Seed falling on different types of soil: a beautiful image of how the same divine grace will produce different results in different people. But is divine grace the same for everyone?
Every year in October we read the Gospel parable of the sower and the seed. Not a coincidence, because October is the time when sowing takes place in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean – and of course it is in those lands that our lectionary was developed. Late October is the time for sowing oats, barley, lentils, beans, and of course, wheat. The book Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village by Juliet du Boulay describes the “Ecological Year” – in other words, the year of stewardship of the land. Ecology means stewardship of our home, oikos. Ecology has nothing to do with politics or anything political. It is simply about knowing the land we live on and our relationship to the land. It’s about recognizing our place in God’s universe. Juliet du Boulay wrote a second book about this same Greek village, Ambeli, a small, dying village in Euboea; a book with a very ambitious title, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. In the late 60s and early 70s this author lived in the village and experienced up close the unique bond between their physical existence on the land and their spiritual existence in the Liturgy and all the sacramental and sanctifying celebrations of the church year. Indeed, when you talk about the eastern Mediterranean you cannot separate physical from spiritual. They are uniquely inseparable.
There is a picture of a man sowing the wheat, and the ground is rocky, with lots of weeds – not promising for a rich harvest, but very much like the imagery of today’s parable. But the caption reads, “The simple exchange between man and nature according to which he tills the ground and gets his bread in return.’
When dealing with the wild soil of that part of the world, the sower has no choice but to throw the seed and hope for the best yield. Undoubtedly there is ploughing to prepare the soil, and it happens in the first 2-3 weeks in October, but there’s only so much you can do with soil in that part of the world. And it is that part of the world in which Jesus lived and composed his parables. He didn’t have the American and Canadian prairies in mind, nor was he thinking of the rich green fields of California. Jesus knew how precarious the sowing of seed was in the real life of villages. And he also knew how precarious was the hearing of God’s word in the souls of people.
Just as there are different qualities of soil and natural environments, so also there are different types of people and livelihoods. Some are hesitant, some are eager but quickly fall away, some believe but fall away when difficulties arise, some are so preoccupied with material goods that they have no room for spiritual goods. And some are receptive and stay receptive and cultivate a rich spiritual life in communion with God and God’s people. Is there any hope for those who fall away? The parable seems to say that there is no hope; they are lost. But maybe not.
In my opening, I questioned whether the divine grace is the same for everyone. If it is, then one can conclude with the message of this parable. But the parable is about one type of seed. Does God operate in only one way? Does he show the same grace to everyone? In another parable, we hear about a master who gave 5, 2 and 1 talents to different recipients, “to each according to their ability” – and results were desired according to the amount given. And Ephesians 4:7 says, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Different people receive Christ in different ways. In today’s world you hear the phrase, “There’s an app for that.” There are apps for practically every need. In the Orthodox Church we can say, “There’s an icon for that.” Yes, our icons are like apps; they respond to different people and different needs.
Take the large wall icons in our church here in Portland. Some people don’t need the fanfare of miracles or dramatic conversion; they look for a God who enters their lives simply – the way Jesus enters in the Palm Sunday icon.
Others want the fanfare, the miracles, the visions. They want God to show his glory, they want the shining light! For them, the icon of Transfiguration might be more meaningful and reassuring.
Some people look for God in creation. They want a God who sanctifies our lives and our environment, who makes everything holy. Perhaps they can respond to the icon of Epiphany.
Other people are afraid of death and look for God to provide an answer to their fear of death; they might turn to the icon of Resurrection, which shows Christ trampling down death.
Some people simply want to get to heaven; they might be inspired by the icon of Dormition, which shows Christ receiving the eternal being of his mother Mary.
Do you see how each icon can respond to different needs? Every one of us responds to the gospel according to the grace given to us and according to our ability. The church has an app for every person, according to where they’re at and what can most meaningfully communicate the gospel message to them. The church has an app for everyone. They’re called icons.