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225

CHAPTER XIV.

THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER.

Luke viii. 1-18.

In a single parenthetical sentence our Evangelist indicates a marked change in the mode of the Divine ministry. Hitherto "His own city," Capernaum, has been a sort of centre, from which the lines of light and blessing have radiated. Now, however, He leaves Capernaum, and makes a circuit through the province of Galilee, going through its cities and villages in a systematic, and as the verb would imply, a leisurely way, preaching the "good tidings of the kingdom of God." Though no mention is made of them, we are not to suppose that miracles were suspended; but evidently they were set in the background, as secondary things, the by-plays or "asides" of the Divine Teacher, who now is intent upon delivering His message, the last message, too, that they would hear from Him. Accompanying Him, and forming an imposing demonstration, were His twelve disciples, together with "many" women, who ministered unto them of their substance, among whom were three prominent ones, probably persons of position and influence—Mary of Magdala, Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, who had been healed by Jesus of "evil spirits and infirmities"—which last word, in New Testament language, is a synonym for physical weakness226 and disorder. Of the particulars and results of this mission we know nothing, unless we may see, in the "great multitude" which followed and thronged Jesus on His return, the harvest reaped from the Galilean hills. Our Evangelist, at any rate, links them together, as if the "great multitude" which now lines the shore was, in part at least, the cloud of eager souls which had been caught up and borne along on His fervid speech, as the echoes of the kingdom went resounding among the hills and vales of Galilee.

Returning to Capernaum, whither the crowds follow Him, every city sending its contingent of curious or conquered souls, Jesus, as St. Matthew and St. Mark inform us, leaves the house, and seeks the open stretch of shore, where from a boat—probably the familiar boat of Simon—He addresses the multitudes, adopting now, as His favourite mode of speech, the amplified parable. It is probable that He had observed on the part of His disciples an undue elation of spirit. Reading the crowds numerically, and not discerning the different motives which had brought them together, their eyes deceived them. They imagined that these eager multitudes were but a wave-sheaf of the harvest already ripe, which only waited their gathering-in. But it is not so; and Jesus sifts and winnows His audience, to show His disciples that the apparent is not always the real, and that between the hearers of the word and the doers there will ever be a wide margin of disappointment and comparative failure. The harvest, in God's husbandry, as in man's, does not depend altogether upon the quality of the seed or the faithfulness of the sower, but upon the nature of the soil on which it falls.

As the sower went forth to sow his seed, "some fell227 by the way-side, and it was trodden under-foot, and the birds of the heaven devoured it." In his carefulness to cover all his ground, the sower had gone close up to the boundary, and some of the seed had fallen on the edge of the bare and trampled path, where it lay homeless and exposed. It was in contact with the earth, but it was a mechanical, and not a vital touch. There was no correspondence, no communion between them. Instead of welcoming and nourishing the seed, it held it aloof, in a cold, repelling way. Had the soil been sympathetic and receptive, it held within itself all the elements of growth. Touched by the subtle life that was hidden within the seed, the dead earth itself had lived, growing up into blades of promise, and from the full ear throwing itself forward into the future years. But the earth was hard and unreceptive; its possibilities of blessing were locked up and buried beneath a crust of trampled soil that was callous and unresponsive as the rock itself. And so the seed lay unwelcomed and alone, and the life which the warm touch of earth would have loosened and set free remained within its husk as a dead thing, without voice or hearing. There was nothing else for it but to be ground into dust by the passing foot or to be picked up by the foraging birds.

The parable was at once a prophecy and an experience. Forming a part of the crowd which surrounded Jesus was an outer ring of hearers who came but to criticize and to cavil. They had no desire to be taught—at any rate by such a teacher. They were themselves the "knowing ones," the learned, and they looked with suspicion and ill-concealed scorn upon the youthful Nazarene. Turning upon the Speaker a cold, questioning glance, or exchanging signals with228 one another, they were evidently hostile to Jesus, listening, it is true, but with a feline alertness, hoping to entrap the sweet Singer in His speech. Upon these, and such as these, the word of God, even when spoken by the Divine Son, made no impression. It was a speaking to the rocks, with no other result than the awaking of a few echoes of mockery and banter.

