Parable of the Soils

The parable that begins the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a familiar one to most of us. It is one of the parables our Lord not only gives to us, explaining the working of the Kingdom of Heaven, but He interprets it for us as well. He decodes the images He gives so we might have an accurate understanding of what is going on. Now, I know Jesus calls this the Parable of the Sower, but I have always thought that perhaps a better name would have been the Parable of the Soils, for the parable does not really give us any information at all about the sower. The sower is there, of course, but he is not really the focus of the parable. Rather, everything seems to be focused on the different soils the sower sows his seed on. The seed which is sown reacts differently depending on what sort of soil it is cast upon.

All the questions that tend to flow from this text deal with the soil. What sort of soil are you? What sort of soil is your neighbor, your friend, your child? Can you change a person’s soil type? Can you till the ground and make it better so the Word might produce fruit in their life? Can you become the right type of soil? Are you the pathway? Are you the hard-compact ground, so when the word is sown upon you it is never understood and the evil one comes along and snatches it away like the birds devouring the seed? Or perhaps you know someone who is the rocky soil, the type of soil where the Word seems to produce just fine. Faith shoots up eager to trust the promises of God but when trials come, when suffering strikes them, they wither and fade like a tender shoot scorched by the sun. And of course, we all know people who are like the weed infested soil. Those guys are those who hear the Word, rejoice in it, but it is not suffering that turns them away but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of richest tear them down. If you are these soils, if one you love is one of these soils, what can you do about it?

Yet, behind the questions of the soils lies a much more profound question. It is a question we may not want to ask but lurks in the background of this whole parable. The big question has to do with the efficacy of the Word of God. Does God’s Word work? Does it do what it says it will do? Or, perhaps to put it another way, does the Word of God fail? If we are a people of the Word, if our faith is built upon the Word of God, if our confession and doctrine flows from the Word and the promises found in the Word, then we need to know it in fact does what it says it will do. Are the promises of the Word still good? Are they true for you? True today? True tomorrow?

We operate on a premise that the prophet Isaiah laid out for us all those years ago when he said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from Heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). He describes the water cycle and uses it as a parable of sorts for the Word of God. It is about the assurance that God’s Word will do exactly what it is supposed to do. It will not return to Him void. It will not go back to Him without accomplishing what it was supposed to do. But the parable Jesus tells seems to highlight the fact that this all-powerful Word of God can, in fact, be resisted. It can be choked out, burned up, and snatched away before it can bear fruit.

What we see is a tension placed between the Word of God, the work He will accomplish with it, and a world of sin standing in opposition to the Word. This parable is being honest about what is happening around the disciples, what is still happening today. There is no hope, no salvation, no gift of eternal life outside of the Word of God but the Word can be rejected, twisted, and ignored. We all know this tension. We all feel it in our own lives. There are those who have turned from the gifts of Christ, those that refuse to hear, those we would do anything for, absolutely anything, just so they might come to know the power of this life changing promise in their life. But we cannot force them. We cannot demand belief.

It is terrifying, exhausting, and frustrating. So out of love and a certain amount of panic, we begin to turn to special techniques to make the Word take root in their life. Maybe we try a different church, with better programs or a more easy-going worship service. Or we appeal to them through art, music, or better technology. We adapt and change to stay relevant. There is no shortage of options out there for us to use. Trust me, as a pastor my inbox is full of the latest and greatest schemes to change the church around us, to attract the youth, and engage the culture. There are conferences, workshops, and books all available to solve this essential problem, to fix the soil so the Word might take root and thrive. But which one will we choose? Which option will prove to be the most effective? How will we get that Word to really sprout and grow?

The issue, though, is not with the Word. There is not something lacking in the seed that is sown. There is not something wrong that we can fix. And the issue certainly is not with the sower of the seed, for He is abundant in His giving of the gifts, casting the seed indiscriminately and without delay. In fact, the whole parable of the soils fails to tell us anything about how to fix the soil, how to amend it or change it. That does not seem to be our Lord’s focus. Rather, He is simply describing what is. He is painting a picture of the state of things. As such, this parable serves as a warning to us about the working of the Kingdom of God.

It is not going to look like what you want it to look like. It is not going to follow your desired plan of expectation. It works according to God’s purposes and is met with powerful opposition. The warnings about the soils are easily seen. We know those people. We see them all the time. In fact, at times they are us. Think of the seed falling among the thorns, the one which was growing just fine until the thorns choked it out. What more poignant discussion of the cares of the world can there be than a global pandemic? When the state begins to encourage acts of love by not worshipping, not gathering, and not singing the praises of our God. How many young shoots are being choked-out across the land?

As we look around at the Church today, as we see the struggles that define her existence, I think we can see how all the dangerous soils mark her reality. Some never takes root, some withers and dies, some is chocked out, and some produces fruit. But even the fruit production is not all that predictable. Some produces a hundredfold, another sixty, and another thirty. It all seems to be a bit of a mess does it not? Perhaps we can get better at diagnosing the problem, but fixing it is another matter altogether.

Yet, the whole time were discovering and lamenting the frustrating soils of the Church, we look up and there on the horizon see something amazing. It is the sower. He has never ceased to sow. He still speaks His Word. He still forgives, loves, and welcomes all into His Kingdom. He still makes His promises to you saying, “I forgive you all of your sins.” You know, perhaps calling it the Parable of the Sower was the best after all. For without the Sower even the best soil would be left barren but with the sower hope remains for us all.

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