Southern California is a maze of concrete freeways: two lanes, four lanes, eight lanes, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, special-use lanes, bus lanes, peak-hour reversible-direction lanes, and more. A literal maze of concrete interconnecting over 8,000 square miles.
Southern California drivers fear the radio announcement that a sig alert has been issued on their route. A “sig alert” is when there’s a traffic incident that will tie up two or more lanes of a freeway for a couple of hours or longer. At these times, traffic comes to a complete standstill. There’s great irony in being stopped on the freeway beneath a sign warning of a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour; during a sig alert, 65 inches per hour is more likely.
During a sig alert, some drivers become impatient. They honk, pound their fists on the dashboard, or even get out of their cars to try to see what’s going on. However, more patient drivers, knowing that they are powerless to change the situation, might take note of their surroundings. And if they do so, they’ll see that through the feet of concrete and rebar that make up the freeways, there are tiny cracks. And through those cracks, weeds and small flowers have somehow managed to take root and grow. Talk about hostile ground!
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is the familiar parable about the sower. The sower who indiscriminately sows seed in different types of ground, and the relative success, or lack thereof, of that seed to take root, grow, and flourish based on the soil type on which it falls.
This is the first parable that appears in the Gospel of Matthew. The New Interpreter’s Bible explains that the Greek word for “parable” is parabole, which simply means “something cast beside,” something to explain or clarify. But it isn’t quite that simple. In Jesus’ parables, something from everyday life is “cast beside” something else, often in new and unexpected ways, to open the listeners’ hearts to new truths that may have different meanings in different situations. As Biblical scholar and professor David Mosely noted in a recent lecture, parables are not Aesop’s Fables that we can distill down to a one-line teaching that is applicable to all situations. The meanings are polyvalent, having more than one strain, and are often difficult to discern.
But in today’s gospel reading, we are fortunate that Jesus actually provides an interpretation. This parable is one of the few times when Jesus explains what he means. From his explanation we can ask ourselves, “What type of ground do we provide for God’s seed?”
Is your heart like the path in today’s parable, impenetrable to God’s word? Are you like the hard, concrete patch of freeway, impenetrable to the seed of God’s love to break your surface and transform your grey, exhaust-stained surface? Maybe you remember a time on your own spiritual journey when you were closed to the Christian message. Or maybe you came here today as a favor to a friend or family member, but you didn’t expect anything in your life to change. You’re not really receptive to the Word to break open your life and change you forever. If not, that’s OK. For everything there is a season, and from today’s parable we learn that God is an indiscriminate sower, always there with an infinite supply of seed should the smallest crack appear in the surface of your heart.
Or maybe your heart is rocky ground. Maybe the Word of God took root in your life at some time in the past, but then hard times came along and the ground became hostile for your faith growth.
A young Episcopal widower tells a story about how, after the death of his spouse, a group of Christians from another worshipping community came to him. They assumed he was angry with God, blaming God, and ready to close off his heart. He remembers being a bit perplexed; his experience was that God was there, grieving deeply, and sustaining, supporting, and holding him in the palm of God’s hand. This man’s seeds of faith had been properly watered and nourished, and had grown into a faith that sustained him during a very hard time.
Maybe in your life you’ve come to a point where you’ve been angry at God, pointing a finger in blame. It’s easy to do. Most of us don’t navigate the freeway of life without hitting a major pothole or even coming across a bridge that has been washed out. But if we have been open to the Word of God and have nourished that Word in a worshipping community that proclaims a compassionate God of love, hard times become a greater opening for God’s love to flourish and grow rather than faith-destroying obstacles.
Maybe your heart is surrounded by thorns. Maybe you’ve heard the Word of God, but the lure of all that the secular world offers has diverted your spiritual journey. Much like coming across a “road closed” or “detour” sign on the freeway, you were on the right path, but earthly cares diverted you. There are the obvious diversions, including wealth, power, addiction, and lust. But there are the not-so-obvious ones as well, such as complacency or self-pity, or even a preoccupation with good things, like work and volunteer activities. To avoid diversion on our road of faith, we must make sure that all we do in this life branches from the stalk of God’s Word growing in our hearts.
And finally, there are the lucky ones. Those followers of Christ who are open to the Word of God, understand, and yield a great crop. Comparatively, it is like being stuck on the freeway during a sig alert next to a beautiful and lush park. You look from your vantage point at the poor flowers who have struggled to grow in the hostile environment of a crack in the cement and compare their experience to the experience of the trees, flowers, lush grasses, and shrubs growing on the adjacent ground. Those trees and shrubs never struggled; never felt the rush of a semi-truck over their surface. They were never choked by exhaust. For them, growth has been seamless. If your spiritual journey has been like that of a tree in the park, give thanks. You are fortunate. Pray for the flowers trying to grow through the freeway below, be patient, and help to nourish those other flowers in whatever way you can.
This parable ends with Jesus saying, “Let anyone with ears listen!” Yes, from this parable we can extrapolate that 75 percent of the seed will fall on ground that ultimately will not yield fruit. But we also learn that God is an indiscriminate sower. That God continues to cast seed, regardless of the type of ground. And that ultimately, against the odds, God’s seed bears fruit and yields. And that is the Good News. Let anyone with ears listen.