What does exposure to new sources of information do to our minds and how do we sift what is important from what is trivial? An old story gives us a clue.
There is always the risk that some parables are carelessly restricted to certain situations or times of the year. The parable of the sower is the pre-eminent example of the latter when it is allowed out for display at the annual harvest festival. However well it may fit the requirement of this kind of service, it more pertinently helps to interpret why some cultures receive the word of God fruitfully while others don’t.
Ours is the most over-analysed generation in history. There is a surfeit of information and opinion available to us yet unremitting exposure to these sources has an impact on our minds which we are only just beginning to understand. There is a suggestion that the internet is effectively re-wiring our brains, leaving us distracted and capable of less profundity. Such research is likely to be contested, yet most of us can sense that changes are happening in the way we remember and relate which are going to last. At times it feels like we are only half-attentive to what is being said because our minds have already moved on to the next piece of news. How do we know what is important among all that we hear? We like to think we can cope with what is being thrown at us but the truth may be different: that we miss what God is saying to us because we have started to pay him the kind of attention we afford the weather forecast, which usually ends with us not remembering anything we were told.
In the parable of the sower, some of the seed is snatched away by the evil one. Perhaps we do not take this as seriously as we should. Theology compels us to balance the sometimes competing emphases of scripture. One of these is the tension between Isaiah 55: 10-11 and Matthew 13: 19. The former promises that ‘as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return from there until they have watered the earth….so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose’. This is a rich and joyful promise which inspires our intercessions. Yet in the latter passage we read that ‘the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart’. This implies we should avoid the cavalier assumption that we only need to share the word of God for it to be fruitful and instead intercede with a special urgency that it is. Many a preacher prays that their sermon will have effect before it is preached; few of us follow up with the same fervour the day after and yet it is in the time to follow that the word takes root or not.
The seed is also wasted when it does not put down proper roots. It appears to be growing quickly but there is no depth to it. We have become somewhat blasé in the awareness that today we place greater emphasis on appearance than character. Yet a recent survey of children under ten disturbingly showed that looking good was the most important thing in the world to them. I doubt they were born with that attitude. It feels like one they have learned from their elders. Adults may think they have the resources to deal with such pressures but there is no question children cannot. We owe it to them to see the value of deep roots. This is a societal issue and not one that parents alone can be lazily burdened with.
The seed is also unfruitful when it is choked by the cares of this world and the lure of wealth. Navigating our way through this world is not easy for any of us. Some people do not know what to do with their lives; some have few choices or resources; others become obsessed by getting rich. However the lot has fallen for us, the danger is that we become so consumed by our daily concerns that we never really stop to think what our true goal is in life. St. Paul famously said: ‘when I was a child, I thought like a child…when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11). One way in which this manifests itself is in how we perceive time. When we were children, days and months seemed to stretch endlessly ahead – particularly the school summer holidays – but as adults time seems to fly by. We make a passing joke of this, but as the days become weeks and the weeks become months and the months become years, the risk grows that we allow our lives to drift past without putting them right with God.
As Jesus said: ‘let anyone with ears, listen’. God is calling for our attention.
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