I Wanna Be A Lousy Farmer
I like results. Seriously. Like, measurable results with numbers and charts to let me know I’m doing the right things the right way. I like grades, reports, annual reviews, and all sorts of data points to point to for success. It’s a crippling disease, to be honest, this performance-oriented personality. I’m not totally sure where it comes from. But I know that it runs deep, and even led to my older sister and I sitting down with our high school report cards side by side to see which one of us had the higher GPA in the end. For the record, hers was higher, even though I graduated as valedictorian of my class. (it was a small country school, no need to be overly impressed)
This performance-and-results-oriented filter goes haywire when I read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13 of the farmer sowing his seed. Most teaching I’ve heard on this passage focuses on the soil, which represents the hearts of people who hear the Word of God, the seed. Do we have hard hearts like the path where birds came and gobbled up the seed before it even had a chance to take root? Do we have rocky, cluttered hearts with shallow faith that easily gives in when trouble comes? Do we have hearts choked with thorns - the cares and worries of life that crowd out God’s truth? Or do we have hearts ready and willing to receive what God says, and producing an abundance of life many times over what was sown?
Excellent questions, and well worth our time.
But I have to say, if I look at this parable from the perspective of the seed sower…well…he’s a lousy farmer. Just look at him tossing seeds willy nilly all over the place with no care for the kind of soil they might land on. As if! And I know just enough about farming to back this up.
When I was much, much younger, my family had about five acres of farm land where we grew a few rows of corn and a whole bunch of collard greens. My older sister and I were probably nine and twelve when we helped the family plant that collard crop. She and I spent many hours on a transplanting attachment pulled behind my stepfather’s tractor, our backsides planted on metal seats with a conveyor belt of elongated cups rolling between us. We each carried a tray of collard seedlings, and one by one, we laid the seedlings in the cups. As the tractor moved forward, the conveyor of cups would move as well, taking the seedlings down to the dirt below. When the metal cup reached it’s lowest point, the belt turned, tipping the cup on end, pushing it into the dirt and dragging it for a few inches so it made a little hole. Upended, the cup deposited the seedling roots down into the earth. This whole contraption included a water tank and small hose that trickled water over each row of seedlings as we went along. Those hours in the hot summer sun translated into weeks of nighttime dreams of conveyor belts and endless rows of collards. I still can’t eat the things.
My point is that each seedling was planted with precision, properly spaced from its siblings in the field, and watered in the same moment it hit the dirt. We took great care in all these arrangements in order to get the best possible crop. I honestly don’t recall, but I suspect my stepfather did some prep work on the soil before those days on the transplanter, tilling and loosening things up, maybe even mixing in some nutrients to get larger, leafier greens. I know he looked forward to lots and lots of large healthy plants to sell at the market in the fall, without a seedling failing if he could help it.
There was no carelessly tossing seeds all over the field in hopes that a few might take root.
And yet the farmer in Jesus’ story doesn’t seem to pay any attention at all to where he scatters his seed. If he’s got a field of nicely prepared soil with properly positioned rows for maximum results, then we don’t hear about it. Perhaps the path Jesus refers to, the compacted earth where the birds sit waiting to glean their lunch, runs between the rows, and perhaps the most efficient method of ancient agriculture involved a liberal scattering. I honestly don’t know. But if I were a farmer dependent on the crop for my family’s food and income for the coming year, I might be a bit more careful with my seeds. I certainly would have cleared my field of rocks and thorns before tossing in a few grains and hoping for the best.
I wonder if Jesus’ audience back in the day think this farmer is a bit of a dunce, too, just tossing seeds wherever without any apparent care or concern for preparing the soil. Jesus is a masterful story teller, and may actually choose this ill-advised farming technique to make sure He has his listeners’ attention. After all, what would be the point of a story about a farmer who carefully planned where each seed went? The focus would then be on the diligence of the seed sower, not the condition of the soil which was Jesus’ ultimate point.
So while there’s a great deal of wisdom for us to pay attention to our hearts and the condition they’re in as we receive God’s Word, I think there’s also a lesson for us as we share what God says with others, whether that’s one-on-one or in front of large crowds.
Rather than being concerned with results, Jesus says we should scatter the seed everywhere we go and let the soil be responsible for the outcome.
That’s a bit of a tough swallow for anyone who’s performance-and-results-oriented like me. I want to know my efforts will pay off, that the time, energy, and even risk I put into putting what I know about God out there for others will be worth it. But the parable of the farmer tells me something different. If the farmer spends more energy scattering the seed than checking to see where it lands, then maybe I should be more diligent about freely scattering and less worried about checking to see if the “soil” is perfect or not. Instead of hesitating and evaluating a heart before I speak God’s truth into it, maybe I should just speak and let God worry about where the “seed” lands. Maybe instead of prejudging whether or not someone wants to hear what God has to say to them, deciding in advance whether or not my words might make any difference, maybe I should be just reach into my pouch, grab a handful of God’s Word, and cast it to the wind, letting it land where it will.
Even as I say these things, it sounds like a terrible plan. But I have to remember only God sees a person’s heart, and whatever I might try to discern at the outset about who’s ready to hear and who’s not, I’m probably going to be wrong. I’ve seen plenty of people who look great on the outside, going to church, attending Bible study faithfully, and yet they’re as hard-hearted towards me and others as any asphalt I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been surprised by folks I figured couldn’t care less about the things of God and yet receive words of life from the Bible with deep curiosity. When it comes to figuring out where God has prepared the soil of a person’s heart, my track record isn’t exactly stellar.
But what if I give all my time and energy and take those risks and don’t get big results? Well, who are the results about anyway? What if the farmer isn’t farming for herself, but for a Landowner that’s told her to go scatter the seeds and scatter all of them no matter what? What if the farmer isn’t responsible for the results at all, only the task of coming back to the Landowner with the seed fully spent?
As I read the parable of the sower once again in Matthew 13, I suspect this could the be case. A farmer would only be so careless about where the seed lands in a couple of cases; 1) she has way more seed than she needs; and 2) she’s not worried about the resulting crop because she’s already well provided for. For those of us who have God and His Word, both of these conditions are true.
So yeah. I’m struggling with this, wanting the kudos of a great report card and an obvious and abundant crop at the end of my efforts. But that attitude points back at me and how I perform far more than it’s concerned with others and their opportunity to experience God’s voice in their lives. Letting go of performing isn’t easy - can I get a witness?
Perhaps the best way to start is to decide to be a lousy farmer.