Good Soil

July 16, 2017/Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


There is a chemistry to good soil, as anyone who has farmed much will tell you.  So it was that when I began taking classes to earn my Master Gardener designation, I found myself sitting through an excruciating three-hour lecture on soil chemistry.  A little background here.  As a young person, I dreamed of going into nursing, but when I realized that would require lots of science, I junked that dream.

When the Greenville Tech professor who was teaching the class on soil science finally ended, she had filled countless flip chart pages with scrawlings and notes that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.  But what did make sense to me was the practical discussion much later in the course about what constitutes good soil.  Good soil holds water so that plants can take it up through their roots, but it also drains well so that those roots don’t drown in soggy soil.  Good soil is a living thing that contains microbes and worms and bacteria that keep soil loose and workable, that welcome plant roots and nurture the plants they support.

Good soil is a beautiful thing.

And it is fiendishly hard to create, if the soil you have is not beautiful.  You can add truckloads of compost to hard clay soil, and the result will be only a minor change in the overall soil composition.  In my own garden, if I can get the shovel into the ground without first using a pickax, I’m happy.  But I’ve also come to accept that the soil that surrounds our house will have a huge impact on what will and will not grow well in our garden.

The gardener in our story this morning has a very different approach.  Without seeming to care where the seed lands, he heads out and strews seeds all over the place.  He is not worried about wasting seed.  He does not seem to focus on where the seed falls.  He just does the work of sowing.

So of course, some of that seed falls in places where the likelihood of producing strong, vibrant plants is pretty slim.  Seed lands on the path; seed drops on rocky ground; seeds fall into the weeds along the edge of the field.  And some of the seeds fall on good soil.  The results are about what you would expect.  The birds feast on the seeds that land in the path.  Scraggly little plants sprout up from the rocky soil, but on the first hot day of summer, they wither and die.  The seeds that land among the weeds barely have a chance before the briers and nutgrass and thorns choke them out completely.

But wherever the seed lands on good soil, the gardener gathers in a bumper crop.  A sevenfold harvest would have been a good year; a tenfold harvest would have represented true abundance.  But this gardener, who casually dropped seed without concern for where it fell, reaps thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold.  That’s a lot of grain – enough to feed a village for a year.  Enough for the gardener to store it away and retire from farming.

This story reminds me of another of Jesus’ gardening stories, found only in Mark:

Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

In both parables, the gardeners appear to work without a lot of attention to detail.  Some people might call them downright lazy.  The gardener from our Matthew text throws seed around with abandon.  The gardener in Mark sleeps away the gardening season, showing no care for the seeds at all.  He doesn’t weed or water or feed the plants; like our gardener in Matthew, he simply shows up for the harvest.

No wonder the disciples were confused.  In the verses we did not read this morning, they ask Jesus why he “speaks to them in parables.”  Presumably, they wondered why Jesus did not just say exactly what he meant.  And even after Jesus provided the disciples with their own little “Cliff’s Notes” on the story of the sower, they probably still weren’t too sure what was going on.  Because now the sower was the messenger of God, and the seed was God’s word, and God’s word was being thrown all over the place.

Think like a farmer for a minute.  A farmer sows seed in soil that he has carefully prepared, taking care not to waste any of it.  Seed costs money, and no farmer in his right mind will toss seed around without a care for where it falls.  That would be extravagant.

But God does not seem to mind being our being extravagant in sowing the word.  “The sower does not 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 a preacher knows the quality of the soil before sowing.”[1]  That is not our job.  Our job is, quite simply, to sow.  To spread the word.  To plant the seed and leave the cultivation and feeding to God.

The sower’s “yields are miraculous because, ultimately, all growth comes from God.  Faith is a gift from God, and fruitful discipleship is the work of God in us.”[2]  We may never know the results of our work in sowing the word of God.  We may believe that we are miserable failures, that nothing we say bears fruit, that all of our work and effort is for nothing.  We may think everything we do lands on rocky soil.  But God calls us to spread the word extravagantly.  God wants us to be “high-risk sowers, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all the soil – as if it were all potentially good soil.  On the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, maybe even in a jail!”[3]  God wants us to trust that the word will grow and flourish, in ways and in places we cannot understand.  For that, we give thanks to God.

[1] Gary Peluso-Verdend, Feasting on the Word A/3, 238

[2] Ibid., 240

[3] Theodore J. Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word A/3, 241

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