My least favorite subject in middle school was geography. There was just something about having to memorize all fifty states and their capitals, especially those square states in the middle that all look the same, that didn't appeal to me. In fact, being able to stare at a blank map of the US and fill it in was a task that seemed impossible in my middle school mind. And yet, it was a task that was a required part of my curriculum.
My first go at the blank US map did not go so well. I can remember bringing my paper home, a fat D - scrawled across the front of it, and meekly handing it to my dad. "A D minus?!" my dad bellowed. "You got a D minus?! I know you can do better than that!" "But dad!" I protested. "The class is boring and the map is hard and I just can't do this!" "Well, you're going to have to do this," my dad fired back. "Because if you don't, there are going to be serious consequences." I finally passed the course with a C.
As much as I hate to admit it, I could have done better. I could have studied harder, applied myself more diligently, and took more of an interest in the subject matter. But I just didn't want to. So I didn't. Instead, I slid by with the bare minimum amount of work required.
In our reading for today from Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable about a sower who goes out and scatters seed. Jesus says that some of the seed "fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop - a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (verses 4-8).
Now usually, when Jesus tells a parable, he leaves it up to his disciples to interpret it. Indeed, interpreting Jesus' parables is a task that has kept even theologians and scholars busy for some two millennia now. But in this instance, Jesus spares us his usual enigmatic parabolic cliffhanger and interprets it for us: "Listen to what the parable of the sower means" (verse. 18). Actually, this is a poor translation of this verse which we will return to momentarily. For Jesus' interpretation of his parable begins long before verse 18. It instead begins in verse 11: "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them'" (verses 11, 14-15). This parable, it seems, is a parable about the very people who are hearing it. Some of the hearers are "good soil" and so receive "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." Some, however, are poor soil that "has become calloused" so that they do not receive the seeds of God's Word. Why don't they receive the seeds of God's Word? Truth be told, it's because they don't want to. They have muted their ears and closed their eyes. Like me in my geography course, they have not bothered to earnestly pursue the kingdom of God. This is the meaning of Jesus' parable.
Thus, when Jesus says, "Listen to what the parable of the sower means" (verse 18), he is not so much interpreting the parable's meaning as he is simply retelling the parable in light of the meaning he has already offered. Indeed, a more literal translation of Jesus' words would read: "Hear therefore the parable of the sower." In other words, Jesus is inviting his disciples to listen to the parable with new ears as he retells it. For now, his disciples understand the parable's meaning and gravity: the very people who are listening to Jesus' parable are the very soils of Jesus' parable.
Jesus' call, then, is to examine the soil of your heart. Does your heart yearn for Christ's kingdom, or does it treat its mysteries with all the warmth and interest of a middle school geography course? Jesus says later in this chapter, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (verses 44-46). This is the earnestness with which we should pursue the kingdom of heaven. It should be as precious as treasure and as fine as jewelry to us.
So when it comes to the Kingdom, study hard. After all, the location of the Kingdom is far more important than even the location of our magnificent fifty states.