This is one of the Thanksgiving hymns in the hymnal (three of them in all), but after the first line, there’s not a mention of gratitude in the entire hymn. And yet in the subsequent fifteen lines, the theme of harvest is mentioned six times. It’s not a hymn of thankfulness; it’s a hymn of sowing and reaping.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that gratitude and harvest are connected. American Thanksgiving has its roots in early settlers being shown how to plant and cultivate crops by natives. They commemorated the harvest each year with a feast to show their gratitude for their bounty. They sowed, and they reaped, and they were thankful.
We do likewise, only we’re not the ones sowing much of anything. “All the world is God’s own field,” we sing in the second verse. He sows will He will, and we see that bounty accordingly. Everything we have comes not from anything we’ve done, but because the Lord has seen fit to give it to us.
In fact, when you get down to it, not only are we not the ones sowing, but we are, in fact, the ones being sown. We touched on this last week, but we are the seed being strewn throughout the world. We are the wheat and the tares, and we are grown “unto joy or sorrow.” We are planted, cultivated, and raised to maturity. We are harvested and brought into the barn. There is nothing more valuable in the eyes of the Lord of the harvest than we are. That’s what we’re thankful for as we sing this hymn. We aren’t singing about the blessings the Lord has placed in our lives, we’re singing about the blessings the Lord has made of our lives. We are precious, and He has made us so. We show our gratitude for that gift by doing our best to keep our lives pure and clean before Him. “Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure might be,” we sing in closing. It’s a hymn of harvest, but it’s also a hymn of gratitude as we show our thanks for being that pure, precious grain.
And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.
And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:
But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.
And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.
And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Mark 4:3-9)
The parable of the sower is an easy one to understand, even if only because the Savior himself laid the symbolism bare shortly after teaching it. The seed is the word of God, which is given to all of the world. Some do not receive it, others receive it but with no depth, and some receive it only to be overcome with adversity and difficulties. But others receive it gladly, and bring forth good works and faith. Simple enough.
Who is the sower?
It’s easy enough to think that the Savior Himself is the Sower, as He’s the One telling the story and is the source of the gospel light. But as we sing in this hymn, we are the sowers, called to spread the word daily to all we meet. “We are sowing, daily sowing countless seeds of good and ill,” we sing at the start of the hymn, and it’s worth considering that despite our intentions and our constant scattering of the seeds, not all of those seeds are good. We want to be good examples, and we want others to see us and be inspired to draw unto their Savior. The sad truth, though, is that all of our actions are seeds. We can just as easily sow a good seed with a kind deed as we can a bad one with an unkind deed. We are daily, hourly, and moment by moment sowing. If you’ve been baptized, you’ve taken upon yourself the name of Christ, and as such, you are always sowing seeds in His name.
That’s a lot to take in, once you think about it. Spreading His gospel in His name is a daunting task, especially when you consider the magnitude of that calling. All of the sheaves must be gathered in, not just the ones that are especially ripe or especially close to the silo. There’s an awful lot of work to do. Fortunately, we aren’t asked to do it alone. In fact, we’re only asked to do a relatively small portion of the work. If you read through the lyrics of this hymn, you’ll notice that while we do an awful lot of sowing, we don’t cultivate the crops, plow the fields, uproot the weeds, or gather in the sheaves. We just sow. Our job is to spread the seed far and wide, let it fall where it may. Stony ground? That’s fine. Amid thorns? Sure, sow away. Good ground? Of course, put it there, too. We are asked to cover the earth in seed. The Savior will take responsibility for nurturing those tender plants, helping them to grow in whatsoever ground they may find themselves. We are to sow, and we do not do so alone. We have the companionship of “[He] who knowest all our weakness.” He walks the fields with us, helping us to scatter seed far and wide, until the whole earth is “filled with mellow, ripened ears, filled with fruit of life eternal.” We don’t judge any plot of land to be better or worse. We don’t tell our Gardener where He should plant His crops. We simply sow them, far and wide, here and there, as He asks us, and we leave the cultivation of the crops in His hands.
In this hymn version of the parable of the lost sheep (see Luke 15) we seem to have a few different types of “sheep”. The most frequently mentioned group is “the sheep that have wandered.”
They are also called “lambs that are lost” or “straying”, and I think we can assume that at one point these sheep were with the rest of the flock. They knew their shepherd and followed him…until they didn’t. Something distracted them, or delayed them, or they got bored and wandered off to find some new adventure. It’s a clear metaphor for anyone who was a member of the church but has since left, although it could represent anyone who has broken a commandment and strayed from the path even just a little.
(That’s all of us, in case you had forgotten.)
As verse two says, these sheep were “saved at such infinite cost.” The Atonement and repentance is what enables these lost sheep to return to the Good Shepherd’s presence, and He rejoices when they do so.
