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Significant Soil

I don’t think I’m going to be able to plant a garden this year—which bums me out. But too much travel means I’ll not be at home to help things take root. Guess it’s time to give the soil a rest—and shop at the farmers’ market.

Still, I’m reassured by what T.S Eliot observes in the Four Quartets: that the mark of success, the way to find contentment, is to “nourish the life of significant soil.” In other words, cultivating a life characterized by really good metaphorical dirt, working to make the ecosystem of one’s life a richer, more vibrant environment. This isn’t a grand or fancy aspiration—but it is absolutely vital: how am I contributing to a climate where things will grow and thrive? Or am I—through over-commitment and stress, bitterness or anger—making it less productive? Am I helping things grow in my own life and in others? That is, is my presence adding nutrients or leaching them away? After all, as my favorite literary Eliot, George Eliot, observes ““What do we live for except to make life less difficult for each other.”

But, for me, making life less difficult for other people is often as much about attitude as action. Which brings me to Luke 10, which records, in part, the story of probably my favorite woman in all of Scripture, Martha. Interestingly, Luke 10 also records—indeed right before Martha’s story—the parable of the Good Samaritan. And in many ways, Martha’s story is an important application of that parable. Strong and feisty, Martha is a woman who gets things done. She, like the Samaritan, is a good neighbor: when Jesus shows up at her house, she gets right to work, no doubt making Jesus’s favorite meal. But when she complains to Jesus about her sister, Mary, not helping her—and worse, perhaps, complains that Jesus doesn’t even care that Martha is having to do all the work, Jesus famously responds to her:

Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Now there’s a long history of interpretation that argues that here Jesus is advocating for Mary’s contemplative life over Martha’s active one. But I’m not sure I agree. You’ll notice that the scripture doesn’t tell us explicitly what the “one thing needful” is. And I’d like to suggest that it might mean that if Jesus shows up in our living room, we might actually be grateful for the visit—and act accordingly. Martha’s real complaint is all about asking Jesus to notice what she is doing, while Mary has realized that Jesus showing up is all the work that needs to be done. Our work for God, no matter how noble, means nothing if it is not done in grateful response to the actual presence in our lives of Emanuel—God who became dirt and dust to be with us. If that isn’t “significant soil,” I don’t know what is.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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