Nature is brutal. God is not.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
A Mast Year
I grew up with pecan trees in the yard.
My grandmother had a big native pecan in front of her house that must have been nearly a hundred years old in my earliest memories. The native pecans are smaller, with thicker shells than the modern hybrids, but the nut is sweeter, with a more intense flavor. Those are the pecans I remember from my childhood, cooked into Christmas pralines, nut bread, or just sitting whole in their shells in a bowl on my grandmother’s coffee table next to a nutcracker and picks. It must have been a rule that if you watched TV, you had to crack and pick pecans.
Some years, the pecans are plentiful. You can take a yard rake and pile them up and then sweep them into buckets. You can go to the homes of elderly neighbors and pick up their pecans for them and they’ll give you half your haul in return.
But most years, the pecan trees are not so profligate. Picking up pecans from the ground most years is more like an Easter egg hunt than a sweeping up. We would even have to throw metal rods, like javelins, up into the trees to force them into letting go of the goods.
I never knew why. Once I experienced a year of plenty, I thought that should be normal. I thought the lean years must be caused by our failure to care for the trees properly. Not enough water, or we neglected the pruning, or compost, or mulch.
By the time I was a teenager, we lived on a farm with native pecan trees along the fence lines and modern hybrids planted near the house.
I always looked for a pattern—every three years? Every seven? After a wet spring? A dry one? Just when I had the formula figured out, the pecan trees failed to cooperate. They were less predictable than Texas weather in the spring.
I learned recently why this is so.
The botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls the year of plenty a Mast Year. Mast fruiting is the unpredictable pattern of nut trees that has ensured their survival through the eons. “To succeed in generating new forests, each tree has to make lots and lots of nuts—so many that it overwhelms the would-be seed predators. If a tree just plodded along making a few nuts every year, they’d all get eaten and there would be no next generation of pecans. But given the high caloric value of nuts, the trees can’t afford this outpouring every year—they have to save up for it, as a family saves up for a special event. Mast-fruiting trees spend years making sugar, and rather than spending it little by little, they stick it under the proverbial mattress, banking calories as starch in their roots. When the account has a surplus, only then” can we scoop them up like candy under a busted Piñata. (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, 2013, p. 14.)
In Jesus’s parable, the sower is as profligate as a pecan tree in a mast year. He walks along throwing so much seed that it overwhelms the ability of birds, rocks, thorns, and hot sun to do him in. To the organized mind, this sower looks wasteful and inefficient. To the modern farmer, with a recently-invented John Deere seed-planting machine that buries each seed in soil and prevents any of it from rolling away or blowing away in the wind, the sower of the parable appears primitive and destined for a life of poverty due to his inefficiency.
But that’s not the way Jesus sees it.
It yields thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold.
To the early church that allegorized this parable into the interpretation preserved in Matthew, God’s Word is never wasted. Telling the good news that Christ is risen from the dead and the power of death has been defeated is never a wasted effort. Living a life of kindness, generosity, and comfort extended to the least of these yields results beyond our ability to know. Despite the appearance of the defeat by rocks, birds, thorns, and scorching sun, the life spent sowing seeds of good news in words spoken and lived puts the yield in God’s hands.
In the usual interpretation of this parable, the seed that is eaten by birds or choked by thorns is the price that we pay for the seed that lands in good soil. Too bad it’s wasted, but that’s the way it goes.
The Bible as a whole, however, invites us to take a larger view.
Birds need to eat. Jesus just said that God’s eye is on the sparrow. So that’s not wasted seed if the birds get a meal.
And plants that grow and wither, whether scorched by the sun or choked by thorns, go back to the earth and nourish it—that’s how soil eventually becomes rich and receptive for growth.
From the sower’s point of view, his profit comes from the seed that falls on good soil. But, in the larger picture, nothing is wasted. In the fullness of time, there is a mast year. We cannot predict when that may be, and we may not live to see the fruiting of trees we plant, but a life spent spreading the seed of the Gospel will not be wasted.
One of the mysteries of the mast year is that when it happens, it happens everywhere—not just in one grove, or one area. From Texas to Georgia, the pecan trees all have their mast year at once. Botanists have all kinds of hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. The most popular scientific explanation has something to do with a fungus that acts as a communication line, like a fiber-optic cable for trees to indicate when the time is right to spend all their savings on producing so many nuts that some will be buried and forgotten and therefore produce a new generation of trees.
Among the Indigenous tribes from Texas to Georgia, the explanation is similar, but contained in a traditional story passed down through the generations. In their version, the trees speak to one another. Out of the hearing of people, the trees hold a council each winter and come to an agreement.
In both explanations, the scientific and the mythical, there is a subterranean force of nature at work that is, at least for now, beyond our ability to hear, to translate, or to comprehend fully.
That’s the hard part of this life we live. There is so much about all of nature, including human nature, that is beyond our comprehension, beyond our ability to predict, no matter how much we study and learn.
In this uncertain time when a malevolent virus seems to have gained the upper hand over human wisdom, this parable of the sower speaks to us with the wisdom of the ages.
Nature is brutal. God is not.
The story of Jacob and Esau in the womb emphasizes Rebecca’s suffering. It’s not just two rambunctious boys tussling in her womb; it is two nations. Rebecca’s natural pregnancy and childbirth (that’s the only kind that was available then) reminds us of the brutality of the natural world.
But the biblical story keeps before us the reminder that nature’s brutality does not get the final word. Death itself is defeated in the hands of a powerful and loving God. Even our deepest pain and anguish is being fashioned into a future in which there is no pain or crying, the time when God will wipe away every tear.
The botanist Dr. Kimmerer writes of moving with her husband and children from the pecan-blessed south of her childhood to the maple-blessed Adirondacks. There they moved into a place that had been homesteaded 200 years ago. She and her daughters found ancient equipment in the old barn for tapping the two maple trees for their sap, and learned from her neighbors how to boil it down to syrup.
Night after night, Dr. Kimmerer “sat by the fire, the girls tucked safely in bed, the rustle of the fire and the bubbling sap a lullaby. Transfixed by the fire, she hardly noticed the sky silver as the Maple Sugar Moon rose in the east. So bright on a clear freezing night, it threw tree shadows against the house—bold black embroidery around the windows where the girls lay sleeping, the shadows of the twin trees. These two, perfectly matched in girth and form, stand centered in front of the house by the edge of the road, their shadows framing the front door like dark columns of a maple portico. They rise in unison without a branch until they reach the roofline, where they spread like an umbrella. They grew up with this house, shaped by its protection.
“There was a custom in the mid-eighteen hundreds of planting twin trees to celebrate a marriage and the starting of a home. The stance of these two, just ten feet apart, recalls a couple standing together on the porch steps, holding hands. The reach of their shade links the front porch with the barn across the road, creating a shady path of back and forth for that young family. . .”
She writes, “Surely those two were sleeping up on Cemetery Road long before the shade arched across the road. I am living today in the shady future they imagined, drinking sap from trees planted with their wedding vows. They could not have imagined me, many generations later, and yet I live in the gift of their care.” (Kimmerer, pp. 69-70)
Dr. Kimmerer is probably right—they could not have imagined; and yet, in the light of the gospel we can dare to imagine that generations from now, long after we and anyone who knows our names has been laid to rest, people will sit in the shade of trees we have planted whether literally or metaphorically; will drink of the sweetness of the words we have spoken and the acts of Gospel kindness that we have shared.