Farming 101

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Times 15
July 16, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: A young man like Peter Bliss, last year's Star Farmer for Future Farmers of America, knows about the importance of seed. Many factors determine the size of a harvest, but some facts are certain: if the seed has a hard time sprouting or taking root, the harvest will be weak. Jesus understood farming, and one day long ago, he told a story that is still a parable for our times.

Every year, the national Future Farmers of America (FFA) meets to announce the FAA's "Star Farmer" award, given to only one of thousands of entrants.

Last year, the honor went to Peter Bliss of Merced, California. Bliss was honored for his 417-acre project farm, growing crops such as cotton, almonds and wheat. When he started the farm, he had only 30 acres he inherited from his grandfather.

"Right when the time came to win it," he said later, "I thought I was gonna have a heart attack. You get on stage in the stadium. You got big old spotlights shining on you. And so that's when I was like, 'Holy cow.' And then when they called my name, I was like, 'Wow!'"1

Note his reference to a cow. Not just any cow. A holy cow.

Young people like Bliss are crucial to the U.S. economy. It's a well-known truth: No farmer, no food, no future.

Non-farmers tend to romanticize the farming life. But farming is not just about cows and plows. The hours are long and involve manual labor. Fields need to be plowed, crops must be sown and irrigation pipe needs be moved because grass doesn't get greener unless you water it. Crops are vulnerable to any number of diseases and might be ravaged by pests. What's more, the farmer is at the mercy of natural elements. One hailstorm can ruin a season. And if the crops survive disease, pestilence, drought and natural disasters, there's often only a small window for harvesting.

Then there are the animals. They need help coming into this world, and then must be fed and medicated, nursed and treated, given pasture and later transported to the slaughterhouse.

Farming requires the patience of Job. Crops don't appear magically overnight. As Jesus himself observed, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."2

Farming is hard work. No question. Every farmer knows that if the mud's not flyin', you're not tryin'. And the work is never done. Yet, despite the long hours and arduous work, most farmers wouldn't leave the farm. For them, T.G.I.F. is short for "Thank God I Farm" or "Thank God I'm a Farmer."

A lot of which is true of us, as well. To be successful in life, patience is required. A life of success is not built in a day. And like the farmer, our work is also never done. Relationships need to be nurtured and cultivated. Friends and family need our unceasing attention. There's always something that needs to be fixed. Reaping a harvest of happiness doesn't just happen. When issues of discontent, self-worth, financial insecurity, illness and bad habits spring up like weeds in the field, they must be addressed. When we look at our relationships as fields that need cultivation, watering and harvesting, we quickly understand that the hours are going to be long, patience is a prerequisite and the work is never done.

The Galilean farmer

It is likely that the people who gathered around Jesus on the northern slopes of the Sea of Galilee were either farmers on break, or people connected in some way to agriculture. After all, 90% of the people in the ancient world earned their living by working the land.3 Galilee was no exception. This was an agrarian culture, and although many parts of Palestine were difficult to prepare for crops, much of Galilee was fertile and flat. When rich farmers could buy or seize arable land (like the Jezreel Valley), they did. Just go back to the story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and their treatment of Naboth for an example of this.4

When Jesus spoke to the people, he told stories. On this occasion, he probably saw a farmer sowing a crop of barley. There were other crops, of course, like wheat, olives, grapes (for oil and dried fruit), figs, onions, leeks, cucumbers, lentils and beans.5 Although Jesus grew up in a carpenter's shop, he knew farmers and he knew farming. The evidence for this is scripture itself. In fact, Jesus was so knowledgeable about agribusiness, he could have developed a college syllabus for farming, and it might've look like this:

Jesus' parable is a lesson about what plagues most of us: developing the skill of managing the process; initiating the production, managing production and completing the task. Or, in Jesus' parlance -- sowing, growing and mowing. The seed, the soil and the harvest.

Rocky ground

The variety of soil mentioned here is a metaphor for one's skill level, personal situation, attitude and openness. Seed is freely given and offered, but some of us are like paths, others like rocky ground and so on.

Of course, Jesus has his interpretation of the meaning of the story, and therefore it has pride of place in all considerations of this passage. For Jesus, there is no greater work of production than taking care of the seed of God's word, which has been given to all of us.

And like many projects we initially embrace, it often has difficulty taking hold. Here's a breakdown of Jesus' parable: A farmer sows seed, some of which falls on a path, some falls on rocky ground, some lands among a briar patch, and some actually hits good, fertile soil.

Later, Jesus explains what each of these soil types symbolizes. But of the four types of soil, Jesus has more to say about the second type, rocky ground, than the other three. This being the case, let's focus our thoughts on the stones, rocks and pebbles upon which some of the farmer's seed falls.

Here's what Jesus said: "Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away." The moral, according to Jesus, is: "As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away."

Jesus identifies three problems upon which "rocky" Christians stumble: First, they tend to be prone to attention deficit syndrome. Upon receiving the word, they're as happy and excited as can be. But soon their attention wanders. After all, they have a life, and following Jesus and living by the word is only one component of it.

Second, they can't take the heat, so they get out of the kitchen. Jesus says, "But when the sun rose, they were scorched." Rocky ground Christians do not like what Jesus calls "trouble or persecution." They have a difficulty defending the word; if the choice is between fight or flight, the latter wins every time.

Third, rocky Christians are unable to put down roots that will anchor them in tough times, or allow them to reach subterranean water sources that could feed them, and help them mature and be stronger. They are never able to become rooted in the faith. So they whither and die.

Clearly, the farmer needs to rid this soil of rocks, but this is easier said than done. And here the metaphor shifts slightly. There's a sense in which we are the farmers who take the seed of God's word and sow, and who then have the responsibility to deal with the soil, the rocks and weed. The good news is that we can clean up the rocky soil in our lives. With God's help and ruthless determination, we can begin to dig up the obstacles that prevent the seed of God's word from pushing roots deep into the soil of our hearts.

Farmers who remove rocks use hammer drills, rototillers, rakes, wedges, mallets, shovels and more. It can be hard work, but no one said spiritual farming was easy. It's a lifelong process in which one learns and chips away. Perhaps that's why Jesus says, "Let anyone with ears listen!"

Peter Bliss, winner of the "Star Farmer" award, is a fifth-generation farmer. He says, "I definitely am going to farm for the rest of my life. I was about six years old when I told myself I was going to farm, and that's what I've been doing ever since."6

A farmer who is faithful will make it a lifelong experience of sowing, growing the reaping the harvest. "Let anyone with ears listen!"


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