Listen! Jesus says to his hearers. Listen! There once was a sower who went out to sow. However, this sower either had an impossibly high regard for the potency of these seeds, or he didn’t seem to care about what he was doing. This sower seems more like Mr. Magoo than Johnny Appleseed, distributing the seed in willy-nilly fashion. He throws some seed on the hard path, where the birds quickly eat it. Some seed he throws on the rocky ground, where there is little dirt for the roots to find depth, so the plants cannot survive the heat of adversity. He throws some seed among decent soil, where the seed can take root and grow, but competing weeds and thorns grow in greater abundance and choke off its growth. Then he throws some seed into good, fertile soil that brings forth an amazing harvest, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred times the grain of seed that was planted. But notice something. Jesus says not a word of condemnation about the sower. He doesn’t scorn Mr. Magoo. Jesus doesn’t seem to share our opinion that the sower either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about what he is doing, which leaves open the possibility that maybe the sower had a mad genius for seeing the potential for spiritual growth in people where folks like you and I discern no plausible grounds for hope.
On the surface this seems like a depressing parable. What can be more deflating than the realization that even if the Word of God is shared with the world, at least three-quarters of the hearers of the Word are destined to have the wrong kind of soil, are destined never truly to receive God’s Word in a mature and positive fashion? Only a small few seemed destined to receive the redemptive Word, understand it, appropriate it and practice it. Some would say that maybe Jesus is casting the cold rain of realism upon people’s evangelical hopes. Certainly that interpretation is one suggested by the parable, yet it runs precisely contrary to the entire spirit and thrust of the Gospel! After all, our Gospel declares, ‘Whosoever will may come!’ So, we must wonder, might there be another way of looking at this parable that is more in accord with the Gospel’s overall thrust of inclusiveness? I think there is. It could be that Jesus is not really talking about four different kinds of people. It could be that Jesus is talking about four different kinds of soil — spiritual soil, soils of the soul — and all four types of this spiritual soil are to be found in every person. Every individual soul has its hard sections. Every soul has its share of rocky patches. Every soul is beset by thorns and briars. And every soul has the potential to receive the Gospel seed and allow it to take root and bear much fruit. It is possible that this parable may not describe four different kinds of people. It may describe four different kinds of soil within each soul.
Some of you, my age or older, might recognize the name of David Wilkerson, a pastor from yesteryear who wrote a famous book (fifty years ago) entitled, The Cross and the Switchblade. This young Pennsylvania pastor beheld a New York Times’ front-page picture of four ghetto youths accused of murder. The anger and aimlessness on those four young faces so moved him that he hopped in his car and drove from Pennsylvania to New York City and held an impromptu prayer meeting on the streets of New York City. He even managed to recruit two of the leading gang leaders to pray with him. You would think that these two young gang leaders were kids with plenty of hard soil in their soul. Indeed, after the prayer meeting one of them went back to being a gang leader. But the other young man became convicted under the Holy Spirit to become not only a Christian, but a minister. He opened the rocky soil of his soul to the Gospel seed, and it began to take deep root within him and bear fruit. We look at the disciples, at Zacchaeus, at Nicodemus, at Paul – at first glance several of the Biblical heroes appear to have plenty of hard soil in their souls. Many would appear to have soil in their soul that is not very deep. But they cultivated the soil in their soul; they allowed the Gospel seed to take deep root within them, and eventually they bore much spiritual fruit.
Naturally, it would not occur to us to think of ourselves as those whose souls are rocky and unreceptive to the Word. Yet I think Jesus chose his first metaphor very carefully. He said the sower first threw his seed on the path. The path stands as symbolic of all of us who are perpetually on the go, people always in a hurry to arrive somewhere else. The path stands a symbol for those who see their faith as a vehicle for taking them somewhere. This part of the parable stands as a warning to those who try to do the Word without taking time to pause and receive the Word. Jesus is warning us against trying to embody God’s will without undergoing the discipline necessary to know God’s will. We remember the admonition to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.” But all too often we yield to the impulse to try to do God’s Word before we hear God’s Word. We are interpreters who impatiently try to interpret God’s Word without first allowing God to speak the Word to us. How much cultivation of our souls do we truly engage in to prepare our souls to receive the Word before we attempt to do it? As the great theologian Helmut Thielecke has so beautifully noted, when we sit down to pray and harken to God’s Word in quiet, and our minds stray to the ball game or the dinner engagement or the pressing work assignment, it is as if we blew some supersonic whistle and summoned birds from afar to swoop down and peck the Word of God from the hard surface of our souls.
Truly, there are parts of our soul that are shallow and superficial. There are even brands of faith that encourage superficiality and shallowness. Owing to the privilege of growing up in an evangelical Southern Baptist environment that stressed revivalist decisions, I had plenty of opportunity as a child to witness this kind of soil and the type Christian it produced. I listened to thirty-seven verses of “Just As I Am,” while the visiting evangelist adroitly manipulated the emotions of the crowd until Brother So-and-So and Sister Such-A-One came down the aisle to make teary-eyed confessions, to everyone’s joy. These decisions deeply impressed me as a child until I came to realize that Brother So-and-So and Sister Such-a-One were simply living props in a recurring drama. The next revival season, in response to the same manipulative techniques, the same emotional verses, Brother So-and-So and Sister Such-A-One would come back down the aisle to make similar weeping rededications of their rededications. I finally realized these decisions were superficial, shallow acts, reflective of seed planted in superficial, shallow soil. The roots only went so deep – and no real spiritual maturation was effected.
