Matthew 13:1-9: That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
The seed in this parable is the word of the kingdom (Mt. 13:19; Lk. 8:11). The sower is the one who preaches the word – that is, Jesus, first of all and then later, his disciples. The soil is the human heart which receives the preached word of the kingdom. If we are to see ourselves in this parable, we must begin by looking at our own hearts. What kind of ‘soil’ are we for the word of God’s kingdom?
The ‘path’ is the heart which is totally unreceptive to the message of the kingdom. In Jesus’ explanation this is the person who ‘does not understand’ the word. The ‘evil one’, who is ever the enemy of God’s rule, quickly pounces on this lack of understanding and snatches away the message, just as birds quickly devour seed lying unprotected on the ground (Mt. 13:19). The ‘rocky ground’ is the person who initially responds to the word with joy, but whose faith is temporary because “he has no root in himself.” This lack of spiritual depth leads to falling away when “trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” (Mt. 13:20-21). The ground filled with thorns is the person who hears the word, but who allows ‘the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches’ to choke the word so that it proves unfruitful (Mt. 13:22). That is, the person whose heart is ‘thorny’ may at first, like the person whose heart is ‘rocky’, accept the message of the kingdom, but over time material and earthly concerns so dominate in this person’s life that the message of the kingdom is crowded out and covered over so that it produces no lasting fruit.
The crucial observation at this point is, as commentator Craig Keener writes, “the only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship.” The person whose heart is as hard as a well-worn walking path obviously does not convert. That is, she does not switch her allegiance from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God by submitting herself to the Lordship of Jesus. However, both ‘rocky’ hearts and ‘thorny’ hearts can and do make an initial positive response to God’s message. Two factors will ultimately determine the quality of these ‘conversions.’ First, will these positive responses to Jesus last? When discipleship proves demanding will the ‘disciple’ give up and walk away, or will she ‘endure to the end’ (Mt. 24:13)? Second, will these positive responses to Jesus produce fruit? Will the ‘disciple’ leave the cares of the world and the matter of riches to her heavenly Father so that she can devote herself to seeking first God’s kingdom (Mt. 6)? Will she become a fisher of men (Mt. 4:19) who seeks to bring others into God’s kingdom? Or will she allow worldly concerns to choke the kingdom in her to death so that she ends up fruitless?
Ultimately, it is not whether we start out with Jesus that counts, but rather whether we ‘remain’ with him and ‘bear fruit’ through him (John 15:1-17). What kind of soil are we for the word of God’s kingdom?
The ‘good soil’ is the person who ‘hears the word and understands it’ (Mt. 13:23). The word ‘understand’ in this verse is repeated from verse 19 in which the person with the hard heart did ‘not understand’ the word. To ‘understand’ means “to have an intelligent grasp of something that challenges one’s thinking or practice.” Our hearts are good soil for the word of the kingdom if we grasp that this word challenges all our ways of thinking and all our practices. If the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17) gets beneath the surface of our hearts and cuts to the core of who we are, if it brings us to our knees in recognition that we have made a mess of things by trying to run our own lives and that now is the time to submit ourselves entirely to God’s rule, then our hearts are the kind of ‘fallow ground’ in which God’s message can find a true and lasting home.
To ‘endure to the end’ as disciples of Jesus our hearts must remain continually receptive to his word. We do not gain an ‘intelligent grasp’ of the message of the kingdom in all its dimensions and ramifications all at once. Rather, this understanding develops and unfolds over a lifetime of following the King. In order to grow and persist in our understanding we must guard against the dangers of shallow faith (rocky ground) and worldly obsessions (thorny ground).
Many hundreds of years ago St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on this passage from Matthew, said, “Hearing therefore these things, let us fortify ourselves on all sides, regarding His instructions, and striking our roots deep, and cleansing ourselves from all worldly things.” As disciples of Jesus who have received the message of the kingdom, we must ‘fortify ourselves’ against the persecutions and temptations which would lead us away from Jesus. Further, we must ‘strike our roots deep’ – that is, we must delve ever deeper into the truth of God’s word so that we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).
Finally, the person whose heart is good soil is the person who produces the fruit of the kingdom – a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown (Mt. 13:23). That is, our hearts are good soil if we do not keep the message of the kingdom to ourselves. If, having received this message, we then proceed through our words and our works to share it with others, we are producing fruit which will bring blessing to our neighbors and glory to God. So, we rightly begin by seeing ourselves in this parable as one of several kinds of ‘soil’ which receives the seed. But we rightly end by seeing ourselves as sowers who now share and spread the word of God’s Kingdom.
Take time now to seek God. This prayer can help you get started. “Heavenly Father, make my heart good soil for your word. Break up the hard places in my heart. Remove the rocks and thorns. May the word of your Kingdom live and grow and produce fruit in me. Help me to seek first your kingdom and righteousness, and not anything else. Use my words, actions, and lifestyle to share the good news of your kingdom with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”