"A Sower went forth to sow " (Matthew xiii. verse 3)
The "Sower going forth to sow " is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Source and Radiating Centre of the Divine Truth. He is the Sower of Divine Truth; the Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. No man has lived but has received some measure of the Divine Truth from the Lord to show the path of life. We must regard the Lord as perpetually operating towards us as a Sower sowing seeds.
Whatever else the Lord may be effecting, we need to realise that the instrument of all spiritual progress is the Truth sown by the Divine Sower through His Word. Without the Word there is no truth; without truth there is no perfection of spiritual life. And hence it is that our enquiry into the Lord's own analysis of how man receives Divine Truth needs to be sincere, and coupled with a courageous and intimate self-examination. The careless identification of ourselves with the good ground bringing forth fruit a hundredfold is dangerous, and destroys the whole value of the parable. The Lord's revelation of how the seed is destroyed is a revelation not in itself condemnatory, but in order that by self-examination the condemnation may be escaped. The condemnations of the Word are not to be feared, so long as they are read in a teachable disposition, and there is a willingness to shape conduct and life that they be not merited. The " good ground " on which the seeds fall ought rather to be looked upon constantly as the ideal to be achieved, and the several descriptions of imperfect ground as aids to our self-examination. There is room in the complex mind of man for all these imperfections. The Lord is not classifying men, characterising each class in a different way. He is rather revealing the several deformities of our spiritual life, each one of us perhaps failing most conspicuously in some one particular way. But the parables of the Lord are useless if we read them with self-approval; they are to stimulate a sincere self-examination and a vigorous re-orientation of our life.
The parable warns us against birds, sun and thorns. The birds eat the seeds that have fallen on the wayside, or as it can be translated, on the "hard way". Now birds are of many kinds. We have beautiful, gentle, clean and useful birds; we have others, ravenous, ugly, unclean, fierce and useless. It will be quite clear that the birds of the parable represent some sinister quality of our life for they are an influence destructive of the sower's seeds. The whole class of animate beings known as birds corresponds to the intellectual things of, our mind, that is, to our thoughts, our ideas of things, reasons we hold for doing actions, truths we learn and understand, and of course the perversions of truth which, whether we recognise them as such or not, are falsities. Like the birds of the air, these intellectual things, the ideas and reasons of our minds, are, some gentle, beautiful and clean, others ravenous, ugly and unclean. The ravenous, ugly and unclean ideas and reasons are of course false ones, and the presence of such false thoughts in the mind (and all of us have them) is a danger to the development of spiritual life. For these thoughts literally consume those seeds of truth which fall on the hard way. Now it will be noted that the danger of the birds is to be feared only where the seeds fall upon the " hard " way. The Lord is describing not only influences that destroy truth, but also those particular ways of receiving truth which expose man to the destructive influences. The birds of the air apparently do not threaten the seeds which fall on good ground. This is the essence of the Lord's message. It is the imperfect nature of man's reception of truth which exposes him to sinister influences. It is not that man is subject to so many malicious influences from which he must try to escape - it is that each imperfection of his character itself exposes him to some particular encroachment of evil.
The " hard way " on which the seeds fall only to lie as a prey to birds, typifies a mind hardened against the reception of truth, through the constant practice of evil. The enemy of truth is evil; and where evil habits of conduct fix the fashion of man's life, truth finds no welcome. The soil on which the seed falls from the Sower's Hand, is ungrateful. This condition of spiritual life can be looked for and discerned in almost every round of the clock. It is one of the most common defiances offered by man to the purposes of the Divine Sower, and the Lord, by the imagery of the parable, reveals man to himself that this wayside may be recognised and destroyed. This incipient hardening of the ground in youthful days, is the sorrow of every parent's heart, yet a natural fondness blinds parental eyes to its full significance. Each man by sincere introspection can best find for himself the real measure of the danger. The philosophy of Egotism crystallises itself slowly out in the maturing youth and swoops like a proud bird of prey upon the seeds which are cast from the Sower's hands. So, too, does each lightest thought with which we excuse or bolster up our evil, catch away that which is sown in the heart. Truth rejected and unabsorbed becomes the very nourishment of falsity.
