Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
"Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."
We planted a full garden this year for the first time ever. We have tomatoes, cucumbers (pickle and eating), eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, watermelon, hubbard squash, honeydew, cantaloupe, peppers, red and green cabbage, lettuce, swiss chard, spinach. sunflowers, turnips, kale, basil, carrots, cilantro, rhubarb, raspberries, and, let’s not forget, pumpkins. Giant pumpkins.
All this in a backyard that measures 15x25 feet.
Buying seeds this spring, there were two things I didn’t expect: first, the price. I was surprised how much it cost us to buy seeds for most of those plants. Seeds don’t come cheap. Second (and the gardeners among you have figured this out by now), I didn’t anticipate how BIG all these things would get! Our backyard is full of of greenery and yellow flowers, just packed to the gills. We can hardly walk now. In another month, we’ll need a machete to get through.
So, clearly, I’m a novice gardener. But I’m nowhere near as novice as the sower in this parable. I prepared my beds of rich soil by turning them over and watering them. We carefully planted the seeds in little cups indoors before transferring them outside. I planned the garden to be in places that receive just the right amount of sunlight and rain.
I did not plant any seeds in the pathway from the house to the chicken run. I did not plant any seeds in the chicken run (chickens love seeds - and anything green). I didn’t plant any seeds on our driveway or sidewalk. I didn’t plant any seeds on the north side of our house that receives no sun. And I didn’t plant any seeds on the south side of the garage that is covered with rocks and receives all sun. I was not going to waste a single one of those precious seeds. It was all I could do to thin the carrots and lettuce.
Yet here we have this story that Jesus tells, this parable, in which the sower casts the seeds indiscriminately, with no apparent concern for where they end up. What kind of wasteful gardener is this!? What kind of deep pockets are behind this type of sowing!? As Jesus goes on to explain, nearly three-quarters of the seed never bears fruit.
Scholars debate the value of the seed that does bear fruit. The majority these days say that yields of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold are average to above average. Others argue that this is a magnificent, miraculous yield far beyond anything possible.
What they don’t debate is the waste of seed. Whether in our day or 2,000 years ago, seed was a most precious commodity. And yet here is the sower casting it carelessly on every type of ground.
It’s like the wise sage, maybe an aunt, uncle, or friend, who came along and offered you some career advice early on because of the gifts that person saw in you and what they knew about the world after years of experience. In pride and stubborn independence, you couldn’t, or wouldn’t even consider taking such advice. Seeds sown, seeds wasted.
It’s like friend you made for awhile. The two of you were close. But then she took an unpopular public stand. Or he befriended someone you couldn’t stand. That which was once valuable passed away. Seeds sown, seeds wasted.
It’s like your zeal for changing the world, be it by eradicating poverty, ending homelessness, creating beauty, saving the environment, or fighting for justice. That was all well and good for awhile, but then the practical affairs of living life got in the way: bills to pay, family to take care of, politics, the law. A little change happened, but never a full yield. Seeds sown, seeds wasted.
Yet the Divine, the Universe, God, the Great Mystery, the Wasteful Sower, continues to fling seed at us, hoping some will stick and start and grow and bear fruit. The great 20th-century mystical theologian Thomas Merton writes:
“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in her or his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men and women. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”
Carl Gregg goes on to comment: “Merton is inviting us to see that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when God or a human evangelist sows a seed about God. Rather, everything at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with life-giving spiritual import. This claim is not to say that everything that happens is good or controlled by God; instead it is to say that the sort of soil that we are — good or bad, rock-filled or thorn-infested — in each arising present moment effects how we receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us and within us.”
In other words, why is it when that sage advice comes around again later in life we accept and relish it with joy? Why is that when a friend challenges you the next time, you learn from it and grow and the friendship deepens? Why is it that when another chance comes along to change the world, you leap at and cling to the work like your life depended on it until it’s finished?
Because then, we are receptive soil. Our lives, in Merton’s words, are open with “freedom, spontaneity, and love.” The seeds are always raining down from the Wasteful Sower. And finally, by God’s grace, we are not too attached to our ego or to the bottle or to needing to maintain appearances or to a certain lifestyle. We are ready. We are free, spontaneous, and loving. We read a book we’ve read before, and suddenly it’s meaning is clear and forceful. We choose to give up an addiction we’ve tried to give up before, and this time it sticks and a new day dawns. We sing a song we’ve sung a hundred times before, and this day it brings us to our knees with tears in our eyes. Grace, pure grace, and a yield that is a hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold. The seed sticks, grows, and bears fruit. Whether that yield is average or way beyond normal, seeds bearing fruit is ever a miracle.
As we consider and prepare the soil of our lives, the soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love, take heart also in the fact that no matter what kind of soil we are at any given moment, God is still working. Remember this, too, when trying to live with challenging friends, family members, and coworkers. You and I might not waste our efforts on the downtrodden, the thorny, and the hardened, but God does.
And even in my well-planned garden, tomatoes are springing up on the pathways, cilantro is growing up between the cracks in the cement, and snapdragons push up among the weeds.