer he would have jolly well known that no-one behaves like the sower in his story! If you want seed to grow, you make sure that you plant it where it WILL grow, not chuck it about all over the place. And you don’t get such huge yields, either, even out of the best soil. 10% would be good, never mind 30 or 60 or 100! But the story is not about agricultural practice. It is not called the Parable of the Soil. It is the Parable of the Sower. The key person in the story is the sower - not the seed and not the soil. This sower is extravagantly generous, providing seed in abundance and sending it out broadcast through every type of earth and weather. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps we are not so far from Isaiah after all? And what sower sows only once? Seed is gathered as well as scattered in a cycle of production that yields a cumulative harvest. I’m indebted to the blog of one John Petty, who points out: “God is the sower, and God sows the Word - logos, Christ - absolutely everywhere. Jesus is not the sower, but the seed sown. As the fourth gospel puts it, "The Word became flesh." You'll notice, too, that the seed has already been sown. It is not about to be sown, and it is not waiting for us to do something to put it into effect. It has, in fact, been done. We don't add to it, complete it, or kick it into gear. Not only has it been done, it works. In every case, the seed, which is the word, springs up, even in rocky soil and even among thorns. The word - the sown seed, which is Christ - never fails.” The harvest of Jesus is never-ending. So too he is the everlasting memorial (Hebrew: shem) with which the passage from Isaiah ends. This is the same word that occurs only a few verses later in Chapter 56:5 “yad vashem” – a memorial and a name promised to those who have no children to carry on their family name (and, of course, the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem). Jesus Christ is the son of God – God’s child, God’s memorial and God’s everlasting sign, who accomplishes the purpose for which he has been sent out.
So what about the soil? Are we, in fact, hardened to this parable because we have heard it so often – and probably felt guilty about it too? I know that I have spent much of my life being afraid that my faith was only shallow enthusiasm, which would never stand up to any kind of test. And in one sense that is true. Torture me, or even threaten to, and I’d deny and desert Jesus just as quickly as his disciples did. But that would not mean that I did not know, right through the deepest part of me, the truth of who he is. There are times when I am hard, shallow, weed-choked soil, but also times when God, the good farmer, has weeded and hoed and watered me into good soil that through his grace will yield the return that is his purpose. I’m sure you too will have experienced days when the seed of God seemed doomed to die and others where you were aware of the abundant growth of his love in you. This is a wonderful experience and the other word that Isaiah uses for God’s sign is “owth,” a word which is often linked in the OT to the word “mowpheth” - “wonder” , in the phrases “signs and wonders.” Because when we do get it right, we are wondrous signs of God’s grace at work in the world. We are not just receiving soil, but seeds scattered throughout the world, each of us carrying a tiny fragment of the word. Both the OT Hebrew “dabar” and NT Greek “logos” are translated “word”, but it has been estimated that there are as many as 2,500 variations of meaning in the OT alone. It can mean the divine word or idea of God, but also more simply that which is spoken. God speaks in Genesis 1 to create the world. Jesus speaks throughout his ministry, mainly in stories. If we are fragments of the word, sent out like drops of rain to bring life to the earth, then I believe that to accomplish what God desires and to achieve his purpose, we have specifically to tell our story – the story of the relationship between the seed and the sower.
And what a story it is! No wonder Isaiah prophesies that mountains will burst into song and trees will clap their hands. After all, even the mightiest tree starts as a seed and every one is a planting of the Lord, which will accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it.