As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (St. Luke 8:15).
Today, we are presented in our Gospel reading with a parable illustrating for us in a beautiful and compact way the reception of the Word of God in a hostile, fallen world. We call this teaching story “The Parable of the Sower,” but most of our thoughts and concerns center around the various soils. We want to ask, “Which soil am I?” As always, the human impulse is to look for ourselves in God’s word first—to cut to the chase and mine out the nuggets of truth we think will help us. This parable, and all the parables really, combat this human desire to take the word of God and strip it for parts. God who measures our every breath knows we aren’t actually too busy to contemplate His word; deep down, we know it too. And when we do stop and listen, we hear the startling, uncompromising reality of this parable: humanity’s weakness and fear and failure to be God’s people has consequences in the here and now and in the everlasting future. God cares deeply for His creation, and that means the Almighty will not allow it to grow wild forever. When Jesus tells His disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (St. Luke 8:9), Christ is invoking the prophetic mission of Isaiah—a mission which ended in rejection and death at the hands of the very people Isaiah was trying to warn and save. The punishment for murdering God’s prophets and for ignoring their pleas to repent and turn back to the true faith was the destruction of all the things the Israelites worshipped instead of the Living God: down went their corrupted temples, down went their precious homes and beloved families, down went their palaces of distraction and addiction. This same destruction is promised for those who reject Christ. The difference, of course, being that Jesus is the last prophet of the eternal kingdom of God, and the destruction His rejection brings can only be measured on an eternal scale. The Word of God, the seed of the sower, has loving and purifying judgment embedded in its every letter. We are all one of these soils, just as our bodies are slowly becoming the dust which will haunt a thousand graves; the only question which remains is what will come out of the ground in which we will one day be planted. Jesus is giving us our answer with this parable, but do we have ears to hear it?
We begin with the sower for whom the parable is popularly named, but Jesus doesn’t actually talk much about him, focusing rather on the seed and the soil; however, the sower is still the main character of this parable. He is the hero of the story who is quite literally spreading life into the world. Jesus tells us that we are the soil, which makes perfect sense considering our forefather Adam, whose name in Hebrew means “dirt man,” was created from the dust of the earth and to that dust he returned when he failed to protect his wife and the holy garden kingdom God had given him. In 100 years or so, all of us will become dirt, and this inescapable truth, no matter how much we hide from its sting or numb ourselves to its barbs, is the great human problem. For in the end, death steals everything from us. Death terrorizes us in this life and leaves us penniless and forgotten in the darkness of our tombs. Even the memory of us will not actually be us—flesh and blood, tragic and beautiful—no, the memory of our lives will be the malleable fiction of the future; after our death, we will be seen through a glass darkly until the glass becomes too dark to make out anything real at all. We could call the people who gave up everything to follow Jesus, the people who hung on His every word, we could call them some very comforting names: zealots, crazy, extreme, but these school yard taunts would only serve to mask reality—if Jesus is who He says He is, if Jesus is the fountain of everlasting life, than it is not they who were crazy to follow Jesus with all that they had; no, it is we who are crazy to hold anything back. When St. Paul gives in today’s Epistle his litany of suffering for the kingdom of God, it would be so easy to write Him off as a nut rather than to say, “God, destroy the idols in my life so that I may be like my brother Paul. Make me as weak in the eyes of the world as Him, so that I may show your strength to the end.” Today, Christ is simply telling us something we already know: we are dirt, and we need something outside of ourselves to change this reality—to make fruitful life spring up where there appears to be only dust and ash and sorrow.
Once we see Jesus is quite literally talking about solving the great human problem, we begin to realize just how important this parable is, and we also begin to realize just how tragic it is when God’s saving word is rejected by the damned. The enemies of a life-giving faith are listed by our Lord: the Devil, spiritual weakness, and the cares, riches, and idolized pleasures of this life. Seeing all these together forces us to face some tough realities. First, we must take notice of how real the Devil is to our Lord. Jesus is warning us that we must constantly be on guard against supernatural forces who mean us harm because we who are bearers of the image and likeness of the God who reminds those fallen angels of the Creator they hate so much. Satan, and his demonic followers, want us to be nothing but dust; they want to rob us of our only chance to be the true and beautiful human beings we were made to be—the divine image bearers we were made to be. The Christian writer G.K Chesterton once said, “Humans are not clever beasts but broken gods,” and as we see from today’s parable, the Devil wants us to stay broken. But even recognizing the Devil’s power, if we are Christ’s Body, we need not fear the Devil, for it was Christ’s resurrection which stands as the ultimate symbol of the renewed and eternal humanity: the ultimate rebuttal to Satan’s lies and hatred which forever recovered from the dark prince any claim he might dare make upon the souls of the elect.
The second reality we must face is the close proximity in the parable of the Devil and the riches and pleasures of life. Do we think of the riches of life as being as dangerous to our eternal health as the Devil? Jesus, our Creator, saw them in this light, and if we are honest, the things which distract us from the pursuit of holiness through worship and Bible study and fasting and charity are the very dangers Jesus highlights here. Just as joy isn’t enough to protect us from the Devil’s thieving grasp, a passionate acknowledgement of the Word of God or a dogged mental assent to its truth will not protect us if we sacrifice our time and our treasure to idols rather than the Living God. The subtle genius of our enemy can be seen in how he has shifted our society away from worshipping obvious idols (I doubt anyone here knows someone who owns a statue of Baal), but he still guides the focus of our lives to be on created things rather than the Creator— which is the ultimate madness of idolatry anyway. Why is it so hard to get ourselves and our neighbors to devote more time to God than we do for our hobbies and toys and entertainment? The answer is here in this parable where we see that having access to more riches and pleasures and instantly gratifiable desires than any people in the history of the world means we are in more danger of being choked out of our eternal inheritance than any people who have ever lived. Jesus is telling us that material things are not a gift and a blessing if they are dragging us deeper and deeper into the darkness of our own hearts and the madness of idol worship. Hell will be filled with people who never robbed a bank but worshipped their money and possessions as if they had; it will be filled with our neighbors and family who distracted themselves to everlasting death.
Which brings us back to our original question: “What soil am I?” Ultimately, the only sign that you or I are good soil is the fruit we bear. Notice that the soil doesn’t create the fruit or change the fruit in any way. The seed is deposited in the soil, and it is the seed which grows into a fruit giving plant. The sower is the one who determines the nature of the fruit, the sower is the one who determines where and how the seed will be distributed. Just as Jesus decided that the disciples would be the ones to know and protect the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, so too are we called to treasure and protect the holy mysteries given to us. As St. Paul tells St. Timothy, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:8-14).
We see in St. Paul’s testimony, both to Timothy and to the church in Corinth, that the fruit he bears looks like the fruit from His Master’s garden. A fruit that can be bruised and battered and crushed under the boot of evil but is always ready to be resurrected in the spring time of the new earth to come. We Christians are to be walking embodiments of the tree of life: spreading the good news of our Savior’s victory, offering our neighbors and enemies to taste of the ripened fruit of righteousness. Even in our suffering, especially in our suffering, when we are crushed by an evil, corrupt world, the sower’s seeds will spread into the hearts of men who will inevitably ask, “What truth is this for which men will die?” And so, as the church in America shrinks and convulses before our eyes, as men and women worship their dead idols rather than the Living God, we need not fear or be ashamed as we live through the fall, for we know that spring is coming, and the future resurrected earth each spring points us toward will clear away the frost and ash forever, and we will dance in Eden again.