The Sower, the Soils, and Toilet Twinning: Responding to a Parable
A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Watch the whole service on YouTube
‘And he told them many things in in parables. (13:3)
Jesus taught in parables, in stories.
Matthew gets almost halfway through his Gospel before he mentions the word, “parables”. Then he gives eight of them all in one chapter: about a sower of seeds; about weeds growing in the midst of wheat; about mustard seeds; about yeast in bread; about hidden treasure; about a pearl of great price; about fish caught in a net; about a householder and their possessions.
Sometimes, people hear a parable and then ask me to explain it to them; to tell them its “meaning”. Who is the sower? What are the seeds? What do the different types of soil represent? What do the different fates of the seeds stand for? Well, you can ask me, but I’m unlikely to give you a definitive answer to any of those questions.
It’s not that you would be the first people ever to ask for an explanation. Right from the off, people were asking Jesus what he meant by his parables. And in the very early days of the Church people must have been asking, for sometimes the Gospel writers attempted an explanation.
If you had your Bible open when our reader read from Matthew’s Gospel, and let your eyes slide down the page for a few verses you would have found an explanation for today’s parable:
‘When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’ (13:19-23)
I’m sure many of us have heard this explanation of the parable, or something like it. That’s good, but it’s an explanation that was written for first century Christians, somewhere in Asia. We also may be Christians, but we’re twenty-first century ones who live in Western Europe. In that we are all Christian disciples this explanation of the parable may overlap with our ideas, or work for us sometimes, but given the differences in our situations, we might need other or different explanations.
In fact, I’m not sure parables are meant to be explained at all. I think parables are there to demand a response, and our response will differ according to who we are, where we are, and the time in which we live. Given that our situations change over time, and we change in response to experiences, then each time we return to parable, we come back as an in some ways different people from the last time we read it. So this time round the parable might generate a different response from you than last time … if you don’t get distracted by hunting for a single explanation of the parable story itself.
Let me give you an example. Why have we responded the way we have to the invitation to take part in toilet twinning? Well, it started with a conversation between individuals. One person, who is not a member of this congregation, asked another individual – who is a member of this congregation – if Saint Columba’s might be interested in toilet twinning. That church member then brought this as an idea to our Elders’ Meeting.
Our Elders were so enthused that we said not only should we twin a church toilet through this scheme, but twin all five of our church toilets. So our Elders’ Meeting brought this idea to our Church Meeting. The members of our Church Meeting discussed the proposal and were equally enthused. So here we are today, taking up a retiring offering, hoping to raise the three hundred pounds necessary to twin all five church toilets.
Why did the conversation go the way it did? It could have been stillborn, like seeds that are snatched away by birds before there’s any chance to put down roots. That’s the way things go with bright ideas sometimes; they never get beyond the idea-stage. Other factors prevent them coming to life. Sometimes these things are negative (like the birds in the parable): fear, selfishness, being distracted by other less important things. Sometimes (and unlike the birds in the parable) such things are positive; recognising what can’t be done with the resources we have; deciding other good things take priority.
But toilet twinning at Saint Columba’s has got past the birds that would kill it. This idea has put down roots. Why’s that? Why has it caught our attention? Why the enthusiasm? And will it make it past the enthusiasm stage?
Why did the idea of toilet twinning gain our attention, like a seed that has put down roots in our imagination? Well I think it’s because this situation speaks powerfully to us on a human level. To be blunt, we all go to the toilet. We all know what it feels like to go to the toilet. We also know what it feels like to need to go to the toilet. And we all know what it feels like when we feel we need to go, but there is no toilet, or no decent toilet immediately available. Then, when someone informs us about the predicament some people in this world face concerning access to decent toilets, we feel in our guts.
So we spring up with enthusiasm at an idea. But does such enthusiasm translate into action? There are many things that I am in favour of in principle, even enthuse for, but that doesn’t always translate into action on my part. My self-interest is like thorns that choke any idea that costs me significant money, time or effort. Many a good idea shrivels up when exposed to rays of my cynicism: “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work then, so let’s not risk it now.”
And yet, it appears, regarding toilet twinning, we’ve avoided the birds that would kill something even before it started to live, and our enthusiasm has endured, despite any thorns of human selfishness or the burning rays of cynicism. We’re even talking in terms of multiplying of the original idea; not quite one hundred, sixty or thirtyfold, in Jesus’s parable of seeds, soils and sower, but a modest five-times the initial proposal. At least, we are as long as we get on and raise the money at the end of this service, or soon thereafter!
But why have we responded to the idea of toilet twinning as we have? It didn’t have to be that way. We could have said ‘no’. People are quite capable of saying ‘no’, as any of us have done door-to-door collecting for Christian Aid can tell you. What made us such receptive soil for this toilet twinning proposal?
Did you know that there is a heresy from the early centuries of the Christian Church which argued that Jesus never went to the toilet? Not many people know that, but now you do! The argument was that because Jesus was perfect nothing in him could decay, including any food that he consumed, or appeared to consume. Back then, some Christians had no problem in believing that Jesus was divine, but struggled to believe that he really had been human. If people today feel that it’s inappropriate to talk about toilets in church maybe we might hear an echo of this earlier struggle.
Yet, in addition to it speaking to our shared human experience, our response to the prospect of toilet twinning is also connected in with our identity as followers of Jesus. My guess, my bet, is that we have responded in the way that we have not only because we have been touched on a human level, but also because the way we see the world is influenced by our experience of knowing Jesus.
And a major way of knowing Jesus is through the story of his life, including the content of his teaching, much of which comes to us in his parables. Jesus’s teaching – his puzzling parables, plus his clear-as-crystal commands – both stimulate our imagination and provide boundaries for how we live our lives. I don’t think we articulated this in our discussions in Elders’ Meeting and Church Meeting. No one stood up and said, “WWJDATT: what would Jesus do about toilet twinning?” All the same, we are Jesus-people who are being asked to respond to an idea.
We think about today’s parable, with its seeds, birds, stony ground, sun, and thistles. We remember that it ends with the prospect of abundant harvest. We are invited to keep on pondering the parables of Jesus. That’s not in order to find some non-existent single explanation of their meaning. Instead, we want his parables play upon our imaginations, helping us to understand the world, and to envisage what it looks like when God’s will is done – including that everybody get access to a decent toilet, and we do something towards making that happen.
 In the event, over five hundred pounds was donated.