Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – What Kind of Soil Am I?

Risen Savior Lutheran Church in McFarland, Wisconsin

Pastor Nathan Berg


Just like last week, the Word of God before us describes the inner workings of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. And, just like last week, the context is key. Outwardly, Jesus’ ministry is still a train wreck. Not only have the Pharisees begun plotting his death (Matthew 12:14) and accused him of working for the devil (Matthew 12:24), but now he’s had to shock his own family into the realization that faith is thicker than blood (Matthew 12:46-50). And again the question is: what’s going on here? Why isn’t Jesus, the long-promised Savior, having more success saving people? Why are so many deaf to the Gospel of free salvation? Jesus answers these questions with a series of parables (Matthew 13:1-53) – stories in which an earthly situation and a spiritual truth are laid side by side for comparison. And as we hear the parable of the Sower, the natural question is: what kind of soil am I?

To the parable. The most self-evident part of this parable is that there are four kinds of soil. So let’s start by taking a soil sample. The first kind is hard soil, the kind packed down from being walked on repeatedly. This soil represents people who hear the Word of God, but don’t understand it. They don’t put two and two together. They hear about sin and the law, but don’t believe that God’s judgment applies to them or the evil things they have thought, said and done. They hear about Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the world – and they don’t understand how that relates to forgiveness 2000 years later. When the Word of God is nothing more than an abstraction, something which doesn’t really relate to your life here and now – like a weather alert for a different part of the country –  it can be snatched away by Satan as easily as blackbirds snatch up grass seed lying on the sidewalk. Is that you?

Or are you shallow, rocky soil? Have you connected God’s judgment of sinners to yourself personally? Have you seen that your sins have rightly earned you condemnation now and eternally? Have you discovered that Jesus’ perfect life has covered your imperfect one through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism (Galatians 3:27)? And have you connected his innocent suffering and death to your guilty life – with the wonderful realization that because he suffered God’s wrath you never will? Well, then the joy of salvation has probably sprung from your heart as quickly as a seed sprouts in warm, rocky soil. But emotion is no substitute for deep roots, for true understanding. In order to endure, faith must be rooted in a deep understanding of what the Word of God really brings into your life. The Word of God brings the peace of salvation, to be sure – but it also brings trouble and persecution. And if your faith goes no deeper than warm and fuzzy feelings, there is very real danger that under the burning sun of trial and trouble it with wither and die.

Or maybe you’re neither hard nor shallow soil. Maybe your life is infested with thorns. You’ve heard the Law and know you’re hopelessly damned. You accept that there is no way you can be good enough to go to heaven. But you’ve heard the Gospel too and believe that Jesus came into the world to save sinners just like you (1 Timothy 1:15). And you’ve grown in this faith. You’ve even thrived. But having the certainty of eternal life is no guarantee that you won’t have worries in this life. Even deeply rooted, thriving Christians get Covid-19 and cancer, and have marriage, work, and financial troubles – and the blunt reality is that the Gospel doesn’t offer much practical help with these things. But money does. And when you are led to chase after the illusion that money is the answer to all of life’s problems (Ecclesiastes 10:19) – then, your faith, your trust in God to provide, can easily be choked off and die.


Or you could be good soil. You’re the good, black dirt that is so desired and so rarely found. You understand the Law, which leads you to constant, daily repentance. You don’t excuse, defend or try to make up for your sins; you simply confess them and lay them on Jesus. You also understand the Gospel, which leads you to regularly and joyfully receive the forgiveness Jesus won for you on the cross and delivers to you in the water of Baptism, the words of Absolution, and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And, as a result, you’re reproducing the love, peace, joy, forgiveness, hope and mercy (Galatians 5:22-23) that you have received from Jesus in abundance – just like one sunflower seed produces thousands more.

So, what kind of soil are you? It certainly sounds like a reasonable question, but there’s a problem with it. It’s the wrong question. It’s not because we’re not dirt – we are! From dirt we were taken and to dirt we will return (Genesis 3:19). As Kansas sang in the 70’s, “All we are is dust in the wind.” [1] The problem is that no matter what kind of dirt you are, dirt doesn’t produce anything on its own. You can go into your backyard, till up a rich, black patch of soil, water it and let the sun warm it – but nothing is going to grow.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. Dirt doesn’t produce anything beneficial on its own – but it does have the terrible power to produce a bumper crop of weeds. That’s the kind of soil we were when God found us. We were hard-packed, rocky, weed-infested, good-for-nothing dirt. That’s not an insult, that’s simply the truth of Scripture: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked when you followed the ways of this present world (Ephesians 2:1). But when the Sower came into our lives and planted the good seed of the Gospel, he pulled out the weeds and declared us good in the eyes of God. Paul describes that miraculous conversion in 1 Corinthians 6: and some of you were those types of people. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11).