The experience is still true. Among those who frequent the house of God are many whose worship is a cold, conventional thing. Drawn thither by custom, by the social instinct, or by the love of change, they pass within the gates of the Lord's house, ostensibly to worship. But they are insincere, indifferent; they bring their body, and deposit it in the accustomed pew, but they might as well have put there a bag of ashes or an automaton of brass. Their mind is not here, and the cold, stolid features, unlighted by any passing gleam, tell too surely of a vacancy or vagrancy of thought. And even while the lips are throwing off mechanically Jubilates and Te Deums their heart is "far from Me," chasing some phantom "will o' the wisp," or dreaming their dreams of pleasure, gain, and ease. The worship of God they themselves would call it, but God does not recognize it. He calls their prayers a weariness, their incense an abomination. Theirs is but a worship of Self, as, setting up their image of clay, they summon earth's musicians to play their sweet airs about it. God, with them, is set back, ignored, proscribed. The personal "I" is writ so large, and is so all-pervasive, that there is no room for the I AM. Living for earth, all the fibres of their being growing downwards towards it, heaven is not even a cloud drifting across their distant vision; it is an empty space, a vacancy. To the voices of earth229 their ears are keenly sensitive; its very whispers thrill them with new excitements; but to the voices of Heaven they are deaf; the still, small voice is all unheard, and even the thunders of God are so muffled as to be unrecognized and scarcely audible. And so the word of God falls upon their ears in vain. It drops upon a soil that is impervious and antipathetic, a heart which knows no penitence, and a life whose fancied goodness has no room for mercy, or which finds such complete satisfaction in the gains of unrighteousness or the pleasures of sin that it is purposely and persistently deaf to all higher, holier voices. Ulysses filled his ears with wax, lest he should yield himself up to the enchantments of the sirens. The fable is true, even when read in reversed lines; for when Virtue, Purity, and Faith invite men to their resting-place, calling them to the Islands of the Blessed, and to the Paradise of God, they charm in vain. Deafening their ears, and not deigning to give a passing thought to the higher call, men drift past the heaven which might have been theirs, until these holier voices are silenced by the awful distance.

That the word of God is inoperative here is through no fault, either of the seed or of the sower. That word is still "quick and powerful," but it is sterile, because it finds nothing on which it may grow. It is not "understood," as Jesus Himself explains. It falls upon the outward ear alone, and there only as unmeaning sound, like the accents of some unknown tongue. And so the wicked one easily takes away the word from their heart; for, as the preposition itself implies, that word had not fallen into the heart; it was lying on it in a superficial way, like the seed cast upon the trampled path.

Is there, then, no hope for these way-side hearers?230 and sparing our strength and toil, shall we leave them for soils more promising? By no means. The fallow ground may be broken up; the ploughshare can loosen the hardened, unproductive earth. Pulverized by the teeth of the harrow or the teeth of the frost, the barren track itself disappears; it passes up into the advanced classes, giving back the seed with which it is now entrusted, with a thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold increase. And this is true in the higher husbandry, in which we are permitted to be "God's fellow-workers." The heart which to-day is indifferent or repellent, to-morrow, chastened by sickness or torn by the ploughshare of some keen grief, may hail with eagerness the message it rejected and even scorned before. Amid the penury and shame of the far country, the father's house, from which he had wantonly turned, now comes to the prodigal like a sweet dream, and even its bread has all the aroma and sweetness of ambrosial food. No matter how disappointing the soil, we are to do our duty, which is to "sow beside all waters;" nor should any calculations of imaginary productiveness make us slack our hand or cast away our hope. When the Spirit is poured out from on high, even "the wilderness becomes as a fruitful field," and death itself becomes instinct with life.

"And other fell on the rock; and as soon as it grew it withered away, because it had no moisture." Here is a second quality of soil. It is not, however, a soil that is weakened by an intermixture of gravel or of stones, but rather a soil that is thinly spread upon the rock. It is good soil as far as it goes, but it is shallow. It receives the seed gladly, as if that were its one mission, as indeed it is; it gives the seed a hiding-place, throwing over it a mantle of earth, so that the231 birds shall not devour it. It lays its warm touch upon the enveloping husk, as the Master once laid His finger upon the bier, and to the imprisoned life which was within it said, "Arise and multiply. Pass up into the sunlight, and give God's children bread." And the seed responds, obeys. The emerging life throws out its two wings—one downwards, as its roots clasp the soil; one upwards, as the blade, pushing the clods aside, makes for the light and the heavens that are above it. "Surely," we should say, if we read the future from the present merely, "the hundredfold is here. Pull down your barns and build greater, for never was seed received more kindly, never were the beginnings of life more auspicious, and never was promise so great." Ah that the promise should so soon be a disappointment, and the forecast be so soon belied! The soil has no depth. It is simply a thin covering spread over the rock. It offers no room for growth. The life it nourishes can be nothing more than an ephemeral life, which owns but a to-day, whose "to-morrow" will be in the oven of a burning heat. The growth is entirely superficial, for its roots come directly to the hard, impenetrable rock, which, yielding no support, but cutting off all supplies from the unseen reservoirs beneath, turns back the incipient life all starved and shrunken. The result is a sudden withering and decay. A foundling, left, not by some iron gate which the touch of mercy might open, but by a dead wall of cold, unresponsive stone, the plant throws up its arms into the air, in its vain struggle for life, and then wilts and droops, lying at last, a dead and shrivelled thing, on the dry bosom of the earth which had given it its untimely birth.