Like the first part of the parable, the second indicates a state of life common in varying degrees to all men. The quick germination of truth, leading rapidly to a weak maturity, and lapsing equally quickly to decay, is a common experience of life. The stony places, we read, indicate a historical faith. Here it is important to note there is growth, but a growth so weak and sickly that it cannot endure. Evidently a historical faith is but poor ground for the seeds of Divine Truth. Now, all of us have something of this historical faith. It is the faith, the system of precepts concerning moral and spiritual life, given us by parents and teachers while we were young. This of course is a most essential provision of our life. But in the parable the words are added, " where there was not much earth ". So it is a faith not our own, foreign to our real life, yet looking on the surface like good ground. The precepts of our youthful days do indeed find a lingering expression in our conduct, suggesting an integrity and wholesomeness when yet it is but a veneer of habit, artificially imposed. Through early education, and the whole tradition of our home influences, there is a response to the seeds of truth which come to us from the Word. But, to use the word describing this state in the Writings, this response is the mere " imitation " of genuine goodness of life. The seeds of truth germinate in our conduct either independently of our volition or because we recognise the value of such conduct from our early education. But it is not the expression of our real character. If truth is to develop at all, it must have a soul within it, and that soul must be genuine goodness. When our faith is merely historical, imposed by education and upbringing, it lacks this soul; and lacking thus all vitality, it shrinks and dies when the glowing fire of our real inner interest of self-love asserts itself. The sun that rises and scorches this harvest of pretence is the fire of our ruling love. Sooner or later, that dominating fact of our life, that real selfhood of ours will blot out the fictitious fruit of mere historical faith and leave us harvest-less. The green growth of pretence may last a lifetime, but we pass into the other life only with what is our own, that which by conviction and affection has become our inmost nature.
The thorns crowd out the seeds. This is a picture of the world being too much with us. And where there is no room for truth, there is no knowledge of good and consequently no perception of sin. This may mean that worldly concerns occupy man's thought too exclusively for Divine precepts to find any reception. That indeed is a common enough condition. But the Lord is directing our attention to still more universal conditions. The very principles of religion which we hold may themselves be deceitful riches, wealth which withholds from us the living seeds of truth. Those principles may be false, and when false it is easy to see how they lead to the choking of truth from the Word. On the other hand, they may be true and yet may be as thorns stifling the .germinations from the Word. For often enough man rests satisfied with the knowledges of truth, fixing his interest on the all-absorbing task of accumulating unfruitful facts of religious life. To deal thus with truth is to lose all knowledge of good, it is to raise a harvest of thorns instead of fruit. It is to love not heaven, but the world; and so to love it, that heavenly life can find no place which to bloom. The life force of the thorns can be nothing but evil. Whether the thorns be the love of merely mundane things or the absorbing interest in mere principles of religious belief and life, self-love lies within and evil vivifies the useless harvest. The seeds of the Divine Sower can grow only as those thorns are completely uprooted and destroyed. The shunning of evils as sins against God can alone prepare the ground for the heavenly harvest.
The amenable disposition which looks to the Lord in the effort to do His Will, is that which softens the hard surface of our mind and admits His Truth. " Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit ". This fruit of good will differ with each member of the Church, and a general threefold division of man's spiritual harvest can be made which reflects the threefold division of the mind and of the heavens. This is the force of the Lord's words, some " thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some a hundred-fold ". These are the fruits of obedience, of faith and of love, possible to each one of us according as the nature of our reception of truth is perfected. The seed is cast untiringly, unsparingly, but the kingdom of heaven is not gained without man's own conscious co-operation. That share of his work is cultivation of the ground, softening, enriching, clearing it, that the seeds of the Sower may find in it an abiding place.