A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 10, 2011.
3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’
Farming has changed since Jesus taught what he called the Parable of the Sower. But whether one is growing a crop in what was Palestine in the 1st Century of the Christian era or anywhere else in the 21st Century, a crop that is seven times the amount sowed is a good harvest. In the parable, Jesus spoke about harvests that are thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times more than what was planted.
It would be wonderful if our ministry efforts could produce results like that. Wouldn’t you like to be part of a ministry that was fruitful? Wouldn’t you like to plan a new ministry that becomes so fruitful?
Many people try to find churches and ministries that demonstrate this kind of miraculous growth. Preachers, church planters, and church growth advisors are told to choose the location carefully. Locate in the best neighborhoods. Focus on recruiting new members who are influential, prosperous, and well-educated. Smart farmers plant in “good soil,” don’t they? Smart investors study the market and launch their business ventures in places where they have the best chance of favorable outcomes.
At one level, this makes sense. Farming, ministry, and any other venture are hard enough even under favorable conditions. Weeds grow in good soil that is well-fertilized and tended. Even good soil has to deal with varmints that try to eat young fruit before it matures. If we have to put up with frustration and anxiety in farming, ministry, and life even under the best of circumstances, it makes sense to try to find “good soil” where we can have the best chance of success. And we wouldn’t expect much of a crop from seed planted on packed, rocky, or thorny ground.
But there’s a big problem with this way of thinking. It doesn’t square with how Jesus explained what God is doing. It’s possible to hear the parable yet not it’s true meaning. That’s why Jesus ended it by saying “Let anyone with ears listen!” Hearing and listening are not the same.
As much as we might want to call this the parable of the good soil or the parable of the fruitful harvest, this lesson isn’t mainly about finding “good soil” where we have the best odds of being fruitful. It’s about a sower who planted seed where no sensible farmer would ever plant—along pathways where birds were likely to eat the seed before it even germinate, and in rocky ground where the seed wouldn’t be able to establish a healthy root system, and in places where the seed would germinate but be choked by weeds—as well as in “good ground.”
This isn’t the parable of the good soil. It isn’t the parable of the four soils. It isn’t the parable of the seed. It’s the parable of the sower. Jesus is trying to get us to see his ministry—and our relation to it—from God’s perspective.
Some people never understood what Jesus was about. Jesus was even run out of his hometown synagogue and almost murdered in Nazareth by people who knew his family but couldn’t accept his teachings. And some ministry efforts seem to be met with the same lack of understanding.
Then there were people who at first responded enthusiastically to the gospel, but who dropped out when the going got rough. You recall how the disciples broke ranks and deserted Jesus when his enemies came for him. Some people are eager for God as long as they can be comfortable. But life can be rocky, can’t it. Jesus had to deal with rocky ground people—people who were eager beavers but who lacked deep roots.
Jesus also had to deal with people whose faith had to fight the choking influences of worldly ambition, desire for wealth, and success. Judas Iscariot wanted to be part of a popular and powerful movement. James and John wanted to be seen and known as political insider to Jesus. Personal ambition, greed, and desire to be “successful” can choke ministry.
The point of the parable isn’t about finding the best ground for ministry. It’s really about the sower! It’s not about our successfulness, but about God’s extravagant grace that invests divine love and truth even where we least expect it to take root, grow, mature, and be fruitful. Jesus was saying to his first disciples and to us that faithful ministry operates from the weird notion that God’s grace and truth can and must go everywhere.
God is like the sower in this parable. God knows that some hearts are hard, some are rocky, some are weedy, and some are more fertile. God knows that some places are less tolerant of the gospel of grace and truth than others. God knows that some people want a “feel good” religion but will jump ship when ministry becomes unpopular, unprofitable, or simply tedious. And God knows that some people are so invested in being successful, in “prosperity,” power, or whatever else may be the badges of success that it will be hard for them to mature into fruitful agents of divine love and truth.
We who follow Jesus should remember that God isn’t selective. Some places and people are less attractive targets for ministry than others, but God wants them to receive the seed of grace and truth anyway. Some people will drop off when the going gets tough, but God wants them to receive the seed of divine grace and truth anyway. Some people are so caught up with being socially acceptable, personally comfortable, or wealthy that they can’t mature into sacrificial and prophetic agents of divine grace and truth. God beckons them anyway.
The whole redemptive history shows that God isn’t cherry picking people or places. God doesn’t red-line. God isn’t the source of elitism and exclusivity.
- Adam and Eve threw everything away that God entrusted to them in Eden. God invested in their descendants anyway.
- Abram and Sarah were old and worn out. God invested in them anyway.
- David was the runt of his family—not a likely person to be selected king by any means. God invested in David anyway.
- Jacob was a cheat who exploited his brother, conspired with his mother to defraud his father, and who stole from his father-in-law. God invested in him anyway.
- Samson appears to have been a sensualist. Rahab was a harlot. God invested in them anyway.
- Mary was a poor teenage girl of no particular interest to anyone except a young carpenter named Joseph. God invested in her anyway.
- Saul of Tarsus persecuted the young Christian movement and even held coats while others stoned Stephen. God invested in him anyway.
- And you and I didn’t look like “good ground.” God invested in us anyway.
That’s the good news! God is determined to invest divine love and truth with people and in places that are dreary as well as places and people that seem more promising. Living for God involves working with people and in places that are rocky. Living for God involves being agents of divine love and truth in places and with people who only want a prosperity religion. This is good news because that means God has included every person and every place and every situation in the redemptive plan.
You and I are part of God’s extravagant and indiscriminate grace in the world. We sometimes find ourselves facing situations where ministry is hard, frustrating, and painful. According to Jesus, this is because God sees “good ground” potential in every person and place.
According to Jesus, God sees a potential for fruitfulness where others would predict failure. According to Jesus, God believes in the miracle of fruitfulness. God believes. God cares. God loves. And God has called us to come alongside God’s redemptive work in the world even with people and situations that don’t look promising.
Why? Because God knows that fruitfulness doesn’t begin with “good ground.” Fruitfulness begins with hope in the promise of a harvest. This parable calls us to trust the God who believes a crop can be harvested from any ground. And to prove it, God sent Jesus against all the odds. For Jesus and for us, fruitfulness in ministry means being God’s agents of grace anywhere and everywhere.
God believes any ground can become “good ground.” God believes our ground can be changed. God believes in hope. Hallelujah!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.