Unplowed Ground: The Sower

For so many years, I read the parable of the sower as a description of how other people were going to respond to my words. I read it with the understanding that you and I are called to share the word of God, and I found it a reassurance that I was only responsible for sharing the word—for sowing the seed. I was not responsible for the way that it was received.

And maybe that’s a good reminder, but I no longer think that was the primary intention of the gospel writers as they wrote about the soil.

Instead of a reassurance, I now read the parable as something of a warning:

What if we aren’t the sower? What if we don’t hold the seed?

What if, instead, we are the tender of the field? What if we aren’t responsible for anyone else’s response but we are responsible for our response? What if we aren’t meant to plow up our neighbor’s land, but we are meant to till our own soil.

What if we could tend our field in such a way that we are ready when God sends His seed? What if we could neglect our field to such a degree that we might miss it when He comes?

I want so badly to be ready! I want you to be ready. In the coming weeks, we’re going to get practical about how to plow, but today, I want us to continue considering the state of our soil. I want us to take inventory of our hearts so that we know what to look for as we begin the work of digging in. And to do that, we’re going to revisit that perhaps-familiar parable of the sower. (If you want to read the whole parable first, it’s in Luke 8:4-15.)

“Some seed fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the sky devoured it…The seed along the path are those who have heard and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” (Luke 8:5, 12, CSB)

The path is packed tight by the passing by and passing through. No plow tills the path. No seed can grow there. Not even water can penetrate it; water runs in rivulets off the path, taking with it whatever seed was sown. Birds find a feast where seeds land on the hard-packed earth.

In Ross King’s song “Unplowed Ground,” which has been replaying in my mind (and on my phone) for these past months, he sings this: “Habits turn to cycles turn to seasons, and seasons turn to years before we know, and we lay still alive but barely breathing. And we whisper, ‘That’s just the way it goes.’” (“Unplowed Ground.” Ross King, And All the Decorations, Too, 2002, Ross King.)

Habits. Cycles. Seasons.

Paths packed solid with “just the way it goes.”

This is the way I am.

This is the way I do it.

This is the way it’s always been.

We are creatures of habit, retracing our steps even when we know they are not working. We hardly stop to think that we could walk another way. We just keep packing down the dirt, and our hearts harden with every heavy heel.

We are weary with the barrenness. The word of God, the presence of God, the tender touch of God is washed away before we have a chance to drink it in.

“Other seed fell on the rock; when it grew up, it withered away, since it lacked moisture…And the seed on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy. Having no root, these believe for a while and fall away in a time of testing.” (Luke 8:6, 13, CSB)

This one is tricky to me. What’s the deal with the rocks? How did they get there?

rocky soil

Disappointment. Disillusionment. Doubt. Hurt. Sadness. Shock.

What we do with the what ifs and the if onlys? How do we reconcile a God who could have intervened with One who didn’t?

Unlike the path, which is hardened by well-worn use, I think maybe the rocks get to stay because we leave them there. Because we ignore what we do not wish to see and continue on our way. We think that if we leave them undisturbed, they won’t make a mess of things anymore.

But rocks are not a friend to the sower or the seed—or the owner of the field. Even what wants to grow will wither because roots can’t go deeper than rocks. We want to believe the Lord. We want to trust Him again, but His words can’t take His root and His presence can’t penetrate because we’ve resigned ourselves to accept what we should have wrestled with the Lord about.

We’ve got to return to the rocks. We’ve got to pick up the pebbles and bend near the boulders and name them. We’ve got to turn them over in our hands or walk circles around them and admit why they are there. We’ve got to engage with the Lord over them—we’ve got to dig deeper so the roots can grow deeper.

This is the rock of doubt because you didn’t do what I asked.

This stone is here because it’s too late for you to fix this Lord, and so I don’t’ know how to go forward with you.

This boulder is here because You allowed what I didn’t believe I could survive.

We’ve got to be honest with Him so that we can hear Him again. I think there’s something so sacred about these moments with Him, when we finally confess the hurt and the anger. When we let ourselves feel the weight of the rock. Because when we let those hardened places break again, we find the One who meets us right there where the world (or we) fell apart.

We find Him right where we thought that He had left us.

We can’t move these rocks on our own. We’ve got to cry out to the Creator who will gently move what we aren’t strong enough to lift.

“Other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew up with it and choked it…As for the seed that fell among thorns, these are the ones who, when they have heard, go on their way and are choked with worries, riches, and pleasures of life, and produce no mature fruit.” (Luke 8:7, 14, CSB)

This one makes me feel like a high schooler again, getting a lecture from a youth leader about not worrying about what the popular girls think of me. I don’t know. Maybe we never outgrow the inclination to worry about what others will think, to seek the ease we believe that we deserve, to elevate circumstance above faithfulness.

We mature, yes, but most of the time we just get better at hiding the weeds. We very rarely rip them out at the roots.

“I want to be holy, Lord, I want to be different, but I want it to be easy, and it isn’t.”

This is the conundrum I find myself in.

I spent last week in Israel, and at a place called Nazareth Village, we were shown an ancient olive grove and terraced vineyard. Imagine my excitement when the guide turned our attention to the soil! She explained the problem with the thorny weeds of Israel’s soil: even if you pull up the plant, the roots can remain, sucking the water from the surrounding seeds, and regrowing in the next season to choke out the life that tried to thrive.

thorns in the soil

This is not about making the ground look better. This is about churning up the unplowed ground, exposing the weeds and uprooting them at their source. They’ve been sucking up the water that was meant for fruitful growth. But they don’t get to siphon our hope anymore. They don’t get to drain our joy. They don’t get to steal our peace.

But it will take a miraculous move of God to make it so!

“Still other seed fell on good ground; when it grew up, it produced fruit: a hundred times what was sown…But the seed in the good ground—these are the ones who, having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, produce fruit.” (Luke 8:8, 15)

The secret to this good ground is not that it is inherently better: it is that it is tended. And yes, it’s up to us to pick up the plow, but it’s the Sower who will meet us there. And all the plowing in the world would be meaningless without the presence of the One who sows to the seed. There’s no point in plowing if no one is going to plant.

And so, we position ourselves to enjoy the presence of the One who sows these fields—the One who sends the rain, the One who quenches thirsty souls and tends the brokenhearted, the One who makes fruitful what has long lain bare.

I sense that gentle nudge from Him—He can’t wait to meet us there.

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