Jesus' parable of the sower is one of his best-known. And although the disciples may not have understood it, Matthew's inclusion of the explanation makes sure that most people even a little familiar with the gospel stories have a basic knowledge of its meaning.
I think we often undershoot that meaning, though. We have it right, but we don't necessarily see how broadly it can apply.
If you're like me, the most common meaning you've heard assigned to the parable centers on the message of salvation. The sower is God, the seed is the word of God and the parable describes the kinds of hearts in which it does and does not take root to produce a crop. I think that's accurate, because as Christians we say that the key to salvation is living a live centered on God -- a choice made possible because of the work of Christ on the cross.
But it's limited. Life, as most of us have found out, continues on well after we've answered the salvation question. And the biblical writers of the New Testament, especially Paul, suggest that there must be growth in faith following our new birth and new life in Christ. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, often called this the process of "sanctification," or being made "perfect in love." And just like salvation, sanctification is prompted by the word of God scattered out to our hearts. Just like I might live even unaware of my need for God until God spoke to me, I might live unaware of a way in which I stayed separate from God until God shows me how it drives a wedge between us.
And again, our hearts are like the soils that Jesus talks about in his parable. Sometimes they've been packed down hard and resist any penetration by the word. Perhaps it's because we've heard something supposedly required by Christian teaching that we just can't accept. Adam Hamilton points out that we might have formed our own ideas so completely we resist anything that questions them -- and that's dangerous because we are unlikely to have been blessed with infallibility.
Or we might still be operating with a level of faith and understanding that we acquired when we were younger and have never bothered to deepen. God can't speak to us about something we need to hear, because we don't have the depth of reflection -- or tools, if you'd like another metaphor -- to process and build it into our faith worldview.
Perhaps we are like the thorny soil. God would like us to make changes in our lives to enable us to serve him better. He would like us to pray more often or to study our Bibles or offer ourselves in his work for others or maybe something else. But we have allowed many other things to soak up our time and we have little or nothing of the clock left to give him.
Probably, if we are being realistic and honest, the soil of our hearts has been any one or all three of these at one time or another. I know mine has. And although they are different, they share some characteristics, even beyond the eventual fate of the seed planted in them. One they share is that they are all something other than just plain soil. They are the soil of the path, or the soil with the thorny plants, or the stony soil. They will not simply allow the seed to take root in them but will transform it based on their different characteristics, and in doing so they will kill it off.
When we refuse to hear a word from God that doesn't match our experiences or expectations, we are the hard-packed path. When we don't do the hard work of deepening our understanding by removal of the stones that keep our elementary-level faith at elementary level, we allow no new understandings to take root deeply enough to make a difference. When we won't take an honest look at the thorns of everything else we place ahead of responding to the word, we choke it off before it can do anything worthwhile.
But the good soil is just plan soil. Sure, it's been tended and tilled and fertilized, but it's still just plain soil, prepared for the specific purpose of receiving the seed, nourishing it and producing a crop.
As I began to understand the broader application of this parable I began to ask God to continue to prepare me, so that I could receive his word when it came to me. Because that's what the sower would do, if he were to decide to plant in the soil with the thorny plants, for example. He would yank them out so he could grow his own crops. He would remove the stones so his seeds would have deep roots and strong yields. He would break up the hard pack of the path so seeds could fall into it and find nourishment and a place to grow.
We're not exactly like the soil, of course. The soil has no role in what happens to it. Gardeners and farmers from the beginning of time will testify that the soil does not get itself ready for planting. We are offered the chance to help God make us ready. Through things like studying and praying and worship and giving of ourselves, we help God prepare the soil of our hearts so his word can take root, and produce a crop. Some thirtyfold, some sixty, some a hundred.