Gone to Seed

Gone to Seed  |  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The lectionary leads us to the parable† of the sower, or the parable of the seeds. Why not just read the whole chapter of Matthew 13? It will do us no harm. No one would read the first verse of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and stop reading, but we act as though we have an innate limitation to the number of verses of scripture we can endure.


Watering a GardenWhatever name we may give this passage, those of us who have spent any time at all around Christianity are familiar with the verses. Jesus talks about seed falling on a path, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. As we could have guessed without hearing the parable, the first three situations do not yield good results.

Three gospels contain a version of this parable—Mark, Matthew and Luke. All three of these gospels also contain versions of the explanation Jesus gives to his followers, who are not quick studies or bright students. The seeds and where they fall illustrate differing reactions to hearing the “word of the kingdom,” the gospel story itself.

The explanation comes across as a simple and rigid way of understanding the parable. While we like to comfort ourselves with the notion that we are the good soil—who wants to own up to being a thorn bush or a pile of rocks?—we also engage in a bit of Christianized schadenfreude, joy at the misfortune of others.

Oh, come on. Admit it. We do. There is something pleasant about pointing out the people whose minds are empty bird feeders and whose hearts are full of rocks, and we surely know better than to saunter into a briar patch.

That pleasure we take at the failures of others, mixed with the secret fear that we ourselves might stumble, goes a long way toward explaining why most of us don’t want to examine what Jesus is saying.

For instance, a friend once had the temerity to suggest to a group of church folk that the different soils might represent the differing states of our own hearts. Any of us might, she suggested, on any given day find that our hearts are like rocks, or we might end up impaled on the thorns of distraction. You can imagine the reception she got.

We don’t like being robbed of schadenfreude. And we don’t like people meddling with our preconceived notions of God, no matter who does it. Look where meddling got the prophets. Look where it got Jesus.

Here’s an even worse idea than the personal interpretation. Suppose that we, the folk who have heard the “word of the kingdom” and taken it to heart, are now the spiritual gardeners of this new Eden. As God casts the gospel story alongside the lives of people who have not heard it, suppose we are the ones responsible for preparing the soil. We are our neighbors’ gardeners. We are the rock finders, the weed pullers, the pruners of briars and thorns. We are the scarecrows.

Well that is no good, is it? That makes it sound as though we’re called to help the people around us. Yep, those people. The ones with stone hearts, brains like bird seed, and who are prickly all over. Now who gets to enjoy some schadenfreude, eh? Not us, not now. This thing was much more fun when we were spectators.Wild orchid 021

It explains why Jesus waited till he was seated in a boat, out on the water, before telling this parable. He k new the crowd on the shore. Maybe he didn’t want to be standing there when they figured out all of the implications.

You know how people can be. Welcome to your new garden.


† – Note on the word “Parable.” The word literally meant something like “thrown beside.” It was a story thrown out alongside a truth in order to illustrate the meaning. 

A Subtle Shift

Memory is a tricky thing. Long after an event, we are left with our memories of it. Tree Book TreeMore to the point, we are left with our memories of the details, what people did or did not do, what certain people said or perhaps left unsaid. The past is gone, but our understanding of it is very much alive, growing, changing.

The same is true of stories. That is what memories are, in a way, a collage of imprinted and recorded actions, words and feelings that have been formed into a narrative in our minds, our story. Though we think the past has happened, in our minds it is still happening. The past never stops changing.

Take one of the most famous of stories, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It may be no one knows just how old the story is. The final written form, so far as the scriptural version is concerned, was recorded centuries ago, all the bits jotted down. Yet, it keeps changing.

Ask anyone familiar with the story, and that includes many people who think that they really are not, and each person will tell you a slightly different version. Among those who are familiar with the story, you will hear something more fascinating: they will add something to it.

Take the serpent, who in later retelling becomes the devil. It isn’t the devil in the original story. It is just a wily serpent, a wild animal, more crafty than any other, but an animal, one who talks. We shouldn’t be surprised that the serpent talks. After all, a little later in the story, God is walking like a human being would walk in the garden.

The point is that there is a subtle shift between what we actually read and what we say is in the story, just as there is a subtle shift in our memories between what happened and what we remember. What we remember is not what happened. That may be for the better. We may remember difficult events in the past through the filter of forgiveness, or simply with more perspective, and without even knowing that we are doing it. That shift may be a blessing, sometimes a very great one.

The same kind of subtle shift in the stories that form us can likewise be a blessing, bringing more meaning and substance to our understandings. The shift can also be a curse, undermining our ability to hear what the stories are really telling us.

Eve and Adam reached a point when they ate the forbidden fruit. No actual apples are mentioned, not really, and nobody in the garden says anything about sin, original or otherwise. They reached a point when they gained self awareness and a sense of moral conscience. Interestingly, in our own lives we call that moment maturity, not the Fall.

Likewise, there may be something older and simpler even in the written form of the story itself, something before the shift, so to speak. God tells the woman that she shall have children, though it will also bring pain. God tells Adam that he shall work, and that it will be difficult, but that his work will feed him and his family. Later, all three things, awareness of our mortality and childbirth and work, begin to be called consequences and curses by theologians.

I suggest we might consider a slightly different shift, one that may be more helpful in our lives. Just as the human race at large, an eon ago, gained a sense of mortality and of morality and of self awareness, each of us as individuals go through the same process. Once we embrace our own mortality and step out of the garden of our youth, we find two things that will sustain us and that will remain after us: our children and our work. Neither is a curse. Our understanding and appreciation of each flows from our maturity. Neither our children nor our work depend upon sin, original or otherwise. Neither are consequences of our flaws; instead, each is a means to reach beyond our flaws and our limitations.

Our family and our work, that is what we have. We may also want to allow another subtle shift: our family may be more than our biological relatives, and our work is more than our job. We have the people near us, and we have the work we do around, among and sometimes despite them. Whether these things are blessings or curses will depend on our point of view, our memories, and all our subtle shifts.