From the Gospel according to Mark:
Jesus explained the Parable of the Soils: “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 4:14-20 (NRSV) – January 23, 2013.)
It’s a familiar enough parable, this story of the farmer who sows his seed only to have most of it fail to produce for one reason or another. Jesus’ use of the broadcasting seed as a metaphor for preaching is reassuring to those of us who preach on a regular basis. It seems to say it isn’t our fault if what we preach has little or no impact on the hearers; it’s the fault of the “soils” into which we are sowing – maybe “Satan” snatched it away, or maybe the hearers have no “depth”, or maybe they are just too concerned with “cares of the world”.
Or maybe we really are lousy preachers.
The task of ordained ministry is centered, at least in part, on the Word. The ministry of the clergy in many traditions is specifically referred to as a “ministry of Word and Sacrament.” A few years ago, an ecumenical group of pastors called The Eleison Group said that the clergy’s “primary responsibility is sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with our congregations, our communities, and our world.” We who are ordained are expected to be wordsmiths and public speakers. The care with which we use words reflect not just upon us or upon the church; it reflects also upon the message we proclaim. “A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book,” wrote Thomas Merton. “[M]en pick up these books and say: If the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.” It is wrong to say of such readers that they have fallen prone to Satan, or that they lack depth, or that they are too concerned with worldly cares.
But Jesus’ point in the parable is well-taken. Communication is a two-way street. Even the best preacher can fail if she does not take into account the situation of her audience. It is the responsibility of the preacher to figure out what sort of “soil” the listener might be. In the mixed crowd of a congregation there will be some of all types, so preaching styles must vary; different texts must be chosen (the lectionary accomplishes this for those in such traditions); methods of delivery must be engaging and, frankly, entertaining; new technologies must be used. There are different kinds of “soils” and we must employ different kinds of techniques when “sowing” the Word. Sometimes we will fail, and sometimes it will not be our fault. But Jesus’ metaphor does not relieve the sower of all responsibility; the parable of the sower is not a blanket pardon from the sin of lousy preaching. No farmer knowingly wastes his seed on stony or weed-infested ground; no sower throws his seed where he expects the birds to immediately eat it up (nor does he fail to take precautions to keep the birds away). If any farmers do act thusly, they are lousy farmers and deserve the poor crops they get.
Preachers who fail to carefully prepare their homilies, who do not strive for excellence, are likely to get similar results. They have only themselves to blame, not the “soils” where they are sowing their seeds.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.