The Surprising Harvest of Goodness
Jul 16, 2023
As least once every summer the Gospel lesson lends itself to me talking about the community garden on the other side of the parking lot. I’ve been among the gardeners for as long as this ministry has been happening, so some years I’ve mentioned the too wet, or two dry, soil conditions. One year, the soil was negatively impacted by bad compost (or what we thought was compost) and the harvest was way below the usual number of pounds. Last summer, though, was a great year with more than 2000 pounds from our gardens donated to the OPEN M Food Pantry.
This year we’re off to a good start in spite of the early lack of rain. Already the harvest is plentiful, with more than 100 pounds of mostly greens and beets being delivered to OPEN M last week. That’s the goal of any farming/gardening enterprise, an abundant harvest. It is what Jesus had in mind when he told the Parable of the Sower.
However, the Sower of this parable is much different from most farmers and gardeners who are as thoughtful and intentional as possible when it comes to planting the seed. Basically, this farmer is throwing the seed all over the place. The modern-day equivalent, according to commentator Scott Hoezee, is a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the switch to activate the planter even before he was out of the driveway.
There he is, describes Professor Hoezee, putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies in the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy, thorny patch with the corn seed still flying from that planter that has been switched on too early. (1)
It’s doubtful that a modern-day farmer would be so careless in the planting of valuable seed. And, even if first century fields in Palestine were not as pristine and 21st century fields in Nebraska, it still seems as if the Sower in this parable is being none-too-careful while scattering the seed. Could it be that is, in part, the point of this allegory? As Commentator Chelsea Harmon notes God is the generous Sower, the seed is the word of the Kingdom, and the Sower (God) is depicted as being more concerned about the seed getting out than making sure it lands in the places where its chances are maximized for success. (2) In other words, not all the soil is “good soil”, at least not immediately, but still the seed is thrown onto it.
As Jesus explains the parable, he notes that the first soil represents people who hear but fail to understand the message of God. By the way, that word we translate “understand” is not just to know what is being said, but to grasp something that challenges one’s thinking and to change one’s actions or way of life. So, it seems that the people represented by this soil refuse to hear or to allow the seed to challenge, nurture or heal hardened hearts. Also, as if to assure that this is the case, the power of evil (represented by the birds) snatches away any opportunity for the seed, that is God’s word, to sink in.
The second type of soil represents people who are receptive to the message, but their enthusiasm fades when they must face challenges due to their faith. These folks struggle when the good news is not a promise of an easy road, and they do not want the work that comes with cultivating its presence. They do not want their lives or way of thinking to be challenged; their faith is superficial.
The third soil is filled with thorns, that is, those things that can hinder growth of faith – anxiety, difficulties, greed – that take over and are more deeply rooted in a person than the things of God.
Finally, there is the fourth type of soil, the good soil, that receives God’s word, will and ways, responds, and produces a bountiful harvest of hope, forgiveness and justice in the world.
As we hear this parable, perhaps for the 100th time for some of us, the question we face is this: in our space and time, what do seed-devouring birds, or lack of roots or suffocating thorns look like? What are the things that negatively impact people’s receiving God’s Good News?
The list is long and includes experiences that lead to discouragement. I’m thinking not only of the challenges of day-to-day life – material needs, broken relationships, illness, death - but also negative words and behaviors by those who are followers of Jesus that can cause those seeking meaning and purpose to turn away from the church and from Jesus.
Recently an acquaintance of mine posted this question on Facebook: “Why do those who are not followers of Jesus often act as if they are followers of Jesus, while those who say they are, do not?” Thankfully, that’s not true of the majority of Christians, but it’s true enough that the question is raised.
That’s why it is so important that we find ways to encourage and sustain faith, seek justice and challenge the violence, prejudice and narrow thinking that endanger the development of good soil to receive the seed of God’s word.
It’s important to note, though, that the Sower does not stop sowing. Who knows at what point soil will be transformed? Just think of our church garden several years ago when the soil was so compromised that nothing grew or, at least, grew well. With persistence, research and what was literally dirty work, the soil was transformed, and now the harvest is lush. The same thing can happen among us, and those we encounter.
So, what we do as God’s “assistant Sowers” matters. What we do and say makes a difference. The soil of people’s hearts can change, and our own too, since, like the church garden, sometimes are better than others when it comes to being good soil in which the seed of God’s word can flourish.
Finally, though, we must acknowledge that the success of the seeds is all about grace, which is why the Farmer keeps sowing them in seemingly unfertile ground. The seed of grace – of God’s unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, empowerment – can find a way into the hardest, shallowest and most thorn infested places of people’s lives, transforming it. Then, suddenly, faith is flourishing in abundance and the resulting harvest of goodness surprises us.
So, never hesitate to toss a handful of the seed of God’s grace wherever you go; you may think it will never grow, but, if grace is anything, it is persistent in its desire to flourish in people’s hearts and lives. AMEN