Summary: There’s a condition of the heart that is necessary if the Word of God is to have a lasting effect on any of us.
This little parable of Jesus got me thinking about taking soil samples. You know, with all its talk about different kinds of soil. So, what I did is: I logged on to YouTube and did a search. And, sure enough, there was a video on how to do it, how to take a soil sample. As you might guess, as interesting as soil analysis might be to do, it’s not that much fun to watch somebody else do it – and it’s certainly no fun to hear somebody else describe it! So, let me just say that the process is necessary if you want the maximum yield from your soil. Dirt isn’t just dirt, and, if you’re a farmer, you’re going to want to know what compounds, nutrients, and organic matter are to be found on the land you’re farming.
It seems like that’s what Jesus is telling us, doesn’t it? He talks about a sower who scattered seed – rather indiscriminately, it seems, like maybe he didn’t do a soil analysis. Because some of the seeds landed on the foot-worn path, while others fell on soil that was either not deep enough or that was infested with thorns. And the yield was certainly disappointing. In fact, there wasn’t any.
What we have to keep in mind, of course, is that this is a parable. And, as much as it may seem like Jesus is giving us a few pointers on agriculture, he’s not. And, if we were to read further, we would see that Jesus’ disciples pick up on this. He’s not talking about farming methods. They know this. What they don’t know is what it is he actually is talking about. So, they ask him in verse 10, “Why do you speak to [the peope] in parables?” And what he tells them may surprise you.
At one time in my life, I was told that parables were quaint little illustrations that Jesus used to help his listeners understand what he was really getting at. But that’s not what Jesus himself says. He doesn’t use parables so that the people will understand; he uses them so that they won’t! Jesus says to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom…, but to them it has not been given” (v. 11). We’ll come back to this in a moment, but what we need to see at this point is that Jesus’ parables – especially this one about the “sower [who] went out to sow” – hid as much as they revealed, at least for some.
If we were to read on a little further in this chapter, we would discover that Jesus does explain the parable of the sower. He tells his disciples what his seemingly innocent lesson on planting really means. So, what we have here in Matthew, chapter 13, is, first, a parable. Then we have an explanation of why Jesus tells parables in the first place, and, finally, we have a disclosure by Jesus himself as to what this particular parable means. And what it all amounts to is this: Jesus is not actually talking about soil at all. He’s talking about the heart. And there’s a condition of the heart, represented in his parable by the “good soil,” that is necessary if the Word of God is to have a lasting effect on any of us.
So, what is this necessary condition, and why is it so necessary? Whatever it is, it is symbolized for us in the “good soil,” into which some of the seeds – thankfully – were sown, and, as a result, good things happened. Just from what we know so far, how would we describe this “good” soil? What makes good soil good?
One way to arrive at an answer is to contrast the good soil with the other types of soil we find in the parable. Let’s do that, and let’s start with the soil on the path. Jesus says that, “as [the sower] sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them” (v. 4). Here we have foot-worn, hard-packed soil that is so dense that a seed couldn’t penetrate it if it tried. The good soil is not like that. Instead, it is soft and malleable. The seeds can enter it with no problem.
Neither is the good soil like the second type of soil that Jesus describes. He says, “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth…. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away” (vv. 5f.). By “rocky ground,” we mean that there is a shelf of rock not far beneath the surface, so that, from the outside, the ground looks fine. But dig into it, and what you will find is that it doesn’t have much depth. There’s no room for a plant to sink its roots and grow. And when there is no root, there is no endurance. Again, that’s how good soil differs. It has depth, so that the seed has plenty of room to develop. And it stands firm.