Date Palm on the Rocks
Homily by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
delivered on July 16, 2017
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every three years during the summer months, our lectionary gives us the collection of Jesus’ parables in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. We’re in the midst of that period now. Since Jesus was, of course, telling these parables to folks in his time, he uses images and examples from his society; that’s why many of his parables are about fishing, farming, and so on. Today’s story is one about farming: the famous parable of a sower who throws his seed all over the place in a field that not only on good soil, but also on rocks, under thorny bushes, on top of worn paths, all sorts of growing conditions.
Jesus himself explains this parable in great detail. God is the sower, the seed is the gospel, and the various types of soil, which determine how the seeds take, so to speak, are the circumstances that could help or hinder the growth of the crop. The field represents us: our lives, our hearts, our souls. The point of the parable is that we, Jesus’ disciples, must prepare our own hearts so that we can yield the biggest possible crop for the gospel (the bible often calls this “good fruit”). This means we must be determined to protect our field from damage by anything: distractions, the chase for possessions, troubles in our lives, even the lies of Satan himself who will always whisper in our ear that the gospel is not worth the time and effort we must spend in order to bear good fruit for God.
That’s the traditional way of looking at this parable, and of course its always worth hearing again, but today I’d like to expand on it in ways that can show us how it can speak to us today, here and now.
First I’d like to suggest that in every one of us is not only one kind of soil, but rather that all those different kinds of growing conditions exist in each of us – we all have places that are receptive to the gospel message (that would be our “good soil”) and we also have places in us that are rocky ground, hard places where the gospel has trouble taking root and growing. Say, for example, that we go out of our way to be kind to people; that’s good fruit born of a good crop that grew in good soil. But at the same time we can also be easily offended, impatient, defensive, and angry with people who do things we don’t like or who are different from us – that’s soil where the gospel cannot sustain growth. Now we may very well have good reasons for our bad soil – perhaps we had been badly hurt by someone close to us, maybe our parents or even our society – but Jesus is telling us that if we let the rocks remain in us they will not only harm us, they will choke off the growth of God’s kingdom as well.
So if we have hard, rocky parts of in our souls, does that mean that the sower’s seeds – the gospel – will simply whither and die? Not necessarily. I told you this story a while ago but I want to briefly recount it again in this context. In 2005, an article appeared in the New York Times about an archeological dig at the site of the Masada palace and fortress outside of Jerusalem where there was a very famous siege in the year 72 AD. The Jewish defenders of the Masada took their own lives rather than be captured or killed by the Romans. These days, Masada is a national monument open to tourists; we are in fact scheduled to visit it next January on our Holy Land trip.
Archeologists had been digging there for decades, when in 1963 they found a food storage room that had some remains of the food that was kept there during the siege, including seeds from date palm trees dropped by the Jewish holdouts; they had eaten the dates and dropped the seeds. This is the date palm tree that is mentioned throughout the Bible; most famous for providing the palm branches spread before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Believe it or not, all of the date palm trees now in the Middle East come from California, because the one from biblical times is extinct. So the Masada seeds were from a type of tree that hasn’t been seen for over a thousand years. Scientists tested them, and in fact they did turn out to be 2000 years old, confirming that they came from trees that date back to time of Jesus.
Those seeds were forgotten until 2005, when a botanist asked to have a few to see if she could make them grow. Everyone laughed at her. It was ridiculous to think that anything could grow from those 2000 year old dry seeds, but since there was nothing to lose they gave her three of them and wished her luck. She took them back to her lab and worked on them for months, but got nothing. So she planted each in its own pot, turned on irrigation water, and walked away. She thought no more about them, until six weeks later, when she walked by the pots, and, lo and behold, one of the plants had developed shoots and was poking up through the soil. From that magical day, it has continued to grow; it’s now over 10’ tall. It’s a boy plant – date palms are male and female – nicknamed “Methuselah” for his age – and here’s the breaking news: Methuselah has become a daddy! – he successfully pollinated a female plant that has since grown and borne fruit. Just think of it. That seed still had the potential to grow, and bear fruit – even though it had been in the worst kind of rocky soil for over 2000 years. The same is true of us – the gospel seeds in us awaiting the right conditions to permit them to take root and grow.
I’d also like to suggest that the various kinds of soil in the parable can not only represent each of us as individuals, but also a whole society. Throughout history, there have been societies that have been receptive to the Gospel in the past, and these have been good soil for the Gospel. There have also been societies that have been very rocky soil, where very little of value grew; the same is true now terrible places where violence and death and terror have taken over, where the light of the gospel is very dim indeed. I’m thinking of places like Sudan (with its endless civil war and genocide), Syria (the site of so much horrific human suffering), and Haiti (which has never recovered from the 2010 earthquake). But the seeds of the Gospel, seeds of salvation and healing are still present even in these hard places; it’s that the conditions aren’t right for them to grow right now. The good news for us today is that even though our society is so far not distinguishing itself as an age of faith, the gospel seeds are still here even if they are not as of this moment growing – but if they do they can bear fruit.
But we should also recognize that not only good seeds can grow after lying dormant in conditions not favorable for growth: bad seeds that bear evil fruit can do the same, and right now it is these bad seeds which had been unable to take hold in rocky soil but now have been given the opportunity to grow and are flowering and spreading in our own country right now. Racism, jingoism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, hate, all sorts of bad fruit are growing all over the place in our country now, because they have been given the right conditions to grow. Like kudzu in the south, they seem to be taking over, and crowding out the good growth.
Like good seeds, these bad seeds have always been around – they are present in human nature and in every society the way that certain bacteria are always present in our bodies, but don’t become virulent unless they are given the right conditions to make us sick. We thought we had progressed past the bad stuff but it had never gone away, but it had never truly been eradicated.
Here’s the Good News. We can choose what to grow and the conditions we provide for both good and bad seed. Kudzu can kill good plants the way that Jesus’ thorn bushes can choke the gospel; but grow enough strong good plants and they will crowd out the kudzu. The way to change the bad-seed growing conditions in our society is not to moan, wring our hands, and get increasingly depressed day by day by obsessing over the latest outrage to come across the news wires, but to get out there and bear good fruit. It is time to pray, to organize, to work to grow the society that we want to live in, Martin Luther King’s “beloved community,” the kingdom of God on earth.
My sisters and brothers, let’s tend to our own fields, let’s weed our own gardens. Societies are made of individuals, and it is up to each of us to become good soil for the Good News. Only in that way can our society change, and in so doing, transform our world.