Parable of the Sower, by Father Basil William Maturin

The Sower“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear. – Matthew 13:3-9

“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” – Matthew 18-23

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The seven Parables in the 13th chapter of Saint Matthew are called the Parables of the Kingdom; they follow one another in a close sequence of thought, showing us, under various simple images, the mysteries of the working of grace. The first two Parables tell us the causes of the failure of grace; the natural causes and the supernatural. The third and fourth show, under two different images, the workings of grace, its transforming and fertilising power; the fifth and sixth describe how different types of men awaken to the life of grace; and the last, the final separation, between good and bad, when the time of probation is over, and the work of grace here below has ceased.

In the first Parable our Lord speaks of the natural hindrances, in the second of the supernatural hindrances to the workings of grace in the soul. In the second Parable of the Wheat and Tares, we hear of an Enemy following in the footsteps of the Sower; another sower who plants evil seed in the soil. Here in the first Parable we read of but one sower, one seed, yet of great failures; in many cases the seed cannot grow, but the hindrance lies, not in any external causes, but in the soil; there has been no preparation for the seed, or the preparation has been insufficient.

But this Parable throws a special light first of all upon the meaning of the gift of grace itself. The sower went forth to sow seed. This is the great work of our Lord, for this He came down to earth. The soil of man’s nature is barren, and can produce no perfect fruit; it is in itself incomplete; it needs something to be planted in it if it is ever to be fruitful. However prepared, ploughed, and tilled, it must remain barren until the seed is sown. There are powers lying in the soil which cannot disclose themselves except under the action of the seed. Its full meaning, its full powers are brought out only when the seed is planted. And what is the seed which Christ came to sow in the barren soil of man’s nature? ‘The seed,’ says our Lord, ‘is the Word of God,’ and Saint John will explain to us what our Lord means by ‘the Word of God.’ “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” “And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” (John 1:16) Again in his Epistle he says, “This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son hath not life.” (1 John 5:11-12) This, then, is the seed which the Sower went forth to sow; it is the life of our Incarnate Lord; it is Christ come to impart His own nature to man. “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” says Saint Paul (Colossians 1:27). As the seed understands, and can use the powers that are in the soil, which can never be disclosed except by the seed, so there are powers in man’s nature which can never be unfolded in their perfection, except the seed of the Divine Life be planted in him; except the Sower sow His seed.

And this gift is bestowed upon us by a definite act of God towards us. Man can no more get it for himself by longing for it, than the earth can of itself produce a seed. The Sower goes out day by day to sow His seed in the souls of men. It is God’s free gift, we do not merit it, we do not understand it at all; we receive it, it is called the Gift of Grace. Whoever has had this seed sown in his heart is a Christian; whoever has not, however good he may be, however, in some measure, Christlike he may be, he is not a Christian. A Christian is not merely a good man, nor one who tries to follow the example of Christ; a Christian is one who, in the language of Saint Peter, has been made ‘partaker of the Divine nature.’ (2 Peter 1:4) The one great result of the work of Christ is, that it enables man to do ‘that which by nature he cannot do.’ The difference between Christianity and all other religions is, that Christianity professes to impart power to man. Other religions appeal to man’s religious instincts; Christianity gives him something which he does not possess of himself. It is, in the language of Saint Paul, ‘the power of God unto salvation,’ (Romans 1:16) and as Saint James says, ‘the engrafted Word which is able to save our souls.’ (James 1:27)

No doubt we often see men who have many and great natural virtues, who do not believe in our Lord, but this need not surprise us. What Christ came to give was not a gift of nature, but a supernatural gift No doubt too in a Christian land, under the influences of Christian training and in the presence of the Church, we do see in many who are not Christians virtues that closely resemble Christian virtues, but if we were to transplant such persons into a heathen land and deprive them of all that comes through the presence of the Church, we should find such virtues would soon fail. Men may have by nature all that belongs to nature, and some of the gifts of nature are very noble and very great, but they cannot have aught but what belongs to nature. The soil may be good soil and most productive, but it cannot bear fruit except the seed be sown. When we find one who is naturally proud, and censorious, and passionate, become humble, and gentle, and self-controlled, we ask whence comes this fruit so contrary to nature? and we answer, ‘the Sower has sown His Seed;’ it cannot be traced to any natural cause; it is the fruit of the Divine Seed of Grace.

The gift of the Christian life is described in the Parable as a seed. It is a germ of life; it has the power of vast development; but it is also capable of being easily hindered in its growth. There is great vitality in the seed, but it is very delicate. The seed has the life within it, but the moment it is placed in the soil, the undeveloped life of the seed is dependent upon the soil. The soil, according to its character, has the power to develop or destroy the germ of life within the seed: it must find its nourishment there.

