The Four Soils

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Indiana, which I have called home for most of my life, is a state divided. 

It’s all because of a glacier.

The Wisconsin Glaciation, which happened about 30,000 years ago, covered all of Canada and most of the Upper Midwest with enormous sheets of slowly moving ice. 

The ice traveled as far south as the southern edge of modern-day Indianapolis.  It would have been a sight to see.  Geologists say the frozen wall would have towered far above the downtown skyline and the arenas where March Madness is currently underway. 

When the glaciers finally retreated, they left behind the Great Lakes and two very different Indiana landscapes.  The northern half of the state was crushed under the ice for thousands of years.  It’s flat as a pancake and boasts some of the most fertile soil on the planet.  The southern half of the state was spared the Wisconsin chapter of the Ice Age.  It features gently rolling hills interspersed by hollers and gulches.  Many of our nation’s most beautiful buildings are graced by blocks of southern Indiana limestone, which lies near the surface of the ground and is easily accessible. 

Indiana’s “farm state” reputation rests largely on the legacy of the northern ground conditions left behind by the Wisconsin Glacier. 

It’s a lot harder to raise crops on the slope of a southern hill crisscrossed by jutting limestone bedrock.

Rocks, weeds, changes in elevation, and differing depths of soil have been agricultural variables for thousands of years.  That was certainly true in the time of Jesus.  The crowds that heard him teach almost certainly had their share of Palestinian farmers.  They no doubt smiled when he presented what has become one of his most famous parables:

“What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the path, and birds ate it. Some fell in the rocky soil; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell amongst the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.  Are you listening to this?  Really listening?”  (Matthew 13:3-9)

In Bible times, farmers would “broadcast” their seed – that is, throw handfuls of seed in broad arcs over their gardens and fields. 

Every seed, if allowed to grow and reproduce, was possessed of sufficient biological power to yield an entire field of wheat.  But it all depended on where it landed.  Some surfaces doomed the seed from the start.  Other surfaces, because of the condition of the soil, guaranteed lavish fruitfulness.

In the same way, Jesus says, the “seed” of the new life contained in his teaching has the potential to turn somebody’s life inside-out and upside-down.  Or it can land with a disappointing thud.  It all depends on the condition of our hearts.

The Parable of the Soils describes four such conditions.

First, there’s the Hard Heart, represented by the seed that falls on the path – the hard, unyielding surface where countless human footsteps have mashed the soil into a kind of first century asphalt.  Inside all of our hearts there are barren places that God’s Word cannot penetrate – places that are as infertile as the middle of Main Street because we’ve become cynical. 

God may speak a word to us concerning our anger – the way we snap at other people before we really listen to them.  Even though it’s just a humble little seed, it will, if given the chance, produce a harvest of tenderness and understanding.  But if it lands in one of those places where we have taught ourselves to say, “Yeah, whatever,” we won’t even have the capacity to hear what God is saying.  The birds eat it for breakfast.

And just like that, the chance to live a different kind of life has come and gone.

Second, Jesus says, there’s the Shallow Heart, represented by the seed that falls into rocky terrain.  Think of the thin layer of soil that lies atop limestone bedrock in parts of southern Indiana. 

In the shallow soil, seeds get off to a great start.  But they quickly wither because there’s no place for roots to take hold.  As Jesus comments concerning his own parable later in the chapter, “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root.  They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

Mark Twain once remarked that it’s easy to quit smoking.  In fact, he had done it hundreds of times.  It’s easy to resolve that life is going to be different.  From now on, we’re never going to mess up again.  But human experience demonstrates that promises made in the heat of emotion – if unsupported by new habits and new attitudes – rarely endure.

Jesus goes on to describe the Crowded Heart.  He says, “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants… As [these individuals] go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature.” 

Notice that Jesus says that the seed falls among the thorns.  The thorns are already there.  God’s word – God’s invitation to live a different way – always comes into the existing joys and problems of our lives.  What does spiritual growth feel like?  It can feel like a series of rude awakenings.  Jesus challenges us.  He’s intent on ripping up and rearranging the cozy little patterns we’ve so carefully cultivated to stay in control of our own lives.

In the end, he forces us to choose:  Will we cling to our bank accounts, our worries, and our coping mechanisms, or we will cling to him?

Finally, there’s the Fruitful Heart – the place where a seed hits the jackpot. 

What’s the difference between a heart where God’s life never takes root and a heart where we continue to come alive? 

It’s character.  It’s staying power.  It’s our willingness to open ourselves to God’s Spirit even when we don’t feel like it.

Character is the ability to follow through on a worthy decision long after the emotion of that decision has passed. 

May God bless you this Holy Week with the deep, fertile soil of a receptive heart.