Planting on Unpromising Ground

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:1-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 13:3-9.

I cannot remember when and where I first heard this parable. It might have been in Sunday School or church. But more likely, I heard it from the Bible story book my mother read to my sister and me every night at bed time when we were still small. Perhaps if I had been more spiritually aware at that point, I would have been contemplating whether I qualified as “good soil.” Instead, I wondered what sort of lame brain farmer would waste good seed on ground where it was unlikely to survive, much less thrive. If good seed has any value at all, it would behoove the farmer to ensure that every kernel finds its way to soil in which it can grow and bear fruit.

Then again, perhaps I was onto something. Maybe it isn’t about the soil. After all, plants sometimes display an uncanny ability to grow where you wouldn’t think anything could take root-such as on paved thoroughfares. The good soil we know today was built up over centuries of seed falling upon rock, penetrating its crevices with roots, dying, decaying and mixing with weathered stone. I can attest, from having witnessed in that vast untamed wilderness known as my back yard, that seeds brought by birds, runoff and wind from my neighbor’s Eden like paradise somehow manage to bloom and thrive in my tangle of native shrubs and wild grass. I guess it goes to show that you can never tell where you will find “good soil.”

That brings me to our lesson from Isaiah. This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start and declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return. Furthermore, he assures the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.

The prophet’s assertions are bold, given that the return from exile is at this point merely aspirational. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks will come to fruition just as surely as new growth from rich soil nurtured by the rain. Isaiah brings his prophecy to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle in the midst of the desert. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.

We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, their return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. The road home was difficult and life in the land of promise turned out to be precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and their temple.

If asked whether the prophetic words of Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to seize the opportunity God had given them for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the promise that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even Isaiah could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.

That brings us full circle back to Jesus’ parable. It is not for the sower to decide whether or not a patch of ground is worth seeding. God would have us sow God’s gracious words freely, liberally-one might even say wastefully from the standpoint of our own shortsighted perspectives. God’s Word echoes through sanctuaries where none seem to be listening. It finds its way into conversations where it is not welcome. God’s word is frequently drowned out by the loud and angry voices of hatred, prejudice and violence. But even in the midst of such hostile environments the word finds enough soil to sprout and grow. Just when it seems as though the word has been carried away, starved to death and smothered, the day arrives when it bears fruit that topples monuments to white supremacy, shatters border walls and brings tyrants down from their thrones. “It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11.

Here is a poem by Robert Finch reflecting on the nature of words, their powers and their seed like quality. This brief verse can be for us an invitation to contemplate how God’s word is sown into the fabric of our lives and how it might take root, grow and produce.

Words

There are words that can only be said on paper.
It is fortunate they are few. And others shrink
On paper to the thinness of dried ink
And fade at the mind into forgotten vapour.

There are words that can only be said once
And have been said before that fact is plain.
In a sense no word can ever be said again.
And none can be said again in the same sense.

There are words that have to be said or written,
Answers and questions, times to be observed,
But most words die in a cause they have not served
Or bite forever what never should be bitten.

And then there are the words that are left unsaid
And the undetectable words used in their stead.

Source: Poetry, April 1941, p. 19. Robert Finch (1900-1995) was a Canadian poet and academic. He twice won Canada’s top literary honor, the Governor General’s Award, for his poetry. Finch was educated at the University of Toronto and taught French there for four decades. He was considered an expert on French poetry. Finch began writing his own poetry in the early 1920s, but due largely to the scarcity of opportunity for publication during the depression, he did not see any of his poetry in print until 1936. His first book of poems was published in 1946. You can sample more of Finch’s poetry in the above issue of Poetry.

2 thoughts on “Planting on Unpromising Ground

  1. Thank you ! I am fortified by the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and this 1940 quote from Rabbi Jacob Kohn “ We have seen so many ancient tyrannies pass from earth since Egypt and Rome held dominion that our eyes are directed not to the tragic present, but to the beyond, wherein the arc of history will be found bending toward justice, victory and freedom.”
    Let the seeds grow in places that are not recognized as being barren.

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