Aidan Mayoss CR reflects on the parable of the sower
There is a measure of dislocation in this Gospel. It is between the actual parable spoken by Jesus and then the latter part, the working out of the allegory which does not quite match. Scholars seem agreed that the parable was spoken by Jesus but the explanation is later than the parable and inserted by Matthew to illustrate one way in which parables work. Sadly the explanation does not fit the parable.
The parable considers the soil; the explanation the seed.
According to the great agriculturist and biblical scholar, our late brother Benedict, the bizarre practice of Hebrew farmers was to sow the seed before ploughing; maybe hidden away in Leviticus there is an instruction to that effect, so it is easy to construct an allegory about the misadventures of the seed rather than the soil. My problem is considering the seed as the word of God, however delivered. We are stuck in a ‘one off’ situation. Treating the parable to be about the soil allows for change
and, just as we all change, I know that sometimes I have been depressed and unwilling; at others I have been overenthusiastic, a mistake more of youth than antiquity! So the enthusiasm wanes; at other times I would rejoice that the birds of the air – and bird in this context has many meanings – have removed the seed before it is covered by soil: while there are still plenty of thistles hence to make life hazardous; while none but the deeply deluded would think of themselves as good soil.
Many of us, however, are privileged to know people that really are ‘good soil’, ‘anima naturalita cbristiana’, which is how Tertullian described them. The old lady who is at Mass every day and who never thinks for a moment of all the good that she does; all over the place there are such people, yet with the plethora of multiple Benefices, facilities for such are neglected. Most of us cannot be described in terms of this soil or that, not so much as God’s garden as a rather wayward allotment. We know that the Lord will understand that we do have better and more receptive moments and must be taking nourishment from the seed or we wouldn’t stick anywhere.
So we have to incorporate that which is not biblically mentioned: the plough. It is the activity of the plough which breaks up the impacted soil of a footpath, turns over all the land and avoids the rocky outcrops; it is the key to the whole business whether the seed is sown before or after.
Painful and necessary
From the point of view of the soil, ploughing is both painful and necessary; the soil really is ripped open and its treasures displayed to the delight of all the birds which follow the plough, and it has to happen every year until the field is given a necessary holiday. One could allegorize this for ever but I will leave you to do that for yourselves. All require the plough and all require rest, and both are requisite for bearing fruit.
‘Plough’ is very much an umbrella word, for it embraces all that affects the individual, not just divine proddings but all the ordinary everyday occasions as well as the not everyday ‘big things’. All can affect our relationship with God. Sometimes people, when talking of their difficulties in prayer, reveal symptoms which suggest that a doctor might be consulted, or a psychiatrist, but for most what is required is steady application, especially when the circumstances are unhelpful. The horrible tiredness of new mothers when there seems to be no respite and prayer is impossible is a commonplace, but they need to be kindly reminded that the very task which makes them so tired is co-operation with God in his continued work of creation.
All this makes the plough of greater significance than the sower or his seed and it is an agricultural truism that the stronger the plough the better it does its job and what is empirically established in agriculture also works for our allegory. We would all like a plastic plough which does not hurt and looks good but we know that it will collapse at the first tiny rock.
A stronger ploughshare
A further twist comes with a real situation. In the Seventies a big vehicle manufacturer had a surplus of tractors. It could make some money from the government and gets lots of Brownie points for sending them for free to Africa. Unfortunately in the terrain in places like Lesotho, tractors do not work; they cannot reach the places that oxen have to. About the same time there was a metallurgist prowling about Africa and being saddened by the very poor quality of the ploughshares, not plastic but not very strong, so they did not go down very far, so he went to work and managed to find a source of ploughshares made of really tough steel which would go down much deeper and so produce more and better crops! Such ploughs are now commonplace.
You can allegorize that for yourselves, as I am sure Jesus would, had he known about the metallurgist. ND