June 16, 2009

The Parable of the Soils

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
So as you all know, I've not been at a steady job of late because, well, I can't seem to find one. I'm sure that some of the blame goes to the economy for the lack of new jobs, but I'm starting to wonder if in our season of need, God's been closing doors for a reason. But God is good, and He takes care fo us even when we can't; we've got a wonderful family, and to that end, my grandparents have "hired" us to garden for them. As they've gotten older, they've had a harder time taking care of my Grossmami's addiction to all things green and flowering - she's literally surrounded the house with one big garden, which, over time, has become somewhat an extension of the yard. So our job has been to turn it back into a viable garden again. And wouldn't you know it, as we've had time to talk, I've been learning a lot, things my seminary career never taught me. As Morgan Freeman says in Bruce Almighty, "people underestimate the value of manual labor." I am no exception.

What came to mind has been this parable in Matthew 13, where Jesus describes a gardener (ok, farmer) that goes out to plant his crops and what happens in the garden after the farmer walks away. And let me tell you, when my grandparents walked away (so to speak), their garden started to look an awful lot like three of the four types of soil in this parable.

The garden is so wide that in one area, my grandparents had to put down a small path to get to their tomato plants and currant bushes. The path is made of several stone pads and some packed dirt. Wouldn't you know it though, nothing grew there, even in the packed dirt which, when we tilled it, was otherwise healthy and fertile. The idea of a "hardened heart" makes a bit more sense to me now. As the metaphor goes, the person's attitudes (their "heart") become very monotone, very set; you can't convince them of anything new! God can't plant the seeds of wisdom or knowledge or anything in a hardened heart ... but give it a good till (assuming it's not hard as stone) and suddenly all sorts of things can grow. Also, you now have to weed carefully.

I can't say that we've encountered any thorny soil yet (it is, after all, a garden), but the whole of the place might be a good example of why weeding the thorns out is a good idea to do sooner rather than later. The more weeds that grew in the garden, the more obvious it was that there was competition for nutrients; the garden plants weren't producing as many flowers or as many new bulbs as when they had freedom to expand. Lots of the newer seedlings of the garden plants were weak, small, and flimsy; they were easy to take out, but I hope they'll grow strong now that they have room to expand. The longer you go, the bigger and deeper the thorny plants get, and eventually take over completely. Ironically, all it takes is some weed killer to take them out, but the weed killer takes out both the weeds and the few good plants that are left. But still, we have to remember that good soil is REQUIRED for the thorny soil; remove the thorns (whose roots often go deep), give it some time, and the soil will be ready to plant good seed. Think of those people who have begun to recover from addictions; often, their lives are somewhat empty for a while as they remove the thorns and struggle not to let new thorns take over. But they are often the most fertile soil of all, and once the thorns are removed and the good seeds planted, they become extremely fruitful fields.

Today we spent two and a half hours weeding a small patch of ground. In the center was a large bush full of flowers, but around it, very rocky soil. The parable mentions rocky ground being a place where weeds spring up and then wither and die because their roots never get very deep. This is true - we discovered that the weeds came up really easily, but the shrub we couldn't budge (good thing) because its roots were very deep and very wide. The rocky soil is a problem, not only because seeds grow without depth and die, but because turning it into good soil is nearly impossible. As I said, two and a half hours spent on maybe three square feet of ground, and we barely made a dent in the number of pebbles mixed in the surface dirt. In order for this patch to become good soil for healthy, useful crops, it would require literally pulling away everything on the surface, a total transplant of the upper layers. I've heard of this happening before - remember Paul? But it's not an easy thing, nor is it terribly economical (God had to blind Paul in order to 'exchange the soil,' so to speak), but it IS possible, and often it can be worth it.

It's a parable about discipleship, and I understand why it was that Jesus cautions his audience about what they're up against. Matthew, for one, loved to tell the parables of Jesus that had missionary implications; a person could spend a LOT of time tilling ground and weeding and removing rocks or thorns before good soil might bear crops with fruit. Sometimes I worry that we use the parable as an excuse to just avoid those people who don't look like "fertile" fields to us. Something that Jesus never quite mentions in the parable is that any field ALWAYS starts out like one of those three soils; there's no such thing as a perfect field that's born ready for planting. It starts out with weeds and rocks and sometimes stone paths; it takes work and dedication and love to produce a fertile field on which to sow the good seed.

