Jesus told a parable about our ability to receive a seed from God and produce an abundant harvest. If we are good soil, we’ll be amazed by what is created.
When he moved to a house in Concord, Massachusetts, the great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was particularly thrilled with the orchard. He spent time each morning tending the pear trees, and he did some of his writing in the orchard. He also welcomed his friends there.
Emerson sent some of his pears to the local cattle show and was pleased when he received a visit from the horticultural society. They asked whether they might examine his trees. Emerson was pleased to receive them, but then discovered that they had not come to congratulate him. No, they had come to look at the soil that had produced such lousy pears.1
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the sower. Like members of Emerson’s horticultural society, Jesus associated the success of a crop with the quality of the soil beneath it. Jesus often used parables in his teaching — stories that were based on situations in everyday life and appeared to be quite simple but conveyed a deeper spiritual meaning.
Scholars believe that Jesus used this method of teaching because “it gave vivid, memorable expression to his teachings.” Once you heard a parable, you were not likely to forget it. This method also “led those who heard to reflect on [Jesus’] words and bear responsibility for their decision to accept or oppose his [teachings].”2 Parables are not “preachy” or full of harsh commandments. Instead, they present their message through stories that you are invited to accept or reject.
“Listen!” said Jesus the teacher to his followers. “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 and were scorched by the sun. Other seeds fell among thorns and were choked to death. But still “other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Simple enough. But what exactly does this parable mean? Since Jesus was probably not a member of the Galilean horticultural society, it’s safe to assume that he was not giving advice about how best to grow grain. Jesus was using the parable to teach a deeper spiritual truth about our ability to receive a seed from God and produce an abundant harvest. If we are good soil, suggested Jesus, we’ll be amazed at what is created — a harvest that produces seeds a hundred times greater than were sown. But just exactly what is this seed we receive from God, and what is involved in being good soil? How do we get dirty in a way that is pleasing to God?
Just a few verses later, Jesus explained the meaning of the parable to his disciples. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it,” he said, “the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.” The seed is the word of the kingdom, the word that God spoke through Jesus about his kingdom of love, peace and reconciliation. But if this word is not understood, explained Jesus, it gets snatched away, like a seed on a path picked up by a bird. In a similar manner, the seeds sown on rocky ground produce plants that quickly wither, because in this situation people receive the word but fail to put down roots to get them through times of trouble. Then there is the seed sown among thorns — in this case, a person hears the word, “but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
Jesus challenged his followers to be good dirt for the word of the kingdom, but he was aware that our hearts can be a hard path, a rocky ground or covered with thorns. We harden our hearts and fail to put effort into understanding God’s Word. We neglect to put down deep roots in a community of faith, so that we will remain grounded and nourished during rocky times. We allow ourselves to become distracted by the cares of the world or the attraction of money and possessions, and then suddenly these temptations choke out God’s Word to us.
But there is always hope that we can recover and become good dirt for the word of the kingdom. “But as for what was sown on good soil,” said Jesus, “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 are good soil when we hear the word of the kingdom and understand it. We get dirty when our ears are open to what God is saying to us, and when we put effort into understanding what it might mean for us to be part of God’s kingdom of love, peace and reconciliation. If we hear and understand, promised Jesus, we’ll be good soil that bears fruit, and yields in proportions greater than we ever could have imagined.
Most people know about the folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who moved across the heartland of America during the early western expansion of the frontier. He became famous for scattering seeds as he walked, planting apple trees everywhere he traveled. What is less well known is that the Christian faith was central to who Johnny was and to what he did with his life. Besides planting nurseries, Johnny lived the life of a missionary. As he traveled, he shared the gospel with many adults and children, including the Native Americans he met along the way.
Johnny Appleseed got dirty. His work was simple and physical, carrying seeds and seedlings to people in the frontier so that families and communities could have a useful crop and feed themselves. His work was rooted in his faith — like Jesus, he saw the planting of seeds as symbolic of how God’s love is planted in us and bear’s fruit. Author Cammie Sancheti points out that Johnny “looked for ways to spread his faith along with his apple trees, instead of abandoning one work to take up another. In essence, he let God use him where he was.”3
Johnny Appleseed spread his faith along with his apple trees. He heard God’s Word, understood it and shared it with others, and the result was the growth of both Christian faith and apple trees. We can do the same, although we don’t have to hike across the frontier and distribute seeds and seedlings. There is plenty of planting and sharing to do in our own neighborhoods. We can get dirty and let God use us right where we are.
We begin by hearing God’s Word and opening our ears to what God is saying to us about the growth of the kingdom in our church. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” said Jesus, just a few verses after the parable of the sower. “It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”4 A very small act of Christian hospitality, offered to a visitor in a worship service, can have profound results. It can turn a stranger into a friend and make the church a place of shelter and safety in a cold and dangerous world.
Next, we are invited to understand God’s Word, and to figure out what it means to be good soil for God’s seeds in our community. There are at least 22 verses in the Bible on welcoming immigrants, including the line, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”5 We get dirty in our communities when we welcome newcomers, and we do this not out of any political agenda, but because we know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. Because our ancestors were aliens in the land of Egypt, we understand that God wants us to love the stranger as ourselves.
Finally, we are challenged to share God’s Word with others, in whatever way we can. Since we live in a world in which people tend to be valued for what they do, instead of being valued for who they are, we need to share the good news that “God created humankind in his image.”6 Our worth comes from the fact that every single human being — male, female, black, white, brown — bears the image of Almighty God. And since we live in a world in which so many people are feeling hopeless and unloved, we need to share the good news that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”7 God loves us all so much that he sent his only Son into the mud and muck of human life, to invite us into a faith-filled relationship that will last forever.
Hear God’s word. Understand it. Share it with others. If we do these things, we will be getting dirty, and the growth of God’s kingdom will occur in and through us. May the seeds planted today bear good fruit, and may they grow in proportions greater than we could ever ask or imagine.
1 Clifton Fadiman, General Editor, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985), 194-195.
2 Elwyn E. Tilden, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 19.
3 Cammie Sancheti, “Johnny Appleseed, who spread ‘good news, right fresh from heaven,’” Shepherd My Child, September 27, 2013, http://shepherdmychild.com/?p=1343.
4 Matthew 13:31-32.
5 Leviticus 19:34.
6 Genesis 1:27.
7 John 3:16.