Recently I gave up all hope of a fruitful harvest (I had imagined slicing heirloom tomatoes as big as my hand right about now) and plucked a tomato plant – Brandywine genus (lycopersicon) – from the half-barrel planter on the back patio of my apartment. Despite my efforts at pruning and grooming over the summer the plant had grown to a slender 5′ in height. If I was raising this plant to play basketball I’d have done a brilliant job. As it was, a few weeks ago I enjoyed one very small tomato and the other two half-ripened specimens (that’s a total of three if you aren’t counting) were eaten by squirrels who used a wooden fence to belly up to the bar and feast on the meager fruit of my monumental failure.
Adding to my frustration and furthering my sense of inadequacy as a gardener has been my regularly passing a nearby house, where, surrounded by a panoply of weeds and various overgrown somethings, several tomato plants seem to thrive. Deepening my pondering about what I shall take away from all this is the fact that I don’t even need to leave my back patio to be reminded that there’s a gardener at work whose skills are far beyond mine. All summer long, emerging from the scarce soil between bricks on the ground next to the barrel containing my NBA draft pick Brandywine, has been a small but beautiful and perpetually blooming petunia.
When I first saw this wonderful thing happening (besides thinking that the petunia wasn’t long for this world) I thought of Jesus’ parable of The Sower. Most of us are familiar with the parable: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on… other seeds fell on…”
As those familiar with the parable know, the sower’s seeds fall to various “circumstances of ground” and while they all sprout some thrive and some don’t. The seeds that grow are the ones that have landed on the good soil.
Most of us familiar with the parable are also familiar with its “explanation,” an interpretation that follows the parable’s telling in the gospel narratives and assumes that Jesus’ use of the parable was allegorical; that the various conditions of soil represent various conditions of the human heart. The “good soil” in the explanation of the parable consists of those of us who have hearts capable of hearing God’s Word, minds capable to understand God’s will, and, following that, the capacity to bear fruit. At the end of the parable’s explanation the good-soil-hearers bear fruit and yield. In one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty, each of them producing a yield of extraordinary abundance!
The Parable of The Sower is one of only a few parables that occur in all three synoptic gospels. This fact leads us to believe that the parable is the real deal – a story that Jesus undoubtedly told. I’ve always loved The Parable of The Sower because as I hear it I also watch it happen… “As he (the sower) sowed, some seeds fell on the path, others fell on rocky ground, others fell among thorns…” What I see as is I hear this parable is not an unlikely scenario where Jesus, speaking to people who understood agriculture well, has a sower wasting seeds to prove a point or a farmer silly enough to cast costly seeds where they won’t thrive. Rather, I see a happy sower joyfully casting seeds. And I also see that all the while the seeds are cast there’s a hole in the bottom of the seed bag he carries in his arm and everywhere he walks to find the “good soil” – across the path and over the rocks and through the thorns – seeds are falling to the ground behind him; tiny miracle seeds planted in the most unlikely of places…
What I have witnessed this summer – that which has not grown or did grow in spite of or despite of my efforts – defies not only the “explanation” of the parable of the sower in the gospels but even the “good soil” conclusion of the parable as remembered. The experience makes me wonder about what Jesus said, and meant, when he said, “Listen!” And if he might have said, instead, “Look!”