And so it is with the gift of grace. It is not a magical power that can make us good in spite of ourselves: it is a seed to which the earth of our nature must lay open its bosom and yield up its powers. The seed of grace feeds itself upon, and takes root in the soil of nature.

Thus the Sacraments are not charms: we can place hindrances in the way of their action. Though they convey to us the very life of God Himself, yet the moment they are received they become dependent upon the soil that has received them, whether they are to be fruitful or barren. There is room left for the full exercise of free-will, notwithstanding the mightiness of the gift which is received. Our Lord has thus devised a means whereby the work of our sanctification is, looked at from one point of view, all His, from another, all our own. He gives us the power, but the development of that power depends upon our own will: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock,’ (Revelation 3:20) the opening of the door must be our own act He gives, but we must yield our nature to receive, and respond to His inspirations. We might receive the Sacraments every day, and be none the better, if between the seed and the soil there is no correspondence. In the Blessed Sacrament we receive the full gift of Our Lord’s own Presence; yet no sooner have we received that mighty gift, than it becomes dependent upon the action of our own will: indeed the extent or the limit of the grace of our communion is dependent upon ourselves, though the gift itself is infinite. If the soil of our nature be like the beaten path, or the rocky ground, or the thorny ground, there will be no perfect fruit from our communion. If only it be the good ground, it can produce thirty-fold, sixty-fold, an hundred-fold.

This explains some of the difficulties about Baptism. A person comes to be baptized who is an adult; we watch him before and after he has been baptized, and we often feel disappointed; it has not the effects that we should expect from what we have been taught to believe Baptism is. We know the habits which he had before, the many faults and imperfections, and we watch anxiously to see the great change effected by Baptism. We believe that Baptism is the new birth of the soul: ‘A death unto sin, a new birth unto righteousness’ – we expect to see some immediate and momentous change as a result of so great a gift; the old habits broken; the new graces at once showing themselves; but we are disappointed: we see no such changes, perhaps we do not see any change at all, and we ask how can this be? If in Baptism we are born again, if indeed we die to sin, and rise again to righteousness, if it is indeed all that is meant by regeneration, the imparting to us of the life of Christ, – why do we not see the change at once? A change like the rising of the dead to life. The answer is, that the seed of the Divine life is sown in Baptism; it may grow to perfection, or it may never grow, but it is sown; but it is sown only as a seed. It is not like a great power coming down upon a person, seizing him, and transforming him whether he will or not, but it is a power imparted in its undeveloped state, depending upon the soul to develop it And just as for many days after the seed is sown in the earth there is no token of any change, and then after the lapse of a considerable time only the merest indication that the life is working, so it is with the soul which has received the life of Christ in Baptism. The Sower has sown His seed, but the effects will not be seen for many days.

Again, consider the case of a man coming to Baptism in a state of sin without either repentance or faith, from some unworthy motive, and immediately after Baptism returning to his old sins. We ask, Is such a man regenerate or is he not? If he is not, why should he not, if he repents, be baptized again? We answer, the seed of the regenerate life has been sown, but it has fallen upon hard ground, and can produce no fruit We should urge such a one as Saint Peter urged Simon Magus, to repent, to break up the hard soil, and then the seed will sink in, draw forth its nourishment and begin to grow.

What vitality there is in that seed! It may lie neglected upon the hard soil for many years; one may have been baptized in childhood, grown to man’s estate, and lived in the indulgence of every passion and sin; never known whether one was baptized or not, and yet no sooner is the soil broken up by contrition, than the seed shows its wondrous life and the transformation begins. That barren soil, nay worse than barren, that soil that has nourished every rank weed of sin, is now beginning to bring forth fruit unto righteousness.

We need not therefore lose faith in the power of grace and in the Sacraments, because we often see little or no fruit resulting from them, any more than we should lose faith in the life of the seed, because the harvest has been a bad one, or has wholly failed. We should look for the cause of such failures elsewhere. Thus the Parable teaches us that if we would bring forth the fruit of grace, we must prepare the soil of nature with all diligence and care, and we must yield ourselves up to the action of grace. Man doesn’t know himself: the seed knows his capabilities better than he does; no sooner does it enter in than it draws into itself all that it can use out of the soil and blends them together in the texture of the growing plant. What part of that plant belongs to the earth and what to the seed who can tell – so perfect is the union. The life of the seed is everything, yet without the soil the seed is nothing.

