Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Depth of Soil
Listen to this little story: A certain WV gardener we all know went out to sow seed in her garden this spring. And as she sowed, some of that pricey seed she ordered from Gurney’s seed catalog fell in the tall grass beside the garden, and some of it blew out of the rows before she could cover it. Overhead, blue jays and cow birds watched silently from their perches, and rabbits– hungry for tender cabbage leaves– popped out of their burrows. Moles crouched quietly in their tunnels. Soon the thistles and crab grass would appear and the pernicious blood root. Japanese beetles would invade the raspberry patch, followed by a brigade of squash bugs. There would be weeks of drought followed by days of flooding rains. It would seem that all of nature conspires to keep that seed from germinating, those plants from growing. Much of the seed never took root and Kellan reseeded – sometimes twice. Yet, the gardener goes out to sow seed in her garden.
Jesus tells a parable much like this: a farmer goes out to sow seed, and as he scatters, some of it falls upon the path, some among rocks, some among the thorns, and even some of that which falls upon the good soil will find its way into the beaks of wily birds. The crowd to which Jesus was speaking knew all about sowing seed –they were farmers! This story was as old as time itself. “Yep,” they would say, elbowing each other, “that’s what happens! A lot of precious seed is lost! Sometimes the harvest is so poor that we lose our shirts!”
Now this parable –usually called the Parable of the Seed and the Sower– is misnamed. A more appropriate name would be the Parable of the Four Soils, because as important and precious as good seed is, it is only part of the equation. Farming is also about the soil. Ancient farmers knew that the best farms were those with good rich soil – loamy soil, not clay or sand. That’s why river deltas, not wind-swept prairies, make for great farming. The area in which all of the Bible is set is called the Fertile Crescent –so named because of the fertile land that lies between Egypt and Syria, bordered to the north by the Mediterranean and to the south by the Red Sea.
Those who lived in this part of the world knew that before a farmer plants, he removes rocks and old tree stumps from his field, adds compost, fish, or manure, turns the soil, aerating it and breaking up the clods. He rotates his crops and even lets the land lay fallow for a season so as not to deplete the soil. Jesus’s listeners were very familiar with these practices. Unlike WV gardeners, they could not send their soil samples to the county extension agent to assess the pH balance, but they nevertheless knew what to do. They hoped against hope that, by preparing the soil and planting good seed, they could double their harvest! A result too preposterous to even hope for.
But, Jesus’s story has a preposterous ending! His careless sower scatters seed so broadly – on the path, on the rocks, among the thorns, that much of it is wasted. Yet, he reaps incredible –unbelievable rewards: 30, 60, 100 times what was expected! Now that, Christ’s listeners agree, isn’t the typical story. So let’s sit up and take notice!
Of course, Jesus’s story is not intended to be a farming lesson. He was not lecturing on good agricultural practices. Rather, he was trying to explain to his disciples and to the crowd the answer to a question that still plagues us today: Why does the gospel find hospitable space to grow among some people but not among others? For churches and church members, the question –paraphrased—sounds more like this: Why is it so difficult to make new converts? To get people to come to know Christ and to become fruitful disciples?
How do we know that this was Christ’s underlying concern? Well, because the Parable of the Four Soils is sandwiched between stories of criticism and accusation in Matthew 12; and of the Chapter 13 account of Jesus’s complete rejection by the people in his own hometown! You see, for all of his popularity, Christ knew even more criticism. He also knew that his disciples– who would go forth to evangelize the world—would meet that same kind of criticism and rejection. For every person who might come to Christ, another 99 would utterly refuse!
Why? Why is selling the good news so hard? Why wouldn’t people want to come into God’s house, to hear more of Christ’s story? Why are our movie houses filled but our sanctuaries empty?
Well, in verses 18-23, Jesus offers an explanation: The seed is the good news of God’s kingdom, brought here by Jesus Christ. Like four types of soil, there are at least four types of people. Some will hear the good news but have no capacity, no soil, with which to understand the message. They will have never developed any sense of spirituality never any baseline understanding of God, never any compassion, never any selflessness. The seed cannot take root with nothing to attach itself to.
Others will have a little soil but, underneath, their hearts will be as hard as rock. They may hear and understand God’s call, but so shallow will be their spirits, that the word will instantly wither and die.
