Matthew 13:1-9 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!’
My first thought is that Jesus is describing a really stupid farmer. It’s as if he’s some sort of Johnny Appleseed randomly tossing out seeds as he walks down the road. Farmers don’t do this. They prepare plots of land to put seeds in. I imagine this farmer’s field is the ugliest piece of land you’ve ever seen. It has a path going through the middle of it. There’s rocky ground, a lot of thorns and maybe a little patch of good soil somewhere in a distant corner.
Much of the world probably does farm land that looks like this. I’ve seen pictures of land that a community in El Salvador farms that is “mulched” with rocks. That same field is on the side of a mountain at an incredibly steep incline. In fact, one of the leading causes of death for farmers worldwide is from falling out of their field. It’s hard to understand what that means until you see some of these fields.
Chapter 13 in Matthew is a series of parables (two of which are interpreted by Jesus himself) most of which are agricultural. Often these parables fly right by us, because we are so disconnected from the life of farmers and practices of agriculture. This should concern us, both that we are so far removed from the earth and life God intended and also that this separates us from the Word of God. I don’t advocate basing diets or agriculture entirely on the biblical texts. It is not a dietary guide or manual for sustainable agriculture. Perhaps there is a reason that Jesus came to peasant farmers and spoke their language to reveal something about God.
For the first hearers, I think there would have been instant connections between the agricultural practices and the spiritual implications Jesus draws out later. First the seed falls on the path, not a good place for growing things. The birds swoop and take it away. This reminds me of the commands about gleaning. Jesus explains that this is one who does not understand. Perhaps they don’t understand both the Word of God or how plants grow.
The second seed falls on rocky ground. The plant springs up quickly, because the soil is so shallow. Jesus’ explanation is that it’s like someone who is excited about the gospel, but has no roots. Most people would assume that what a plant looks like above ground tells you how healthy it is. Plants need certain nutrients for root growth early in their life cycle. When they don’t have these nutrients, they can put on a lot of top growth and look like beautiful healthy plants. Later when they have grown too much they can fall over, because they do not have the root growth to support the rapid top growth. I know lots of Christians who are like this. They are very excited about anything with Jesus or a fish symbol on it, but they have no real understanding of Christian history or tradition. Their spiritual life is shallow and those roots cannot support the top growth of churchi-ness that eventually bleeds them dry.
Third the seeds fell among thorns and were out competed by other plants. Jesus compares the thorns to the cares of this world that choke out the word of God. Perhaps we can draw a parallel with industrial agriculture and its concerns with yield and profits. The cares of this world choke out the life in the soil because of these practices. Eventually, as jesus says, it yields nothing.
Finally, seed is sown in good soil and it produces more than anyone expected. The soil is the basis of all life both spiritual and physical. I’ve written about my obsession with compost, even wrote an ode in its honor. The primary benefit of compost is that it adds biological life to the soil. We think of dirt as disgusting and dead, but there is more life in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on the planet. Good soil is full of good bacteria, microbes and fungi that work with plants to make many of the nutrients in the soil available and accessible to the plants. Our churches lack many of these bacteria, microbes and fungi that make the nutrients of the word accessible. The true disciples are those that live in the soil and provide good root growth for those struggling to follow Jesus.
It’s not enough to spiritualize Jesus parables to find their meaning. We have to make the connection between the content of the parables and the content of the interpretation.