The Problem is the Soil

Last week I was writing a commentary on Matthew 13. Verses 1-23 contain one of the most famous parables of Jesus, the Parable of the Sower. In it some seed fell on a hard path, other seed fell on stony ground, part of the seed fell on thorny ground, and more seed fell on good ground. The seed which fell on the walking path was devoured by birds before it could take root, and that which fell on stony ground took root but the ground was so shallow that the young shoot was scorched in the hot sun. The seed which fell on thorny ground also took root but the young plant was smothered by the weeds around it. Only the seed that fell on good ground produced a harvest.

In the chapter, Jesus explained that the seed was the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the various types of ground represented the hearts of the hearers. Typically when lessons are taught on this passage, they describe the foolishness of the sower for wasting so much seed on unsuitable ground, or focus on the types of ground. Teachers spend little effort discussing why the ground is the way it is.

As Jesus’ hearers knew, the farmer was the key to transforming poor ground into good ground. He plowed the ground, breaking up the hard parts so that the seed could take root. Plowing also exposed hidden rocks and weeds that the farmer removed by hand. It was long and painstaking work but the farmer knew that at the end he would get a good crop. The seed is a constant; there is no indication in the parable that the seed that fell in one place was any different than the seed that fell in another.

In this parable the seed is the gospel. It is the same no matter who sows it or where it lands. As each seed carries within it the potential for new life, so each presentation of the gospel carries within it the potential for new life. The ground represents the hearts of the hearers, but unlike earth which must be tended by others, each man must tend his own heart. The gospel is effective no matter where it lands but the hearer is responsible to listen and obey. The hearer must keep his heart from the hard cynicism of this age, remove the rocks of sin, skepticism, and pride, and pull the weeds of desire for money, fame and power.

In the church we spend a lot of time trying to craft just the right lesson and just the right sermon. While we must always ensure that the genuine gospel is preached, and must do our best to communicate effectively, this emphasis on the preacher is in error. The gospel is powerful regardless of the vessel it is coming through because it is the word of God. The story of Jesus needs no help from man to do its eternal saving work. Perhaps the best preachers, rather than spending 19 hours per week preparing a sermon and 1 hour per week praying for his congregation, would spend 5 hours per week preparing and 15 hours per week praying. Since the preacher cannot prepare another man’s heart, but the Holy Spirit can, perhaps petitioning the Spirit to move in his church and community is the best thing that a preacher, or anyone else, can do. Perhaps this, and only this, can bring revival in our world.

We make the same mistake in school. In Bible times, students would gather around a teacher, standing while he sat, to hear him. The teacher would make the lesson as interesting and useful as possible, but the onus for learning was on the student. If the student didn’t learn it was his own fault, not the instructor’s. Today we spend countless hours and untold dollars trying to make the seed of knowledge grow in hard, stony or thorny hearts. Perhaps that is why we fail.

In truth, the modern Western culture makes the same error in every area of life. We bemoan the lack of leadership, and while our leadership has often failed, how often do we bemoan the lack of followership? Just as Jesus could not work miracles in Nazareth because of the villagers’ hard hearts (Mark 6:4-6), their refusal to believe, so even the best leaders cannot lead men and women whose stony hearts refuse to follow. The finest leader cannot bring stability to the man who has no root in himself and no depth of character. Such a troubled man can neither effectively respond to the gospel nor effectively learn or follow. The same is true for the man who is overcome by cares for worldly things. Perhaps the teacher and the leader would do well to imitate the preacher, making prayer the first priority.

In our haste to avoid placing blame, and especially to avoid “blaming the victim”, we ignore the fact that parishioners bear responsibility for their spiritual growth, students bear responsibility for their learning, and followers bear responsibility for their following. So long as we refuse to believe this we will misunderstand the gospel, misunderstand the world in which we live, and fail to attain the life the God wants for us.

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