The instructions make it look so easy: you get the seeds, you get the dirt, you take it home, add water, and, bam! A month to six months later, you are the proud owner of [fill in the blank plant].
I don’t know about you, but the plants never work out that way!
Still, in a world where the agricultural world of planting and harvesting drove the economy, and the schedule, the crowd gathered around Jesus as he launches into the Parable of the Sower would’ve easily understood what it mean to be a sower and plant seeds. And more than likely, they would’ve been good at it or known someone who was.
So the disciples are there with Jesus, and so are large crowds that again drove Jesus off the shore into a boat. We know that the Pharisees, the religious leaders who are already not fond of Jesus are lurking there, too, and Jesus begins to tell the story that has become as popular outside of the church as it has inside it.
See, often, the parable becomes about the knowledge. If you ‘get’ the good knowledge, if the seed arrives correctly and takes root, you end up achieving a higher level of consciousness. But seriously, this is Jesus we’re talking about, and he’s all about grace when it comes to faith and such.
A few years ago, I retold the story this way: “the kingdom of God is like…”A teacher cultivated his lessons, having adapted the information that was necessary for knowledge, wisdom, and success. He spoke passionately and without exception to his classes, regardless of the reception he received. Some of his lessons fell on deaf ears, where students were allowed to sleep in the back of class, and others chose to be distracted by their cellphones and laptops. Others appeared intent on listening, but failed to truly engage the material, as their purpose there was driven solely by their parents’ wishes. When springtime came, they quickly found other distractions, and failed to continue coming to class. Some of the students longed to listen and to learn, but their relationships with certain other students caused them to become distracted, to ignore their studies, and to skip class when they were encouraged to do so. But some of the lessons were heard by the ears of receptive students, who worked hard, sought additional help, and continued to prosper in school, and life, grasping the opportunities presented to them.”
So, maybe it’s not about the seed, because, thanks to the Gospel of John, we know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” The seed gets scattered everywhere, right? It’s that “whole world” image again.
And then, we find ourselves getting dirty. Or digging in the dirt. Or, if you’re dirt-phobic, at least examining the different kinds of dirt. Which, for me, ends up feeling like I’m standing in the aisle looking at Pennington grass seed.
(Did you know there’s dense shade, fescue, Kentucky bluegrass (it must leave after one year), perennial rye, sun & shade, tall fescue, midwest, northeast, Pacific Northwest, and, my favorite based on its laser-like precision, Pennsylvania State?)
Thankfully, for the sake of the argument in the parable, Jesus gives us four places, four types of soil where the seed falls. And this, I want to propose, is the point of the parable: what kind of dirt are you?
The first kind of dirt isn’t dirt at all, it’s the path. And then the birds eat the seeds.
Or maybe, it’s the squirrels. Seriously, I don’t know if they had squirrels in ancient Israel, but in my backyard, the birdseed has hardly been scattered or put in the bird feeder before the squirrels are chowing down to save up for… whenever. Either way, this seed doesn’t have a chance of making it into the ground because it hardly makes it out of the bag it came home in! But I digress..
These folks in our first category hear about Jesus but it never really sinks in. Maybe they got invited to church once, or someone actually got them to show up and check everything out. But for whatever reason, they looked around and didn’t see anything that looked like it was for them, so they never went back. They never opened a Bible to check out what the stories really meant, or why the preacher thought it meant that. They never received the good news of Jesus Christ that was meant to make them whole, and wanted, and redeemed. They were left in the world they came from with the problems they had there, and those problems, and probably the day-to-day grind of their lives, made them forget the ‘seed’ before it ever had a chance to take root.
They might lack the discipline to get themselves out of bed and get up for church, or the lifestyle they lead may hinder them from cutting free of those old habits to form new ones.
These folks practically forgot that Jesus loves them before the chorus to the song is over. It just never mattered.
The second kind of dirt is rocks mixed with soil. It grows up quickly but as soon as the summer sun rises, the plants that have grown from this seed wither and die. And Jesus emphasizes that these plants had no roots. These seed-to-plants actually have a chance.
I sometimes see this dirt as a child or young person introduced to Jesus, but it could be an older person as well. The seed, the good news, lands in the dirt but there are other things, ‘rocks,’ that clutter up the landscape and keep the seed from taking root.
We can all think of things that get in the way of faith, right? There’s the disapproving family member, whether it’s a parent or a spouse, who demands we spend our time in a different way or at the very least, discourages us from continuing with such foolishness. There are less manipulative causes or ‘rocks,’ like job schedules, lack of transportation, and family responsibilities.