Such, says Jesus, are many who hear the word. Unlike those by the way-side, these do not reject it.232 They listen, bending toward that word with attentive ears and eager hearts. Nay, they receive it with joy; it strikes upon their soul with the music of a new evangel. But the work is not thorough; it is superficial, external. They "have no root" in a deep and settled conviction, only a green blade of profession and of mock promise, and when the testing-time comes, as it comes to all, "the time of temptation," they fall away, or they "stand off," as the verb might be literally rendered.

In this second class we must place a large proportion of those who heard and who followed Jesus. There was something attractive about His manner and about His message. Again and again we read how they "pressed upon Him" to hear His words, the multitude hanging on His lips as the bees will cluster upon a honeyed leaf. Thousands upon thousands thus came within the spell of His voice, now wondering at His gracious words, and now stunned with astonishment, as they marked the authority with which He spoke, the compressed thunder that was in His tones. But in how many cases are we forced to admit the interest to be but momentary! It was with many—shall we say with most?—merely a passing excitement, the effervescence of personal contact. The words of Jesus came "as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice," and for the moment the hearts of the multitudes were set vibrating in responsive harmonies. But the music ceased when the Singer was absent. The impressions were not permanent, and even the emotions had soon passed away, almost from memory. St. John speaks of one sifting in Galilee when "many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him" (vi. 66), showing that with them at least it was an233 attachment rather than an attachment that bound them to Himself. The bond of union was the hope of some personal gain, rather than the bond of a pure and deep affection. And so directly He speaks of His approaching death, of His "flesh and blood" which He shall give them to eat and to drink, like an icy breath from the north, those words chill their devotion, turning their zeal and ardour into a cold indifference, if not into an open hostility. And this same winnowing of Galilee is repeated in Judæa. We read of multitudes who escorted Jesus down the Mount of Olives, strewing His path with garments, giving Him a royal welcome to the "city of the Great King." But how soon a change "came o'er the spirit of their dream"! how soon the hosannahs died away! As a hawk in the sky will still in a moment the warbling of the birds, so the uplifted cross threw its cold shadow upon their hearts, drowning the brief hosannahs in a strange silence. The cross was the fan in the Masters hand, with which He "throughly purged His floor," separating the true from the false. It blew away into the deep valley of Oblivion the chaff, the dead superficialities, the barren yawns, leaving as the residuum of the sifted multitudes a mere handful of a hundred and twenty names.

These pro tem. believers are indigenous to every soil. There never is a great movement afloat—philanthropic, political or spiritual—but numberless smaller craft are lifted up on its swell. For a moment they seem instinct with life, but having no propelling power in themselves, they drop behind, soon to be embedded in the mire. And especially is this true in the region of spiritual dynamics. In all so-called "revivals" of religion, when the Church rejoices in a deepened and quickened life, when a cooling zeal has been rewarmed at the heavenly234 fires, and converts are multiplied, in the accessions which follow almost invariably will be found a proportion of what we may call "casuals." We cannot say they are counterfeits, for the work, as far as it goes, seems real, and the change, both in their thought and life, is clearly marked. But they are unstable souls, prone to drifting, their direction given in the main by the set of the current in which they happen to be. And so when they reach the point—which all must reach sooner or later—where two seas meet, the cross current of enticement and temptation bears hard upon them, and they make shipwreck of faith. Others, again, are led by impulse. Religion with them is mainly a matter of feeling. Overlooking the fact that the emotions are easily stirred, that they respond to the passing breath just as the sea ripples to the breeze, they substitute emotion for conviction, feeling for faith. But these have no foundation, no root, no independent life, and when the excitements on which they feed are withdrawn, when the emotion subsides, the high tide of fervour falling back to its mean sea-level, they lose heart and hope. They are even ready to pity themselves as the objects of an illusion. But the illusion was one of their own making. They set the pleasant before the right, delight before duty, comfort before Christ, and instead of finding their heaven in doing the will of God, no matter what the emotions, they sought their heaven in their own personal happiness, and so they missed both.

