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Friday, March 1, 2019

Good Soil

    Thought I understood the parable Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13 about a farmer planting his crops. Maybe not. Or at least not as well as I’d imagined.

    Verse 3: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Jesus describes the various types of dirt that it falls on, along with the results, culminating with, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (verse 8). The seed fails to produce any fruit in the other locations.

    What does this good soil look like? I’ve always pictured it as being something like me when I became a Christian: eager to learn, ready to commit my life to God, promising to follow wherever He might lead. Putting my talents at His disposal. A pretty good person who nevertheless recognizes that she’s not quite good enough to earn her salvation. She accepts her need for the sacrificial atonement that Jesus provides, but somewhere deep inside she kinda feels like God’s getting a special deal having her on His side. She’s good soil. Isn’t that what He’s looking for?

    Maybe not.

    I can’t believe it’s taken me more than forty years to realize this. How many times have I read Jesus’ words as He says things like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28)? Would good soil feel weary and burdened? Or “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Is He really saying that the sick and the sinners are the good soil that He’s looking for? How do you grow fruit in that kind of dirt?
    I’ve known for many years that God has a heart for the broken, the lost, the suffering (Psalm 51:17, Deuteronomy 10:18, Matthew 25:31-46, to give just a few examples). That’s one of the characteristics that drew me to Him in the first place. But I never really applied that to this parable about the farmer. Doesn’t Jesus also say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)? Aren’t we supposed to delay that decision to follow Him until we know we can do it well? Until we’ve at least partially earned a place in heaven by being good soil?

    Maybe the question is: Which comes first, sowing the seed on that which is already good soil, or denying ourselves and taking up our crosses? I guess I’ve always assumed that the good soil was that which was ready and eager to take up its cross even before the seed was sown. The soil that deserved to be saved. But maybe I’ve got it backward. Maybe the richest dirt is broken, hurting, damaged sinners. Maybe it’s not until after we receive new life from God through Jesus that we’re able to deny ourselves. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit, who has now come to live within us, that makes it possible for us to support the crosses that we carry.

    Was I really so eager and willing to give my all for Him at the moment of my conviction that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)? No. I came to Him solely for what He would do for me. I just wanted to go to heaven. No altruism, no passionate commitment, no denouncing the stuff of the world to follow Him alone. Those kinds of things came later. After the Holy Spirit entered my heart. My “good soil” wasn’t good as I would define goodness.

    Maybe the unfruitful soils are actually those who don’t realize just how broken and unworthy they are. The encounter Jesus had with Simon, a Pharisee who invited Him into his home, helps me understand it better. Jesus started the conversation:

    “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

    Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

    “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said (Luke 7:41-43).

    Maybe the best soil is the one with the greatest debt canceled at the cross. The dirtiest, meanest sinners. The ones I hesitate to even approach.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how believers could do a better job of reaching the lost. I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if we focused more on the good soil, rather than scattering the seed somewhat randomly. Wouldn’t we get better results? Wouldn’t we be more likely to develop dedicated disciples, rather than just winning lukewarm converts?

    But I don’t think I would be very good at identifying that dirt. I’d want to go to the people who seem to have their act together and are just waiting for someone to invite them into the club. I’d walk right by the ones who owe the biggest debt. The ones who would love their forgiver the most. The good soil that would produce an abundant crop.

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