Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
So, here’s the thing about parables. As Jesus used them, they were of course spoken not read. As such, their impact needed to be immediate, their basic meaning immediately accessible.
But when we have the luxury to linger with them, we see they also were designed to invite a deeper look. They invite some freedom of imagination as we engage with them. They invite a deeper LISTENING. Jesus himself exhorts, “... let anyone with ears to hear, LISTEN”! Now listening takes time, it takes some effort. Good listening demands an openness to insights that take us beyond our first impressions or pre-conceived notions.
And so, I want to attend to Jesus’ exhortation to “Listen ... REALLY listen!” Here are a few things that I heard as I pondered this parable this past week.
The first thing I noticed was this Sower extravagantly flinging the seed with wild abandon. No careful meting out of a limited supply. No meticulous placing of each seed just so. Here we are given an image of God the Generous One lavishly offering to the world at large the plenitude of God’s rich blessings, fall where they may. Here we have an image of Jesus offering unrestrained to all and sundry the Good News of God’s kingdom living, far less concerned with WHERE his message might fall than with his fervent desire to simply have that message freely spread to everyone.
The second thing that, understandably, jumped out at me was the description of the various types of soil. If we are meant to see ourselves as the soil upon which the seed lands, I began to wonder what if rather than hearing it as a judgment about some people being “this” kind of soil and some people being “that, we were instead to recognize that each of us — at various times and in the midst of various circumstances — carries within us this whole range of terrain.
Sometimes we are less than receptive to the life-giving Word that God so yearns to bestow upon us ... to plant deep within us.
These seeds ... these life-giving words, this very essence of God may land on us at a time when we are hardened ... like the seed falling on the impenetrably trodden path when we might have heard a God-given truth but haven’t really taken it into our beings. When we might — through pride or fear or just plain stubbornness — have created a barrier to a word of life so that this word has remained only on the surface, and has had no chance to take root and transform our thinking, never mind our very lives.
These seeds ... these life-giving words, this very essence of God may land on us at a time when, like the seed unable to take root in the shallow soil of rocky ground, we have found ourselves at first on fire for some holy cause only to have our enthusiasm wane over time or evade us when the going gets tough. Or at a time when we might have imagined a glorious “spiritual high” would hold us in good stead, only to find ourselves folding when some aspect of our faith is challenged, whether by another person or by a difficult life circumstance.
These seeds ... these life-giving words, this very essence of God may land on us at a time when, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrasing, “weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard and nothing comes of it.” (The Message). At a time when we have bought into the deception, the mirage, that more of this or more of that will actually satisfy our souls. Or at a time when we have become so overcome with anxiety that we have lost sight of God’s providential care for us.
Jesus knows that we can never thrive in these soils, whether hard-packed or rocky or thorny. He knows that real life cannot be found by settling into these “less than” terrains. Since here as always Jesus looks on us with compassion, we must as well. So what if, rather than ADMONISHING ourselves for landing in the “wrong” soil, we would instead allow those “less-than” experiences to ALERT us to our urgent need to move towards a different – a truly life-giving – way of being. To move toward something far richer, far more abundant that is always at hand, right there beneath our feet ... the terrain of “God-soil”. Here we have soil so infused with God’s presence that it will nourish and nurture, support and sustain us at the deepest level, come what may.
This is in fact the crescendo to which the whole parable has been building:
“But as for what was sown on good soil, 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.” (vs 23)
As the seed ... the Word ... God’s essence takes root in us within this rich terrain of “God-soil”, we ourselves become the seed ... the Word ... the bearer of God’s essence! And not in some paltry minimal way, but in a profusion of abundance! Abundance that bears fruit 30, 60 100-fold! A profusion of abundance that is there not only for ourselves, but has us partnering with God to nourish and nurture, support and sustain the life of the world.
What then is our part in landing ourselves into this “God-soil”? In the parable, the seeds fall randomly hither and yon. With us it doesn’t need to be so. We can influence and even determine what takes root in us by intentionally cultivating a soil that is as receptive as possible to those Gospel seeds of life-giving words, to that very essence of God. We might do so by immersing ourselves in some inspirational reading, poetry or music or art. We might seek new ways to enliven and enrich our prayer life. We might carve out time for meditation (have you eased yourself into any of our own Cheryl Macpherson’s guided meditations that come our way each week on the James Bay United website and newsletter?)
We might also find inspiration in spiritual mentors who have cultivated a life resonant with the Creator’s presence. I have recently discovered one in the person of Richard Wagamese, the Canadian Ojibway author and storyteller. Listen – REALLY listen – to this excerpt from his shimmering book of meditations called Embers.
At dawn each day, I creep from my bedroom down the hall to the kitchen, where I set my tea to brew and then move to the living room to wait. In the immaculate silence, I watch the world unfurl from shadow. I listen to the sounds of birds, the wind along the eaves, the creak of floorboards and joists and rafters in this small house I call my home.
When the tea is ready, I cradle the cup in my palms and inhale the scent of lavender. I place the cup on the living room table. Then I rise to retrieve the bundle that holds the sacred articles of my ceremonial life. I open it and remove my smudging bowl, my eagle wing fan, my rattle and the four sacred medicines of my people – sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. I put small pinches of each together in the smudging bowl, which I set upon the table. I close my eyes and breathe for a few moments. Then I light the medicines, using a wooden match, and waft the smoke around and over my head and heart and body with the eagle wing fan. When I am finished, I set the fan on the table too.
There are certain spiritually oriented books I read from each morning. I lift the books from the couch beside me and read from them in turn. Then I place the books on the table as well. I close my eyes and consider what the readings have to tell me that day. When I’m ready, I settle deeper into the burgeoning pool of quietude, and when I feel calm and centered and at peace, I say a prayer of gratitude for all the blessings that are present in my life. I ask to be guided through the day with the memory of this sacred time, this prayer, the smell of these medicines in the air, and the peace and calm in my heart. I pick up the role Creator has asked me to play in this reality.
Everything I have come to know and rely upon as centering, spiritual, real and valid has its place on that table in my living room. The table is like my life: dented, scarred, battered and worn, but rich and full nevertheless, and singing its histories. In that way, mornings themselves have become my table. Enveloped in Ojibway ceremony, protocol and ritual, ringed by strong words on faith, love, resilience, mindfulness and calm, I reclaim myself each morning. I walk out into the world in a position of balance, ready to do what Creator asks of me that day. (Embers pg. 11-12)
Wow! There’s a cultivation of God-soil if I ever saw it! What a way to start each day ... what a way to walk through the entirety of each day!
So may WE find ways to cultivate an inner life deeply attentive to the Creator’s presence ... for the sake of our own dear selves, and for the well-being of those around us as we indeed partner with God in nourishing and nurturing, supporting and sustaining the life of the world.