Reflection for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: The Parable of Success and Failure

If Matthew is remembering the Parable of the Sower and its explanation (Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23) correctly, it would stand out among the parables of Jesus for being an allegory rather than something more like a riddle, something that obscures meaning rather than makes the hearer think for himself or herself so as to engage with what Jesus was saying.  If Matthew is remembering the parable correctly, it would be, in my opinion, among the least interesting of things Jesus ever had to say.  It makes me wonder if there might not be more to it than is recorded on the page. 

Now the traditional interpretation is that the seeds sown by the sower represent the word of God.  Some of the seeds fell along the path and come to nothing because they are eaten by birds.  Some seeds fell on rocky ground and were scorched when they rose up too quickly because their roots were not deep.  Other seeds fell among the thorns, which choked them.     In other words, a lot of the seed was wasted.  Nothing came of it.  It’s hard to count at least that part as anything but a failure. 

Now, to be sure, some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain in multitudes—thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.  That part would have to be counted as a success.

What I wonder is if the meaning of the parable is not linked more to a passage from Isaiah (55:10-13) that the lectionary pairs (at least optionally) with it.  All four verses are worth looking at, but allow me to quote the first two: 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.   (vv. 10-11)

It’s not that the seed isn’t a symbol for the word of God in the parable.  It’s that the message has something to do with what failure and success mean from God’s perspective. 

First, the wasteful failure.  God is not constrained by human failure.  Neither the word nor the seed shall return empty despite failure simply because God wills it otherwise.  That is certainly true in the parable, even though some of the seed is wasted.  Still, God intends abundance.  And that’s what God gets.  Failures turn out not to be what we think.   

But neither does success.  All the essential elements—the life-giving water and the seed itself come from God.  Nor does the parable’s sower really doesn’t doing anything that deserves credit.  He just seems to hit the good soil God has given accidentally, giving that no more effort than the waste.  Still, it is enough to allow God to work.  It turns out success isn’t what we think it is, either, unless we’re looking at it from God’s perspective. 

And that’s what parables are supposed to help us do.