Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.
(Preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017)
This parable is not called the parable of the soil or the parable of the seed, although many of the traditional explanations by preachers and teachers often focus on the soil and seed. Instead, Jesus himself calls it the Parable of the Sower later in the chapter when he offers an explanation to his disciples. So what can we learn from this sower of seed?
Well, we are probably not going to learn good farming or gardening technique. This farmer goes out to sow seeds and does so by scattering them, seemingly without any regard to where they land. That is not how most farmers and gardeners plant seeds. When we plant seeds it is rare to just throw them onto the pathway, onto rocky soil, or into thorns. We usually plant seeds in soil that is well cultivated and ready to nurture and grow them. Furthermore, most gardeners and farmers carefully place each seed into the soil bed, spacing the seeds out and mapping out what kind of seeds will go where. I can remember when I lived in Elkhart, Indiana during my early years in ministry just after completing seminary that is what I did in the winter. During January and February, when the snow lay deep on the ground, that we the time for reading the gardening journals, mapping out the garden I would plant in the spring, ordering the seed, and dreaming of a bountiful harvest in the fall.
Nature, though, seems to work differently. Wind blows seeds from trees and flowers all over the place – sometimes onto good soil, sometimes to places where they do not stand a chance. Insects cross-pollinate and drop seeds as they move about; fruit falls from trees and vines and then cracks open to expose seeds that may or may not go on to bear more fruit. And when a bird picks up a seed from hard ground, that is never the end of the line for that seed, but often the bird plants it in a better spot, dropping the seed from its body along with a little fertilizer to help it get started. In nature, every plant produces hundreds of seeds each season in an attempt to reproduce itself. Just look at the mango trees, producing hundreds of mangos in the hope of producing another tree.
The farmer in this parable sounds much more like nature itself than like an experienced human farmer or gardener. What Jesus is actually sharing is how the original gardener, the God of Genesis who walks in the Garden of Eden, actually works. To me it seems wasteful, almost irresponsible, to just scatter seeds anywhere and everywhere. But to the God of abundance, to the God of grace and mercy and love, it seems this is exactly the right way to go about it.
Jesus is teaching us that with God the possibilities never stop! God is not stingy with the bounty of creation, nor is God stingy with the bounty of grace. God is extravagant in spreading the seeds of life and the seeds of new life in the hope that some will take root and grow. God is not stingy with the message of love and acceptance but broadcasts that message far and wide. God knows that it will not take root or flourish in every place that it lands; some hearts are too hard, some are too narrow, some are too burdened and distracted. But God is not turned aside by that knowledge. God is the eternal optimist. And God knows that there can always be surprises in even the most inhospitable of soils.
It is often surprising to see what grows where. I have seen flowers blooming from the cracks in sidewalks where thousands of feet walk each day. I have seen vines climbing up brick buildings that rarely get any sunlight. Good soil that allows for growth and fruit may be found where we are not looking, in places we have not already cultivated.
Brownsville, Texas is home to one of the most famous bird-watching spots in the country. People travel long distances to visit it. It was even featured in the move The Big Year, which was about the competitiveness that develops between bird-watchers! That famous spot is The Brownsville Dump Sanitary Landfill! Birders congregate at the Brownsville Landfill to catch a glimpse of a Salty-Backed Gull or find a Tamaulipas Crow from Mexico picking through the trash. The dump’s reliability for rare species has given it legendary status, even if there are prettier places to do your bird watching.
Vince Amlin in a recent Stillspeaking Devotional points out that the Hebrew word “Horeb” means “waste.” This of course is the name for the mountain where Moses stumbles on the burning bush. He doesn’t know he’s found the mountain of God. He only recognizes it as a wasteland – harsh and barren. As Vince suggests: It’s just like God to show up where holiness is least expected to appear in the forgotten, neglected, unclean places and ask us to take our shoes off; to set a tumbleweed aflame as a call to freedom; to give a pile of garbage rare wings.
That is just like the farmer casting seed far and wide, never giving up on any place that might, just might, have some good soil hidden in a crack that will bear fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred times what is expected.
Listen to what Jesus does not say. Not once does he mention soil analysis. His parable is not concerned with viability. There is not the faintest hint that the farmer considers the nature of the soil as he flings the seed, letting it fly scattershot in every direction. Beneath this parable is a bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust. There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes sun to shine and rain to fall upon both the righteous and the unrighteous is indiscriminate about sharing. Grace if flung and wasted everywhere.
This was good news for the early followers of Jesus in the early church. They faced all sorts of responses to their proclamation of the good news: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community. Their situation was not unlike our own situation today. When Christians today proclaim the counter-cultural gospel of love, peace, justice, and acceptance for all God’s children, not just in heaven but here on earth, right now, we face many of the same responses our ancestors in faith encountered: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community. As in early Christianity, a measure of this opposition comes from within the religious community. And yet, God works great wonders in all situations and is astonishingly extravagant in offering grace and new life in the harshest of situations.
The Parable of the Sower challenges the church and its leaders to scatter the seed of the good news of God’s love broadly and widely. Not just in our own cultivated gardens but beyond. Just imagine what might happen if churches, if we, stepped outside the church building, scattering seeds of grace, love and acceptance, to every corner of Miami-Dade County? What might be possible if our ministries extended far beyond the walls of our sanctuary and the boundaries of our property?
But this parable also challenges the powers and principalities of this world. Most Christians would agree that one role of government is to provide some degree of help to those in dire need: benefits for those who have just lost their jobs; food for hungry families; a safety net for the most vulnerable. We might discuss and debate the full extent of that help, but most of us would agree the government should be there at those times. But in practice, we often prefer to save those resources for those we deem the most worthy – the “good soil.” For example, many people favor drug tests for welfare recipients, even though we’ve seen again and again that the cost of the testing far outweighs any savings and it generally just demeans those who are already beat down by circumstances and have swallowed a large serving of “humble pie” just to go apply for the aid.
But the message is clear: help is only for the deserving, and those in power get to decide who is deserving enough. We spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to regulate how, and on whom, public money is spent. And while the need for fiscal responsibility is real, the Parable of the Sower flies in the face of this kind of careful and calculated regulation.
God gives freely, hoping to find good soil but with no guarantee that this will happen. But with God, the possibilities never stop. With God there is always a possibility for growth. God continues to spread freely and widely the grace of extravagant love and mercy. This kind of lavish abundance, grossly distributed grace, is a call and a challenge to us to go and do likewise.