Readings: Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
A New York City hipster moved to the country and bought a piece of land. He went to the local feed and livestock store and talked to the proprietor about how he was going to take up chicken farming. He then asked to buy 100 chicks.
“That’s a lot of chicks,” commented the proprietor. “I mean business,” the city slicker replied.
A week later the hipster was back again. “I need another 100 chicks,” he said. “Boy, you are serious about this chicken farming,” the man told him.
“Yeah,” the hipster replied. “If I can iron out a few problems.”
“Problems?” asked the proprietor. “Yeah,” replied the hipster, “I think I planted that last batch too close together.”
Parable of the Soil?
Today’s gospel is a familiar one: the Parable of the Sower. It’s known under this name, but I would suggest it might better be called the ‘Parable of the Soil.’ But more about that later. One of the beautiful things about our parable today is that you don’t need to be a farmer or a gardener to appreciate it. Now, this parable seems a little different from others Jesus uses. For one, the series of parables that follow it begin with ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ While there is no explicit mention of God’s kingdom in this parable, I think it can be safely assumed that it is addressing the varied responses to the Word of Kingdom that Jesus and his followers would bring.
The second thing about this parable that is a little strange, is that its meaning appears obvious. You see, parables weren’t usually obvious. Here’s one of the best definitions of parables I’ve come across: A parable is “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C.H. Dodd).
Why do some Reject the Gospel while Others Receive it with Joy?
Parables are meant to make us think, and to not settle for simple interpretations. But today’s parable seems different in that Jesus himself explains what it means. Many believe that perhaps this interpretation doesn’t actually come from Jesus but was inserted by Matthew’s Christian community. In either case, the point is that these early followers of Jesus were wrestling with a difficult question: Why did some people receive the gospel joyfully and grow in their faith and works of righteousness, while others rejected the message early on? Or why would some not remain in the faith when life got hard? Why still do others not accept it at all?
I think we’d all like to know the answer to this question. We see shrinking participation in the Church, we wonder why others aren’t compelled and inspired to faith in Jesus, we lament that many of our loved ones have left the Church. We want answers to these questions, as did Matthew’s community, as did Jesus’ disciples. And when Jesus explains the parable, he seems to be providing an answer. He is pointing out that the Word of the Kingdom is like the seed, spread indiscriminately across the land. People’s responses to the Word varied dramatically upon the quality of the soil of their hearts. But rather than using this information to point fingers and identify who fits into what category (which I’m sure the disciples, like us, are tempted to do), the movement in our gospel story would suggest Jesus is more concerned that the disciples (and we) consider the soil of our own hearts.
To go from Jesus speaking to the crowds, to a private confab with his disciples, is to take the mystery of hearing the gospel away from the arena of speculation and abstraction – away from the crowds – to the disciples, to those who hear. In effect, they (and we) are being challenged not to fret, judge, or speculate as to the faith of others, but rather, to till the soil of our own heart. The question isn’t, why don’t others believe? It’s: “How are we hearing and receiving God’s Word for us? What might be impeding the flourishing of our lives?”
4 Types of Soil
There are four types of soil in the parable, which should provoke prayerful introspection. The first, the hardened soil of the path, was the result of being walked on. The seeds could not penetrate the surface, there were barriers to the soil letting the life in. We might hear this as caution as to how our hurts and pains can lead to the building up of walls around our hearts – walls that may originally have been intended to keep the hurtful people at bay, but sadly also have a way of locking God out of our hearts.
Another type of soil is the kind infested with weeds. Jesus names the weeds as the desire for wealth, we might call this consumerism. And I don’t think Jesus is just talking about the extreme examples of people pursuing money and power at all costs, I think it speaks to the human compulsion to be in control. Money represents security, power, and privilege. The pursuit of these things can be all-consuming, leaving little time or energy to tend to Kingdom matters.
The third type of soil is that littered with rocks. I think the rocks may represent any thing that can impede the work of God in our lives. These ‘rocks’ will vary from person to person: Could be a crippling fear that keeps one from trusting in God. Could be a memory or regret over a choice made. Could be a personality trait like stubbornness that refuses to accept help or insight from others. Could be a struggle with a particular sin or pattern of behavior that is self-destructive. I don’t think I need to go on because I think it is in the quiet moments where that rock surfaces in our heart and mind. We all have them, most of us probably even know what they are – what are we to do with them?
A Prayerful Activity
And here I’d like to suggest something you might want to try this week or throughout the rest of the summer. It’s an exercise I led a group of young people through at a youth retreat several years ago. When you are out walking, or gardening, or relaxing at the cottage, find a rock that might represent a particular impediment in your life. As you hold it in your hand, ask God to show you what this rock might represent in your life. Take the rock somewhere, perhaps to your backyard, and as you lay it down, do so as an act of prayer and a sign that you are giving that rock over to God. You might consider doing this throughout the summer, making a pile of these rocks over time. At the youth retreat, we only had time to do this once, but I had the group bring their rocks forward all at once to make one large pile.
As we looked at our pile, I reminded us all that ancient altars in Old Testament times were simply piles of rocks. It is where the people of God would make sacrifices to God. But altars were also powerful symbols of God’s presence, protection, and provision. So, as you lay down your rocks, consider how God is present with you, note how through this activity you are cultivating the soil of your hearts. The good soil in the parable produced a remarkable harvest, one that really is beyond measure. And the good soil gives us hope. Never underestimate the power of seed: the seed of God’s Word implanted in you, the seeds of the Kingdom that you scatter upon the lives of all you meet.
Today Jesus reminds us to not become preoccupied or despondent with trying circumstances or to look to judge the quality of soil of others. Rather, work on cultivating the soil of your own heart. Let’s take time over this summer season to tend to the gardens of our souls. Identify the hardness, the thorns, and the rocks in your life that get in the way of God’s Spirit bringing you the fulness and flourishing of life. As you lay them down, recognize God’s presence is with you. And like the plant life all around this beautiful place, open your hearts to the nourishing light of God’s presence.