Our Lord next proceeds to show some of the causes of the failure of grace. Why is it that different people get such different degrees of help from the Sacraments, some more, some less, some none at all? How comes it to pass, that of two persons making their communion at the same altar, one goes away strengthened and helped, and the other without any help that he is conscious of?

As we have already noticed, the failures which Our Lord draws attention to in this Parable spring only from natural causes. It is not necessary to suppose that the Devil is the cause of all our failures and of all our sins; many of our sins, perhaps most of them, cannot be traced to the work of the Devil at all; the fault lies entirely with ourselves. All the causes of failure mentioned in this Parable were the faults of nature – defects in the soil – they were not planted there by another as the tares were, indeed they were all owing to the lack of proper preparation; there was not one of them but could have been removed by due care and watchfulness. The one soil that was ready brought forth abundant fruit, though the seed was the same in all. It is important that we should bear this in mind, for in dealing with supernatural powers of evil, we are dealing with great forces: but when the defect lies with ourselves alone, and we can trace the cause of failure to its proper source, the remedy is comparatively easy. Let us consider then these different soils one by one, and the kind of growth that each of them produces. In one or other of them many of us may be able to see the cause of most of our own failures.

(1) ‘And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside.’ It was probably a beaten path running through the midst of the ploughed field, and as the sower scattered his seed from side to side some of it fell upon this beaten path, and the fowls of the air devoured it This is the only case in which there is absolutely no growth of the seed at all. The seed never penetrated below the surface of the soil; never took any root The path lies open to every passerby, and is constantly trodden upon by those who are coming and going: though once the ground may have been soft and received the impression of every footprint, yet now from the constant traffic it has been hardened. Anyone may tread upon it, but no one leaves any impress behind. What chance has the seed upon such soil as this? It may rest upon it for a moment, but it is powerless to push its way through the hard crust upon which it falls. Between the seed and such soil, though they touch one another, there is no correspondence, there is from the very first a definite hindrance to any penetration of the soil. There can be no assimilation; the two have for a moment come in contact, but that is all – they are in truth entirely apart – ‘he heareth the word and understandeth it not’.

This is a terrible and graphic picture of the soul that has lost the power of receiving any deep impression of spiritual things, in which nothing can really sink below the surface. The words which it hears penetrate the ear, but they are never assimilated; they never enter into the soil of the soul, in its present condition it is impervious to such influences. Such is the description of a mind which has laid itself open to every chance passer-by; any thought that offers itself can enter and take its place; there is no mental discipline, no self-control, the mind has set up no protections against the constant whirl of thoughts that come and go, and leave the surface of the soil more hardened, more insensitive. When for a moment such a person comes in contact with the great gift of grace, he may be touched, indeed, there may be an emotional stirring of the surface of his soul for a moment, but when the emotion has passed he settles down again and forgets what has moved him. The mind that is in a constant whirl of dissipation and excitement, that never gives itself a moment to think and recollect itself, cannot feed upon the Word of God. If a man will not think, all the grace in the world cannot help him: if the mind will not yield itself to nourish the gift that it has received, by contemplation and thought, the seed cannot grow.

‘Some seeds fell by the wayside.’ God does offer His grace to such souls, gives it to them indeed: but they will not receive it. If then we find that Sacraments and prayer do us no good, that for the moment in which we are under religious influences, our feelings are touched, but that nothing lasts, that nothing seems to have any power to change or deepen us, we ought to ask ourselves whether the fault is not entirely our own. It may be that in our hearts we have blamed God, and thought that He did not do as much for us, or give to us as much as to others; yet the fault does not rest with God – what can He do unless He has our co-operation? The life of the soul is the life of thought: if the soul will not live and feed itself upon what God offers, He cannot force it ‘Commune with your own heart, and in your chamber and be still.’ (Psalm 4:4) Practise mental discipline, set up barriers, and close the beaten path of the soul against those who from long habit assert their right of entry. Keep still and think. Learn to control your thoughts, try to concentrate them, if it be but for a few moments each day, on the things most worth thinking about Struggle with all your might against superficiality. Think deeply, and so become deep. Don’t be content with emotion, feed your mind. Such stirrings of the soul as arise within it when under religious influences may be useful and good; they may act as stimulants to the will, but if they only end in themselves they are worse than useless – they are evil, for they are but sources of self-deception.

We should remember, that the mind with which we think and study, and do our daily work, or which wastes its power and fritters away its strength in idleness, or day-dreams, or vanity, is the same mind with which we pray, and with which we draw near to God. As the mind is all day long, so it will be in the Presence of God. As we think all day long, so we shall think as we kneel at the Altar. The mind quickly forms its habits, and if those habits be of undisciplined carelessness and frivolity, then it can produce no fruit from the seed of God’s grace. If our minds have become so dissipated that they have lost the power of thinking out properly the matters which concern our earthly life, it is no wonder that they cannot lay hold of the mysteries of faith.

