Good Soil by Grace
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this parable of Jesus we learn that there are four types of soil in the world that represent different types of people, and each soil responds to the sowing in different ways; three of the soils are ultimately fruitless, and one produces a miraculously large crop — a hundredfold yield, when in Christ's day a tenfold yield would have been great. Now and on Judgment Day we want to be part of that good, fruitful soil, and so we need to ask, "What makes the soil good?"
In the beginning, God made the soil and everything else good. He said after creating the world out of nothing in six natural days, "It is very good," perfect, just the way He planned it. But then Adam's sin turned everything bad, including the ground; God told him that for his rebellion, "cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you" (Genesis 3:17-18). But the ground wasn't the only thing affected, because God also would follow through on His threat to punish sin with the death of our bodies, so God said to Adam and all of us, "you [will] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). When I conduct a graveside service, the liturgy speaks of the dead body going from "dust to dust." Many churches have the tradition on Ash Wednesday of applying ashes to the foreheads of worshipers, and the pastor says to each: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is a good custom, which we will begin practicing here next week, because it is a tangible and visible reminder of our fruitless dustiness as sinners, and it points to where all of us are headed for our sins: the grave. "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), St. Paul says. And as the Letter to the Hebrews says, right after death comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
So as we turn to the parable of Jesus about the three bad soils and the one good, we need to realize that by nature all of us humans start out as fruitless dust, bad soil; we are by nature sinful and unclean, and our sins have earned us temporal and eternal punishment, not the fruit of everlasting life. So the first thing we need to rule out in the parable is that there is something in us that makes us good soil versus bad, as if bad soil can make itself good. We were all born with original sin, and therefore as bad soil.
And if we're honest with ourselves, in the parable we find more in common with the three bad soils than the good one that produced a miraculous crop of faith, hope, love, patience, steadfastness, and every good work. Like the first type of soil, we are plagued by unbelief and misbelief; like the second type of soil, the devil attacks and we set aside God's Word; like the third type, riches, cares, and pleasures stunt the growth of our fruit.
We can all see elements of these bad soils in our own lives. Don't you ever hear the Word of God taught but then immediately forget what you have just heard; or you know what it says, you just choose to ignore it? Or do you find it easy to be confident in the Lord during good times, but then when hard times and suffering come, you begin to doubt God's goodness? And which of us fears, loves, and trusts in God above all other things without letting health problems and money and worldly pleasures get in the way of our worship and prayers?
And how do you stack up next to the good soil? Jesus says, "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." The good soil listens to the Word of God faithfully and does it, rejoices in the Lord even in the midst of suffering, is glad to take up the cross and follow Jesus, and finds all its hope in the Kingdom of God rather than in health and money and pleasure? How do you compare to the Lord's description of the good soil?
We must confess that we bear a strong resemblance to the bad soils because of our sins, and we have no hope of goodness on our own or from any other person, for as Jesus said, "No one is good except God alone" (Luke 18:19). Only God is good, so only He can make things good, and so this is the answer to the question: "What makes the soil good?" The answer is "God Himself." Just as at the creation of the world, when He declared everything very good, perfect, now it is only possible for God to overcome the badness of this fallen world and make good soil, good seed, and good fruits.
And the Good News for us is that we have a Savior who makes us good soil purely by grace. The way He accomplishes this goodness is by sending the Good Seed, not just generic seed, but "the Seed of the woman," God's only-begotten Son, the Word of God made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For immediately after Adam and Eve rebelled against God and brought sin and death into the world, God promised that He would overcome sin, death, and Satan. He said to the devil, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15). The Old Testament is the story of the Word, the Seed, becoming flesh, as God promised to Abraham "in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 22:18).
The Seed was the Messiah, the Christ, and the Seed "for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man." He "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. The third day He rose again from the dead." Throughout His life, He resisted the devil's efforts to snatch God's Word away from Him. He did not give up under afflictions but rather willingly took upon Himself God's punishment against the sin of the whole world. He lived by perfect faith in His Father so He was never choked by the cares of this life, never distracted from His path to the cross by love for money or pleasure. The only truly Good Man was Jesus Christ, God's promised Good Seed, the Savior of the world.
If someone invented a seed that could pack into itself all the water and fertilizer it needed to grow up, and if it could plow the ground for itself, and cull out the rocks from the soil, and kill all the weeds in the soil, well I suppose the inventor of that seed would be a billionaire. I'm not holding my breath for that sort of seed to be invented, but in the Kingdom of God, we do have such a Seed, Jesus Christ. For by His perfect life, innocent sufferings and death, victorious resurrection, and ascension to God's right hand, He has in Himself all the power to make the worst soil good, to save even the most hardened sinner.
And the wonder of God's grace is that He has chosen to send this Seed to you, to till and water and fertilize and pull weeds from you to make you good and fruitful, to lead you to repentance and faith in Christ. In the forgiveness of all your sins that God gives you in Jesus Christ, by your Baptism into Him and by Absolution and Holy Communion, God no longer looks at your sins, your rocks or shallowness or weeds. Instead, He looks at the perfect goodness of your Savior Jesus, who covers you with the righteousness of His own merits. It is by the good efforts of Jesus Christ that you have been chosen to be good soil.
Jesus says of the parable, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." You have been given ears to hear; you have been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God; that is, you have been given faith to hear and believe God's Word. And so now learn the exhortation in Christ's parable: just as the good soil of the earth can be harmed by abuse and neglect, so also the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are constantly trying to corrupt our soil and take the Good Seed from us. There are ever-present pitfalls for good soil like you, as the parable shows: the devil tempts us to be apathetic toward God's Word; the world tantalizes us with false expectations about earthly happiness; and our flesh tries to get us stuck worrying about the cares and pleasures and riches of this life rather than God's Kingdom. Jesus doesn't say that the good soil is somehow exempt from attacks by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh—rather He says that we must endure these attacks patiently until the Last Day, when He comes to give us perfect, resurrected life.
Jesus says, "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word in an honest and good heart, hold it fast and bear fruit with patient endurance" (author's translation). God has made you good soil, but now for you to endure and bear much fruit, the needed power can be found only in the Seed of God's Word. Jesus tells you to hear His Word in an honest and good heart, believing that His Word is true and right. When He speaks of condemnation for sins, be honest and acknowledge that you are a poor, miserable sinner. When He promises free forgiveness and eternal life for the sake of Christ, gladly receive God's goodness and mercy. When He calls on you to repent of your sins, turn away from works of darkness and ask for help in your struggle against Satan's temptations. When everything around you seems to be falling apart, don't hold fast to anything except God's gracious promises in His good Word and Sacraments. And when you are afflicted by trials without and troubles within, don't conclude that God is withholding His goodness from you, but realize that this is God's way of keeping us humble and breaking up the remaining rockiness in your soil, as St. Paul says in our Epistle: "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Jesus said that the good soil will bear much fruit with patient endurance, and He promised elsewhere that "the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). He promises to keep you good by nourishing your faith as you use His Word and Sacraments here in the Church, for the Gospel is God's Good Seed, His rain (Isaiah 55), and fertilizer (Rev 12:6, 13). As Jesus said in another agricultural image in John 15—in fact, He said it right after the Last Supper, when He gave to us the Sacrament of His true body and blood—He said, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you" (John 15:4-5, 16). Good soil only stays good and only becomes fruitful by staying in Jesus through faith in Him, by patiently holding fast to His goodness delivered in His Word and Sacraments. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.