This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower.[1] We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means because Jesus takes the time to explain it. Jesus calls it “the parable of the sower,” but it really ought to be called “the parable of the soils.” The parable presents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses the metaphor of the different types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” he explains, is people.

Some seed that falls on the path which, says Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.

The second response to the word of God is that of the person who readily receives it but does not endure as a disciple. This sort is represented by the seed falling on the rocky ground where it sprouts quickly but dies out under harsh conditions. The presence of “trouble or persecution [that] arises on account of the word,” which Jesus has promised as the inevitable result of discipleship, causes the person to fall away. Because the values of God’s kingdom threaten and are at odds with dominant culture’s values and structures, the world “strikes back” and this sort of person cannot resist or survive the onslaught.

Ground that is thorny and choked by weeds represents the third sort of response. This person, says Jesus, is the one who hears but “the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word” so that it cannot flourish and bear fruit. Concerns of daily life or the lure of material gain and worldly success prevent God’s rule from breaking through and nourishing new life. As a result, the good news yields nothing.

And then there is the good soil, those who hear and understand the word, in whom the seed sprouts, grows, and bears abundant fruit. We know who these good people are, don’t we? These are folks like ourselves, of course! People whose hearts are pure and who embrace the good news, who fight off the devil, who endure difficulty and persecution, who do not define themselves in terms of worldly success and wealth. Just like us. Right?

Well, maybe. And maybe not.

This parable appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We don’t really know when, where, by whom, for whom, why, and in what order the Gospels were written. Current scholarship suggests that Mark was written first, probably in Rome around 65-66 AD. It was most likely written for a Gentile audience. It’s written in very colloquial Greek, probably by someone who was more familiar with Latin than with Greek. Copied and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, it wound up in Palestine within a few years and this is where the author of Matthew (let’s just call him “Matthew”) encountered it and made use of it.

He was probably “an urban Israelite male scribe” writing in what has been called “synagogue Greek,” a more sophisticated Greek than Mark’s, with a “strong Semitic flavor.”[2] He probably wrote his gospel sometime around the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. This was a time when Jewish leaders of all sorts were trying to answer the question, “How should a good Jew who wants to live life in a manner pleasing to God behave?” The leaders of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, of the Essenes, and likely of other groups whose identities have been lost were dealing with this conundrum, as were the leaders of the Jewish Christian community like Matthew. While many scholars believe that Matthew was writing to his own community to help them come to grips with this question, a growing number suggest that “Matthew’s interlocutors are the teachers and leaders of these other Jewish groups” to whom he is making his point that following Jesus was the way to meet the requirements of the Torah, and “why [this] interpretation was valid and important.”[3]

When Mark first used this parable it was to further his ultimate purpose of presenting and defending Jesus’ universal call to discipleship, to inspire, motivate, and convince Roman Gentiles to believe in Christ. Mark said to his audience, “Yes. You are the good soil.” But if Matthew is using it to address the leadership of competing Jewish sects, he is saying to his audience, “No. You might not be the good soil. You might be one of those other types of dirt.”

So, if not good, observant Jews of one stripe or another, who are the folks whom Jesus calls “the good soil”? Who are the people “who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit” in such abundance? As Matthew’s gospel proceeds it turns out that they are the ones the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Pharisees would think least likely: the hungry and the thirsty,[4] and those who satisfy their needs;[5] the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, the sick, the imprisoned, and those who visit and care for them;[6] the outcasts and the sinners, and those who welcome them. I believe Matthew structures his gospel so that he addresses and demonstrates this in a particular way to each of the principal Jewish leadership groups.

The Essenes “thought the righteous should set themselves apart, avoiding interaction with all unbelievers.” They demonized those who disagreed with them and taught that “the rest of humanity (including other Jews) [were] under the influence of agents of the Devil.”[7] The hard-trampled ground of the path, where hardness of heart prevents the good news from taking root, may represent them. To them Matthew’s Jesus lifts up a Canaanite woman begging like a dog as an exemplar of “great faith,”[8] and a demon-possessed boy as worthy of attention and deserving of grace.[9]

The Pharisees promoted the notion that everyone must strive for priestly purity even in everyday life and imposed on their followers an Oral Law replete with “interpretations on codes of conduct, rituals, worship, interpersonal relationships, dietary laws, festivals, marital relations, and claims for damages.”[10] Their rules and regulations, ordinances and requirements might be the harsh conditions of the rocky soil when the word of God dies. To them Matthew presents a Messiah whose followers sometimes eat with dirty hands[11] and who is himself so bold as to perform the work of healing on the sabbath.[12] Matthew’s Jesus does not insist on following rules, but encourages his followers to forgive others who miss the mark,[13] praises those who are alert and prepared for the unexpected,[14] and lauds those who take risks (while condemning those who timidly take refuge in known structures and behaviors).[15]

