I learned from a very wise person many years ago that there is a key to understanding the parables of Jesus. The key is this: look for something that makes no sense, something that isn’t quite right. That’s the spot to start your exploration of what the parable means.
The parable of the sower is one of the most famous parables that Jesus ever told. A sower goes out to sow, and he sows some seed on the path that birds eat up, some seed gets sown on the rocks and they have no roots, some gets lost in the thorns, and finally, some is tossed on good soil and voila, there is fruit. Jesus even explains this parable to his disciples. So, you are left with sorting out the explanation, and we end up thinking that, in some way, the key to this parable is being fertile soil. Of course after hearing all that, no one is ever going to say they want to be anything other than fertile soil, and so there are thousands of books and homilies and reflections about being fertile soil and the other soils, and what causes people to be one or the other, and most importantly, how can I be fertile soil.
And the whole point is missed.
Matthew and Mark put the key outside the parable, at the beginning. See, Jesus goes and sits by the lake, the Sea of Galilee, to give this parable. You would think he would take people to the farm, but no, he’s by the lake.
So, there’s Jesus talking about sowing seed here and there around the edge of the lake, and while he’s talking, people are confused and thinking, “Are you crazy? You don’t plant at the edge of a lake or a sea. Crops can’t grow here. It’s effectively desert. It’s impossible. Who does this?” That’s what you’re supposed to think. And when he says that some seed lands on fertile soil, you’re supposed to think, “Wait, ‘fertile soil’? Large fruit-bearing plants in a desert? How did that get th— …. Ooooh, I get it. God makes desert into fertile soil. He does the impossible.”
No one can make themselves fertile soil. It’s impossible. We are rocks and sand and thorny shrubs. Only God can make us fertile soil. And that’s why He does it, because it’s impossible for anyone to do, so it’s a sign of Him, made so that everyone knows who He is. It is God’s job, not ours.
I recently met up with an acquaintance I had not seen for several years. He is a national leader in Hispanic ministry in the US, in a prestigious university. After we caught up for a bit and I shared what I had been doing since we last talked, he said, “I wish there were a thousand more Jerome’s here in Boston.”
A few days later, I was talking with a different friend about my life. I said, “You know what, there should be university studies done on me and my life. The people in the church here in Boston who want to understand how to save the church, how to bring people back to the church, should be studying my life. I am a native Bostonian, and my parents, too. I had nothing to do with the church for years. I emotionally ran away from home as a teen. In my college years, I did great academically, but I engaged in petty thievery. When I was 20, I lived with my girlfriend and another young woman who has become the most famous pornography actress in the world. I drove drunk so many times I couldn’t count. I was intelligent and successful enough to get some career success and make money, but I gave homeless people nothing but crude “advice” to get a job, and I used all the racial slurs in the book. Now, everything has changed 180. Not only is all that stuff over, but you will never meet a native Bostonian gringo who knows Hispanic culture like I do in the church, who has done as much in different cultures in the church, who has done as wide a variety of ministries, who when he opens his heart, people feel uplifted and freed and close to God, and experience miracles small and large. People in the church should be spending big resources and studying me: what in the world happened??”
And what they would find is one simple answer:
God did it.
Because that’s impossible for anyone to do.
It’s God’s job, not ours.
When things look impossibly barren in life, there’s a lot of temptation to try to make things happen. We want to fix problems, and think we can fix problems. In the church, we make program after program to fix it, or to rebuild it, or to evangelize, to get people back or the finances up. But try as the church might, nothing really works, because it’s impossible to do. There is only One who can do it. Remember that only God can turn a desert into fertile ground.
It’s His job, not ours.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together; that men may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Is 41:19:20)