Readings: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, 0 Lord, our strength and our salvation.
I recently learned about a chemistry professor at a Christian university who wanted to help his students not only understand how creation functions, but also deepen their devotion to God by helping them appreciate the beauty of creation. So before each class this professor would project onto a screen a beautiful picture that was somehow related to the lesson he’d be teaching that day, and he’d ask his students to sit quietly and contemplate that picture while they waited for class to start.
One day he projected a magnified snowflake so that students could take in the beautiful crystal structure of that one single flake. This was in the Midwest in the wintertime, and the professor pointed out to the students that, trudging through the snow to get to class, they had passed through billions of these beautifully structured snowflakes, each one unique, without even realizing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the extravagance of God. So many snowflakes, they fall and they melt, and no human being ever sees how beautiful they are. The same thing is true of far-off galaxies—those beautiful spiraling clouds of stars. None of us knew they were there until NASA took photographs of them with high-powered telescopes. Why do such beautiful nebulas and galaxies exist? Sometimes I think it’s because it pleased God to make them that way, that galaxies and snowflakes are beautiful simply because it pleases God to make things that are beautiful, even if he’s the only one who ever sees those creations. I’m reminded how in Genesis 1 God admires, over and over again, the goodness of each thing that he makes.
I told my dad on the phone the other day that one of the interesting things about having a newborn is that I’ve become aware of the abundance of good things all around us, good things I would normally take for granted or would fail to notice completely. My son doesn’t know anything yet about snowflakes or stars. He doesn’t even know about ice cream! A few weeks ago I took his hand and ran it along the belly of a stuffed animal and he was so delighted —he’d never before experienced the sensation of softness.
God surrounds us with good things and we often fail to see it. I want to come back to that idea in a moment, this extravagance of God, after we reflect on the parable in our gospel reading for this morning.
In the gospel reading for today Jesus tells a story about four types of soil: there’s the packed earth of the path through the field, the shallow rocky soil, the thorny ground, and the good soil that’s prepared to accept the seeds from the sower.
Reading through the passage to prepare for this morning I was reminded of an old joke that says there are three types of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.
We like to put people into categories—it’s part of our human nature. I used to think that’s what this parable was about: what type of person are you? As if it’s a personality quiz you can take that will tell you whether you’re a hard path-type person or a good soil-type person.
I wasn’t listening to the parable as closely as I should have.
This is one of those rare instances where Jesus actually explains one of his parables, and Jesus says the four soils represent not types of people, but types of responses. The seeds are “sown in the heart,” and the soils the seeds encounter in the heart represent different responses to what Jesus calls ”the word of the kingdom.”
When people hear the word of the kingdom but don’t seek to understand it, they are being like the hard path—the seed never has a chance to take root.
When people hear the word of the kingdom and accept it immediately, without meditating on it and making it their own, they are like the shallow rocky soil that’s unable to sustain the seeds in hard times.
When people hear the word of the kingdom but allow the cares of the world and the lure of money to overpower it, they are being like the thorny ground.
But when people hear the word and seek to understand it, they are being like good soil that yields thirty, sixty, or a hundred new seeds for each seed it received.
This isn’t a parable about types of people, this is a parable about listening and seeking to understand. “Listen” is the first and last word of this parable.” “Understanding” is what distinguishes the good soil response from the response of the hard path.
The verses between Jesus’ parable and Jesus’ explanation of his parable (omitted from our reading this morning) bring out this theme of listening and understanding. After Jesus says “Let anyone with ears listen!” his disciples (and I think it’s always important to note that “disciples” refers to the men and women who chose to follow Jesus, not just the twelve men he appointed as Apostles) ask Jesus about the parable. They heard what Jesus said, now they’re making an effort to understand it. Already they’re exhibiting a good soil response.
Jesus says (and I imagine him smiling as he says it), “To you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Why do the disciples get to know the secrets of the kingdom while the rest of the crowd will “indeed listen, but never understand”? It’s not because the disciples were born as “good soil” while the rest of the people in the crowd were not. The disciples get to know because they asked.
Jesus says “To those who have, more will be given” and “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” He’s not talking here about God’s love or God’s favor, he’s talking about understanding. To those who work to understand more understanding will be given. Those who don’t work to understand what they’ve heard will soon forget about the parable altogether.
To the disciples, Jesus says, “Blessed are … your ears, for they hear.” And then he says “Hear then the parable of the sower,” and he helps them understand it.
The New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright says this parable is “self-referential,” it “describes its own effect.” We see Jesus’ disciples exhibit the good soil response— they hear the word and they work to understand it while the rest of the crowd hears the word and goes away without comprehending the meaning of Jesus’ words, thus embodying the other three soil responses.
So the Parable of the Sower isn’t a personality test, it‘s more like an examen. It’s an opportunity for reflection: what do we need to do to tend the soil of our hearts so that we can more readily receive and understand what Christ wants to give us today?
Because if you farm or if you garden you know better than I do that good soil doesn’t come easy. Good soil takes work. You have to remove the rocks that get heaved up each winter. You have to till the ground. You have to pull the weeds.
And, spiritually speaking, it’s worth the work, because we know the seeds are coming no matter what. The sower is extravagant: he sows his seeds everywhere.
Every day we must make ourselves receptive to what Christ has to say and to the good things that Christ wants to give us. We’re surrounded by snowflakes, we’re surrounded by stars. We live surrounded by the beauty of creation, we live now in God’s coming kingdom. We need to tend the soil of our hearts so that we might receive and understand and then yield back to Christ the many good things he has given us.