A Parable of Dirt

January 2019

Every Friday night, many Jewish families gather and welcome the Shabbat, or Sabbath.[1]  At this weekly traditional gathering, God is thanked for his provision, specifically with blessings related to two elements—the wine and the bread.  This is, because the entire meal in biblical and Jewish tradition can be summed up by those two things—wine symbolizes drink and bread represents food.  These two blessings are drawn from Genesis 1’s creation story where humanity is given seed bearing grass (i.e. wheat) and fruit bearing trees (i.e. grapevine) to sustain themselves.[2]  The evening Shabbat meal is a weekly memorial to God’s creation culminating with a final blessing—"Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”[3]


In Hebrew, Shabbat means “cease, or stop.”  In the case of the creation, God stopped working.  So too, the Israelites were commanded not to work on the Shabbat, even in collecting food.[4]  As any cook knows, preparing good food takes work.  Even more, growing and harvesting food is back-breaking labor.  

This was man’s first adversity—struggling with the earth’s dirt to extract food to eat.[5]  Finding seed and growing produce to survive would be mankind’s most important labor.  Yet, not only does our food come from the ground, the Bible says we come from the soil.  

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  (Gen 2:7)

The first man’s name was Adam which is a play on the Hebrew word for ground or soil, adamah.  And just as we come from the dirt, we return to the dirt.[6]  No wonder then, if we humans originate from the ground, like plants, God expects us to bear fruit.[7]

Jesus told a parable about this exact scenario.  

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed,
Some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
Some fell on bedrock, and when it came up,
the plants withered because they had no moisture.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop,
a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Luke 8:4-8)

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
Those on the bedrock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:11-15)


While Mt 13:18 calls this the “Parable of the Sower,” this teaching of Jesus does not focus on the farmer or sower.  Rather, the parable’s emphasis is on the dirt, how the four different soils respond to the seed that is sown in them.  Just like the soil grows produce, we humans are known by our fruit. 

In ancient Jewish tradition, there were pithy teachings comparing four types, often describing students or disciples.[8]  For example,

There are four types [of students]: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. 
sponge absorbs all. 
funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other.
strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment.
sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour. (m.Avot 5:15)

The first student, like a sponge, absorbs all teaching that he hears but is not able to analyze and separate the quality of instruction he receives.  The second student, like a funnel, does not retain any teaching he receives, as he forgets it as soon as he hears it.  The third student, like a strainer, is the worst student, because he misses the most valuable points and can only recall the insignificant parts of the material.  And the fourth student, like a sieve, is the best student, because he can analyze, sifting through instruction distilling the most important information.  So too, Jesus’ parable of the four soils resembles this Jewish genre of four types, specifically, four disciples.

According to biblical tradition, to hear is to obey.  “Hearing” (שמע) is a Hebrew idiom for obedience or doing.[9]  If you have heard something from God, you have a responsibility to do it.  These four soils are four “hearers” who are judged by how they respond to the word of God.  Do they listen and obey God’s word?  As seen in the book of Proverbs, the definition of a good student is how well they listen and then obey the instructions.[10]

The seed sown in the soil is the word of God planted in the heart.[11]  According to the Bible, the heart is not where your emotions are, but where your decision-making is processed.[12]  The heart is where you make choices, to obey or not to obey.  Examining these four soils, there is a correlation between obedience to God’s word and the resulting production of fruit.

The first seed does not fall into true soil but lands on a path that is trod upon.  This seed never has a chance to grow, since it is never planted.  It is easy prey for the birds which represent the devil stealing God’s word from the heart of the disciple.  Satan, as Mark 4:15 calls this thief, is an adversary which tests humans, looking to make them stumble.[13]  What could be the context where Satan might rob Jesus’ disciple of God’s word?  Perhaps, this disciple’s heart becomes hardened, because they decide not to do God’s word.  Anger and bitterness, or pride, creeps in and Satan is able to then steal this disciple’s joy.  In the case of two Early Church followers, Ananias and Sapphira, they are even robbed of their lives.[14]  There is no fruit found in this first disciple, because his faith quickly vanishes with his rejection of God’s word. 

The second seed falls on soil that is bedrock, or rocky.  The soil is not deep and the new sprout cannot sustain itself with water through its underdeveloped roots.  This disciple starts off with joy, but then a time of testing comes.  Perhaps this is a tragedy—a death of a loved one, chronic sickness, a broken relationship, financial hardship, or worse.  Whatever the trial, the focal point for this disciple is his response.  If he is not able to obey God’s word when times are difficult, then his root system does not fully develop.  Any potential for future fruit is never realized because of his stunted obedience.