The question is, do we give everyone that chance?


Rob said...

I think one other point that could come out of this is the very ease of weeds. Living out in Columbus, where the growing season is much longer than it ever was in "did you enjoy your one day of Spring?" Rochester, I've become quite aware of this fact.

Actually, two points. First, weeds can grow much more quickly, and easily, than plants. Considering the effort required just to plant, which usually involves an entire business which has properly prepared plants to be taken home by non-green thumbs like me, it is amazing how easily weeds can grow. Like our sin it is much easier to grow weeds than a fruitful life. Also, weeds don't ever appear to be something big. We even are able to judge our lawns against others and say "hey my weeds aren't as bad as that loner up the street, his yard sucks!" Heck, most of my weeds are quite small. However, they can quickly cover a great amount (I presently have a ton of little weeds scattered about)and inhibit the ease of growth of the plants. So, you can have a situation where your plant is not so much choked off by thorns as a bunch of small little weeds. Also, if you think about it, those little weeds can inhibit the fruitfulness or beauty of your plant. You might possess a little bit of fruit, but will the person looking at your garden instead see the mountain of weeds surrounding it? Weeds also carry the risk of becoming something far greater. Meghan actually helped by weeding out one particular area where the weed had become bush sized (I've been busy inside trying to get everything organized for a trip to London).

One other point that this makes me think of is the nature of weeds as in locale. If it is true, as you suggest, that we all inhabit our particular plot of earth, we also are predisposed to certain types of weeds. One need not be a Christian to believe this. Psychologists suggest there is a strong correlation between abuse or alcoholism in a parent and the resulting behavior in their child. These little weeds I think all come from the gardens from my neighbors (those sinners! :-P ), but in talking with them these weeds are also just the nature of gardening in Ohio. Similarly, I think we need to recognize that certain rocks or weeds might be more common to those in different situations. In reference to your point about whether or not we give someone with an untilled field a chance, it might be helpful to recognize that a person might struggle with certain things. As we develop a relationship we can start to look past those certain rocks as a specific defect and more like an obstacle that they (or Satan) have put in the way of them and God.

Also, whenever this parable is mentioned (I think also the one about the gardener and the house...I'd have to look it up) I think of Cudsu. That weed really gets across the dangers of the plant (think of entire buildings covered in the stuff) but also I think has a spiritual import. Part of the reason cudsu is so dangerous is that it is not part of the natural environment. It is not *meant* to be there. As such, it can grow without abandon as there is no natural check. In the same manner, sin, as it is not part of the God-ordained make-up of our humanity, the world or our relationship with Him, can grow unchecked if there isn't something "un-natural" (God) to check it.

Dan said...

Rob- you make some good points. I'm not sure what it will add to the discussion, or what the analogy would be, but Kudzu was originally brought over to keep soil from eroding away. And it worked perfectly, until it started taking over....
Also, Chris, I think of the time and dedication and perseverance it takes to garden or foster spiritual change in someone else. We give up much too easily and the change that could be, never happens.
Still praying you'll find a good, fulfilling job soon! But, am glad your family cares so much for you- that is a blessing!

Anonymous said...

Your point at the end goes right back to the very first sentence of this parable "A farmer went out to sow his seed." This story would place the failure or success solely on the farmer and his or her ability to choose the best spot to plant the seed. But what about the inherent viability of the seed (seeds can be dead or have fatal abnormalities, or they could be the wrong variety for the climate) or the weather (my garden is in shambles at the present because of 3 successive hail storms in 8 days)? Are the seeds ideas or people? Is the farmer God or other people? Here's the real question: Why doesn't Jesus just come right out and say what he means? It's a nice story about seeds and a farmer. It's actually quite useful as a cautionary agricultural tale. But for something so important as imparting wisdom about the Christian life, it's pretty fuzzy.
-A. Annie