Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

A longtime resident of Austin, Texas, once told me that growing plants in that city—various kinds of groundcover, flowers, bushes—can be very, very difficult. That is in large part due to the many types of soil in that community.  There are, in fact, about 25 different categories and, of those, dozens of subcategories—ranging from heavy, black clay to sandy loam to thin layers covering deposits of limestone. As one expert has said: “The best way to tell what your soil needs [for plants or vegetables you want to grow] is to have it tested.”[i]

For the sower in today’s parable, having the soil tested first wasn’t really an option. Besides, supposing he was already familiar with the land, we may assume he knew what he was doing. We may assume he knew that the seed he was broadcasting was compatible with the soil.

The part that doesn’t add up—at least offhand—is how indiscriminate he was in the scattering, the distribution of those seeds. What I mean is this: While broadcasting them on the good soil makes perfect sense, doing so on the other three kinds makes no sense at all. Why would he have cast some of them on the path, which most likely was hard, was packed down from all the foot traffic? In any true way, how could they really get down into the ground in the first place?

It’s somewhat similar in the case of the rocky ground. True, a number of the seeds could at least get underneath the soil and grow some roots. But the rocks would keep them from growing deeply enough to get an adequate amount of moisture. And sowing seeds among the thorns—that also is a no-brainer. On the one hand, doesn’t it seem that that fellow must not have had much going for him? That he was sloppy and wasteful? On the other hand, we do need to remember that the story is a parable. And, strictly speaking, a parable is nothing more than a form of teaching—certainly not something to be taken literally. It’s not something that perfectly corresponds to the world we actually live in.

What exactly, then, is the point that Jesus is making? For starters, let’s suppose that he himself is the sower—that he is the one who, in his teaching and healing, is spreading the word of God, or as he puts it, the word of the kingdom. Is he simply telling the disciples that, when it comes their turn in sowing that seed, they will come upon a variety of responses? And not to be surprised by them? That the gospel will indeed take root, grow, and produce fruit in a good number of people? But that others, like the soil on the path, will be impervious to the proclamation of the gospel? Who don’t have in themselves any opening for it at all? And there will be those who gladly hear it, but, not having counted the cost, the price of growing in the good news, later fall away? And still others whose worries and preoccupations will crowd out the word of God?

I believe those various responses are at least part of what Jesus is talking about. And it’s not difficult to think of examples of each type of response. Let’s take the inhospitable pieces of ground one at a time, beginning with the path. As far back as classmates in high school and college, I can think of those whose minds were already made up that God in any former fashion did not even exist. I was surprised any young person could so easily make that claim.

To me that seemed awfully premature. But that was the opinion of one fellow in my class in high school—his name was Ron. Now, it’s true he seemed to almost enjoy being disagreeable and contrary. And maybe that had a big part to do with it. But, regardless, that is how he saw things—at least at that point in his life.

Have you ever known someone like that? Jesus says that, in the parable, the birds represent the Evil One, Satan—the one who quickly scoops up the seed of the word of God. For such cases I guess we could paraphrase the saying, “The devil made me do it.” We could say in this instance, “The devil made my heart like a packed-down, hardened piece of ground.”

Now that does bring up the question of why some people seem to be made one way and others in ways that are totally different. For example, as a child I remember in reading the story about the Hebrew people in slavery in Egypt, how strange the role seemed to be that God had given to Pharaoh. This is what I mean: Before visiting Pharaoh at the palace and demanding that he let their people go, Moses and Aaron were told this by God: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders [in a series of plagues].”[ii] And that’s what happened—at the endof nearly every one of them. To me, it seemed unfair. God, at least in part, made Pharaoh the way he was, in order to achieve some higher purpose. So I have wondered whether it’s the same when it comes to faith. Since faith is, as we believe, a pure gift from God, why do some gladly receive it and others do not? Why would God let the devil have his way with some, but not others? After all these years, it remains a question for which I have never found a good answer.

One might wonder whether it’s the same when it comes to the rocky ground. I tend, however, to see persons in that category as having some freedom to change their circumstances—as having some ability to choose. Cannot a person in rocky soil, a so-called “shallow” person—not decide to do something about that? Not take steps to change, to modify his or her frame of mind? And become spiritually deeper? Cannot such a person count the cost ahead of time and be prepared to hold fast in periods of trouble or persecution? Which for many people in wealthy nations—who also are blessed with religious freedom—are often not true hardships at all, but rather major inconveniences?

The same with those in the third category—those surrounded by the thorns of anxiety and by priorities that are misplaced. Do not such people allow some of the preoccupations of the world to stifle the reassurance Jesus gives to us? For example, in the sixth chapter of Matthew:

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap

nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them….

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field,

how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,

even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”[iii]

It’s like this joke. A businessman had just parked his luxury car on the side of the street. When he opened the door to get out,in another automobile a man who did not see him in time drove by, taking the door right off. The businessman was beside himself. He shouted to a nearby witness: “Did you see what that guy just did?! He ripped off the door of my new car!” The passerby replied, “Excuse me, sir, but I think that’s the least of your worries right now. What happened is his car also took off one of your arms.” “Oh, no! My Versaci suitis ruined! And my Rolex! What happened to my Rolex?”

If truth be told, there’s probably some combination of each kind of soil in each of us. It was certainly that way for the original disciples. And, like them, hopefully in us the vast majority is the good soil that is cultivated, fertilized, and watered by God—our Master Gardener. Hopefully, through years of meaningful worship and regular prayer, through opportunities like attending Vacation Bible School as children and teaching it as youth and adults, through other acts of love and service, the fruit that we bear has been, is, and will be of considerable size. Not the same amount or kind for everyone, for each of us has been blessed according to the measure provided by God.

And we then, in our own right, faithfully cast the word of God into the lives of others. Like the sower in the parable, we too do well to be indiscriminate in the broadcasting of the seeds passed on to us. For what we may think seems like a person of an inhospitable nature—who may look to us to be made up of a hard, dry path or rocky soil or thorn-infested ground—is, in reality, potentially good soil. It’s not unlike these words I once learned at a church camp:

            Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow.

            All I need is a rake and a hoe and a piece of loving ground.

            Inch by inch, row by row, God bless these seeds I sow.

            And make them truly grow ‘til the rains come tumbling down.

Let us pray. O God, Creator of all that is good, you have made us to be good soil, to receive with gladness your word as manifested in the life of your Son.May that word in our livescontinue both to grow and bear fruit. And may we, according to the ability you have granted us, share the seeds of that word with others. Amen.



[i] Daphne Richards, “The Real Dirt on Austin Area Soils,” Texas A&M AgriLife Extension (February 2010).

 

[ii] Exodus 7:2-3.

 

[iii] Matthew 6:26, 28-29.