Sometimes, it’s as casual as a break in the schedule, like summer vacation, or it’s as malignant as an addiction that leads to other lifestyle implosions that ripple out to whether a person attends small group discipleship or worship.
But the what-could-be gets replaced by the what-is, and when push comes to shove, when the sun shines, that dirt doesn’t have staying power.
The third kind of dirt is mixed with thorns. The plants grow as they should but the things that grow with them, the thorns, ultimately “choke out” the life from these plants before they mature finally. Thorns in themselves seem more malicious; when you touch a thorn, it hurts! And so, this dirt is the one that causes me to shake my head as I consider it.
Here, the seed has fallen into dirt that welcomes it. There is life here! There is change. The power of God’s grace impacts a person and they see that they are loved and accepted and welcomed.
But there are thorns.
Maybe the person comes to faith in a loving, family environment and appreciates the good news of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. But when they grow up, they experience the internal politics of the church and see people whom they have idolized in a new light, and it shakes their faith; or maybe they move away and go to a different church that doesn’t do it the same way they experienced church growing up or doesn’t welcome them in the same way, and it causes them to flounder.
Maybe the person comes to faith without ever really wrestling with questions that go deeper than a Sunday School faith. Maybe they never asked questions or they never were given the opportunity to because the church they went to encouraged a ‘holy bubble’ and now, faced with a higher education degree or discussions with friends, doubts have arisen that leave this kind of ‘dirt’ with nowhere to go.
Maybe their faith is strong throughout a quiet, incident free maturation process but when tragedy strikes, they wonder why God would do these things, putting all the bad things on God that have happened and leaving no room for free will or grace.
Pastor and author Hugh Halter says that people reach the point where simply proclaiming ‘Jesus loves you’ doesn’t penetrate “the rocky soil of a heart that’s been scarred by repulsive religion and the agony of a hard life.” Okay then, so what can possibly impact that?
The fourth kind of dirt is “good soil,” that produces a crop that multiplies itself.
Finally, this kind of dirt is good and it causes the seed, the good news of Jesus Christ to take root in the person’s life and to spread in its impact to others. This person is a disciple who gets God’s grace and wants to share it with others. Remember, they heard the same news that the others received; the seed itself was the same. But the nature of the soil and the nurture the soil it received impacted the way that the seed grew.
Not only did this seed come to fruition in terms of the ‘plant’ growing but it continued to pollinate the area. It continued to spread the gospel, the seed, so that others grew as well.
When I was younger, maybe ten to twelve, I found a patch of dirt near my house that seemed to me to be a perfect place for a garden. I didn’t know the first thing about gardening then! But I knew that it would look nice if I could plant some flowers there, that my parents walked by and so did other adults, and it was near the bus stop. So I started re-arranging the rocks, digging up the buried stones and debris in the area, and other adults started to ask me what I was doing.
Of course, a few of the adults had to point out how it wouldn’t work because the soil was unusable. But, I was ten and stubborn. (I’m older… but still stubborn.) So I kept working on the area for a few hours each weekend and sometimes after school. And things started to change.
Then one neighbor donated a whole box full of bulbs, and some seeds. Another gave me ten dollars to buy a plant that was more ‘ready made’ to be planted. My parents chipped in with a pair of gloves for gardening and some more plants.
And suddenly, this unusable soil started to shift and change. This area that I had seen as right for a garden actually became a garden. But the thistles and the stones had to be removed first, and right amount of sun had to be allowed for, and what was once rocky, or weed-filled, or too whatever became perfect soil for my seeds.
But Jesus goes on this little sidebar: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’[a] Wow! That could be about us today, couldn’t it? We see but we don’t perceive, we hear but we don’t receive. We watch but we don’t recognize. Jesus is warning the disciples, the men bold enough to ask the questions, that just because you show up doesn’t mean you get the full show. You have to put in the work: you have to get dirty, put your hands in, plow, plant, weed.
That’s the beauty of dirt. It can lie fallow and unused and go from toxic to fertile; it can go rocky and thorn-filled to luscious and deep.
Soil can change. And so can we.
Which leaves me this realization: when it comes to the gospel, it doesn’t matter so much what kind of soil you are as it does what kind of soil do you want to be?
I pray today that, if you aren’t already, that you’ll allow God to cultivate you into being good dirt.