|The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, 1850
Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mk. 4:1-20) describes a .250-hitter who, nevertheless, has a strong RBI total* (to mix metaphors). He only hits good soil one out of four times—the other three seem to be a miss. But each hit yields strong results, producing abundant fruit. From the outset Jesus is describing what would typically be considered failure three out of four times. Satan, rootlessness, and worldly cares seem to win the day. That’s the half-empty (or three-fourths empty) way of looking at the glass.
On the other hand, there are at least a couple of things that make this “failure” a true success. First, the sower. The sower is faithfully doing what he should do, indiscriminately scattering seed—perhaps generously scattering seed would be more appropriate. As Wayne Gretzky said (to add another metaphor), “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So the sower is taking shots, not knowing where he might find receptive soil, but sowing nonetheless.
And that’s the other successful aspect of Jesus’ image: the healthy soil. The seed that finds healthy soil yields fruit in abundance, including enough seed for much more sowing by other sowers. The fruitfulness becomes exponential. The harvest is greater than the sower’s meager average. He only connects one out of four times, but each hit advances others. The harvest doesn’t depend on the sower. One sows, another waters, but God makes it grow (see 1Cor. 3:5-9). Jesus seems completely confident in the slow, subtle, seemingly small advancement of God’s kingdom. And Jesus seems confident in the shared, communal work of God's kingdom. It isn’t about Paul, Apollos, or you or me.
But two things do depend on the sower. One, s/he must sow. That’s success for the sower—not how much seed finds good soil or even how much grain is produced, 30- or 60- or 100-fold. Just faithfully sowing—that’s success. And two, the sower must keep his/her own soil healthy. The word in the sower’s soul can also be robbed, withered, or choked, and end up fruitless. And one of the surest ways for this to happen is for the sower to start worrying about his/her average. To paraphrase Nike: JUST SOW IT!
*Admittedly, the value of such a player in baseball is debatable, but serves the point here.