“AND WAIT…”: Photo art by Gloria M. Chang
“And wait…”: Photo art by Gloria M. Chang
“The Seed Teaches us to Wait”: Photo art by Gloria M. Chang
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?” ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land he lived in to answer that question. It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see olive trees growing beneath you. The Mount of Olives just west of us.
Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, it’s barren desert. Then, as you go from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.
Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee; it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place were he lived.
In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observed that when Jesus went from the highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.
For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the distant hills and valleys of his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants that challenged the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but not around Nazareth.
Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt was the building material for houses and synagogues there. It made for sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)
Basalt also made for a rich soil in which everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)
The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.
The weather in the low lying lands was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)
These observations aren’t found in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. Jesus was influenced by where he lived, as we are.
And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.
Lord, help us appreciate the land we live in, and gain wisdom from it.
In today’s gospel from Matthew 13, 1-23, Jesus offers a parable that interprets the mounting opposition he faces from many sides early in his ministry. For one thing, people in Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum–cites and towns along the Sea of Galilee that received him warmly for his miracles and his teaching– begin to turn away from him. (Matthew 11,16-24)) The Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious leaders, accuse him of breaking Jewish laws and being possessed by the devil. (Matthew 12,22-34) Some of his own family from Nazareth come to take him home because they think he’d out of his mind. (Matthew 12, 46-50) Finally, his own disciples don’t seem to understand him.
What explains the desertion, opposition, lack of understanding towards him and his ministry that began with great acclaim?
The parable of the seed and the sower is Jesus‘ answer to what he faced, but also what the Word of God faces continually from humanity. God’s Word is received by the human heart like seed received in the ground.
The seed is life-giving, but if it falls on rocky ground it’s eaten right away by the birds of the air. If it falls on thin soil it fails after awhile because it has no roots; if it falls among thorns and weeds they choke it. But if it falls on good ground the seed produces fruit beyond anything you expect.
The parable first applies to the world Jesus faced, but it’s also a picture of how humanity in every age receives the Word of God. Our hearts can be hard, fickle, vain, proud, unheeding, but we can also accomplish great deeds. The seed’s not at fault, it’s the ground it falls on.
Still, the sower never stops sowing seed. life-giving seed. That’s also important to remember. God never withholds his grace.
In a poem called “Putting in the Seed” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s spring and getting dark, yet the farmer keeps working his field. Someone from the house goes to fetch him home. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a
“ Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”
Is Frost’s farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth an image of God, the Sower, casting saving grace onto the world, in season and out, because he loves it so ?
Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower seems to suggest it. The land surrounding the Sea of Galilee where Jesus ministered is still a fruitful land where crops grow in abundance, as they did in his time. It’s a blessed place. In a place like that, the sower scatters his seed confidently, not afraid where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return. Because of his love and trust of the land, the sower keeps sowing.
Can we say that God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives? Like the seasons that bring snow and rain, grace is never withheld. God, who loves it so, blesses the earth and all of us.
The sower still sows; the snow and rain still fall. That brings us hope.