July 12, 2020

“Leveling the Fertile Playing Field,” Susan Ryder

Michael Lerner in Jewish Renewal
The central mantra of the Jewish people is “Hear, O Israel.” Listen. The command implies that one can still hear, that the revelation is still happening.

Matthew 13:1-9
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

A version of this parable is told in three gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all three, the rest of the passage goes on to interpret the parable – equating the seeds with the gospel; God, through Jesus or anyone who proclaims the good news, as the sower; and the soils represent people’s responses to the gospel with varying degrees of success and levels of maturity, faith, and understanding. The first three soils symbolize rejection of the gospel for a number of reasons, while the last one signifies acceptance. There are two things of note about this story. The first is that Jesus didn’t typically explain his parables. The whole point of speaking in parables was that only certain people would understand what Jesus was talking about — they were a kind of code understood by people with – in his words – “ears to hear,” which is to say the right perspective or priorities. This would include his followers and other Jews with revolutionary leanings in religion and politics, but not the Romans or the Jewish elite. But in the case of the Parable of the Sower, it appears that he did offer an explanation. I say “appears” – because in the Jesus Seminar version of the text, the 9 verses I read to you are colored pink – which means the scholars believe that Jesus probably said something like this; told a story similar to this. The explanation of the parable later in the passage is colored black – which means it’s very unlikely Jesus would have said this. That’s the second thing worth noting.

As I said, most often when Jesus told a parable he left it out there for “those who have ears to hear” to interpret. Yet the Parable of the Sower comes with a precise explanation, identical in all three Gospels. Since Jesus Seminar scholars agree that such an explanation is very unlikely to have come from Jesus – it’s fair to speculate that Jesus meant something else entirely, and the gospel explanation was developed later by others to fit their own theological agenda. As Michael Lerner said, “The central mantra of the Jewish people is “Hear, O Israel.” Listen. The command implies that one can still hear, that the revelation is still happening.” So what might we hear if we have the ears for it – a perspective open to interpreting things from a revolutionary point of view? What revelation might we find in this parable in 2020 as Jesus compels anyone with ears to listen?

As every gardener knows the most important thing about having a successful garden begins with the soil into which seeds are sown. Yes, the amount of sun, shade, water, and temperature also play a role – but the first thing a gardener or farmer attends to is the soil. So what if the soil in this parable is just that – the ground into which seeds are dropped, which will have an important bearing on whether or not the seeds will take root and grow? And what if God or the Universe or Fate (or whatever word you are most comfortable with for Sacred Mystery) is the sower, the one who plants the seeds. That leaves the seeds themselves – in my reimagining of the parable. What if we look at the seeds as people, as humanity? In short, that means the soil is the life condition into which person seed lands. Think about that for a moment. At first glance it may not seem that different – the sowers are similar in the traditional and new version I am suggesting – but beyond that there is a big difference.



SOWER = God/Jesus (or anyone                                              SOWER = Fate, God, Universe, Sacred Mystery
the sharing the good news)

SEEDS = The good news                                                             SEEDS = The people dropped into the soil.

SOIL = The people into which  the seeds                                 SOIL = The ground into which the seeds (people)
(good news) are dropped by the sower                                       are dropped/planted by the sower.


The people in the traditional interpretation are the ones with the agency – based on a variety of factors, they are the ones who ultimately make the choice or decision whether or not to let the good news into their lives so they can grow and flourish as “good Christians.” People who are shallow, or easily distracted, or impatient, or any number of conditions that leave them closed off to the good news, will not grow in faith. And if they don’t, it’s their fault. That’s the traditional understanding of the parable. But if, as Michael Lerner suggests, revelation is still happening, and we consider the parable with our 2020 vision, a new possibility emerges.

We know that without fertile soil, seeds cannot flourish. The seeds that land where the soil has become hardened from being repeatedly trampled upon simply sit on the surface, waiting to become food for the birds. The seeds that fall on the rocky soil have a hard time because the rocks inhibit the growth of roots, which are necessary to access the nutrients in the soil. The seeds that fall on the thorn-covered ground must compete with already well-established, invasive plants – and therefore also stand little chance of survival. But the seeds that fall on the verdant, prepared soil that has been turned over and loosened and replenished with nutrients from compost and fertilizer, well, those seeds flourish. So it is with us. We are the seeds – and the ground upon which we are planted makes all the difference in whether and how we grow. Changing our viewpoint about the seeds and the soil, how might that make a difference in thinking about this familiar parable? Soil is shaped by its environment, its history, weather patterns, location on the planet. If soil is walked upon over and over again, beaten down so that it becomes packed hard, it is no longer fit for planting and nurturing seeds. We see this in humanity as well.

