The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Susanna and I sometimes joke that the ¾ of an acre of land we live on is cursed. We wonder if it is poisoned with radioactive waste from Sandia Labs. Maybe we’re just bad gardeners. But in fairness to us, in some places the soil is so rocky that even the weeds don’t have a chance against the scorching sun. In other places the caliche clay is so dense that the roots of the poor trees we have foolishly planted there eventually hit a brick wall and stop growing. I’m astounded at how much soil improvement and water it takes to make a plant just survive here, let alone grow in size.
I’ve been to Israel. The land there is strikingly similar to ours, so those who originally heard the scriptures we heard today also knew about harsh growing conditions.
What is attempting to grow in the scriptures for today is not tomatoes or chiles, however, but “the word of God.” Isaiah writes about God’s word that comes down like rain and snow, watering the earth, bringing forth seed and bread. Jesus speaks about the word falling on harsh land, producing nothing, or on good soil, resulting in a generous bounty. What are they talking about?
We usually associate the term “word of God” with actual words – the Bible. But for the Jewish people, the “word of God” was far more than the biblical text. The word was God’s own expression of self to all creation. The word was God’s wisdom handed down from generation to generation. The word was the sense of justice that God expects of us. The word was the inner light in each person that, later on, the Quakers made so much of. The word was creation itself, the fullest possible expression of the Creator. Everything that God communicates is “the word.”
The Jews weren’t the only ones who talked about the word. The Greeks had this understanding of word, or logos, that was similar. For them, the logos was the divine order of harmony in creation, and the reason that human beings share with God. And so when the author of John called Jesus the Logos, the Word made flesh, he was saying that everything that God had previously expressed about God’s own self, everything that God had communicated through creation and reason, was now manifested in Jesus himself.
It is this full self-expression of the Creator, that is meant by the term “word.” The readings today tell us that God spreads this word like seeds, like rain and snow, intending for it to take root and grow, so that all of creation and every person in it would manifest God’s wisdom, harmony, and truth, just like Jesus.
And so when Jesus talks about “the word of the kingdom” trying to grow in various types of soil, he is saying that God is trying to grow in you, in me, in all of creation. Like a generous sower, a heavenly Johnny Appleseed, God goes about all of creation, continually spreading the seeds of wisdom, beauty, mercy, and justice. But what kind of soil do these seeds fall upon, and will they bear fruit?
Jesus first speaks of a hard-packed pathway, where the word falls and is immediately snatched up by “the evil one.” Jesus says that this is the person with no understanding, the person whose mind is closed and whose heart is hardened to the things of God. Such people – some of them Christians - have no curiosity about God, no desire to learn the ways of God, no capacity to reflect and wonder. They already know everything they need to know, and nothing can penetrate them. God will still try to reach them – through the beauty of creation, the cry for justice that wells up from the people of the earth, and the wisdom of the ages – but their hearts are hardened. God’s seed cannot grow.
This is the hardened heart and closed mind of the politician, the religious extremist or the average Joe on the street whose minds are set on one thing: it may be a model of economic prosperity, it may be religious or moral beliefs that they use as a weapon against others, it may be a sense of tribal or national identity. Whatever it is, this one thing hardens the heart and closes down understanding, and God’s self-expression, the word of mercy and justice and hope, cannot get in. From God’s point of view, there is no fruit produced.
Then Jesus speaks of those who might initially receive God’s word with joy, but have no root, no depth, and when things get difficult, their faith withers up and dies. This is the person who is attracted to spiritual wisdom because it is appealing, but they don’t pursue it. They don’t follow it into their own depths to find out what it might teach them. They may read the Bible, they may attend church, but they never let it soak in very far.
And so when they hear Jesus say “forgive your enemies,” it doesn’t occur to them that this word might apply to their situation. When they are offered opportunities to learn how to pray, they don’t take advantage of them. They don’t read the Bible and meditate on its paradoxes and the way it challenges our assumptions. They don’t try to penetrate the symbolic mystery of the church’s theology and sacraments. They don’t ever do the hard work of learning to trust in something beyond themselves that they can’t see or understand.
Jesus says that the worst thing about these religious tourists is that they suffer when hard times come. With no depth of spiritual soil, they have nothing to fall back upon when their marriage falls apart, they become seriously ill or someone they love suffers or dies senselessly. Their faith withers in the scorching sun, and they suffer.
Jesus then addresses the kind of soil that is perhaps most familiar to us, the kind that is so crowded with the thorny cares and lures of the world, that God’s self-expression is choked, strangled before it has a chance to grow. This is the busy, anxious, distracted tendency that St. Paul warns against in the second reading today, when our “minds are set on the things of the flesh” instead of the things of the Spirit. No time for poetry, no time for walks in the woods, no space to wonder and appreciate.
Well, all of this would be bad news indeed if the scriptures didn’t hold out the hope of fertile soil. Isaiah wrote about the word watering the earth, accomplishing what God intends, giving God’s people joy and peace. Paul wrote of life and peace that is promised to those who set their minds on the Spirit. Jesus spoke of good soil that brings forth fruit a hundredfold.
It is possible to cultivate good spiritual soil that can receive the abundant seeds that God is continually sowing. If we consider the converse of each of today’s types of bad soil, we see what Jesus considered to be necessary.
First of all, he seems to recommend a softened heart rather than a hardened pathway, a kind of vulnerability that is like earth that has been turned over and exposed to the elements. This means that we stay open to the suffering of the world, to the aching in our own hearts, to the unanswered questions we struggle with. It means that we try to understand others who are most different from us, those who keep our soil turned over. It means that we try to trust even when we have no guarantees, to go forward into uncertainty with faith.
Secondly, Jesus suggests that we develop some depth of insight about the things of the Spirit. Pursue your curiosity, investigate your faith: as it says in the well-beloved Collect of our prayer book “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” Don’t skip over the hard parts of scripture; don’t put aside perplexing things like the Trinity or the fusion of divine and human in the Incarnation. Let the mysteries of the faith puzzle you, allow your assumptions to be challenged; listen and wait. God will take you more deeply into the word.
Finally, in this parable Jesus obviously invites us to leave behind the cares and occupations of this life, so that there is room for the seed of God to grow. Work isn’t everything. Accomplishing tasks and solving problems isn’t everything. We cannot worry things into submission, and there are always going to be loose ends, unresolved conflicts.
Turn to God, who always is. Give thanks, give praise to your Creator and the abundant way God continually spreads the seeds of beauty, harmony, hope, and mercy all around. Set your mind on the Spirit, forgetting for awhile the problems of this world, so that you can smile with a soul that is light and free.
Imagine your heart to be like rich, dark, nutritious soil. Soften it. Dig deeply and keep it turned over. Weed out the choking thorns. Then the purpose of God’s rain and snow that fall from the heavens will be accomplished. We will bear fruit and yield thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold of blessings for ourselves and for everyone and everything we touch.