A Spiritual Root System: The Parable of the Sower
Proper 10 (Matthew 13:1-9;18-23)
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
July 12th, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.
In today’s Gospel lesson we have the parable of the sower. A familiar parable to most of us. The parable is in Matthew (13:1-23), Mark (4:1-25), and Luke (8:4-18).
So let’s break it down: Jesus is the sower and he sews the Word of God. There are four kinds of hearers of the Word: 3 that don’t bear fruit and 1 that does.
- The first kind of unfruitful hearer is the person upon whose heart the Word of God falls and lands as if on a trodden down path. The seed is immediately eaten by birds, which are meant to represent Satan. The Word falls on deaf ears; ears of indifference and hardness of heart. Satan, it appears, has the most power here. This sort of person has no spiritual maturity at all.
- The second kind of unfruitful hearer is the person upon whose heart the Word of God falls and lands just beneath the surface of some rocky soil. The seed shoots up rapidly but immediately dies away when the sun comes out because it gets scorched and has not root. We might describe these folks as the sentimental type or the passionate type. Those who are ready hearers, it seems, are not the best fruit bearers. For example, the zeal of new converts often rarely lasts past the first difficulty. They may be ready hearers, but since they have no roots, no reservoirs of strength, whenever they counter any adversity they become weak and yield. This person has very little spiritual maturity.
- The third kind of unfruitful hearer is the person upon whose heart the Word of God falls in soil that has thorns in it. While seed stalk may grow tall, it won’t make it all the way to bearing fruit because it will get choked to death by thorns on its way to maturity. This person may have more maturity than the previous two, but this person suffers from the competition between the worldly and the spiritual. The biggest challenge for this type of hearer are the deceitfulness of riches. Why are riches described as deceitful? Riches are deceitful because they promise more than they can give. We know of wealthy people who are miserable in their marriages, estranged from their children, or suffering from physical injuries or diseases that money can’t cure. The other deceitful thing about riches is that while they may sometimes provide wealth and security for one’s earthly future, they play absolutely no role at all in one’s future life with God. We can’t buy our way into heaven. So with this person, the struggle between the spiritual and the worldly ends with the worldly coming out on top.
- It is only the fourth kind of hearer, the person upon whose heart the Word of God falls as if in a rich soil, devoid of rocks and thorns, and where roots may grow deep and take hold, where the seed my grow up and bear its fruit.
One of the key aspects of this parable that we need to pay attention to, I think, is the function that roots play in the sustainment of plants.
Plant roots serve at least three important functions.
First, They provide structural support. Roots anchor the plant to the ground and provide the support necessary for the plant to stand up and withstand the forces of nature, such as wind. Roots extend both vertically and horizontally. Larger roots give way to smaller roots and finally to hair-like roots which cling to the soil, and together they form a firm bond with the ground, thus enabling huge plants like centuries old Burr Oaks to stand and defy the winds. It should also be pointed out that as a side function, roots structurally bind the soil in place and prevent erosion.
Second, Roots provide storage. Most plants that have vascular systems have roots. At their highest level, plants have manufacturing centers called leaves. The leaves take raw nutrients, carbon dioxide, and water, and they make sugars (food for the plant) out of them. These sugars are shipped down to the roots via their vascular system (called phloem) and stored in the roots. This storage allows the plant to go into a dormant cycle and then return to function when weather conditions become more favorable.
Third, Roots gather water and nutrients for the plant. Did you know that there is a correlation between the amount of surface area of leaves on a plant and the surface area of roots? The bigger the leaves the bigger the roots. There can’t be more area of leaves than roots because roots seek out and provide all the nutrients and water for the plant to live from the soil it grows in. The nutrients and water are shipped up to the leaves via the vascular system (the xylem) whereby means of photosynthesis they manufacture food for the plant.
In sum, roots are the key features of any plant to help it to survive environmental change. Roots are reservoirs of strength. Any endurance athlete knows, when race conditions are perfect and when you are about ready to hit the wall, the strengths one draws on is from the reservoirs of training, cultivated by habit and discipline, to see them through to the end. One doesn’t run a marathon without injury unless one has trained for it.
If we have any hope at weathering difficult environmental changes, both in our personal and spiritual lives, we need to have a deep root system.
We need spiritual roots that provide us with a structural support system. We need them to run deep and wide, so that they can anchor us firmly to the ground when hurricane force winds strike.
We need spiritual root systems that can provide storage. We need them to be able to store up the nutrients of our experiences of grace and love, which we have experienced from God in our past, so that we can live with hope for the future. We need that good storage system so that we will be fortified with the nutrients of grace and love, which will sustain us through the spiritual winters that hit us, when our external leaves can find no sun to feed us.
We also need a spiritual root system to gather water and nutrients for our bodies, minds, and souls, so that we can be effective Christian witnesses in the various roles and ministries that God has called us to. That water and nutrients can be found in our Christian community, by doing acts of service and worshipping together as a body.
Like all plants, our spiritual lives need cultivating and attending to. A nutrient rich, clean soil one year, does not mean it will be that way the following year after the plowing and harvesting has been done. We still have to clear out the rocks and thorns from our lives that might have been deposited when we weren’t watching. This cultivation can be done with honest and careful self-examination and repentance. Confession and journaling can be helpful here. We can clear out the rocks and thorns from our lives by diligently trying to remove those things from our lives that keep us from being faithful. For example, if you feel tempted by wealth, give more generously. If you’re feeling the need for attention, affirmation, and admiration consider taking a break from posting on Facebook and use that time for prayer. Give God your undivided attention, affirmation, and admiration and he will give you his.
Growing deep roots requires continuous study of the Word of God, and the constant petition of asking God to open our hearts to hear it, so that it may continue to take root, stabilize us and provide the foundation from which we can withstand the environmental changes of the world around us. Read the daily office readings. It will take you 5 minutes. Join us in the morning for morning prayer. That will only take you 20 minutes out of your day.
In order to cultivate that deep root structure we also need to continue to pray for God’s grace. Perhaps we can’t move some of the rocks in our lives by ourselves. Perhaps they are too heavy. Perhaps the thorns are too sharp and they are lacerating our hands in the process as we try to cut them away. Perhaps the sun is too hot and we cannot find any shade. Our only help in this case is to pray for the grace of God to do these things for us. Perhaps we don’t need more sunshine, but some solid cloud cover and a lot of rain.
For those who strive to become or to remain the fourth type of hearer, the person upon whom the Word of God falls and bears fruit, that person can take comfort knowing that a very small seed is capable of much productiveness. One doesn’t have to have huge seeds of faith or even multiple seeds of faith to be fruitful. One small seed of faith, properly cultivated, can yield a tremendous amount of fruit. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, or even 100-fold.
“You will know them by their fruits,” Matthew 7: 16 tells us. And, what are these fruits by which we will know in whom the Word of God has taken hold and has a deep root structure? They are the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We have the opportunity to display and share these fruits born from the teaching of the Word of God each and every day. Let’s go do that. Not only will the world be a better place if we do, but we’ll be more like the people God intends us to be. And, we’ll be able to better weather any environmental changes that might befall us.