"They endure for a while." And of how many are these words true! Verily we must not count our fruits from the blossoms of spring, nor must we reckon our harvest in that easy, hopeful way of multiplying each seed, or even each blade, by the hundredfold, for the blade may be only a short-lived blade and nothing more.

235"And other fell amidst the thorns; and the thorns grew with it, and choked it." Here is a third quality of soil in the ascending series. In the first, the trampled path, life was not possible; the seed could find not the least response. In the second there was life. The thinly sprinkled soil gave the seed a home, a rooting; but lacking depth of earth and the necessary moisture, the life was precarious, ephemeral. It died away in the blade, and never reached its fruitage. Now, however, we have a deeper, richer soil, with an abundance of vitality, one capable of sustaining an exuberant life. But it is not clean; it is already thickly sown with thorns, and the two growths running up side by side, the hardier gets the mastery. And though the corn-life struggles up into the ear, bearing a sort of fruit, it is a grain that is dwarfed and shrivelled, a mere husk and shell, which no leaven can transmute into bread. It brings forth fruit, as the exposition of the parable indicates, but it has not strength to complete its task; it does not ripen it, bringing the fruit "to perfection."

Such, says Jesus, is another and a large class of hearers. They are naturally capable of doing great things. Possessing strong wills, and a large amount of energy, they are just the lives to be fruitful, impressing themselves upon others, and so throwing their manifold influence down into the future. But they do not, and for the simple reason that they do not give to the word a whole heart. Their attentions and energies are divided. Instead of seeking "first the kingdom of God," making that the supreme quest of life, it is with them but one of many things to be desired and sought. Chief among the hindrances to a perfected growth and fruitfulness, Jesus mentions three; namely, cares, riches, and pleasures. By the "cares of life" we must236 understand—interpreting the word by its related word in Matthew vi. 34—the anxieties of life. It is the anxious thought, mainly about the "to-morrow," which presses upon the heart as a sore and constant burden. It is the fearfulness and unrest of soul which gloom the spirit and shroud the life, making the Divine peace itself a fret and worry. And how many Christians find this to be the normal experience! They love God, they seek to serve Him; but they are weighted and weary. Instead of having the hopeful, buoyant spirit which rises to the crest of passing waves, it is a heart depressed and sad, living in the deeps. And so the brightness of their life is dimmed; they walk not "in the light, as He is in the light," but beneath a sky frequently overcast, their days bringing only "a little glooming light, much like a shade." And so their spiritual life is stunted, their usefulness impaired. Instead of having a heart "at leisure from itself," they are engrossed with their own unsatisfactory experiences. Instead of looking upwards to the heavens which are their own, or outwards upon the crying needs of earth, they look inward with frequent and morbid introspection; and instead of lending a hand to the fallen, that a brotherly touch might help them to rise, their hands find full employment in steadying the world, or worlds, of care which, Atlas-like, they are doomed to carry. Self-doomed, we should have said; for the Divine Voice invites us to cast "all our anxiety upon Him," assuring us that He careth for us, an assurance and an invitation which make our anxieties, the fret and fever of life, altogether superfluous.

Exactly the same effect of making the spiritual life incomplete, and so unproductive, is caused by riches and pleasures, or, as we might render the expression,237 by the pursuit after riches or after pleasure. Not that the Scriptures condemn wealth in itself. It is, per se, of a neutral character, whether a blessing or a bane depends on how it is earned and how it is held. Nor do the Scriptures condemn legitimate modes and measures of business; they condemn waste and indolence, but they commend industry, diligence, thrift. But the evil is in making wealth the chief aim of life. It is deceptive, promising satisfaction which it never gives, creating a thirst which it is powerless to slake, until the desire, ever more greedy and clamorous, grows into a "love of money," a pure worship of Mammon. Religion and business may well go together, for God has joined them in one. Each keeping its proper place, religion first and most, and business a far-off second, together they are the centrifugal and centripetal forces that keep the life revolving steadily around its Divine centre. But let the positions be reversed; let business be the first, chief thought, let religion sink down to some second or third place, and the life swings farther and farther from its pivotal centre, into wildernesses of dearth and cold. To give due thought to earthly things is right; nay, we may give all diligence to make our earthly, as well as our heavenly calling sure; but when business gets imperious in its demands, swallowing up all our thought and energy, leaving no time for spiritual exercises or for personal service for Christ, then the religious life declines. Crowded back into the chance corners, with nothing left it but the brief interstices of a busy life, religion can do little more than maintain a profession; its helpfulness is, in the main, remitted to the past, and its fruitfulness is postponed to that uncertain nowhere of the Greek calends.

