Yes, the seeds are important — vital — but the condition of the dirt is the thing in view in this somewhat cryptic parable of Jesus. I’ve left out a passage in the center, which is important and interesting, but raises an issue I’m not going to talk about in this particular post — so, here’s the parable and its explanation:
On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore. Then He told them many things in parables, saying:
“Consider the sower who went out to sow. As he was sowing, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered.
Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them.
Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times what was sown. Anyone who has ears should listen!” . . .
And later, to His disciples, He said:
“You, then, listen to the parable of the sower:
When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the one sown along the path.
And the one sown on rocky ground–this is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. Yet he has no root in himself, but is short-lived. When pressure or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
Now the one sown among the thorns–this is one who hears the word, but the worries of this age and the seduction of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
But the one sown on the good ground–this is one who hears and understands the word, who does bear fruit and yields: some 100, some 60, some 30 times what was sown.” (Mat 13:1-23 HCSB)
So then, from Jesus’ explanation, we know that:
- The seeds represent the word of the kingdom.
- The soil represents the hearts of the hearers.
It’s important to keep this straight, because for me at least, I was confused on this point for quite a long time. In fact, it was only a few days ago, as I drove into town and was contemplating this parable, that I realized what I’d been getting wrong about the interpretation. Even where Jesus specifically spells things out, it seems I have no trouble getting them wrong, wrong, wrong. I had always thought of the believers (that would be me or my brothers and sisters in the Lord) as the plants that grew from the seeds.
But in fact, according to Jesus, the seeds are the word of the kingdom — that would be the gospel of the Messiah, or by extension, Jesus Himself, who is the Word of God. The plant and the fruit it bears (or doesn’t) come from the seed, not from the soil. The fruit is the fruit of the plant that is growing in the soil, and that plant is the outgrowth of the word of the kingdom. The soil is its environment, not itself.
Now in other places, believers are likened to plants of various kinds, but in this particular parable, we who hear are the soil — or to be more specific, our hearts are the soil.
The sower goes out to sow (or today we say the farmer goes out to plant.) Picture a man in a tunic and sandals, carrying a bag of seeds with one end tied to his sash. He reaches into his bag with his free hand, grabs a handful of seeds, and flings them, scattering them in a wide arc out across the ground. Maybe you’ve planted grass seeds this way. The goal is to scatter them uniformly across the area to be planted, but of course you don’t have a lot of control when you’re planting with this method. Some of the seeds will land in places where they don’t have a very good chance of growing, let alone of producing wheat (or barley or spelt, as it would likely have been in Jesus’ day).
Some seeds land in the hard path. The soil here has been trodden down by countless passers-by. Is it the soil’s fault that it’s hard? No — the soil can’t help it. It’s the path; that’s just the way things are. Birds come and eat the seeds and nothing grows.
Some seeds land in the rocky areas where the soil is shallow. Maybe it’s a wet day or a wet week. The soil, not having much depth, heats up fast in the sun and the seed sprouts quickly. But before it can get its little rootling tendrils into the cracks of the rock beneath, the sun comes out and bakes it and it dies for lack of hydration. Is it the soil’s fault that it’s rocky? No — the soil can’t help it if it has rocks in. That’s just the way things are. The seedlings die — but as they die, they leave just a tiny bit of organic matter, and the organic matter makes the soil just the teensiest bit more hospitable.
Some seeds land in weedy soil. Thorns and thistles grow here, and the seed grows too. But the weeds are more vigorous. They’re native plants or naturalized plants and they quickly overtake the desirable crop the farmer has sown. They choke out the barley or spelt and it never matures or produces seeds. The farmer will burn over this area later and destroy all those weeds. Maybe next year this soil will produce a crop. But as for this year, is it the soil’s fault it has weeds infesting it? No — the soil can’t help it. It can’t pull its own weeds out. That’s the farmer’s job, and the farmer will do it, too. Soil that can grow weeds can also grow food. What’s more, the burning of the weeds will make the soil more fertile and hospitable for the tender food crop the farmer will plant next season.
Some seeds land in good soil. Maybe last year the good soil produced only weeds, but this spring it has become the soil the farmer was aiming for when he scattered his seeds. He’s plowed under the weeds or burned them off, and now this soil will produce a crop. Is it to the soil’s credit that it’s good soil? Hardly. The soil is the soil. It is acted upon by the farmer; it doesn’t act on itself.
When the farmer has harvested his crop, he’ll likely plant a cover crop such as lentils or alfalfa that will feed the soil while keeping it covered to protect it from erosion and weeds. Maybe after he’s gathered his grain into barns, he’ll toss the refuse onto the rocky soil. In time, the rocky soil will grow deeper, and one day the farmer will come through with a crew and pick out the rocks. Weeds will grow there and break up the subsoil, letting moisture in. With a few freeze/thaw cycles, the shallow soil will gain depth. The farmer will keep adding organic matter, burn off the weeds, and one day he’ll plow up this ground and it will yield a crop.
And as it does, perhaps those weeds will begin to encroach on the now little-used pathway . . . .