A writer and I were going back and forth about how the best devotional article won’t get as many readers as a political article by the same writer. Publish a wild rant claiming that God hates Biden or that God hates Trump and the numbers shoot up. Publish a deep meditation on God’s infinite love and they drop through the floor.
“It’s not about the numbers, is it?” she said. “We plant seeds as faithfully as we can. The growth and the harvest is up to him.” She was right, but with a wise qualification Christians don’t always seem to see.
It is true that we can only plant the seed and must leave the germination and the harvest to God. People offer that as wisdom, and it mostly is. The message liberates us from the fear that we must accomplish what we can’t on our own.
But it also misses something important. People who say that we must plant and leave the harvest to God too often assume that planting is simple. (Writers I’ve edited, for example.) Whatever you do, God will fix it. It’s his job.
--How we plant
That’s not true, though. As my friend said, we must plant faithfully, and that means with thought, care and effort. God doing the hard work of growing and harvesting doesn’t free us from the responsibility of doing our part as well as we can.
In the parable, the seed lands on the hard path, in the rocks, and in the thorn bushes, as well as landing in the good soil. Jesus explains that we are the seeds and the ground we’ve fallen onto are different ways of responding to him and his message about the kingdom. The seed that falls on rocky ground, for example, represents people who love the message when they hear it but drop it when the world threatens them because they haven’t grown roots.
The metaphor has another aspect, though. We are also a sower -- an apprentice or assistant to the Sower, if you want. We can sow badly or well. The parable’s sower threw seed on the path, the rocks and the thorn bushes, and none of it grew. It couldn’t.
The lesson this reading of the parable gives us is: Aim more carefully when you throw the seed. Learn the craft of sowing. Put in the work to plant better.
--A practical example
Here’s a practical example. In my work as an editor, I encounter Christians who want to sow, that is to say write, who don’t know -- and sometimes don’t want to know -- how to write for their readers.
Where we write and when, how we open our articles, what language we use -- how complicated the vocabulary, how long and complex the sentences -- and what kind of arguments we employ, whether or not we tell stories, how many words we write, what voice we use, personal or impersonal, and a lot of other things go into the work of writing to be read and understood well enough to affect readers’ lives.
You have to think about these things and work at writing -- unless you’re the rare genius, and even geniuses can learn to do it better. Planting may be very difficult indeed. It looks simple -- throw the seed! write the words! -- but it isn’t.
In most of the writing a Catholic writer does, the writer must stay rigorously on target. Writers have only so much space to use and their readers have only so much attention to give. They can’t take any detours and can’t throw extra things at their readers. The ideal article is almost always like a simple subway map, not a “Where’s Waldo?” cartoon.
Some won’t write that way. They want to say more than they can, about more subjects than they should take up, often in more complicated language than they need to use. They often want to jam a pet idea into the article, like a father who pulls out pictures of his children when everyone’s talking about the war in Ukraine.
They’re like a sower who tosses seed on rocky ground because he wants to, maybe because he likes the feeling of slinging his arm round and watching the seed fly. At best, he can’t be bothered to learn how to sow properly.
As people like to say, paraphrasing St. Paul in I Corinthians, “We plant, but God gives the increase.” He does, of course. He makes up for our failings. But for his own mysterious reasons, he gives us a big part in his work and he works with what we’ve done. What God has to grow and harvest depends, as far as we know, on how well we plant. So plant well.
David Mills writes from Pennsylvania