Monday, August 24, 2009

Musings on Hydrangeas

The Authoress and I took the children out of town this past week, fleeing to the mountains from the heat of Manhattan. The place we're staying is very woodsy, yet here and there people have carved out gardens. And the most striking feature of these is the hydrangea bushes. Some of them are clearly very old, as they are in some instances fifteen feet tall!

As I strolled along seeing all of these hydrangea, my thoughts ran from the horticultural to the biblical.

The horticultural musings were based on the fact that all of the hydrangeas here have white blossoms. Most of the ones I've seen nearby our old home in Connecticut, or in our old town in England, or on Martha's Vineyard (where I once worked and now volunteer for a Christian ministry), the hydrangea blossoms were mainly blue, and sometimes pink. But not often white. The blue is my favorite. A keen gardener once told me that when planting a hydrangea bush, putting a few pennies into the hole will help to create the vivid blues. (Turns out this is wrong, it's the soil's aluminum content, not the zinc or copper in pennies that affects the color).

The scientific way to say this is that you can obtain blue flowered hydrangea macrophylla with soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5. If the pH of the soil is 7.5 or higher, you will get poor flowers or none at all. The Bible's way to say this is good soil produces fruitful, good, useful and beautiful things. That's a frequent use of the image of soil in the Bible, but soil can, interestingly, also be used as an image of judgment, as God is said to destroy (by mixing with sulfur) or remove (the topsoil down to bare rock) the soil of people he is judging -- a harrowing image in an agrarian setting (Isaiah 24, Ezekial 26).

Perhaps you, like me, have heard many a sermon exhorting us to be "good soil" based on Jesus' parable of the soils (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). The point made is that in trying to be good soil, I should be receptive to the teaching of Jesus and attentive to it. That's a very good thing to do, but not the point of what Jesus said in that parable. Rather, he is explaining to the disciples how and why some people will respond to the Gospel, and how and why others will not. In the hydrangea bush image, you can add some aluminum nails to the soil to make a pink flowered hydrangea blue, but you cannot change the color of a white hydrangea bush. The white hydrangea is what it is, no matter how much aluminum you add (or lime, to try to make pink flowers).

The point of the parable, anyway, is for the disciples. It is to help them to understand why some people respond to the Gospel and why others do not; or why others get excited initially by what they hear, but it does not take long term root. This is so that they will have patience in their own ministry, knowing that any fruitfulness from it belongs to God. They will also have patience and be steadfast in their own life following Christ: "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." (Luke 8.15).

The parable of the soils is not so much telling the crowd to "have good soil" but rather to instruct the disciples, so that they might understand the different responses to the Gospel and stand fast.

A wise friend in Christian work told me that the parable of the soils was the only way he could endure in Christian ministry; and particularly he meant how to make sense of when dear people seem be enthusiastic when hearing the message of the Cross, but who soon turned their backs on the Gospel in resolute fashion.

What interpretations of this well known parable have you heard? Any thoughts?

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