When I was growing up, my best friend was Clyde. Clyde had a vivid imagination. Whenever I went to his house to play, he dreamed up some scenario for us to act out. “Cops and Robbers” was too tame for him. Instead, we’d play “FBI Special Agents and Mafia Dons.” Invariably, he’d introduce each scenario with the word pertrank. I looked it up in a dictionary. It didn’t exist, except in Clyde’s mind. It meant something like pretend or dream up or imagine, but to an extreme degree.
The value of pertranking was that for a few brief hours of play, we ceased to be little boys at play and became what we were pretending to be. We saw things differently and acted on the basis of that new vision. Jesus taught by means of pertranking. He offered a new vision of reality that led to a different way of behaving. But the Gospels use a real word to describe his teaching methodology: parable. According to Matthew 13.34, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
Mark 4.1–20 records one of those parables. It’s about a farmer, seed, and dirt. “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some 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, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” Pretty mundane stuff, you might think, but Jesus thought it was spiritually significant: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What are we supposed to hear? What new vision does Jesus’ pertranking help us see? A new vision of ourselves. The dirt isn’t dirt; it’s us. It’s the state of our hearts. Jesus’ parable forces us to ask what kind of dirt we are, that is, whether our hearts are spiritually receptive to the word of God. Some people have hard hearts, closed to God but open to the devil. Some have shallow hearts, capable of easy spiritual enthusiasm but incapable of long-term spiritual commitment. Others have conflicted hearts, in which faith in God competes hourly with worldly worries. Finally, some have open hearts that experience God’s grace and power to change. They are good dirt.
Unlike dirt, however, we have the power of choice. Whether the word of God takes deep root in us depends on whether we choose to listen to it. That is why Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
So, what kind of dirt do you choose to be?