The Sadducees were the wealthy, aristocratic priests and elders who believed that all that was needed was to observe the Temple rituals and make the designated sacrifices, who took profits from “the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves,”[16] and who worked in concert with the Romans and their client-kings, the Herodians. Perhaps the thorny ground where worldly care and concern for wealth choked God’s word referred to them. To the Sadducees Matthew’s Jesus says, “Infants, children, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’”[17] He tells them the poor are blessed, but that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[18]

The people whom Matthew’s Jesus blesses, praises, ministers to, and spends time with are not really people the Sadducees, the Essenes, or the Pharisees – or we – would describe as good and observant or as pure in heart. We wouldn’t expect them to endure difficulty and hardship with forbearance and fortitude nor to fight off the devil. No, the folks who were the “good soil,” with whom Jesus “squandered his time” were “tax collectors and sinners, lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts.”[19] It was in folk such as these that he expected the seeds of the gospel to take root, flourish, and produce the kingdom of God.

The good, respectable people – the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the other religious leaders of their day — were not. They were the beaten down, shallow, rocky, thorny, and weed-choked soil in which the seeds of the kingdom could not take root and grow.

Did Matthew succeed? Did he convince his interlocutors? Did the leaders of the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Phariseess, or the other now-unknown Jewish groups accept that following Jesus of Nazareth is how good Jew who wants to live life in a manner pleasing to God behave? Probably not; I don’t know if any of them joined the church. The Essenes disappeared from history with the Roman conquest of Judaea at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War in 74 AD. The Sadducees also disappeared before the end of the First Century; without the Temple, their brand of Judaism couldn’t continue. Pharisaic Judaism survived and developed into the various strains of Rabbinic Judaism we know today. Matthew’s own Christian Jewish community increasingly welcomed gentiles, as did the communities founded by Paul and other missionaries, and over the next several decades Christianity became a distinct religion separate from, though related to, Judaism. So I don’t really know if Matthew convinced many other Jews that his interpretation of Torah was valid.

But I do know that seeds of the kingdom continued to fall on stony ground, on weed-choked soil, on trample-down pathways … and that somehow all those sorts of unpromising turf became “good soil” and produced abundantly the fruit of the Gospel.

Here’s the thing about soil – it doesn’t become good on its own. The soil that is beaten down under foot along the path cannot plow and aerate itself. The soil that is rocky and shallow cannot make itself deep and rich. The soil that is thorny and choked with weeds can’t clear itself of those unwanted plants. The soil is good not by any virtue of its own, but because the sower first cares for and works with the soil, and then sows his seed. Soil, in and of itself, is powerless!

I like to think that I’m the good soil. But I have to admit that more often than not, I am more like the Sadducees than I am like the contrite tax collectors and penitent prostitutes who get to be first in line in Christ’s kingdom. More often than not, I am more like the Essenes than I am like the faithful Canaanite woman. More often than not, I am more like the Pharisees than I am like the risk takers and the forgiving whom Jesus commends. Like trampled down, rocky, thorny ground, I am powerless to do (in the words of our opening collect) “things [I] ought to do,” but I have faith that, through Jesus Christ, I might receive the “grace and power faithfully to accomplish them,”[20] become good soil, and maybe bear little bit of fruit. Amen.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2023, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher during that parish’s rector’s sabbatical.

The lessons were from Proper 10A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; and St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Matthew 13:1-23

[2] Dennis C. Duling, The Gospel of Matthew, in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, David E. Aune, ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK:2010), page 299

[3] John Kampen, The Gospel of Matthew: Within and Without Judaism, Yale University Press, September 16, 2019, accessed 11 July 2023

[4] Matthew 14:13-21; 15:30-38

[5] Matthew 25:35

[6] Matthew 15:30-31; 25:31-46

[7] Rebecca Denova, Essenes, World History Encyclopedia, 4 February 2022, accessed 14 July 2022

[8] Matthew 15:22-28

[9] Matthew 17:14-20

[10] Rebecca Denova, Pharisees, World History Encyclopedia, 2 February 2022, accessed 14 July 2022

[11] Matthew 12:1-8

[12] Matthew 12:9-14

[13] Matthew 18:21-36

[14] Matthew 25:1-13

[15] Matthew 25:14-30

[16] Matthew 21:12 (NRSV)

[17] Matthew 21:16, 31-32 (NRSV)

[18] Matthew 19:24 (NRSV)

[19] Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Working Preacher, July 10, 2011, accessed 14 July 2023

[20] Collect: Proper 10, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 231