As much as I would like to preach the parable of the sower as prescriptive: that Jesus is telling us that there is something we can and should do in order to be fruitful; on its face the story simply describes what happens to seeds on various types of ground and what happens to “the word of the kingdom” in the understanding and behaviour of the analogous types of people that Jesus describes.
In my rural parish this parable does not feel quite as abstract as it might to city folks. Some of my parishioners make their living sowing grain every year in hopes that the resulting crops will bring at least a bit more than the cost of planting them. The big fuel and fertilizer companies bear none of the risk, but rather keep their big profits even if the farmers loose money on the crop. A short sighted supply and demand economy means that even when the Lord blesses the land with conditions that produce bumper crops, the prices drop and the fullness of that blessing is not transferred to farmers.
With such economic realities that surround farming in Canada questions might be raised about the careless of the sower who wastes good seed on ground that is not apt to be fruitful. Of course the method of broadcasting handfuls of seed to which Jesus probably referred does not allow the precise elimination of every bit of soil that is less apt to be fertile.
In the metaphor Jesus implies that the word of the kingdom comes to many in whom it will not be productive. If preachers and evangelists are the ones who proclaim this word of the Kingdom, should we find this encouraging or discouraging? Some of your sowing of the word of the kingdom will be unproductive. Of course the problem is not the quality of the seed but rather the growing conditions. And perhaps the purpose of sowing includes not just producing the best possible a crop but also deliberately revealing the nature of the soil.
Although we may wish to have a hand in changing those conditions the parable does not explicitly suggest any remedy for the assorted types of unproductive soil or persons. It is not a parable about how to cultivate ideal growing conditions. Nevertheless this doesn’t mean Jesus never intended to provoke such thoughts. Nor does the telling or the retelling of the Parable preclude that the growing conditions in the hearts and minds of those who hear the word of the kingdom may change or be improved over time. Indeed the very thing that reveals which condition of soil is analogous to any particular person is the way the word of the kingdom eventually either withers or becomes fruitful to varying degrees.
We won’t know for sure how fruitful or fruitless the word will be in a persons life until we observe the way is grows. So on one hand the sower might be critiqued for wasting seed on soil that is apt to be unproductive, but on the other hand the sower is hopeful and generous enough to sow every type of soil and give it the opportunity to produce as much as it can depending on its condition at the time.
I think the word of the kingdom is sown in everyone who hears or reads or memorizes or studies or discusses or acts upon the teaching of scripture. It seems to me that each time a person hears that word they have opportunity for it to become productive in their life. And even though the parable itself doesn’t go there, I think that all our experiences, both good and bad, may be analogous to the work of Providence and the Holy Spirit to cultivate the soil of our heats and minds so that every time we hear the word, it may become more and more productive in our lives and in the world.