AS A RULE, JESUS DID NOT EXPLAIN His parables in detail. He left His hearers to interpret their meaning for themselves. The parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) is an exception. The Lord assigns a meaning to each item in it: the seed is the word of God, it germinates or not according to the hearers or the circumstances of their lives.
“The Seed Is the Word of God”
From its beginning the Church saw itself called to continue the mission of Christ the Sower to evangelize: to sow the seed of the Gospel throughout the world. “The seed,” the Lord says, “is the word of God” but just what is the core message that we are to proclaim? The New Testament suggests an answer: according to the apostolic writer it is “That which was from the beginning, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled concerning the Word of life…that which e have seen and heard we declare to you that you also may have fellowship with us for truly out fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1, 3).
“That which was from the beginning” – Human experience has never imagined the world without the presence of God, everywhere present and filling all things. He is the only truly existing One, from whom all creation has its being.
“That which we have seen with our eyes” – Jesus is that Word, the Messiah awaited by Israel and incarnate of the Virgin Mary, to whose death and resurrection the apostles testified.
“That which we have looked upon and our hands have handled” – Christians bear witness to continually experiencing Christ in their midst in concrete ways, as He said:
- “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20) – In the Church at worship – principally at the Eucharist but also in the fullness of the Church year with its feasts, fasts and observances – Christ is physically present to us.
- “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me” (Mattew 25:40) – By extending hospitality, especially to the poor, we look upon and handle Christ, truly present to us in flesh and blood.
“Fellowship with the Father and the Son” – Our life in the Church is meant to open us to have communion with God the Holy Trinity in this life and in the age to come.
A Parish that Sows the Word of God?
In the West evangelists have generally focused on the first two of these points: the existence of God and the mission of Christ in the world, while minimizing “that which we have handled,” the witness of the worshipping community to whom seekers might be brought. As Eastern Christians we have a unique way of proclaiming the message of Christ: through the life of a community energized by the Liturgy. In the West some have reduced the liturgy to bare bones to focus on a message disconnected from community life; still others have trivialized the liturgy into a kind of feel good community meeting. Eastern communities living their liturgical life to the full are able to proclaim the message “which we have looked upon and our hands have handled” and might thereby speak to some who have outgrown the empty secularism of the day.
For this to happen our experience of a worshipping community must reflect the vision expressed in our Tradition. Fr. Thomas Hopko told the story of encouraging such a seeker to attend the Liturgy to experience the fullness of Orthodoxy. The man did so, and his response was, “Everything you told me was a lie.” The people were physically present, but not participating on any visible level. They ignored him and another visitor at the coffee hour, etc. This incident makes us ask, What would an outsider learn about our parish and its faith on any given Sunday? A brief checklist might help:
Does our parish gathering communicate a sense of fellowship with God? Do people seem eager to stand before the Lord in His holy place, to light candles, venerate icons, etc. or drift in at the last moment and stand in the back?
Is the full observance of the Lord’s Day and the feasts and fasts of the Church year central to parish life? Are our parishioners committed to worship and to growing in knowledge and practice of their faith? What does the parish do to encourage such commitment? How many parishioners could answer a visitor’s inquiry about the Church and its faith?
Is our parish a welcoming community: do visitors feel that they are welcome guests or suspicious outsiders?
Many commentators have observed that for parishes to convincingly sow the seed they must be committed to a strong faith and practice of their tradition. They must also have a zeal for bringing others to the Lord and to His Church. Do your parishioners care that certain families or even a particular generation (young or old) are absent from the Sunday Liturgy? What have they done to concretely manifest their concern? Or do they rely on the priest alone to fill the pews? Nor every individual is a street preacher, but the parish as a whole should be committed to sowing seeds in one form or another.
Whenever you order Chinese food you receive, unasked, a fortune cookie. A similar approach may help many of our parishioners begin to re-evangelize themselves and painlessly spread the word of God.
The events that draw outsiders to our parishes generally fall into two categories: sacraments and fundraisers. Guests at weddings or funerals who come for social reasons may be given a memento in the name of the parish which connects the word of God with what they have seen and heard, such as What We Believe about Marriage or Is There an Afterlife? Pamphlets on more general topics could be included with every purchase at bake sales, food festivals or Christmas bazaars. Those interested in learning more could be directed to the parish or eparchial web site. Parishioners, especially your college students and young adults, might suggest topics for these inserts. They could be encouraged to post them on their Facebook pages or on other social media sites.
As a prelude to distributing these messages, parishioners themselves could be walked through the leaflets helping them to answer some basic questions which might arise (and be evangelized themselves). A steady practice of “fortune-cookie evangelism” can raise everyone’s awareness of our call to proclaim that which we have heard and seen.
Was the Sower Wasting the Seed?
In the parable the sower casts his seed about indiscriminately, at the risk of losing much of what he has planted. But where his seed takes root, it multiplies a hundredfold. It was, perhaps, like contemporary advertising. Most ads are thrown out but a few people are drawn to what they offer.
Parishes seeking to share what they have seen and heard can expect a lack of interest on the part of many. This should not discourage them from continuing to sow the seed. If the seed takes root in one out of a hundred hearts, the effort is worthwhile.