Why do some people hear the wisdom of God – the “word of the kingdom of heaven” – and change their lives forever, while others are either unaffected or take interest only for a period and then turn away? In short, why are some saved and some lost?
The 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew begins a fascinating, almost mystical, section on Christ parables. Christ explains that his parables contain answers to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which mankind has desired to know since the dawn of time.
The question above is one of these mysteries.
Those who get the answer to this particular mystery wrong wind up developing all sorts of problematic beliefs about human nature, particularly as it relates to God. And I believe it is no coincidence that this parable features first and most prominent, with explanation and all, in the series of his many parables. In fact, almost everything one needs to know about the life of following Christ is contained in this short parable.
Here is the Parable of the Sower in full text from Matthew 13:1-9.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Assuming the reader is somewhat familiar with this passage and the ones immediately following, where Christ gives the interpretation to the apostles, I would like to point out something interesting that occurred to me recently.
It seems that Christ uses the first 3 types of soil – conditions of the heart – as a way to teach what constitutes the 4th and final type of heart that is “good soil” for his kingdom.
Based on contrast to the first soil – the path, the wayside – the good soil is one that is not forgetful. Soil on the path is one that does not possess what Scripture and the holy fathers describe as watchfulness. Without watchfulness a person cannot retain what God has given, nor can a person discriminate between good and evil thoughts that enter the heart continuously. The word scattered on this soil is easy pickins for the devil.
In contrast to the second soil – rocky soil – the good soil is not shallow. Any farmer, or gardener, or wannabe gardener like me, knows that shallow soil can easily produce very quick and seemingly healthy growth in a plant. But this quick and unstable growth nearly always leads to rapid decay and fruitlessness. A good heart has depth, depth provided by continual watchfulness and care over one’s soul.
In contrast to the third soil – thorny soil – the good soil is free from elements that constrict its growth. Christ describes this soil as being wrecked by anxiety – the “deceitfulness of riches” and “cares of this world” that strangle God’s word in the heart, killing it. A good heart is able to conquer anxiety and the greed it produces. But this is only possible with both watchfulness and depth of soul.
The opposites of the 3 soils seem to be the 3 cardinal virtues: faith, hope, and love. Love conquers forgetfulness – whatever one loves, one keeps in mind at all times. Hope conquers shallowness by instilling optimism in despair. There is nothing particularly deep about being in despair, and anyone can be there. But to have hope in the midst of despairing realities is a truly expanded soul. And faith conquers anxiety by gaining victory over the future. What is anxiety but deep-seated terror in the face of an unsure future?
A good heart, able to be saved, is one filled with faith, hope, and love!
One final note, it is also important to keep in mind that in this parable Christ is not sowing 4 different kinds of people into different circumstances outside their control. He sows his word – his kingdom, his wisdom – into people who have cultivated, on their own agency, 4 different kinds of soil. The condition of the soil is at the mercy of the farmer, and the condition of our hearts is at the mercy of our will. We choose to be forgetful, shallow, and anxious.
Thanks for reading.