The same is true with regard to the pleasures of life.238 The word "pleasure" is a somewhat infrequent word in the New Testament, and generally it is used of the lower, sensual pleasures. We are not obliged, however, to give the word its lowest meaning; indeed, the analogy of the parable would scarcely allow such an interpretation. Sinful pleasure would not check growth; it would simply prevent it, making a spiritual life impossible. We must therefore interpret the "pleasures" which retard the upward growth, and render it infertile, as the lawful pleasures of life, such as the delights of the eye and ear, the gratification of the tastes, the enjoyments of domestic or social life. Perfectly innocent and pure in themselves, purposely designed for our enjoyment, as St. Paul plainly intimates (1 Tim. vi. 17), they are pleasures which we have no right to treat with the stoic's disdain, nor with the ascetic's aversion. But the snare is in permitting these desires to step out of their proper place, in allowing them to have a controlling influence. As servants their ministry is helpful and benign; but if we make them "lords," then, like "the ill uses of a life," we find it difficult to put them down; they rather put us down, making us their thrall. To please God should be the one absorbing pursuit and passion of life, and wholly bent on this, if other pure enjoyments come in our way we may receive them thankfully. But if we make our personal gratification the aim, if our thoughts and plans are set on this rather than upon the pleasing of God, then our spiritual life is enfeebled and stifled, and the fruit we should bear shrivels up into chaff. Then we become selfish and self-willed, and the pure pleasures of life, which like Vestal Virgins minister within the temple of God, leading us ever to Him, turn round to burn perpetual incense before our enlarged and239 exalted Self. He who stops to confer with flesh and blood, who is ever consulting his own likes and leanings, can never be an apostle to others.

"And other fell into the good ground, and grew, and brought forth fruit a hundredfold." Here is the highest quality of soil. Not hard, like the trampled path, nor shallow, like the covering of the rock, not preoccupied with the roots of other growths, this is mellow, deep, clean, and rich. The seed falls, not "by," or "in," or "among," but "into" it, while seed and soil together grow up in an affluence of life, and passing through the blade-age and the earing, it ripens into a harvest of a hundredfold. Such, says Jesus, are they who, in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, hold it fast, and bring forth fruit with patience. Here, then, we reach the germ of the parable, the secret of fruitfulness. The one difference between the saint and the sinner, between the hundredfold hearer and him whose life is spent in throwing out promises of a harvest which never ripens, is their different attitude towards the word of God. In the one case that word is rejected altogether, or it is a concept of the mind alone, an aurora of the Arctic night, distant and cold, which some mistake for the dawn of a new day. In the other the word passes through the mind into the deepest heart; it conquers and rules the whole being; it becomes a part of one's very self, the soul of the soul. "Thy word have I hid in my heart," said the Psalmist, and he who puts the Divine word there, before all earthly and selfish voices, letting that Divine Voice fill up that most sacred temple of the heart, will make his outer life both beautiful and fruitful. He will walk the earth as one of God's seers, ever beholding Him who is invisible, speaking by life or lips in heavenly tones,240 and by his own steadfast, upward gaze lifting the hearts and thoughts of men "above the world's uncertain haze." Such is the Divine law of life; the measure of our faith is the measure of our fruitfulness. If we but half believe in the promises of God or in the eternal realities, then the sinews of our soul are houghed, and there comes over us the sad paralysis of doubt. How can we bring forth fruit except we abide in Him? and how can we abide in Him but by letting His words abide in us? But having His words abiding in us, then His peace, His joy, His life are ours, and we, who without Him are poor, dead things, now become strong in His infinite strength, and fruitful with a Divine fruitfulness; and to our lives, which were all barren and dead, will men come for the words that "help and heal," while the Master Himself gathers from them His thirty, sixty, or hundredfold, the fruitage of a whole-hearted, patient faith.

Let us take heed, therefore, how we hear, for on the character of the hearing depends the character of the life. Nor is the truth given us for ourselves alone; it is given that it may become incarnate in us, so that others may see and feel the truth that is in us, even as men cannot help seeing the light which is manifest.

And so the parable closes with the account of the visit of His mother and brethren, who came, as St. Matthew informs us, "to take Him home;" and when the message was passed on to Him that His mother and His brethren wished to see Him, this was His remarkable answer, claiming relationship with all whose hearts vibrate to the same "word:" "My mother and My brethren are those which hear the word of God, and DO IT." It is the secret of the Divine life on earth; they hear, and they do.

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