“As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:4-8)
The contrast in the soils comes down to something very basic: there is good soil and bad soil. The soil represents the lives of hearers in whom the seed—the message of the kingdom—is sown. The soil is at once our ears as we hear, our minds as we seek understanding, and our hearts as we receive for transformation.
But Jesus goes on to describe three types of bad soil:
- Soil along the path
- Rocky soil
- Thorny soil
The Soil Along the Path
The soil along the path, Jesus describes in this way:
When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19)
We should not be surprised that there is an evil one that stands against God and His purposes in the world. Jesus often discussed and encountered this reality as He spoke about the kingdom and walked upon earth. We should not be surprised that not only does the evil one exist, but that he actively works against God’s work in our lives. We should not be surprised that there is more than we see at work in the chaos of our world.
Jesus has again and again encountered those who hear and do not understand. We have also encountered those in our own lives, and have at one time also been those who lack understanding. Jesus reminds us that the evil one is the cause of this work in human lives during Jesus’ time and our own day.
The Rocky Soil
The rocky soil, Jesus describes in this way:
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Matthew 13:20-21)
This second soil shows the first signs of joy—of receiving the message well—but that response does not last long. After the first tremors of excitement and the first days of passionate pursuit of God, trouble comes and they fall away from the Lord and their joy within Him. Why do they fall away? The problem is twofold.
First, trouble or persecution comes. Again, as with the enemy, we should not be surprised that trouble or persecution comes. Trouble is the common lot of all humanity in a world marked by darkness of sin and evil. You do not need to be a Christian to encounter trouble. We all do.
But Throughout the Scripture, those who stand for God and His ways, those who walk with God and are willing to live for Him, those sorts of people face persecution. From Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Aaron, from Deborah the judge to Jeremiah the weeping prophet, from Ezekiel the visionary to Mary the earthly mother of Jesus. It was Jesus who promised us that we would encounter trouble in this world, even though He had overcome the world. And Peter the early Christian leader wrote to early Christian communities in present-day Turkey: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). If we do not face some form of trouble or persecution we should probably wonder if we are really living meaningfully in and for God’s kingdom. Our lack of persecution may tell us we are of no threat to the evil one as he opposes God.
A second problem that leads those in the rocky soil to fall away is that they do not have roots in the Lord and His instruction. They are rootless. How do we arrive at strong roots with God? Well, at least one way is to ground our lives in God’s instruction; His Word. Psalm 1 tells us that the person
whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
…is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:2-3)
To delight in and meditate upon the instruction of God, the Word of God, means we have given space in our lives to hear it, consider it, chew on it, and let it become central in our minds and hearts. We have sought out knowing God more intellectually and knowing God more relationally. Without this, the message of the kingdom will not last in the soil of our lives.
The Thorny Soil
The thorny soil, Jesus describes in this way:
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Matthew 13:22)
This third form of the bad soil takes root but is quickly overcome in two ways: the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth.
We all encounter worries in life and we all need to deal with money in life. However, it is that worry and wealth choke out the fruitfulness from the seed that is sown. Jesus has spoken before in the Sermon on the Mount about the reality that we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). He has also called His disciples to live in such a way that they are not worried about what we will eat, drink, or wear.
Instead, He said: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
It is so easy for us to be consumed by our worries. It is so easy for us to be consumed by the power of wealth and money. But to live consumed by these things, where they own us and guide our way of living, is to let the fruitfulness of the kingdom be choked out of our lives.
The Good Soil
The life that receives the secrets of the kingdom and is fruitful is described by Jesus as something else. He says:
The seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This I the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:23)
The good soil type of life is the one who truly hears and then understands. One Bible commentator reminds us that “this ‘understanding’ is not to be interpreted as a purely intellectual grasp of truth; it is rather the lifestyle commitment which ‘the message of the kingdom of heaven’ demands.” The good soil type of life hears Jesus’ word but is also increasingly transformed by it.
The good soil type of life understands there is an evil one who stands against us and faces into that reality. The good soil type of life knows that trouble is the common lot of humanity in a fallen world and that persecution will come to those who stand for God and His ways in the world. The good soil type of life knows that living consumed by worry is fruitless and that wealth and money at the center of our lives is not the most fruitful way to live. Instead the good soil type of life receives Jesus’s teaching, faces into these challenges, and continues on with transformation in Christ day after day.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 521.