Parable of the sower: a rogation story


Scripture: Matthew 13: 3b-8; Psalm 126. Nigel Bunce

The parable of the sower informs Rogation Sunday by reminding us how the COVID19 pandemic calls us to be fruitful seeds.

What is Rogation Sunday?

Rogation: from the Latin word rogare, to ask. It’s when we ask God to bless our crops so that we will have enough to eat next winter. We have gotten out of the habit of rogation. Food from all over the world just seems to appear in our supermarkets by magic. But someone had to grow the food, whether locally or in a distant land.

There’s a disconnect between farm and fork for so many of us that live in towns and cities. So that’s why I am standing next to this community garden today. Like farmers, gardeners grow fruits and vegetables to eat, or flowers to add beauty to their lives. Gardeners and farmers must prepare the soil, sow seeds, and care for what they grow till maturity and harvest. But how the crops grow is a mystery, except to God, and perhaps to botanists. As the hymn has it: “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land. But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.” 

Parable of the sower

Parable of the sower. Image from

Our Gospel reading begins, “A sower went out to sow.” At this time of year, we see winter wheat growing in neat rows. Corn will soon emerge. Some things are the same as in Jesus’ time. Farmers have to sow and tend the crops. Then as now, the farmer is at the mercy of the weather. Will there be enough sunshine and rain? Or will too much rain flood the crop? That explains the idea of rogation. Because ultimately, farmers and gardeners are not in control. It’s why we ask God to bless the crops.

What’s different from Jesus’ time are those straight rows of crops, sown using mechanical seed drills. Jesus’ sower spread his seeds by hand, broadcasting them with smooth sweeps of his arms. As a teenager in England, I stayed at a friend’s farm. At that time, the family had an ancient farm manager “Old Charle”. Old Charle had we boys sow a 10 acre field down to pasture “the old way”. We walked up and down the field with bags of seed over our shoulders, and “fiddles”, spreading the seed as we went.

Many of Jesus’ parables require us to think carefully to find the “heavenly meaning” behind the “earthly story.” But this one is rather obvious: when the seeds of the Kingdom of God are spread about, some of them prosper and others do not, for various reasons. Those seeds of the Kingdom are unstintingly available to everyone, even though God knows that not all the seeds will make it to maturity.

Jesus explained the parable of the sower

Perhaps Jesus presented the parable of the sower (it’s the first one he told) like a worked example in an algebra textbook. He gave a short digression about the purpose of parables, then he explained it. It’s as if Jesus said, “Here’s a sample parable. Study it, then you can figure out what of my other parables mean.”

Some people are completely unreceptive to God’s message. They represent the seeds thrown on the path or eaten by birds. Others have great enthusiasm for God at first. We’ve probably all met people like that. They soon lose interest, and move on to their next great cause. They are like seed that falls on soil that has no depth.

The seed sown among thorns represents those whose earthly cares choke off their intimacy with God. Finally, the seed sown on good ground bears much fruit because the person hears the word of God and acts upon it.

However, Jesus preached and taught in the countryside. In that context, the parable doesn’t make sense. Surely any rural person could figure out the meaning of the parable of the sower. But, what kind of countryman would waste his seeds the way this sower did?

Some of the seeds were thrown on the path, some on rocky ground, and some among the brush and thorns beside the prepared field. Seeds are precious; you don’t waste them. My friend and I with our fiddles were told pretty sharpish by Old Charle if he thought we were sowing too close to the hedgerow. Surely the country folk that Jesus met could not have believed in this incompetent and spendthrift sower. 

God knows that not all seeds will be fruitful

Yet there is another possibility. Perhaps God gives a chance, even multiple chances, for success even to flawed people who look as if they have no chance of being fruitful. Putting in another way, the seeds of the Kingdom are unstintingly available to everyone, even though God knows that not all the seeds will make it to maturity. In the natural world, the oak tree produces hundreds of acorns, but hardly any of them grow into new trees. Sea turtles lay hundreds of eggs in the sand, yet not one in a hundred hatchlings returns to that beach fifteen years later to lay its own eggs.

So it is with us. There are not many Mother Teresas. Even in the Gospels, Peter keeps on messing up, most notably on the night of Jesus’ arrest. He claimed that he would never deny Jesus, but did so three times when challenged by the girl at the fireside. Yet Peter became a leader of the church. He’s the apostle we shall meet in two weeks at Pentecost, telling the world about Jesus and his resurrection.

Connection between the parable of the sower and Psalm 126

I want to digress to Psalm 126, which the lectionary recommends for rogation or harvest Sundays. We assume that it dates from after the Jewish leaders returned from exile in Babylon. It must have seemed like a wonderful dream. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with joy.” After so many years they couldn’t believe that it was true. The connection to Rogation Sunday comes at the end. “They that sow in tears will reap in joy.” 

How Christ calls us in this pandemic: lessons learned

In today’s world, there are plenty of people who are sowing in tears and can only dream that they will reap in joy one day. Maybe this pandemic will teach us to put more value on the work of people who work in care homes or as grocery cashiers. Then we will pay them better, with more benefits. Others live on the streets or in shelters in our cities. This pandemic makes them even more vulnerable than usual. Perhaps we will treat them more humanely and provide more affordable housing for them.

Still others live far away, in refugee camps such as those in Turkey or Jordan. The latter numbers seem destined to swell now that the State of Israel plans to annex more land in the West Bank to build new settlements. Good-hearted Canadians deplore these plans, but forget that this is exactly what happened in Canada and the US when Europeans arrived. On an even grander scale, the newcomers made the original inhabitants refugees in their own land. Today, like the refugees in Turkey and Jordan, many impoverished First Nations live without clean water, good schools, and adequate health care.

A different nuance on the parable of the sower

Our cups will remain half empty if we continue to ignore Christ-like behaviour, like the seed falling on the path. Or if we can lose our enthusiasm for being Christ-like, like the seed with shallow roots. Or if society lets today’s good intentions get choked out by other distractions.

But our cups can also be half full. Today, we look around our world and see injustices. Christ calls us to be the good soil or the one fruitful acorn or the one turtle that returns to the ancestral beach. Choose your metaphor. But let us pray that individually and as Canadian society, God’s seeds will fall on good ground.