Evangelism: The Nature of Seed and Sowers

What would Jesus do about sharing faith? The parable of the sower and the seed perhaps provides a clue:

“Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.” (Matthew 13:3-8)

In a rare exception to His usual practice, Jesus explained the parable:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.” (Matthew 13:19-23)

Much has been written about this parable. The easy assumption is that it is about the soil—about us; that it is telling us to be good soil so that we can bear good fruit. But really it is more a parable about the seed. The soil is not in fact all good soil, and even the good soil produces different yields of fruit.

Neither is it about salvation. It is about bearing fruit, about conversion, about who can “make a turn” and how, about the impediments to turning about, about the technique of conversion. It provides an insight into what we should be doing with our own strategy and what we should have as an expectation from our soul-winning efforts and from sharing our faith.

Most of all, though, the parable is about the seed, the mystery of its growth and what prevents—and what enables—its growth. And above all, it is about the transformative power of the seed. The seed is the Word of the kingdom of heaven, the coin of the realm; and this is what Jesus says we must share.

To me, the biggest takeaway from the parable is the breadth of the broadcast of the seed by the sower. A farmer is much more discriminating in sowing seed only in the good soil of his field. He does not spread it recklessly and wastefully in the hedgerows and ditches and on the stony path. Yet it seems we must be ready to spread the Word anywhere and everywhere.

By its nature, seed will try to grow wherever it lands. In harsh conditions it might not be viable at all, or it might grow weakly, but it is in its DNA to try.

“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

The soil has no obligation to make itself fertile. Even the good soil yields varying amounts of the crop. The sower, in the parable, doesn’t seem to care. The reason can be found in Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
 “For you will go out with joy
And be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
 “Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up,
And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,
And it will be a memorial to the Lord,
For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:10-13)

Note here the transformational power of seed. We see the clear intention of the sower—God—to sow His seed everywhere. It would, He said, accomplish what He desires. It seems that the ultimate responsibility for soul-winning is God’s. We are farmhands who may help with the sowing. We are to broadcast our faith widely, indiscriminately, and without heed to the consequences.

When we put God—the Word of the kingdom—at the center of our witnessing then we accomplish God’s purpose, whatever that may be. The return on investment, God said, will not be empty; there will be transformation, with productive plants replacing worthless weeds. The transformative power is in the seed—in the Word of the kingdom, not in the soil.

How then ought we to share our faith? Should we modify our evangelism? Are we in danger of falling into the same trap as the Pharisees?

Paul wrote:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:1-7)

Are we taking more responsibility than we should for the end product of our witnessing, in seeking to make others become like us? Should we concern ourselves only with the sowing of the Word and ignore the harvest, leaving it up to God? It seems that God needs our help with the sowing in order to have a harvest.

Jay: We are essentially comparing and contrasting the Parable of the Sower to the Woes of the Pharisees. But first, let’s put it alongside Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

In the Parable of the Sower, the seed also is the Word. If, as Isaiah says, the seed that is sown accomplishes what God desires wherever it lands—even among the rocks and weeds—then what is that accomplishment? What does it achieve? If we evangelize among the human equivalent of rocks and weeds (versus among people likely to be receptive to our evangelism) what are we likely to accomplish?

David: Evangelists take “the Word” to mean the printed words of Scripture—the Bible. To me, the Word is God and God is Goodness, therefore sowing the word is spreading goodness personified—that is, performing acts of goodness. It is about behavior, not about words.

Anonymous: The sowing leads to a variety of fruit. Perhaps the different types of soil are the various stages in life. In early life, Satan gets everything we hear. A few years later we become rocky—unproductive, selfish, worldly. Then life experiences make us become thorny. Towards the end, we become wiser. We all pass through these stages, but we respond (we “bear fruit”) differently.

Donald: Sowing the seed is sharing the Gospel as we come to understand it through our doctrine. If we examined the seed packets, they would list “The Word” and “How To Read It” as the ingredients. Evangelism works if the Gospel is represented through acts of love, care, kindness. Without them, it seems to me evangelism is empty and somewhat pointless.