Think of one of the basic symbols of our faith, baptism. Baptism means rising with Christ, being raised to walk in newness of life. But that meaning comes at the end of the symbol. There is no end without a beginning, which is to say, there is no resurrection without first a death. We emerge from the baptismal waters in triumph. But we are led into those waters as those led to an execution. The baptismal waters symbolize death, death to life with ourselves as our own god, death to a life of self-centeredness, death to a life oriented around our narrow self-interest. We rise to walk in the newness of life in Christ, which means our lives are henceforth to be oriented about the values of Christ. But such a life requires deep spiritual roots, which requires intentional cultivation. That may explain why a few years ago a survey found that 75% of the inmates in a maximum security prison in South Carolina claimed to be Southern Baptists. At some point in their lives many of these inmates had been receptive to God’s Word and perhaps put their name on some church roll. As some point they had allowed the Gospel seed to take shallow root within them. But they had never really died to self. The values of Christ never governed their lives. They remained oriented around their own agenda. The Gospel seed took only superficial root within them.
I wonder, as Jesus spoke of seed that fell amidst good, but thorny soil, if his eye ever strayed to Judas Iscariot. Judas was obviously a man of talent and good intentions. He was receptive to God’s Word. He saw Jesus’ great miracles, heard Jesus’ great preaching, imbibed Jesus’ penetrating parables. He allowed the seed to take root within him, and for a time it grew. But the thorns in his life, his desire for enrichment, his desire for power, his desire to strike a blow against the Romans – his private personal agenda – these choked off the life of the Gospel seed within him.
The truth is, all of us have thorny aspects to our character that threaten to choke the growth of the Word within us. How much cultivation do you and I engage in to remove the thorns from our own souls? How much discipline do we invest in trying to create a fruitful soil for God’s seed? How much time do we spend in prayer, trying to garden our soul’s soil? How often do we engage in the spiritual discipline of quiet and meditation that allows us to live fully aware of the thorns within us? We need the spiritual discipline of prayer and meditation to calm our temper, clarify our values, purge us of our poisons, meliorate our tendency to rush to judgment, cleanse our attitude. How much spiritual discipline have we committed to in order to weed the thorns of our soul? Prayer and spiritual discipline cannot always eliminate our thorns. But the discipline of quiet meditation before God can make us more aware of our need for utter dependence upon God. The Psalmist says bluntly, “Lean not unto thy own understanding! Be not wise in your own eyes! But trust the Lord and turn away from evil. For repose in God will bring a healing to your flesh and a refreshment to your bones.” How much time do we spend “reposing in God,” cultivating our souls to eliminate those thorns in our souls so that we might truly experience a healing in our bodies and refreshment in our bones! We cannot experience this rejuvenation without engaging in spiritual gardening that takes into account the thorny soil in our own souls.
Of course, it is also true that there are also thorns in the external world that threaten to choke off God’s Gospel. We must have unquenchable confidence in God’s ability to triumph if we are going to live our faith in a thorny world. I think of a young priest who grew up in the thorny world of communist Poland. This young Polish priest erected a cross outside of his little parish church, which was illegal in the atheistic climate of his thorny world. Government authorities quickly tore his cross down. But this young priest erected another cross. The authorities tore that one down, too. He erected a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and a seventh cross, replacing each rejected and removed cross with another born of infinite patience. Erecting these crosses was his way of saying that he would not allow the atheism of his climate to choke off the spiritual life and faith of his people. Finally, the young priest’s persistence wore the authorities down. They let the cross stand. As best I know, it still stands. And the young priest continued to bear a vibrant witness for Christ to the day of his death. The world came to know him as Pope John Paul II, whose witness helped bring down totalitarian walls, whose irrepressible faith helped uproot the thorny ground of communism in his country. Sometimes, to prevent the world’s thorns from choking off Christ’s Gospel, we must have great confidence in the power of God’s Word.
We are called to realize that God’s seed can take such deep root within us that we bear fruit for God’s Kingdom that touches thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold lives! Is our witness of that kind of quality? Such a notion is no fantasy. In one of my former churches I reaped the benefits of the ministry of a man I never knew, whose life ended long before I arrived at that church. But his influence was still pervasive, his legacy still vibrant. This man had taught the young adult men’s Sunday School class in the late 40s and early 50s, a class filled with soldiers just back from World War II, young men who had been forced to grow up pretty fast. This Sunday School teacher sowed seeds in those young men’s lives, and every Sunday would take an individual and his family to one of the swankiest restaurants in town to deliver a warm lecture on the privilege and responsibility of being a Christian and of participating in that particular church family. This white man, who was retired, volunteered hours of his time in a hospital for indigent African Americans, simply so he could sow seeds in needy lives. No matter where I turned in that church and community I saw the fruits of this man’s labor and influence — thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold for the Gospel! Wherever I turned I found people whose lives had been transformed by this man’s spiritual investment. That, my friends, is the kind of Christian we are called to be. We are called to cultivate the good soil within us so that the Seed of God’s Word can be planted deep within us, and our lives and our faith can be so receptive to God’s Spirit that the Seed takes evinces itself in fruit that touches thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold lives. As Jesus says, “Let those who have ears, hear!”