Thursday, July 10, 2014

Making the Most of Bad Soil

I'm having lunch today with my friend and colleague Steve Pankey. He lives and works in Foley, Alabama, and I've been at the beach with my family this week, so visiting with a good friend seemed like an opportunity that I could not pass up. (Plus, one can only handle so much time at the beach with his family and in-laws.) As far as I know, we don't have an agenda for our time together, but I'm curious whether this Sunday's gospel will come up.

On Tuesday, Steve posted about how the parable of the sower "is not a call to be good soil." Instead, he goes on to say in his Wednesday post that it's about the "prodigality of the sower." Good point. Jesus isn't telling us that we need to become good soil. How would one do that anyway? The fact is that you're either good soil or not. Sure, mechanized and GPS-based farming has changed our whole understanding of how fruitful a piece of land can be, but, ever since Dixie, Utah, folded in the late 1860s, no one has tried to grow cotton in the Mohave Desert. Instead, the point is that the seeds are scattered far and wide--a pretty foolish agricultural process. God the sower flings them everywhere, and some of them grow up to bear fruit.

But what about the seeds that are flung in bad places?

This isn't the parable of the soil amendment. There's one of those in the gospel, too (Luke 13:6-9). That one is about the owner who comes and asks for a fruitless tree to be cut down, but the gardener says, "Let's put manure around it and see if something happens." In this parable, though, there is no attention given to the soil. The reality of this parable rests on the tension between the fruitlessness of the path, rocks, and thorns and the abundant growth of the good soil. In other words, I agree with Steve that the parable isn't a call to be good soil, but the concluding message seems to be, "If you're not good soil, you're screwed."

What do you do if you're not the good soil? What do you do if you're life is full of thorns? If you can't become good soil--and I agree that you can't--this parable becomes a remarkably damning passage. Yes, God is scattering the seeds all over the place. No, he's not reserving his word only for the chosen few. But it's only getting through to those who happen to be good soil. The rest of us don't know what to do with the good news when it hits us in the head.

I'm not good soil. And you're not either. The word smacks me in the head over and over, and I barely even notice. The birds are circling overhead. My roots have no depth. The thorns keep growing back no matter how often I cut them down. What are we going to do about it? This is a story about understanding--not about being a good Christian.

Jesus said, "But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it." We can't make ourselves good soil, but we can seek understanding. The point of parables is not to confuse but to heighten the need for study. The gospel is not something that conforms to our expectations. It must shape us into the disciple we are called to be. No, you cannot be good soil, but this parable isn't about being anything. It's about understanding the message of the kingdom.

What is your posture when the word is being scattered? Does it have a chance to take root, or do you not bother to listen? Does it sink deeply into your heart and mind, or do you only listen for the surface meaning? Is the word given a chance to shape you, or is it simply brushed aside to a place where it will be drowned out by other distractions? None of us is good soil. But none of us is bad soil, either. Being good soil is about understanding. And there is always more to understand.

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