Tending the Soil
I’m fairly certain that I am on record somewhere that this is not one of my favorite passages of scripture. Let me explain why:
Last week Joel began our worship series on the parables by talking about how Jesus’ use of parables as a teaching method was perhaps meant to help people understand just how much they didn’t understand. He told us that parables help us move from hearing to truly listening. They invite us to see our lives and our world reflected--or perhaps more accurately, refracted--in the world of the parable. One day we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the older son, the next we recognize our own longing in the father character. Some days we might even feel like the unnamed mother, the thorny weed, the upset laborer, or the sheep who has wandered away.
Parables leave us scratching our heads a little bit as they resist being nailed down into conclusions that are too tidy or meanings that let us walk away feeling like we’ve adequately digested the story.
There’s a lot of overlap between parables and poetry in this way. I recently finished a book called The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet in which the author, Rubem Alves, describes the way poetry blossoms in unclarity and invites readers to find meaning and beauty in the empty, silent spaces between the words. He writes, “Don’t you know that a clear idea brings the conversation to a halt, whereas one unclear idea gives wings to the words and the conversation never ends?”
[As an aside: If these parables leave you longing for conversation that never ends, we hope you might consider joining us for the Parable discussion groups we’ll be hosting at 11am on Sundays throughout this series. Conversations about parables and poetry might never end, but I promise these Zoom meetings will last no longer than an hour.]
To me, poetry and parables have a similar quality, and my approach to reading scripture echoes that of Alves when he goes on to write: “Exegetes and hermeneuts are at a loss. Their job is to find the meaning that a voice has. They hear, they read and they say: ‘This is the meaning of the words!’ But now, if the poet is to be believed, ‘there is another voice’ which lives in the ‘interstices’: the silences of the text.” Poetry and parables are just as much about the particular words and stories as they are about the silences between those words that help us make sense of our own world.
When Joel preached last week, the passage he used is the one that fits right in the middle of the two sections of our passage today. Run together, the beginning of Matthew 13 goes like this: Jesus tells the (so called) parable of the sower, Jesus explains to the disciples why he uses parables, then Jesus explains the parable he just told. Which brings me to why this is not my favorite passage of scripture.
Very rarely in scripture does Jesus give such a detailed description of what he means, let alone a line-by-line explanation of all the symbols and their meanings within a parable. And it feels like we should be happy about this, right? We finally get to know what Jesus means without all that pesky and messy discipleship stuff that requires us to stumble after him, getting dust all over ourselves as we do the work of figuring out where he’s leading us next.
But I fear we’ve allowed Jesus’s tidy explanation to let us off the hook of doing our own work to wrestle with this parable. I have to wonder if the author of Matthew’s gospel had not included verses 18-23, would I have come to the same interpretation that Jesus gives? Or would my reading be nuanced in ways that connect more intimately with my own life?
I’m not saying that Jesus’s explanation of this parable answers every question, but I wonder whether we allow his words to fill up the empty spaces of the text or whether we allow them to create more silences for us to walk around in.
Which brings me to the other reason why this is not my favorite parable. Somewhere along the way, I was taught that when reading parables, you should pay attention for the surprise. This doesn’t quite apply to every parable, but more often than not there is a turning point where the story should twist in a way that would have been shocking to those who heard it. With 2000-ish years of distance, reading parables well is often about figuring out what would have been surprising to the original audience and how that colors the interpretation.
What’s a bit confounding about this parable, then, is the seeming lack of surprise. I don’t have a lot of experience with plants and I’m certainly no farmer, but somehow I don’t think Jesus is saying anything revolutionary when it comes to seeds and soil. If you put seeds in bad soil, they probably won’t do very well. If you put seeds in good soil, good things will probably happen.
Even if we add Jesus’ explanation to the mix, it doesn’t seem like there’s much more to work with. The Word of God represented by the seed struggles to grow in harsh conditions but will likely thrive in good conditions.