And that, while stemming from the wrong question, is the right answer. This parable isn’t really about dirt – it’s not really about us – at all, but the Sower and the seed. And there are two things to take note of regarding the Sower and his seed; things that help us better understand how the Kingdom of God operates in this world. First, this Sower would make a pretty terrible farmer. He would probably lose his farm within a year. Why? Well, he’s pretty reckless with his seeding. When food was scarce, as it often was in Palestine, farmers would take great care to only sow their limited seed on good and promising soil. Even today, farmers drive hundred-thousand dollar tractors equipped with GPS positioning to ensure that not a single seed is wasted. But the Sower in this parable scatters his seed on every imaginable type of soil. He’s a very inefficient farmer.

This reminds us that, humanly speaking, Gospel ministry is a pretty inefficient endeavor. While most businesses operate with very rigid profit vs. expense expectations, where most people would be never invest in something that has a 75% chance of failure (as the Sower faced) – participating in Gospel ministry requires you to throw those business principles out. Just as Jesus, who is the real Sower, spread his seed rather recklessly over all types of soil, so we still do today. Both here, in in-person worship, and through the blessing of YouTube broadcasts, we open our wallets and practice the organ and plan our Sunday school lessons and prepare budgets and clean our sanctuary and cut our grass and share our faith individually with and for all people – with the understanding that a large percentage of the time it’s going to fall on deaf ears and hard hearts. But just as Jesus spread the good news of the salvation he came to bring to all types of people consisting of all types of attitudes – so we continue to do the same today. How could we not? Remember that none of us were good soil when Jesus found us – he had to pull out the weeds and till us and water us to make us into the relatively workable soil we are today. Don’t forget that! By God’s grace we have been made good soil; with grace we sow the Gospel into every variety of soil in the world. That’s the first important takeaway from this parable.

The second is that, no matter the condition of the soil, the seed is always powerful. First, let’s be clear about what the seed is. Jesus says very clearly that the seed is the word of the kingdom. The seed is the Word of God. The seed is the Law and the Gospel. Nothing else will do. Nothing else can possibly transform worthless dirt into good, productive soil. And that’s informative for us, too. Many believe that if the church were just to follow so-called “Church Growth” principles, she would take root in this world and really thrive. These principles tend to focus on analyzing the soil and carefully curating the seed which will be sown to suit it. We’re told how important it is to conduct demographic studies to understand the type of people we are trying to reach; how important it is to design worship in a format that people are comfortable with rather than on Biblical principles; how important it is to offer all of the social services and programs people want. And while none of those things are wrong in and of themselves, they, by definition, are not the seed of the Gospel. A church will quickly die if it spends more time and effort analyzing the soil rather than sowing the seed. But what’s most troubling is that “Church Growth” principles tend to lead to a genetic modification of the seed – with the assumption that if the soil doesn’t want to hear about sin and grace, about absolute and unchanging standards of right and wrong – then that seed ought to be modified and replaced with something more acceptable. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with careful planning and researching and surveying to see what kind of people, what kind of soil we are working with – the fact remains that we’re dealing with dirt. Dirt is dirt with no ability to produce anything good. The only thing that has the power to change any variety of dirt is the pure, unmodified seed of the Word – both Law and Gospel.

And so the question this parable should lead us to ask is not “what kind of soil am I” or “what kind of soil is the person I’m trying to reach,” but “is the good seed of God’s Word powerful enough to do what it says?” And the answer is, then and now and always, “Yes!” As God promised through Isaiah his Word will always succeed in the purpose for which [he] sent it (Isaiah 55:11). It can produce faith in hard-packed soil. This happens when people will come to church – often against their will, whether for a wedding or funeral, a Baptism or Mother’s Day – and the Word penetrates their tough and rough exteriors before the devil can swoop in and take it away. It can produce faith in shallow, rocky soil. Faith sprouts in people who come to church just once. The joy of forgiveness sprouts in hearts that are cluttered with all kinds of earthly things, so that the seed lays just on the surface. But still, faith sprouts there. It can produce faith in soil that is surrounded by thorns. There are people who have been swamped by worry and deceived by riches – and yet simple faith in Christ still blossomed and grew. According to “Church Growth” experts, it’s just a waste of seed trying to sow on these types of soil. But because the heart of the seed is Christ, the Son of God who sacrificed himself, spilling his blood, for sinners, the seed is so powerful that even though it’s thousands of years old, it can still sprout and grow in any type of soil today.

Because, in the end, it’s the seed, not the soil, that matters. The seed does it all. The seed can produce amazing results. The good seed of the Gospel planted in you at your Baptism, watered by the Absolution, and fed by the body and blood of Christ – can, and will, do things we may think are impossible. The seed makes you good and clean in God’s eyes even if you still feel dirty with sin. The seed will give you confidence that God will provide, even in times of physical or financial or emotional distress. The seed will raise your body and take it to heaven even though all you can see is a six-foot hole in the dirt with your name on it.


So stop asking, “What kind of soil am I?” Instead, ask, “Is the seed, the word of the kingdom, being sown on me? Are the Law and Gospel being planted my heart daily and weekly? Is the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross and provides for me in Baptism and Absolution, regularly watering my soul? Is the fertilizer of his body and blood feeding the seed of faith he has planted?” If those things are true then I can assure you of two things: 1st ) You’re not the kind of worthless dirt you once were; and 2nd) the seed is already producing more fruit in your life than you could ever imagine or even see. And that’s the right answer to the wrong question. Amen.