A Sower Went Out to Sow
Jesus told a parable in Mt 13 that still challenges people today. A man sowing seed scattered it liberally and in all kinds of places: hard packed earth by a roadside; stony ground with little topsoil; weedy, thorny areas that choked out the young, tender stalks; and good soil that nourished the seed so that fruitful plants came to maturity. While Jesus elaborates on the soils that did/did not produce a crop, He calls this the “parable of the sower” (13:18).
For the purposes of this article, let us focus on the sower and the seed he broadcast.
Who is the sower? The sower doesn’t have a specific identity, and Jesus does not elaborate on any particulars about him. He is not distinguished from a common farmer who simply sows seed in order to reap a harvest. This story, of course, presents an allegory; it is not concerned about farming methods but rather the dispersion of the gospel (“the word of the kingdom” – 13:19).
Specifically, the sower is not said to be a religious professional: a fully-supported evangelist; a clergy-member; a theological insider with special access to divine knowledge. We live in a world of specialization where many think only those with select credentials are qualified to speak and act. (This, by the way, is deliberate. Those who consider themselves erudite project superiority thereby keeping others dependent on their intellectual skills and exercising great power over underlings.)
What is the seed? Similarly, the seed is not some super-duper, highly engineered, genetically modified product that can be applied only by the experts. No, it is just plain old seed that grows, not by the skill of the sower, but according to the power God placed within it.
There are those under the broader umbrella of Christianity who cannot grasp this. They cannot conceive of the word of God standing alone, independent of a caretaking human institution that must accredit and approve of it. This concept likely arises in part from religious fracturing and the perceived need for an official repository of the gospel that defines the orthodox positions and settles all disputes. As we say, it’s a pretty good job if one can get it. And the ones who have tried to hold the reins more strongly than others through the years has been the Catholic Church.
But the cynical side of me thinks another principle is in play: claiming to be the “official spokesman” for truth brings a lot of power to control, browbeat and defraud others. And certainly the Catholic Church has a long, sordid history of doing those very things.
Think politically for a moment. Before our “founding fathers” collaborated on what features should be present in a constitutional republic, what institution embodied and substantiated these truths? Has there been some authorized institution that notarized and legitimized these concepts? Or were they latent ideas that had legitimacy based on the underlying moral and spiritual principles?
Now, I realize this is not a perfect analogy to the gospel, for the truths of the gospel are objectively revealed from heaven, not discovered by men of unusual insight. But the point of comparison is legitimate. Truth doesn’t have to be institutionalized to be valid. It just has to be, well, true.
What legitimizes the gospel is that it originates from the mind of God. What maintains the power and authority of the gospel is not some human institution but the gospel’s continued presence on earth as a result of God’s providential preservation. Surely in the history of man there is no collection of writings more offensive and more the target of annihilation than Scripture. And yet, not only does it still exist but it is the perennial best-seller. Not bad for a literary work that is continually harangued as antiquated, sexist, inaccurate, fictional, homophobic, etc.
During the period when the gospel was in the process of being revealed – a gradual development that paralleled the flow of truth first to those of Jewish descent and then to Gentile populations – misunderstandings of the meaning, implications and implementation of the truth occurred. Some who didn’t approve of the implications of extension to the Gentiles corrupted the truth of the gospel and did violence to it (Gal 2:4-5, 11-21; 4:17; 5:7-10; 6:12-13; Ac 15:1-5; etc.). But the Jerusalem conference (Ac 15) was not a convocation of men to decide the truth but a concerted effort to confirm the truth that was self-evident in the miracles Paul worked among the Gentiles while converting them to Christ without circumcision. Some denied this while God’s approved messengers – the apostles Peter and Paul, along with the testimony of Barnabas and James – affirmed the truth whether the Judaizers were onboard with it or not.
A recent article with a strong humanistic slant observed: “[Paul] took the good news (as he called it) to the West, understanding that if the Way of Jesus were to prosper, it would have to go beyond this powerful boundary. In this, he fought against the church in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus, who wished only for the Way to remain a kind of hyper-Jewish sect devoted to the strict adherence to the Law of Moses. Had James won out over Paul, Christianity would soon have dwindled to a tiny group in the Holy Land, one that would soon be overridden, obliterated by time and circumstances” (Jay Parini, Daily Beast, 4/20/19). Parini sees the development of Christianity as natural, unguided cultural evolution rather than the work of God that was gradually recorded by men inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Human institutions come and go, they morph and contradict themselves, they suffer from the foibles and frailties of humanity. Not so with the truth of the gospel: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Mt 24:35); “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Is 40:8). The truth isn’t what I say it is; the truth isn’t what the Catholic Church says it is. The truth is what it says of itself, and it is the responsibility of every human being to hear it and come to terms with it.
And when a sower sows it, it has the power to transform human life from dead in sin to life in Christ Jesus. That kind of power doesn’t need a human institution to prop it up or define it. It stands just fine all on its own.