One of Jesus’ more popular parables is the parable of the sower or the four soils. Picture the Middle East during the first century…specifically, life in a fishing village along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The towns are abuzz with the news that Jesus stays at one of the homes. He makes an appearance outside of it. Soon enough, word spreads like jungle drums to the surrounding homes and towns. It is not long before a mass of people floods this small, seacoast village. Jesus spots an empty boat and plops himself down into it while the masses gather along the shore. I call this church at the beach. This is what they heard:
‘A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear’ (Matthew 13:3b-9, ESV).
I bet these villagers exchanged various expressions of awe, confusion, or disgust or anything in between those attitudes. Some of them might have said the following: “I can’t believe that I’ve stood in the blazing sun to hear this man teach about farming.” Another villager probably shot back, “Oh yeah, I’m a fisherman in this village, so why not use that imagery?” Alright, I have had enough fun. Let me highlight something crucial at this point. Regardless of what these seacoast villagers may or may not have been saying or thinking, Jesus did teach them the parable. For those who have ears, there is an important truth to receive from it. I think this is a key point. It suggests the possibility that some in the crowd could have understood the gist of Jesus’ parable. Of course, it is also possible that no one in the crowd understood it; however, I doubt the truth of that last statement.
One of my delights with the parable of the sower is that Jesus interprets it for the disciples and us. He does so without being prompted by them unlike later on in the chapter with respect to the parable of the tares among wheat (Matt. 13:36, ESV). If only Jesus had interpreted all of his parables in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, but then, such a thing would have prevented many great sermons and commentaries from being written down through the ages. Had Jesus filled in all of the blanks for us, I suspect the kingdom would lack a certain mystery to it along with our faith. In the end, I believe it is important to be thankful that the Lord interpreted any of the parables. Ok, without any further ado, here is the Lord’s interpretation of the parable of the sower:
“‘Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty'” (Matt. 13:18-23, ESV).
Understanding the parable of the sower hinges upon three components: the sower, the seed, and the soil. I think it is intriguing to note that Jesus does not identify the sower like he does with the seed and the soil. This does not mean that the parable falls apart because the sower’s identity remains a mystery. From my perspective, Jesus is the sower who inaugurates the kingdom during his earthly ministry. He preaches the word (or the gospel) of the kingdom, which is the seed (Matt. 13:19, ESV). It is true that we become sowers like the Lord, so I do not want to rule out that nuance. When Jesus travels from city to city and region to region throughout his ministry, he encounters a variety of responses to his message. In the parable of sower, the different types of soil represent the various responses to Jesus’ word of the kingdom. The alarming thing about the response to the kingdom message is that only a fraction or one fourth of it bears fruit (or the spiritual life) of the word (Matt. 13:8, 23, ESV).
If someone instructed me with delivering an important message, and then warned me that most would reject it, I would smirk and walk away thinking that the person was delusional. The whole thing comes off as upside down instead of right side up. I want to win people over to the truth rather than drive them away; however, it is important to set aside this knee jerk reaction for what the Lord desires to convey through the parable of the sower. The heart condition of some will be hard toward the truth, which allows the enemy to snatch it away (Matt. 13:4 & 19, ESV). I think that believers in our day need to realize that some people will not want to receive, let alone hear, the good news of the kingdom. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that he’s “…sending [them] out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, ESV). One more thing needs to be mentioned about the hard heart. I do not believe that this condition is always permanent, but nonetheless, it is a real, heart condition.
The next two soil types are similar in that both give the appearance of life; however, neither the rocky soil nor its thorny cousin allows the seed to grow into a fruit-bearing plant. Because of the rocks in the former, the plant’s root system is unable to dig deep. It remains shallow and unable to handle the scorching heat of the sun. Jesus interprets this as an illustration of a person that embraces the kingdom message on pure emotion. When persecution comes his way on account of the word, he turns his back on the kingdom due to his shallow belief. This is another way of saying that superficial belief in Jesus is really unbelief as it produces no fruit. In a different way, the seed among thorns fails to display the spiritual life of the word. These individuals drown in a sea of things. Materialism is the symptom, but the idolatry of money is the disease (Matt. 6:24, ESV). Instead of investing into his spiritual life, the thorny heart seeks for life and happiness in people, places, and things that suck it out of him.
Lastly, the good soil represents those who believe and understand the word of the kingdom. These individuals demonstrate the spiritual life contained in the word whether 100 fold, sixty fold, or thirty fold. There are some who emphasize that the order of fruitfulness indicates one of decline. At first glance, this is an interesting observation about the parable of the sower. I think there is a potential issue with it. The context of the parable contrasts the fruitlessness of the seed sown among the path, the rocks and thorns versus the fruitfulness of the seed sown in good soil. Where I land at the moment is that the good soil bears fruit regardless of its degree of fruitfulness. To state it another way, I think the parable of the sower emphasizes that the kingdom word heard and understood produces fruit. It is a fact that believers can bank on for the entirety of the present age. In the next post, I will explore the parable of the tares among wheat or the parable of the weeds.