Parable of the soils
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To listen to earlier homilies click here.
from wikipedia: Hortus deliciarum (Latin for Garden of Delights) is a medieval manuscript compiled by Herrad of Landsberg at the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace, better known today as Mont Sainte-Odile. It was an illuminated encyclopedia, begun in 1167 as a pedagogical tool for young novices at the convent. It is the first encyclopedia that was evidently written by a woman. It was finished in 1185, and was one of the most celebrated illuminated manuscripts of the period. The majority of the work is in Latin, with glosses in German.
DRAFT text of the homily—please do not cite without permission.
Once there were four different kinds of soil.
One was a path.
Now, originally the earth had no paths.
A path is made by walking.
A path might be good soil, or not.
The quality of the soil doesn’t really matter, because a path is useful.
One was rocky soil.
Rocky soil was made by great outcrops of rock crashing together, splitting and rising, by volcanoes spewing lava and cooling, by glaciers grinding and exposing the giant cratons beneath the soil.
With enough time and abrasion it too might become good soil.
One was thorny ground.
Thorny ground is also good soil; it just has the wrong kind of plants growing in it.
Because a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong location.
If you’re not trying to cultivate anything there are no weeds…and no thorny ground.
And one was good, nutrient rich, fertile soil.
But good soil isn’t always good.
It becomes good by years and years and years of plant after plant after plant drawing nutrients from it, dying and turning to compost…
of animals grazing off it and fertilizing it.
It’s not a pretty process, but all that life and death and excrement means good soil in the end.
One day a sower came by, throwing seeds everywhere.
On the path, and on the rocky ground, and in the thorns, and on some good soil.
The sower didn’t seem to care at all where they landed.
The path was content that it had provided somewhere for the sower to walk and happy that the birds got something to eat.
The rocky soil was used to seeds blowing onto it.
And not surprised that they didn’t grow.
It did feel the pressure of their roots as they began, ever so slowly to push through the crags, cracking some of the bigger stones…breaking them down.
The thorny ground was also used to seeds, and to plants which were fierce competitors.
The thorny ground had seen any number of aggressive plants take over, only to be displaced by others later on.
Maybe this seed was one of those invasive strains.
The good soil received the seeds, and they grew, but with such an incredible harvest if the nutrients were not replaced, before long even this soil would become incapable of producing.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
That’s what I call the parable of the four soils.
It’s a little different from the story in the gospel
I made it up because I remember hearing a lot of Sunday school lessons and sermons on the parable of the sower, and thinking, “I’m not good soil.”
Thorny or rocky maybe, but definitely not good.
I wondered who the good soil people were.
Probably the ones I didn’t like very much.
The standard retelling of this parable, actually made me feel bad.
I’m not producing anything, certainly not the miraculous kind numbers the parable talks about—30 fold, 60, 100!!!?
If that’s what’s required, I couldn’t possibly be good soil.
But I also found that these lessons also provided convenient ways around feeling too bad…
I’m a path, I help people get where they’re going.
I could be good, but…
It’s those darn birds…the evil one…someone else.
Yeah, it’s their fault.
With a little work I could become good soil, if everyone would just leave me alone!
Or: it’s not really my fault, I tried but I just couldn’t stick with it.
I’m rocky soil, after all…I don’t really have a choice.
I’m sorry but that’s just the way I am…
Or, I get distracted…can you blame me with all these thorns around…
O, I could be good soil if only there weren’t all these obstacles.
There’s a false determinism in this reading of the story.
I am what I am and that’s all that I am.
Which isn’t the gospel at all.
This also corresponds with much of the theology I was taught as a child.
Only the elect really get it.
Only a few are saved.
So again, I thought, if I’m not good soil, it must be because God didn’t make me that way.
So what’s the point?
Either I’m good soil—and saved—or I’m not.
And I’m clearly not.
We’ve probably all heard a version of that sometime in our lives.
I’m sorry that this particular interpretation got so tied to this parable of the sower.
Because, it’s lead to some problematic theology.
Scripture is clear that we are all created good.
God creates and cares for all the soil, and all the creatures on it.
We are created good. We are created complicated. We are created incomplete.
So things happen—paths are formed, rocks are uncovered, thorns grow up.
The thing about parables is that you can read them in so many ways.
If you come back to them again and again, they often reveal themselves in multiple ways.
So I started out with a different reading of this one.
Not the parable of the sower, but the parable of the four soils.
I think we all have every one of these soils in each of us.
Paths are made by the routines of our lives.
The things we always do.
Our paths enable us to do things, quickly and easily.
They are also the parts of us that are hard to change.
Ever tried to get people to stop walking on a path that’s already started?
Ever tried to change a habit?
Our rocky soil are those barren areas in us that we don’t go to too often.
Where old hurts and wounds are kept…calcified…hardened.
Over time, the suffering of life creates and cracks those hurts open.
Either wearing down those hardened feelings…
Or, like stalagmites, the dripping of resentment will continue to build them up.
Our thorny ground is where there’s lots of growth, but the wrong kind.
Information is good, and helps us grow, unless we become data junkies—incapable of making decisions without more input.
Or incapable of seeing beyond our own filter bubbles—our own comfortably entrenched ideas.
Our good soil?
The thing about good soil is that it’s made and sustained by years and years of things living and dying in it.
Our good soil is where we live—really live—and die.
It’s the messy, uncomfortable, parts of our lives.
The places where the muck—the “fertilizer”—of life rains down in abundance.
Something I learned living in Kentucky and reading a lot of Wendell Berry, is that good soil needs to be carefully tended, because it is always giving up it’s nutrients—
always giving away its treasure.
It easily becomes depleted.
It needs time to rest, to lay fallow, and regenerate.
I like the parable of the soil because I’m come to realize that good soil isn’t something we are or aren’t.
It’s a part of us that must be carefully tended in order to remain healthy.
It’s not a question of being good soil or bad soil, in or out.
It’s about allowing the seeds—the Word—to work in you and through all of your soil.
If the point was about being good soil, and getting the biggest yield, the sower wouldn’t even bother with the other three.
All the focus would be on the good soil.
But the sower doesn’t care where the seed goes.
The sower—quite frankly—is a lousy farmer.
But a terrific spiritual guide.
Yes, there will be difficulties, and frustrations, and not everyone will welcome or even understand the Good News you have to share, but…
The Word that lies uncomprehended on your paths might feed others who are desperately seeking it.
Living faithfully, we are often unaware of how we are feeding others.
The Word that falls into a crevice in your hardened, rocky heart, might be the one that cracks it open to new life…
Living faithfully, means remembering that as Leonard Cohen puts it, “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
The Word that grows up among all your distractions might grow to tame the wildness.
Living faithfully, we might eventually find that our wildness has been replaced by the verdant growth of love for God and neighbor.
The Word that falls into the messiness of your daily life—into the muck that has been shoveled onto your life—can transform that mess into a treasure that can be given away 30, 60, 100-fold.
Living faithfully, and trusting every day that God is intimately acquainted with—and actively involved in all aspects of our lives—
the well-worn, the rocky, the thorny, and the fruitful—
we might be transformed, and become sowers ourselves.
Indiscriminately casting the Word of God, the Love of God, onto every soil, around every hurt, into every life.
Just imagine the kind of abundant bounty that would yield.