Communities who have been trampled on over and over and over again develop a hardened exterior, which does not encourage or support growth. Rocky soil makes it too difficult to put down roots deep enough to find the nutrients in the soil, while the thorny soil is already overcrowded with too much competition from the established plants to have a chance at healthy growth for the seeds. And the good soil? Good soil takes years, generations, to cultivate. It is fed and nurtured by the remains of plants that have come and gone; it is worked and reworked so that it becomes supple and inviting. Good soil can develop in nature, as years of leaves fall and dissolve into the earth. Good soil can also be the result of good gardeners, who tend the soil as carefully as they tend the plants and keep it healthy and fertile for future seeds.

This flips the script on the parable in an important way – in the traditional understanding, humans, represented by the soil, are the ones given the agency to determine success or failure when it comes to one’s faith experience. In this new way of looking at the parable, it becomes more a matter of fate or chance – as humans are the seeds who are either dropped in good soil or bad. Being dropped in fertile soil gives the seeds an advantage over those dropped on the dry or rocky or thorny soil – all by virtue of fortune or accident. As a white middle class seed dropped in fertile Western soil – I was given every opportunity to grow and thrive. Others around the world were not so lucky. Current trends for a seed dropped on the African continent are that 305 million African children – two in every five – will be living in extreme poverty by 2030, accounting for over half of all global poverty. On average, 87 million will be born into poverty each year in the 2020s, according to the Overseas Development Institute. What about a seed dropped in Central America? Rural poverty in Central America is widespread, though percentages differ by country. 2016 figures show Honduras as the worst affected: 75% of the country’s rural population lives in poverty, 63% of those in extreme poverty. Guatemala comes next with 54% of its rural population living in poverty.

An overview of global poverty from The Borgen Project reports that 736 million people live in extreme poverty – hard-packed, rocky, weed choked soil. About half of the world’s poor, around 368 million, live in just five countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. In developing regions, one in 10 people live on less than $1.90 a day. An estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation (more than 35 percent of the world’s population). One billion people live without electricity and hundreds of millions more live with unreliable or prohibitively expensive power. Poverty rates are expected to rise over the next decade. Closer to home in Chicago, before COVID-19 US 2018 Census data showed the race most likely to be in poverty in Chicago was Black, with 30.69% below the poverty level. The race least likely to be in poverty in Chicago was White, with 9.29% below the poverty level. In the US overall, according to 2018 US Census Data the highest poverty rate by race is found among Native Americans (25.4%), with Blacks (20.8%) having the second highest poverty rate, and Hispanics with the third highest poverty rate (17.6%). Whites and Asians had a poverty rate of 10.1%. Numbers are expected to change drastically as a result of COVID-19.

Poverty impacts and is impacted by multiple other global issues, including climate change, crime and violence, and immigration just to name a few. They are all inextricably connected. “Climate change is going to amplify the already existing divide between those who have resources and those who do not,” says Eliot Levine, director of the environment technical support Unit at Mercy Corps. “We are already seeing the impacts of climate change around the world, and the latest IPCC reports clearly illustrate that we are very quickly heading towards experiencing them at a greater scale and degree of severity than we had previously understood,” he added.  As global temperatures and sea levels rise, as the oceans acidify and precipitation patterns get rearranged, people living in poverty are the most severely impacted, with consistently limited access to the resources of the planet, the good soil humans need to thrive and flourish. Since climate change affects everything from where a person can live to their access to health care, millions of people could be plunged further into poverty as environmental conditions worsen. This is especially true for poor people living in low-income countries. Just as climate change deepens inequalities within a country, it also further stratifies international relations because some nations are more threatened by it than others and poor countries have fewer resources to deal with the problem. “The world’s poorest communities often live on the most fragile land, and they are often politically, socially, and economically marginalized, making them especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” says Christina Chan, director of the World Resource Institute’s Climate Resilience Practice. “More frequent and intense storms, flooding, drought, and changes in rainfall patterns are already impacting these communities, making it difficult for them to secure decent livelihoods.”

Poverty, climate change, crime and violence, and immigration are all inextricably connected and fighting one problem helps mitigate the other. Which means it’s up to us to nourish and care for and cultivate the soil where other seeds land – to succeed they need our help. People of other locations, nationalities and races cannot be expected to lift themselves out of poverty by an act of will or cultivating qualities like virtue, innovation or entrepreneurial initiative. Humanity – all of humanity – requires fertile soil, the sharing of resources such as knowledge and capital if it is to flourish.  Whether or not this is what Jesus’ intent with his parable was at the time he shared it, his wisdom is not static. The revelations are still happening. Certainly, understanding the parable with people as the seeds and soil as the abundance or scarcity of accessible resources falls in line with the core of Jesus’ teaching about justice and caring for the least of these. And understanding it this way we can begin to imagine a world where cooperation and mutuality is the norm. Abundant living isn’t primarily a by-product of virtue or intrinsic superiority, but of the conditions or opportunity and cultivated potential into which one is born. This parable tells us we need to work on “leveling a fertile playing field” in whatever ways we can through public policy, generosity and frugal personal living.

Let those with ears to hear listen.  Amen.