If then we can trace most of the failures of grace to these causes – mental dissipation and superficiality, we know the remedy – it lies in our own hands. Enclose that beaten path, and shut it out from unrestrained traffic Try to secure some time day by day for quiet and retirement Have regular times for prayer, and also for serious thought Never hear or read anything without thinking it over afterwards, and making it your own. Try in everything, temporal as well as spiritual, to think more deeply and more thoroughly. To an undisciplined mind, there is perhaps no more intense pain than that which is caused by the effort of concentration. But if we are patient and persevering we shall, by God’s grace, succeed in recovering the powers of mind which have been well-nigh lost, and by enclosure, cultivation, and care, the beaten wayside will become good ground.

(2) ‘Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.’ Beneath the soil is the hard rock, which is covered with a thin layer of earth. The seed has not enough soil in which to take firm hold and spread out its roots. The roots strike down, as far as it is possible for them to go, till they are hindered by the rock, and then it springs up quickly, exhausts its strength and withers away. Here our Lord describes the soul which fails in two ways: it grows too fast, and it does not give up its whole self to the nourishment of the seed; it will allow the action of the seed to extend so far and no farther. There is a point beyond which the seed of grace cannot penetrate. There is one part of the nature that is incapable of nourishing the seed in its present state. It is composed of two parts: the soft and nourishing soil, and the hard impervious rock. The cause of the failure, our Lord says, was ‘because it had no root, it withered away.’

This is not, I think, the description of a superficial nature, such as we last considered: the hard rock beneath the soft surface might, perhaps, be a token rather of strength than superficiality; there is in this nature a definite hindrance blocking the way to the full healthy growth of the Divine seed. The seed unfolds itself and begins to grow and penetrate downwards, till it strikes against the rock, and can go no farther. It is, I think, the description of one who has never given himself wholly and without reserve to God, but keeps back part There is a part of this character that has never yet been reached; never touched by Divine grace. How often we meet with these two-sided characters! Men, who on the one side have strong religious instincts, who ‘hear the word, and anon with joy receive it;’ but another side of their nature remains wholly unsanctified, and as it would seem, untouched by grace. They are conscious of it themselves: after the excitement of their first turning to God, they do not feel sure of themselves; they know that down in the depths of their nature they remain unchanged All the influences of the Divine Spirit penetrate to a certain depth, and there they stop. There is something in such a character that appears to be as hard as a rock compared with the soil which yields itself to the influences of grace. In watching such men we are often puzzled what to think of them: sometimes it seems as if they must be insincere; they are so uncertain and contradictory; at one time they show one side, at another a wholly different side of their character. But they are not greater puzzles to others, perhaps, than they are to themselves: they are certain that they have religious feelings; at times they are ready to do anything, indeed, perhaps, too much, going beyond their own strength, and then there is a great reaction, and the unsanctified nature asserts itself, and places a most definite barrier to power of God. The roots strike against the rock, and can go no farther.

We must not make bargains with God, or set a limit to His demands, or to our offerings. Yet how many persons deliberately, and how many more unconsciously, do this. Some men think they have given themselves altogether to Him: but they do not know with how tight a grasp they hold on to themselves, and the plan of their own lives. The Word of God touches them, moves them; so far as it can it takes root in them, springs up and then withers away. With others it is different: with their eyes wide open they have made their conditions; they will give a certain amount to God; they will not give themselves; they do not mean to be led on too far; they will give up certain great sins that perhaps ruled them in the past, but lesser sins and self-indulgences, and an easy and self-ordered life, they will not give up, or even strive against, though they know how great their danger is. And the result of all this is that their life is a failure in both directions – they never bring forth any ripe fruit, either of grace or nature; while bargaining to keep hold of both worlds, they in fact lose both.

If such be our case, let us make up our minds. If we would bear the fruit of grace, and feel its power and its joy, and the strength of its influence, there must be no tampering with evil; no bargaining with God. The seed of grace must have room to grow, or it can bring forth no fruit to perfection. The rock must be cut out at all costs – that which we know to be an obstacle to grace must be removed.