Still others will receive the good news hungrily but it will be choked out by the lure, the temptations, the habits and cares of the world. They cannot unlearn the thoughts and lifestyles they have always known. They hunger for worldly fame and fortune. Their new faith will be strangled.
Ultimately, only a fraction will hear the gospel AND understand it, internalize it, and become a true disciple of Christ.
The problem is that the evangelist – whether a preacher, teacher, or missionary can’t tell what kind of person, what kind of soil, he is interacting with. The evangelist doesn’t know in advance what is beneath the soil’s surface, where the ground is hard, where the soil is shallow, or where weeds will choke. Neither the church nor the preacher knows the quality of the soil before sowing.
If we were to have a sanctuary filled with strangers this morning, I would have little idea who was searching for God and open to God, and who was here for some other purpose. And for that matter, I have no idea on any given Sunday what condition your soil is in? Are you open to the message? Have I brought the right message? Am I planting it with the right technique? Is the message being sent at all and how is it received? Will anything grow? Do I need to reseed? Only God knows which heart is ready to be changed, which soul is ready for God to move in?
To us, it is a mystery what makes a person ready to receive Christ. Often, a tragedy or illness makes a person vulnerable and open to faith for the first time in their lives, and they realize a need for God. But the opposite can happen, as well. A horrible event or tragic loss turns some away from God; they blame God for what happened.
Individuals who grew up in the church, any church, but fell away for a time, are usually more inclined to seek a renewed connection with God. On the other hand, folks who were raised to believe in an angry, vindictive God or a cold, spectator God may never be able to reunite at all!
While education can lead men and women to seek spiritual answers; it can –in some instances—replace God altogether. Scholars convince themselves that the answers to all questions are found in science and human nature.
Jesus told his apostles that the “harvest was plentiful but the laborers, few. “ It is no different today. One of the greatest misconceptions of the centuries is that men and women do not want to know God. I believe this is a false understanding. Many people hunger to know the truth and to experience the love of God; yet, tragically, most Christians have never introduced a single person to the Lord Jesus. They don’t know where to begin or what to say.
The point of today’s parables is that there is no right place to sow the seeds of the kingdom. You can scatter the good news of Christ in your office or classroom, in a hospital room, in a rehab center. You can extend the gospel to friends, strangers, associates, family. The point is that you sow lavishly –in settings where it is likely to grow AND in situations that are thorny, at best. But you keep sowing, seasoning your speech with references to your faith – all the while expecting and thanking God for the abundant harvest to come. Remember: Wherever you act with love and compassion, in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you share God’s kingdom.
Remember also that introducing someone to Christ is rarely, if ever, a once and done thing. We may need to disciple that friend or family member for years while God is working behind the scenes preparing her soul to receive it. So, rarely does an elevator speech bring someone to Christ. It is more likely that the first act of evangelism is to invite a friend for breakfast, making a point of bowing your head in thanksgiving for the food. Or taking a meal to a friend recuperating from surgery with the simple statement that you are praying for her recovery (and you not only say it but you faithfully do it!) The first step may be a card or note to a new mother saying you care about her, and offering to babysit. It may be to hug a self-conscious teenager and tell him that you are so glad he came to church. It may be to pray that God will give you an opportunity to sit down and share your faith.
When that happens, then speak your heart without fear or embarrassment. Simply share what Christ means to you, how powerful the Holy Spirit has been in your life, how God has brought you to where you are today. It is your story of faith and no one else’s. Offer to pray for or with your friend, and quietly explain how she can give her heart to God.
Is there some guarantee that we will make her into a fruitful follower of Christ? Will we change a life, make a disciple, “save” someone? Will a mature plant grow up from that seed? We may never know. Germination may take a long, long time. Keeping score is not our concern. We do not transform anyone; God does. Our job is to sow the seed. We are to be the obedient sowers.
Jesus commanded his apostles to “Go, therefore and disciples all nations, baptizing then in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” He told them he would be with them until the very end –what a huge assignment.
Christ’s parable ends with a miracle: The seed that falls on good soil produces not twice what was expected, but 30X, 60X, 100X!! God says, you sowers do your job and I will do mine! But be prepared for an amazing harvest –enough to feed the world and more! AMEN