It may be true, but is it good news? And if so, who really benefits from this good news?
There’s a sort of conventional wisdom on the surface of this parable that reflects the way the world usually works, but the good news that Jesus lives and teaches is hardly ever about just going along with the way the world usually works. Conventional wisdom tells us that we need to get things just right, and then we will be enough. But in the end, when we’ve exhausted ourselves trying to measure up, we can all wind up feeling a little bit like dirt. Jesus surrounded himself with the kind of people who would have probably been considered “bad soil,” those who don’t have it all together by most standards of measure, and his harshest words are for those who many would have considered to be the epitome of “good soil.”
So where then does that leave us?
I believe that the most surprising part of this parable is something that is so easy to overlook but it’s the part that has the most to teach us. Last week Joel warned us to pay attention to how these parables are named because the way we name them can bias our perception of them. In this case, however, the most common name given to this parable, ‘The Parable of the Sower,’ is what I believe we are most likely to overlook. Too often we make it out to be “The Parable of the 4 Soils” and spend our time beating ourselves up trying to figure out just how much we don’t measure up to the standard of good soil.
There is much to be pursued when it comes to searching our hearts, minds, and strength to figure out what we can do to grow the Word of God in our lives, but before we go there, we have to back up a bit and realize that perhaps this parable is saying more about the nature of God than acting as a dictum about discipleship.
The surprising part of this parable and the part that has the most to teach us is that the sower treats that which is most precious as if there is an abundant supply. To throw seeds so willy-nilly that they land on the path, in the rocks, and among the thorns would have been baffling to the crowd listening to Jesus. But the Word of God is not a well which runs dry or a precious resource to be rationed out in careful measure. The seed, the Word of God, the good news, is wastefully poured out through all of creation.
What’s more, the other astonishing part of this parable is that even with this wasteful treatment of the seeds, the sower yields a 30, 60, and 100 fold harvest. A double yield would have been surprising enough, but a hundredfold yield is utterly unimaginable. As a glimpse into the character of God and the nature of heaven, the parable of the sower reminds us that abundance is both the means and the end. For love to abound, we must love abundantly. For justice to abound, we must do justice abundantly. For where the Word of God is concerned, it is never a waste to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God because that goodness can never be taken away or destroyed.
If we start with the good news that the Sower teaches us about a God of abundance, if we allow this to be the foundation of our interpretation of this parable, then we can begin to explore the implications of what it means to live our lives from this place of abundance rather than from a mindset of scarcity.
Without this foundation, we might be tempted to too easily abandon those places of our lives and our communities that don’t measure up to the standard of good soil. Without a recognition that sowing love and justice is never truly wasted, we can let ourselves off the hook of doing the hard work of tending the soil, digging out the rocks, and pulling the weeds that threaten to choke out the good news when it shows up in places that don’t fit our images of a tidy garden.
Our world right now is full of those who are being trampled down and choked. Rocks and other seemingly immovable structures litter the landscape of our soil, a ground that cries out with the blood of our kin both recent and long ago. But even in this mess, the Sower continues to throw out seed in abundance. Goodness, beauty, and justice sprout all around us, but whether those seeds take root and bear fruit depends on whether we are willing to get our hands dirty.
If we wait for the perfect soil, we might yield 30, 60, 100 fold, but how much will we have missed along the way? How much more could the yield be if we recognized it’s not the soil that gives the seed its goodness but the grace of the Sower that compels us to cultivate the goodness in all things? If this kind of yield feels unimaginable, maybe all we need is a glimpse to keep us going. Maybe all we need is one seed.
And so, my wish for us, my friends, is
That we would be willing to listen deeply to the silences in the parables and never be satisfied with interpretations that leave us unmoved.
That we would know that abundance is both the means and the ends to which we are being called.
And finally, that we would be willing to tend whatever soil we find ourselves with, knowing that love and justice are never wasted no matter what the yield may be.