When March arrives I take a sheet of paper and sketch a map of my front yard. I outline how to squeeze as many vegetable plants into my corner of the cityscape.
Urban gardening returns me to high school geometry class as I measure the landscape, drawing accurate dimensions for the jigsaw puzzle of oval and trapezoid beds — my attempt at maximizing the space.
After my deliberative and conscientious planning, I get my hands dirty. I dig out rows, plopping the seeds in the earth, then covering them with soil.
I’m careful with my seeds. I don’t over sow. I save what I can for the next season.
Finally, I stick a twig in the ground to mark where I planted — to know where to water and watch for seedlings to pop up.
I am nothing like the gardener of Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:1-7 and Matthew 13:4-7. That sower scatters seed willy-nilly: on a sidewalk, among the rocks, in thorny bushes — here, there and everywhere, without a plan, without attention, without prudence.
“Some seed fell on the path. . . . Other seed fell on rocky ground. . . . Other seed fell among thorns” (Mark 4:1-7 / Matthew 13:4-7).
The sower appears absentminded, perhaps a bit irresponsible. A poor steward of resources, for certain. I would never put that person in charge of my garden. I’m not wasteful, I’m not careless, I don’t scatter indiscriminately.
I wouldn’t let Jesus’ sower anywhere near my packets of seeds. I don’t want them to end up in my gravel driveway or on the street.
In the parable, as luck would have it, handfuls of seed land in fertile ground. “Other seed fell on good soil and brought forth grain,” Jesus says, “growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:8 / Matthew 13:8).
A reasonable farmer would maximize productivity by focusing on the really good soil, the plot with the hundredfold return. Invest labor there. But the sower doesn’t seem interested in soil performance at all, nor in adjustments to planting strategies.
The sower has other concerns, other motivations. Something else is going on in the story. This is, after all, a parable about what God is like.
The passage introduces us to a God who doesn’t calculate where to plant life, where to plant goodness in the world, based on a cost-benefit analysis. As the sower in the story, God makes no yield projections, no judgments about what land or soil conditions would be worth the effort of divine labor.
God does not operate according to the logic of scarcity, of profit margins, of commerce and economic forecasts. Instead, God’s life is one of grace, of generosity, of abundance. God is like the careless sower who plants seed everywhere, even in unpromising places, even in places where life seems unsustainable, where thorn bushes choke plants, where rocks starve seedlings, where birds feast on the seeds on a path.
When I picture the sower in Jesus’ story, I remember a Saturday years ago, back when our congregation started a community garden at a shelter for women and children. Church members joined the residents on a spring morning to pull weeds and prepare the beds. Somehow a toddler from the community shelter got her hands on a few packets of seeds. The child picked out the tiny treasures from the packs and tossed them one by one as she ambled through the garden, then out into the lawn and into the hedge of bushes. I saw her dump a whole packet of kale seed at the base of a pine tree. She ran around the tree, dancing with joy, thrilled to scatter the seeds.
God looks like that child. The sower in Jesus’ parable is like the toddler at the shelter, enraptured in the communal work of gardening. God delights in planting goodness in unexpected places.
Each of us is a garden, with good soil and rocky parts. We’ve all got our thorns, and we have dark, rich, soil — ready to produce goodness for the world, ready to share what God has nurtured in us: the kindness, the care, the gentleness of God, the desire for God’s justice.
The One who planted the gospel in us now waits joyfully for seedlings to sprout. And if those first seeds don’t manage to grow, God delights in scattering more, because she’s got a stash of extra packets.