David: A few years ago we discussed an article posted in Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times written by a Catholic priest who had been called out, still young and inexperienced, to comfort a family whose child lay dying in hospital. He did not know what to say or do in the face of such grief—he had no words for the situation. Yet he found that his mere presence as God’s representative brought some comfort to the family. He was not proselytizing, of course—he was a Catholic priest ministering to a Catholic family—but still he was spreading the Word—the goodness of God. He was sowing the seed by his simple kind act of being there for them.

Kiran: I am soil. If seed lands on me, it will germinate and grow. Even if I am a rock, the seed will still germinate and its tiny roots will break me up just a tiny bit, before it withers away. Over time, enough seeds may turn me into soil fertile enough to produce fruit. Just breaking the rock by a tiny amount is a “fruit” of the seed.

Chris: What type of soil am I? Farmers plant different seeds according to the type of soil. Could it be that the seed of Seventh Day Adventism can grow in me but not in others? Ditto for the seeds of Islam, Catholicism, and so on? In the end, don’t they all produce fruit?

The sole purpose of fruit is to spread seed. It is not to be hoarded. It is spread though several means—by the wind, through the alimentary canal of some animal or bird, and so on. The Adventist seed fell on me and grew, and I can now disperse that seed myself. Why shouldn’t Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hindus and so on grow and spread their seed too?

Donald: Seed packets are printed with instructions telling the sower the optimal conditions of soil, sunlight, and so on for planting that particular seed. But a universal seed such as a gospel of Goodness or Kindness works everywhere. Our evangelism coats that seed in doctrine.

David: Loving God and one another is the ultimate universal seed accepted by soil everywhere. Seed has a kernel wherein lies all its goodness, and a surrounding husk to protect it until the time is right for the goodness to be released to do its job. Doctrine is the husk, and doctrine differs by religion; but the kernel is the same across all religions. Islamic and Jewish doctrines say to eschew pork. Christian doctrine (except Adventism) allows pork and depictions of God. But the kernel of the seeds of all religions and denominations, surrounded by their individual doctrinal husks in Scripture, contains and expresses love for God and for one another.

Evangelists of all faiths may tend to over-emphasize the husk of the seeds they sow, but in the end the kernel of the seed will break through the husk and do its job. The seed having achieved God’s purpose, the husk is no longer needed (if it ever was) and can simply be left to disintegrate.

Jay: When seed falls on fertile soil, it bears nutritious fruit. But seed sown by the Pharisees produces poisonous fruit. What is the difference in the seeds? If the purpose of seed is to bear fruit and the purpose of fruit is to multiply the seed for further distribution; and if the seed is Goodness, why throw it where it is unlikely to bear fruit?

David: But if the seed store is inexhaustible, why not sow it everywhere? It’s more efficient, at least as effective, and no more costly than a distribution system that requires careful planning, routing, scheduling, and logistics. Isn’t God’s Goodness inexhaustible and eternal?

When the Internet came, it became possible to distribute messages to millions of people for less than the cost of a single postage stamp.

Kiran: A human farmer has a limited store of seeds and will not waste them on infertile soil. He only wants fruit. But the Divine Farmer wants fruit from fertile soil and He wants to make the infertile soil turn fertile.

Jay: The difference between the Parable of the Sower and the Woes of the Pharisees is in the nature of the sower. The sower is God in the first case and Pharisees in the second. God sows Goodness. The Pharisees (and we) would impose the restriction of limited seed supply on a God who has no such restriction. Their sowing was discriminating about where they sowed their seeds. They in-bred the resulting plants to produce fruit—and thus more seed—to their own specification. The result was mutated fruit—converts who were “twice the sons of hell.” This is the great danger of evangelism.

But this analysis opens up a can of worms.

David: For religion, it certainly does open up a can of worms. Over time, religious seed mutates and the husk tends to grow thicker, making it more difficult for the kernel to escape and do its job.

Jay: Does it also have the potential to better protect the kernel?

David: Does God need our help to protect His seed?

Donald: God’s seed does not need protection. It’s our seed we seek to protect. Perhaps we should focus more on the gospel (the kernel) and less on the doctrine (the husk) of our seed.

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