Thursday, April 25, 2013

Types of Soil

In Matthew 13:1-23, Jesus tells the parable of the sower, along with a discussion on why he uses parables, and the interpretation of the parable. Go ahead and read it before reading what I have to say.

Image source.

First, let's imagine the setting and how it would have looked to Jesus' original audience. Jesus is teaching a large crowd, and tells them this story, of how a guy planted seeds, and some grew but some didn't. The end.

The rest of the passage is what Jesus said to his disciples. The crowd only heard the parable, not the explanation. Isn't that kind of, like, weird? Jesus is like, "Some seeds grew and some didn't and that is all I have to say about that."

Maybe it's not that weird. Jesus' culture was different than ours. Other teachers of that time probably used parables too. Plus they didn't have the internet, so they weren't constantly bombarded with information, and maybe the average person would be interested in mulling over the meaning of the seeds and the path and the soil. It's not that weird.

But it was at least a little weird, because the disciples asked Jesus, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"

And Jesus says it's because the people aren't willing to understand. They hear, but they don't really listen. I suppose he's saying that he doesn't just want to explicitly say the point he's trying to make, if the people aren't even willing to think it over by themselves.

That's... odd. I mean, I get it, in theory... but then why is it, at church, when we talk about a parable, we always immediately talk about what it means? "Giving away the answers" rather than letting us all think about the parables on our own. Jesus didn't "give away the answers"- oh, except to his disciples. Hmm.

I like the idea of thinking and using our brains to understand God, rather than just following what we're "clearly" told. But when Jesus uses parables, doesn't he run the risk of people interpreting them wrong? Like the parable of the persistent widow, when the unjust judge finally grants the widow what she needs because he's tired of her bothering him about it- but we're not supposed to read that parable and conclude that the reason to keep praying is that God will eventually get annoyed and just give you what you want. Or the parable of the shrewd manager- that one's just weird. I don't know what that was about.

Perhaps Jesus was more comfortable with uncertainty and wrong answers than the average church or bible study I've attended.

The meaning of the parable

Then Jesus explains to his disciples what the parable means. The seed is "the message about the kingdom" and the 4 types of soil are 4 different responses a person might have:
  1. Path: Someone who does not understand the message, and the evil one snatches it away.
  2. Rocky soil: Someone who joyfully accepts the word, but falls away quickly because of trouble or persecution.
  3. Thorns: Someone who hears the word, but does not bear fruit because they are choked by worries and things of the world.
  4. Good soil: Someone who hears the word, understands it, and produces a crop.
Some questions I have: So each person is a certain type of soil- do they choose what type they are? Is it their fault they're "bad soil"? (That question's probably outside the scope of this parable...) How does someone change from one type to another? Can this metaphor also apply to one's willingness to accept other ideas besides Jesus' message about the kingdom of God?

But what's the point?

Okay, yeah, different people respond differently to Jesus' message. So? Why did Jesus feel this was important enough to tell a whole parable about it? Why did Matthew feel it was important enough to write down? Why does this parable matter?

A few ideas:

So we could ask, "What kind of soil am I?" Think about your own openness to God (and maybe to new ideas in general, if we think it's okay to extend the "seed" metaphor to other things). Think about whether you allow God's word to grow in your life and change you, or do other things choke it out? Do you have a root or is it just superficial?

Or maybe Jesus told this parable so his disciples would know it's not their job to MAKE people believe. If someone doesn't want to listen, then, whatever. You don't argue someone into the kingdom of God. The "soil" isn't right. (Though I wouldn't say that it means everyone who doesn't believe in Jesus is just stubborn and unwilling to really listen- that's DEFINITELY not true.)

Discussion questions:

What do you think about Jesus' use of parables? Why did he give an explanation to the disciples but not the crowd? What about the possibility of people incorrectly interpreting them?

And why did Jesus tell this particular parable? What does it mean to you personally to be a certain "type of soil"?


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Demons 'n Things (Matthew 12:22-50)

Next post: Jesus and Gardening (Matthew 13:24-43)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. I think we do have a choice what kind of soil we want to be. I know I've been all those different types of soil depending on the season. There were times where my heart was hard toward God or I let distractions get in the way of receiving the life-giving truth.

    I don't know that's my thought :-)

  2. I recently heard an interesting take....that this could really be called the Parable of the Reckless Farmer. In this take on it, the Farmer is God, and He just flings His Word at everybody, regardless of whether it's going to "take" or not--it's a demonstration of God's extravagant love for all people. Not sure I can find the article I read this from again, but thought I'd share. In the midst of deconstructing my pharisee-esque, legalistic "faith", I'm loving your site.