(3) ‘Some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them.’ Saint Luke explains this as, ‘they which when they have heard go forth, and are choked with cares, and riches and pleasures of this life.’ (Luke 8:14) Under the image of the thorns, then, our Lord includes two wholly different classes of hindrances. He says that the seed of Divine grace which has begun to grow may get entangled and choked by the cares, and the hardships of life, or by Its pleasures. The effect of these two very different hindrances is the same – they both choke the good seed. The poor often envy the rich, and think how easy it must be for them to be good, and the rich often feel how few in comparison can be the temptations of the poor; but each state, great poverty and hardship, or great wealth and ease, while acting in different ways, has the tendency to produce the same results in the soul. The supernatural life, the vision of God and of the world beyond, is choked. Heaven grows dim to the eye that is weary with watching and the heart embittered by trial, and heaven fades soon away before the bright glare of this world. ‘The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ should shine unto them.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

If our lot be placed in hardships, then, of whatever kind, we must be on our guard against this danger, lest in the difficulties of this world and the hard struggle for existence we forget the next labour indeed has its blessing; but how often we find men faint and fall under its weight Tired out in mind and body, weary, disheartened and discouraged, with nothing to stimulate hope, and all the experience of life but a growing knowledge of its sorrows, they have neither heart nor will to exert themselves to struggle through the darkness of this world for the glory which lies beyond. They stumble and fall under the burden which should have led them to Him who said, ‘Come unto Me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’ It is not the natural effect of labour and hard work to sanctify – perhaps it more often degrades than elevates. We hear much of the dignity of labour, yet such labour, as many know from a bitter experience, is far from dignifying; it leaves them prostrate upon the earth on which they toil. The constant fret and worry to gain the very necessaries of life gradually paralyse the powers of the soul and make it unable to see and strive after the things which are eternal. The cares of this life, like thorns, choke the good seed that had begun to grow and which promised so well. The cares of a large family; the labour of a large parish; the strain of constant work; the overtaxing of the mind, gradually force those that have begun to gaze upwards to turn their eyes to earth again, till at last it becomes impossible to lift the drooping lids, and the eyes become heavy and dull and lustreless, and all high hopes and aspirations die out

If our position in life, then, places a constant tax upon heart, or mind, or body, we need to be on our guard: the difficulties of such a position, if taken aright, may lead us to look upward for the strength which we cannot get below; but they may, and, alas, how often they do, absorb all our energy until none is left for God.

But if poverty, hard work, and trouble have their dangers, so certainly have riches and pleasure. Acting in a different way, they produce the same result: they choke the good seed. It is difficult for one whose life is spent in a constant round of pleasure and amusement, and who has everything that this world can give, to live for the other world. Many persons, who have had strong religious instincts and who began with great earnestness in their earlier years, have gone into the world and got absorbed in its pleasures, and, after a few years, have wakened up to find that their religious aspirations have gradually and almost unconsciously died out If we find, therefore, that the pleasures and excitements of social life lower our tone, that they chill our spiritual ardour, and tend to make us lax and careless, we are bound, if we would save our souls, to break away from them. There are many, no doubt, who go constantly into the world and preserve untarnished the purity of their baptismal robe and the simplicity of their faith. There are others whose temperaments are different; they get carried away and lose themselves. Those who like it most will find the world and its pleasures most dangerous. Balaam longed to go to the court of Balak. God, who knew him better than he knew himself, forbade him; but he would go. He went, and the good seed was choked, and he fell into terrible sin. Moses, on the other hand, shrank from returning to Egypt from which he once had fled, and God sent him back there. He went, and in that brilliant court he was protected. Lot saw the comforts and riches of Sodom, and thought, with his strong religious instincts, that he could withstand them. He went there, and though his righteous soul was vexed, we have but to read the narrative of that last fearful night to see how unconsciously he had become tainted by the evil around him, till at last, to save himself, he had to fly. How much one may enjoy the world’s pleasures and enter upon its ways must be a question for each individual to decide for himself. What may be harmless, or even good for one, maybe the ruin of another.

If, then, our lot be cast in easy places, and we have much of the enjoyment and many of the good things of this world, and if we find that the effect of all these things is to weaken our faith, and that under their influence our aspirations after holiness begin to fail and our fervour to flag, let us take care, lest it be the choking of the seed that had begun to grow. It may be that we need more strictness, more self-sacrifice, more quietness and retirement; it may be, indeed, that upon such things the very existence of our spiritual life depends.

(4) ‘But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.’ If the soil be good, the seed will grow. The seed is the source of life; the soil of nourishment Each needs the other if there is to be the growing corn. The soil needs the seed if it is to be fruitful; the seed needs the soil if it is to unfold its life. God has given us the seed, the sower has sown it in our hearts; be it ours to leave nothing undone to fit the soil to nourish it. We can spend our labour upon no better work than to pluck up the thorns, to remove the rock, that the soil may be enriched by a full and plenteous harvest