Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent, when Christians are invited to prepare for the passion and cross of our Lord Jesus by surveying their personal need for him. The designation, Ash Wednesday, is meant to remind us we have a death problem. All living things made from the soil shall return to it. This truth is commonly acknowledged at funerals when the bodies of loved ones are laid to rest, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
A helpful parable of Jesus to help us reflect on our personal need for a savior from sin is the first one he told, the Sower and the Seed (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23, Luke 8:4-15). Jesus explained that the parable is an extended allegory representing God’s efforts to plant his Son (the Word) in the hearts of sinners. Regrettably, it reflects that he gets mixed results. Using the imagery of different soil conditions, Jesus indicated that most of them represent human hearts incapable of receiving the Word for growing fruitful faith (Matt. 13:18-23). He described the “good soil” as those who, “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15).
How might the agricultural imagery in this parable help our Lenten preparation to celebrate the passion of Christ? At the onset, let’s remember the central point of Ash Wednesday noted above: the soil of which we are made and to which we shall return is tainted. It’s not what it used to be. All ground and all who have come from it are cursed by sin (Gen. 3:17-19). There is no intrinsically “good soil” here on earth, and therefore there are no “good hearts” that have naturally come from the ground. We are all equally soiled by sin.
Some important clarifications about this parable need to be made. First, the parable does not intend to portray or recommend anything about proper soil or crop management. What farmer in his right mind would cast good hybrid seed on rocky, weed-infested soil or hardpan? Secondly, the different kinds of soil do not imply degrees to which the curse of the ground is present. Rather, the seed cast on every kind of soil reflects everyone’s need for the life-giving Word of Christ. The soiled hearts of all who have come from this cursed ground are equally dead in their trespasses (Rom. 5:12) and unable to do anything to lift the curse or remove our soiled sinful condition. All are lifeless and unable intrinsically to bring forth life of any kind.
Since the Fall, hardpan, rocks, weeds, and thistles are the now-normal condition of soil. Therefore, “good soil” is not so much found as it is made. Because of the curse of the ground, soil suitable for planting must first be prepared by clearing, weeding, and plowing. By analogy, soiled-by-sin hearts need repentance to be prepared to receive the Word. When sinners are plowed deep and spiritually broken up by the blade of the law, their hearts are made repentantly soft and able to joyfully receive the Word to grow and be fruitful. If our hearts have become hardened or filled with obstacles, cares, and concerns that make it difficult to celebrate the saving work of Christ joyfully, Lent may be just the right season to get plowed up and ready to be planted anew with the saving Word of Christ.
Farmers do not plow to make the soil productive but rather to make the planted seed productive. That is what God does with us and what he wants to do anew this Lenten season. He wants to soften us up for an effective impact with his dying Son and his life-giving grace. It is his righteousness that he would nurture in us, not some intrinsically productive virtue. He comes to take us to his cross where out of his death, the curse of the ground might be overcome in his glorious resurrection. He comes to give us a good honest heart that appreciates its own soiled condition and longs to be renewed by Christ in his saving Word. A good and honest heart appreciates the ashes and dust we have become and the need for life that cannot be produced by our soiled sinful condition but must be planted in us by our loving God.
How is the condition of your heart? Might you be one to say to the Lord this Lenten season: “I need you to come and do some plowing in me, to make my heart soiled by sin soft and ready to receive your saving Word anew - to live, and grow, and be fruitful.” May the Lord of the harvest come and make your soiled heart soft, take you to his passion and cross, and then raise you up to live where he has planted you to live, to love, and to continue to walk the road of the cross that is his and yours together. Blessings to you this Lenten Season as you to survey your soiled condition and the condition of your soil.