By Debie Thomas
When I looked up this week’s lectionary texts a few days ago, I practically fell over with relief. “JOY!” I thought. “Thank God! These texts are bursting with JOY!”
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands,” the prophet Isaiah promises his people in a glorious description of God’s blessing. “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, and they shout and sing together for joy,” writes the Psalmist. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul declares to the Romans — a stunningly joyful claim if there ever was one. “A sower went out to sow,” Jesus tells a vast crowd in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, and the seeds he flung all over the place in joyful abandon “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
If you’re like me, anxious about the surging pandemic, isolated from loved ones, weary of the ugliness infecting global politics, and either heartbroken or furious (or both) in the face of systemic injustice, inequality, violence, and death in your own community or country, then you need some joy right now. Boy, do we ever need some joy.
So let’s press in and see where joy resides in these sacred texts. According to these passages of Scripture, what makes for delight? For pleasure? For pure, unqualified joy?
What I notice as I read the lectionary this week is the deep and persistent connection between joy and lavishness. Between joy and plenitude. Between joy and indiscriminate generosity. Dare I push the connection even further? What I notice is a link between joy and abandon. Between joy and wastefulness.
Isaiah describes a God who pours rain and snow down from heaven without measure, watering everything on earth in the full confidence that what needs to grow will grow: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
The Psalmist writes of overflowing pastures, years crowned with bounty, rivers full of water, and wagon tracks that “overflow with richness.” Paul makes no qualifications to his thundering claim about God’s free gift of salvation. There really is no condemnation, because “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
But for me, it is this week’s Gospel text that makes the most compelling case for divine extravagance, and its relationship to joy. Sitting in a boat near shore, Jesus looks out at the vast crowds gathered on the beach, and tells them a parable: A sower goes out to sow. As he sows, some seeds fall on the path, and the birds come and eat them up. Other seeds fall on rocky ground, where they spring up quickly, but wither when the sun burns their shallow roots. Other seeds fall among thorns, and are choked. Still other seeds fall on good soil, and bring forth abundant grain.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ve read this parable many times, and focused exclusively on the four types of terrain Jesus describes. You’ve thought about the people you preach to week after week, and worried over who is hardened, rocky, thorny, or “good.” You’ve agonized over how to find and cultivate more fertile soil in your church or community. You’ve analyzed and quantified, assessed and judged. You’ve evaluated ministry plans and strategies, pruned leadership commissions and committees. You’ve bought special pots, invested in high end fertilizers and weed killers, and counted, sorted, and planted your seeds with exquisite care, placing each bit of God’s good news in its optimal place, to guarantee an impressive harvest.
Or else — also like me — you’ve read this parable and walked away, feeling bad about your own faith life. Feeling judged. Feeling inadequate. Feeling anxious. You’ve wondered how to make your spiritual soil less hard, less rocky, less thorny. You’ve designed all sorts of self-improvement projects to fix what’s “wrong” with you. More prayer. Less Twitter. More Bible study. Less cynicism. More church. Less television. You’ve read the parable as an indictment of your relationship with a Sower who just can’t seem to find an appropriately hospitable environment in your messed up heart.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with planning and pruning. There’s nothing wrong with honest and humble self-assessment in our spiritual lives. I’m not condemning these things out of hand, or suggesting that they have no place in our journeys as Christians. But I think we miss something crucial when we read this Gospel text as “The Parable of the Four Terrains.” Because that is not what it is. It is “The Parable of the Sower.” It is a parable about the nature and character of God. About God’s kingdom, God’s provision, and God’s extravagant generosity when it comes to us, his beloved creations.
Consider again the actions of the sower as Jesus describes them: The sower goes out to sow, and as he sows, the seeds fall everywhere. Everywhere. Imagine it — a sower blissfully walking across the fields and meadows, the back alleys and sidewalks, the playgrounds and parking lots of this world, fistfuls of seed in his quick-to-open hands. There is no way to contain that much seed. No way to sort or save it. Of course it will spill over. Of course it will fall through his fingers and cover the ground. Of course it will scatter in every direction. How can it not?
But here’s the surprising part of the story: the sower doesn’t mind. He doesn’t mind one bit. There is in him a confident realism, a sense that what needs to flourish will flourish. Maybe not all at once. Maybe not everywhere. But that’s okay. In other words, the sower in Jesus’s parable is wholly unconcerned about where the seed falls or lands or settles — all he chooses to do is keep sowing. Keep flinging. Keep opening his hands. Why? Because there’s enough seed to go around. There’s enough seed to accomplish the sower’s purposes. There’s enough seed to “waste.”
As I imagine this profligate sower walking in and around and through the varied terrains of our lives, I can’t help but wonder about my own contrasting stinginess. The truth is, I don’t tend to believe that there’s enough Good News to go around. I don’t begin with the generous assumption that every kind of soil can benefit from the seed. I don’t have confidence that God’s Word will go out from God’s mouth and accomplish what God purposes for it, no matter where it lands. I don’t trust in God’s endless ability to soften hard ground, clear away rocks, and cut through the most stubborn of thorns to make way for a harvest. I don’t care about the birds as much as God does.
In short, I forget that all the terrain — all the terrain — is finally God’s, under God’s provision and sustained by God’s love. Who am I to tell God, the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, what “good soil” looks like? Who am I to decide who is worthy and who is not of the sower’s generosity? Who am I to hoard what I have been so freely and lavishly given? Who am I to look at God’s profligate blessing and call it waste?
If only our failures as the Church were the opposite of what they’ve been in relation to this parable. How I wish that the Church — the Church across the ages, the Church across all cultures, denominations, and circumstances — were known for its absurd generosity. How I wish we were famous for being like the Sower, going out in joy, scattering seed before and behind us in the widest arcs our arms can make. How I wish the world could laugh at our lavishness instead of weeping in the wake of our stinginess. How I wish the people in our lives could see a quiet, gentle confidence in us when we tend to the hard, rocky, thorny places in our communities, instead of finding us abrasive, judgmental, exacting, and insular. How I wish seeds of love, mercy, justice, humility, honor, and truthfulness would fall through our fingers in such appalling quantities that even the birds, the rocks, the thorns, and the shallow, sun-scorched corners of the world would burst into colorful, riotous, joyous life.
In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?
The thing about this parable is that at some deep, intuitive level, we recognize its wisdom. Whether we want to admit it or not, we know that Jesus is telling us the truth. We understand that seeds are mysterious. We know that the most elegant and carefully cultivated gardens can fail, while a profusion of weedy, vibrant flowers pushes through a crack in the pavement and brightens a neighborhood. We’ve seen how new life can spring from the deadest, most shriveled places in our lives — places we’ve given up on, places we assumed were hardened beyond hope. We’ve witnessed inhospitable environments being altered by love. We know that joy follows from selflessness and generosity, not from caution and miserliness.
In the end, the problem is not our ignorance in the face of this Gospel; the problem is our unwillingness to follow in the footsteps of the extravagant Sower. His carefree generosity worries us. His seeming wastefulness offends us. Why won’t he discriminate? Why won’t he wait and withhold — at least a little bit? Why won’t he privilege the terrain that’s more deserving?
Because that’s not the kind of Sower he is. Look at him, tossing seeds to the wind with a daring and delighted smile on his face, inviting us to toss our own handfuls across the earth and share his joy. Will we?
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.