The second group is the “‘other’ lost sheep” mentioned in the first verse. Being “other”, they have never been and are not yet part of the fold. But they will be. Rather, they can be if found and “rescued.” These are the people who don’t yet know Jesus Christ or his restored gospel. Once taught and baptized, they are part of the fold, and like their fellow Saints, they follow where their Shepherd leads.
Which leaves us with the third group: the “ninety and nine.” Verse three reminds us that these sheep are also dear to the shepherd. He doesn’t leave his flock to rescue a lost sheep because he doesn’t care about them as much as the one; rather he hastens to rescue it because he knows the remaining flock is going to be okay.
But just because they are safe and happy in their little enclosure doesn’t mean they should stay there and shut everyone else out. If we know the shepherd, we have a responsibility to help him out:
Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
“Will you not seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?”
There are so many lost sheep. Those who have strayed need to know they have a place in the fold, no matter where they have been or what they have done. Those who have never seen the green pastures need to be led there, “not,” as Peter teaches us, “by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
I wrote this a few years ago; it’s definitely relevant here. This is what it doesn’t say in Luke 15:
4) What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not grudgingly leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5) And when he hath found it, he chastiseth it for having gotten itself lost, then layeth it on his shoulders and bring it back to the fold, where the other sheep turn away from it and judge it as a lesser sheep than they which remained with the shepherd all along.
6) And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice because of what I have done; for I have found my foolish sheep which was lost. Am I not clever and righteous?
Because if that’s what it said in Luke 15, and I happened to be that proverbial sheep, I’d up and get myself lost again. Who wants to hang with a holier-than-thou shepherd and his judgmental herd?
Jesus loves us. All of us. Those of us in the church, those who have left it or struggle to feel they belong there, and those who have never even heard of it. We all belong to him. And so when he calls us, we should answer him gladly: “Yes, blessed Master, we will!”
A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief is well-known as a favorite of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He asked John Taylor to sing it in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, and then asked him to sing it again. The scene is moving—a psalm in preparation for death, a memorial of an impending martyrdom.
The lyrics are from the poem The Stranger and His Friend by James Montgomery, which in turn draws inspiration from Matthew 25. As we sing the song, we take the place of the narrator and meet the stranger ourselves, a poor wandering man, lost and humbly seeking aid.
I had not pow’r to ask his name,
Whereto he went, or whence he came;
Yet there was something in his eye
That won my love; I knew not why.
In each verse, the stranger is found in need. Taking the place of the narrator as we sing, we give the stranger bread, of our scanty meal. We raise him up and fetch him water. We take him in, out of the storm. There are only a few hymns written in the first person, and even fewer that place us inside an external narrative. This is not a song about how Christ cared for the needy. It’s about us, and our need to do what Christ does.
And yet, even as we seek to lift others, a blessing returns back to us. The stranger gives back a crust of bread and it becomes manna to [our] taste. He fills the cup and returns it, and we sing “I drank and never thirsted more.” As he sleeps in our own bed, the floor we sleep on becomes “as Eden’s garden.” The service we gave without thought of reward multiplies and blesses our own lives far beyond the original gift we gave. As King Benjamin taught:
ye should do as [God] hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you. (Mosiah 2:24)
Not only do we receive blessings as we serve others—our own wounds are healed as well. From the fifth verse:
… he was healed.
I had myself a wound concealed,
But from that hour forgot the smart,
And peace bound up my broken heart.
Service to others heals wounds, alleviates trials, and strengthens us. This is something I understand conceptually, but often forget to apply in the hour of need.
This hymn does not focus on Christ’s life, teachings, or atonement as many others do. Rather, it emphasizes the Christ-like ideals we hope to find in ourselves—charity, service, kindness, and selfless love. As I sing this song, I am led to ponder my own desires. Would I give so freely to a stranger? Would I recognize the needs of someone who “often crossed me on my way?” Would I invite someone in out of the storm? Or am I, perhaps, too absorbed in my own activities to take notice? Am I too busy being myself to be like Christ?
We could stop after the first five verses and have a wonderful song about service and the blessings that it brings. The last two verses, though, really drive home the divine mandate we have to serve our fellow man. I like to imagine them as heard by Joseph in Carthage Jail. Take a moment to really read them.
In prison I saw him next, condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ‘mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try, He asked if I for him would die. The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, “I will!”
Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named, “Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”
Imagine Joseph, hearing these words shortly before his death. Imagine the comfort it gave to a man who had suffered so greatly in restoring the gospel of Christ. Then, consider what it can mean for us. Christ himself taught that when we care for God’s children, we are serving God himself. Service to others is not just something we do to be like Christ; it is an integral part of our relationship with Christ. Just as Joseph came to know his Savior, we can know him too.
The poor, wayfaring man reminds us that our goal is not just to become like him; in the end and along the way, we seek to know Him. What a wonderful blessing!