We need a picture of what we're talking about. We need a visual that people can use to see the whole situation. We need an image that people can imagine themselves to be a part of.
Pictures are important in getting a point across. And I think that's why Jesus so often taught in parables. Parables are, in a sense, a picture. They're an image of a complex thing, but shown in a way that people can see and understand and visualize themselves to be a part of.
And so in today's Gospel reading, Jesus teaches the crowds by telling them "many things in parables." He teaches them in word pictures. And the first image he uses is a common picture people in his time and place would have been familiar with - a guy who goes out to sow seed. And, as this sower apparently isn't very careful with the seed, some seed falls on the path; other seed falls on rocky ground; some falls among the thorns; and thankfully, some falls on good soil.
It's an easy picture to visualize, but even some of Jesus' disciples don't understand the picture. So Jesus explains it to them in the second part of the Gospel reading. The "seed" is the word of God, and it's so powerful that it can yield 30, 60 or even 100 fold (which was unfathomable in a day when 7-10 fold was considered average for a farmer). And people are the different types of soil. Some folks are like:
- The path - they feel so walked on and trampled that God's Word barely has a chance to take root at all;
- Rocky ground - they hear God's Word and think it's great; but there are a lot of other things that are great, too; and they get too distracted to do much with it;
- Thorny ground - they care deeply about all kinds of stuff, including important things like political oppression and making sure they have enough money for their family; God's Word may be important, but it's not mission critical at the moment;
- Good soil - they actually invest in the relationship with the seed, and ironically, the "fruit" that gets produced is the very thing they need to deal with the thorns, the rocks and the birds on the path...
Jesus explains the picture. But here's the real problem with this, or any picture: it doesn't neatly explain everything. There are still questions to ponder. Most importantly in this picture, who tends the soil?
After all, if God is the sower, and we're the soil, who clears out the rocks? Who cuts away the thorns? Who blocks off access to paths which shouldn't be there? Who cultivates the good soil?
If you're at all like me, you can probably identify times in your life when you've felt like all 4 of these types of soil. Maybe you feel like two or three of them at the same time!
And like soil, are we just the way we are? Are we helpless victims of our circumstances? And like dirt, are we even aware of what kind of soil we are? (After all, the dirt doesn't know!)
And of course, we often can't control whether there are thorns growing in our lives. We sometimes get trampled no matter how much we try to avoid it. And rocks and birds appear whether we like it or not.
But the last line of this parable is interesting. Jesus says, "let anyone with ears listen." It's Jesus' standard way of saying, "pay attention." And if there was absolutely nothing we could do but be the passive soil we are at the moment, there would be no need for Jesus to say this. Instead, he could simply say, "hey that's just the way it is. Suck it up!"
But instead, Jesus calls us to listen and to pay attention. And that means that, even though we may be subject to lots of things we can't control, we aren't just passive soil in the picture. We're also cultivators who have some responsibility for the kind of soil we are.
And sometimes, taking responsibility for the kind of soil that we are means tending to:
- The things that make us crazy, upset and confused - Sometimes, soil can't have a relationship with the seed because it's too exhausted from supporting the thorns and the weeds. And often, the thing that keeps us from really engaging with what God is planting in our lives is that we're just too exhausted to deal with it. Sometimes, part of tending the soil that I am means finding ways to take a deep breath and letting go of things I know I can't control. It doesn't mean that I stop caring, but that I put myself in an emotional place where I can transcend the craziness of the moment (not unlike putting on your oxygen mask before helping others...) And sometimes, when I can transcend the emotional anxiety of right now, God's Word can work in my life to give me the fruit I need to address all the stuff that's making me anxious...
- The things that distract me - Sometimes, soil can't have a relationship with the seed because there are just too many rocks for the seed to grab hold of the soil. And often, that happens when we just get too distracted by the need to always be doing something. Maybe you're like this, too, but sometimes, I just gotta stop checking email, reading my news feeds and trying to focus on every little thing that somebody else wants me to do. Of course, I need to do all of those things. But by clearing out some space, I often give myself the space for God's Word to speak to me and help me focus so that I can keep the rocks that I can't clear out in perspective...
- The physical place where I am - this is the real limitation of this metaphor - soil can't know or change where it is. But we can sometimes tend the soil we are by physically changing where we're located. I've been leading these "Why?" discussions for the past several weeks. And one of the questions I've been asking is, "What does Christian community offer that I can't get anywhere else?" And at least for me, physically gathering with other Christians puts me in a place where I can experience the presence of God in ways that I just can't when I'm by myself. And I find that very often, when I put myself in a different place, even just for a little while, I become a different kind of soil where God's Word can take root in me in a way that it can't while I'm by myself ...
In the end, if we want God's Word to take root in us, and do anything with us or in us, we need to have a relationship with the seed of God's Word. We can't just sit back and say, "Hey God, lay it on me without any commitment or involvement on my part." It doesn't work just to be passive soil.
And so while Jesus is promising us that God's Word comes to us freely and abundantly, he's also calling us to tend the soil that is us, so that God's Word can really take root, and grow, and bear fruit in our lives.