June 14, 2017: Agricultural Cardiology
It is one of the more familiar stories that Jesus told and seems reasonably straightforward on first reading. A farmer sowed some seeds and they took root, or didn’t, depending on where they landed. Later, when Jesus explains the parable to His closest disciples, He tells them the seed is “the word.” We’re not told what the words are but let’s presume it’s about encouraging us to be nicer to one another. Following that line of thought, then, it could be that Jesus is giving words of advice to three sorts of people: those who just can’t be nice at all (that would be the hard soil, right?), those who start off nice but then turn out to be mean after all (that would take care of the rocks and thorns) and those who take Jesus’ advice seriously and learn how to be nicer (the good soil). These are the people that Jesus must love best of all! Honestly, if that’s what this parable is teaching, then, frankly, I am a little depressed and discouraged.
Jesus’ clue to really unlocking this parable is all about our understanding of “the word.” John’s Gospel take us right back to the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). So according to John, it’s not “what” is being sprinkled but “who” is being sprinkled. The seed being sown here is not advice on being a better person or little fortune cookie nuggets of wisdom on how to live a good life. What (or more accurately, who) is being sown is the person of Jesus Himself.
So if Jesus is the seed, how should we interpret the types of soil in the field? Is Jesus talking about distinct groups of people that are either receptive to him or not? In fact, this parable has much more to do with cardiology than botany. These places that are described in the field are not distinct types of people but places that exist within our own hearts. We all have all of these different types of soil in our hearts. They exist contiguously within us. This field is the ongoing condition of our hearts where Jesus is continually breaking up the rocks and the hard places, removing the weeds and thorns, and then plowing His presence into our lives.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick tour around our own hearts. In Jesus’ day, the fields in Palestine were in the form of long, narrow strips. The strips of land were divided by little grass paths which provided access for everyone to the field. With all this traffic, these little paths were beaten down and the soil underfoot became as hard as stone. Any seed that landed here just ricocheted off the path!
I recall a time in my life when I had nothing personally against Jesus as long as He stayed in His place. I think that it is just this sort of indifference that Jesus was targeting when He talked about hard soil. How might our hearts develop this sort of indifference? Like that little pathway, maybe we have been trodden upon just too many times. Is there a part of our hearts that is still hanging on to those hurts and leaving a hard place?
If we take a Palestinian farm as our model, the rocky soil didn’t mean this part of the field was just full of stones. What Jesus was referring to is a narrow skin of earth over a shelf of limestone rock. Much of Galilee was like that. Seed that fell upon this meager two inches of soil germinated and would begin to sprout. But because the soil was so shallow and held so little nourishment and moisture, the heat of the sun soon withered the plant and it didn’t bear grain.
When I was first getting to know Jesus a little better a friend of mine lent me a cassette tape of worship songs and I played it in the car. The songs were full of lyrics that spoke about the majesty of Jesus, and His incredible mercy and goodness. Frankly, they made me cringe. I was attempting to fit God into about two inches of soil and what sprung up from that place was not strong. It took Jesus to penetrate into the deeper soil of my heart for worship to begin to take on a new reality. What I thought was “cringing,” I now see as Jesus detonating the limestone of my heart to get to deeper soil.
And the thorns? The practice was to cut off, or sometimes burn, just the top of the weeds. We know this is only a temporary fix because below the surface the weed’s roots are still very much alive and, in fact, grow stronger through this pruning process. They grow with such deadly strength that they literally choke the life out of the seed. Jesus explained to the disciples that the thorns and weeds refer to “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19a) that come in and choke His life in us. None of us intend for this to happen. My experience is that weeds and thorns grow up not because we woke up one morning and in an instant decided to buy a new car or book an exotic vacation and forget all about Jesus. Weeds and thorns sneak in the back door through the busyness of our lives. It is not that we made a conscious decision to avoid Jesus, we just lost sight of Him in our schedules. Distraction would choke His life out of us.
In so far that we have identified any of these three soils in our own hearts then Jesus’ encouragement is to give them over to Him. Here are two thoughts that might encourage us to surrender a bit more of the field to Him. First, if the seed is the person of Jesus, then it follows that the sower is God our Father. It is the Father who has sown Jesus within our hearts. This sowing is done without any recourse to us. We did nothing to merit this action; it is simply what the Father has chosen to do. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:9) And the extravagance of the Father’s love lies not only in His choice to sow but also in the method of His sowing. Maybe we imagined a hand delicately sprinkling seed from a basket. That was not how Jesus’ listeners pictured the action of sowing. In Jesus’ day, they would have taken a large sack of seed, cut a hole in the corner and then tied that open sack to the back of a donkey. As the donkey was led up and down the field, the seed was not so much sprinkled but liberally poured out — not a just a little bit here and a little bit there, but an abundance and overflow of seed. My point is that the Father has sown Jesus liberally into our hearts.
Second, the sort of seed that the Father is sowing is imperishable. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23) However “hard, rocky or thorny” we may be today, the Father has imperishable seeds for all the contours of our hearts. It is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to break up the hard parts of our heart and to clear away the rocks and the thorns so that we can know more of the fullness of Jesus. Our part is to invite Him in to do just that. That any of us may even imagine that any of these soils could be ours is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work there.
And if this seed is liberally sown and imperishable, do we have any concept of what a harvest we are in for? Jesus ended the parable this way: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it and produce a crop, thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20).
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