The third seed falls on soil already infested with dormant thorns.  The farmer’s seed actually grows into a plant with fruit, but, at the same time of its growth, it is surrounded and challenged by those native weeds.  This disciple’s fruit does not mature because his root system is slowly choked by these inherent weeds of the world—the daily worries, financial calculations, and pleasures of life. 

Many disciples probably fall into this category.  They are responsible, considerate, and hard-working.  They have jobs; they raise families; they serve in ministry.  They make up the backbone of a healthy society.  Yet, when Jesus calls disciples to join his radical kingdom movement, his demands are often in conflict with that stable social system.  “Jesus’ call to discipleship typically meant leaving behind profession, property, and family in order to follow.”  The spiritual suffocation caused by social responsibilities and personal desires can be gradual, playing out over many years, damaging the disciple’s fruit.  Because of these competing affections and noisy obligations, this disciple is unable to hear and fully obey God’s word in his life.  His fruit capacity is correlative to the sum of his obedience. 

Finally, the fourth seed falls into good soil or a “good heart.”  In Jewish tradition a “good heart” is considered the most important trait of piety,[15] because the heart's decision-making is foundational for all spiritual maturity.  Since this fourth disciple hears, obeys, and holds on to God’s word, they are rewarded with abundant fruit.  This harvest requires endurance and patience, describing a disciple that is intentional, thoughtful, and focused.  Yet, this disciplined follower does not “reap what he sows.”  Rather, Luke 8:8 describes a miraculous harvest of one hundred-fold.  It is a supernatural blessing.  Why?

This one hundred-fold harvest comes from Genesis 26’s account of Isaac’s sojourn in Gerar while seeking refuge from famine.

Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham’s time—and Isaac went to Abimelek king of the Philistines in Gerar. The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live.  Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you…

So Isaac stayed in Gerar…

Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him.  The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy.  Gen 26:1-3, 6,12-13

Obedient Isaac represents the fourth disciple in this parable.  This parable’s allusion to Isaac’s act of faithfulness implies that being a good and productive disciple is not about being the best, the cleverest, the most recognized, or even the most religious.  A good disciple has a “good heart”—he obeys.  And that disciple’s obedience is punctuated by a God-given harvest.

While we can understand these four soils as four different individual disciples, we could also understand that these are four potential phases in one person’s spiritual walk.  Perhaps, some days God gives you His word, and you choose not to obey because of your attitude.  There are other days when you do not obey, because times are tough and you don’t have the energy to follow through.  Maybe, more often, your life is so busy and chaotic that you forget to even listen for His word.  But then, maybe 25% of the time, you get it right, you hear and obey, planting your roots deep and you see unexpected fruit in your life that feeds those around you.  If those above four scenarios are woven in to each disciple’s life, those can be humbling expectations for a disciple’s long walk of faith.

In God’s Kingdom, spiritual growth is nothing we can earn.  Of course, it takes determination and work to grow fruit, but it is the humble act of hearing and obeying God’s word that opens the flood gates of Heaven’s yield in our personal patch of dirt.  Once we try to consistently obey, even in the little things, God will begin moving in our lives, in our communities, and impossible circumstances will change.  We can call this salvation; we can call it revival; we can call it a move of the Spirit.  Or we can simply call it obedience.

[1] In biblical and Jewish tradition, a new day does not begin at sunrise but at sunset.  So, the seventh day of the week (Shabbat/Sabbath day) begins Friday evening at sundown.  This accounting for time is present from the beginning of the Bible starting in Genesis 1.

[2] Gen 1:29.  The first blessing is over the wine, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who creates the fruit of the vine.”  The second is over the bread, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”

[3] Gen 2:3

[4] Ex 16:21-30; 20:7-10

[5] Gen 3:17-19

[6] Gen 3:19

[7] Jer 17:7-10; Ps 1:1-3

[8] Also see m.Avot 5:10-15.  Another example is found in the Haggadah of Passover, it teaches about four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

[9] Ex 24:7; James 1:22

[10] Prov 1:5,8,33; 4:1,10; 5:7,13; 7:24; 8:6,32-34; 12:15; 13:1; 15:31-32; 19:20,27; 22:17; 23:19,22; 25:12; 28:9

[11] “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Ps 119:11)

[12] “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other (Deut 4:39).” “In OT physiology the heart (לֵב, לֵבָב; levav, lev) was considered the seat of the mind or intellect, so that one could think with one’s heart.” See A. Luc, NIDOTTE 2:749–54.

[13] See the examples of David (1 Chr 21:1-8), Job (Job 1:1-2:10), and Joshua (Zech 3:1-2).

[14] Acts 5:1-11

[15] “[Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what is born [out of ones actions]. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.” mAvot 2:10

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