By Rick Kirby, Crosswalk.com
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed... – Mark 4:3
Jesus was a master teacher and storyteller. Of course, you may be thinking, “He was the Master of everything!” But I’m speaking not of his universal reign, but rather of his human ability to communicate through language.
Jesus knew how to connect with his audience and engage them with words they would understand clearly. One of the literary devices which Jesus employed regularly was the use of parables.
Simply put, as it relates to Jesus’ teaching, a parable is a fictional, earthly story that is used to demonstrate a heavenly or spiritual principle. The gospel writers record many parables that Jesus told to communicate a heavenly reality such as the parable of the tares and wheat (Matthew 13:24), the parable of the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44), the parable of the costly pearl (Matthew 13:45), and the parable of the net (Matthew 13:47), just to name a few.
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Why Did Jesus Tell Parables Like the Parable of the Sower?
When Jesus told a parable he was intending to provoke the imagination of the people, helping them think in ways they’d not considered before, regarding the kingdom of Heaven.
Parables are not necessarily supposed to clear up hard teachings. In fact, one of the phrases often used in relation to the parables is “he who has ears let him hear” (Matthew 13:11, Matthew 13:16, Matthew 13:49), and this phrase provides a clue—that the parables are intended to produce different results in different people.
God has concealed the mystery of His Kingdom from some whose hearts have grown dull, but to others He “grants” them eyes to see the truths and realities of the present and coming kingdom of God in such a way that they are swept up and become participants in the Kingdom agenda.
The Significance of the Parable of the Sower
The Parable of the Sower is a very important teaching which Mark implies may be a foundational kingdom lesson because Jesus rebukes the disciples in Mark 4:13 for their lack of understanding by asking, “...How then will you understand any parable?”
It sounds as though Jesus is saying that if they can’t grasp the simple teaching of this one parable of the sower, how will they understand any at all?
I believe this parable could more accurately be referred to as the Parable of the Soils. For you see, the focus of the passage is on the condition of the soil upon which the seed is sown; not on the one sowing the seed.
Once again Jesus is using an analogy that everyone in the crowd that day would have personally connected with. It’s likely that most of the people listening to Jesus that day would pass by fields of produce every day, and many of his hearers would possibly have experience as sowers themselves.
Everyone listening to Jesus would have understood the practical implications of the parable, but the most important part of the story was the kingdom lesson to which it pointed.
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4 Types of Soil in This Parable
The Parable of the Sower identifies four different types of soil which the seed is sown upon:
- impacted soil along the path
- shallow soil which thinly covers rock or limestone
- thorny soil which is overrun and grown thick with every kind of weed and thistle
- good soil which has been prepared and cultivated to receive the seed
The “very large crowd” (Matthew 4:1) came down to the sea certainly expecting to hear some profound prophesy from the Lord as they might have heard from John the Baptist—but what they heard seemed more akin to an agricultural workshop.
There must have been some strange looks when Jesus warned of the birds who would snatch the seed from the hard-beaten path or the seed which would burn up in the heat of the day because of the shallowness of the soil. And though the comments about the seed among thorns made perfect sense to a farmer in a field, most of the crowd likely didn’t draw the kingdom conclusions immediately.
Even fishermen knew the value of good soil over the other options which Jesus mentioned, but no one listening that day should truly expect that seed and soil were the real issues before them that day.
What Is Jesus’ Purpose in Speaking of Seed and Soil?
Jesus’ public ministry began with the announcement, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), and everything that followed was Jesus’ attempt to prepare a group of men to be kingdom leaders...instruments bearing life-transforming witness to the presence of this King and his kingdom’s mission.
These Jewish disciples, like all of Israel, had believed for countless generations that the Messiah would one day come and crush their enemies and establish a strong military and political dominance over their earthly enemies. But they were wrong.
The Messiah would indeed come to set his captives free and conquer all who opposed them, but this Messianic Rule and Reign would first and foremost be a spiritual rule in the hearts and minds of those who would believe.
Disciples must not fail to comprehend that this kingdom can only be entered into in their hearts before they can expect to see it come in its fullest expression at the coming of the Lord. Any disciple who does not receive the promises of the King by faith cannot enter in any other way.
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Jesus Intends to Cultivate Hearts
Jesus understood that there are many obstacles that might hinder and prevent one from truly receiving the kingdom message. This parable is designed to warn the disciples (and those who would follow the way) that every effort must be made to cultivate a heart of belief—rather than allowing hardness, shallowness, and cluttered lives to rob them of the joy and fruitfulness of their new kingdom status.
The writer of Hebrews draws from the Psalmist and from Isaiah when he quotes the word of the LORD, “They always go astray in their heart and they did not know my way” (Hebrews 4:10), and Jeremiah concurs with the deficiency of the human heart to embrace and follow God wholly when he decries, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
This is the human heart condition that must be corrected by coming into submission to the Lord and which also must daily be cultivated so that the heart might be able and willing to receive the seed of God’s word.
James, the Lord’s brother would say:
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. – James 1:19-21 ESV
The Bible is not just an intellectual book that we study to make us smarter or better informed. “The Word of God is living and active...discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), and it is powerful enough to bring about radical transformation in our hearts and minds if we receive it.
The Apostle Paul understood this same principle when he exhorted us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). This phrase speaks literally about the word of Christ finding a home in our hearts.
As we foster holiness and purity by turning from sin and constantly seeking to “set our minds on the things above” (Colossians 3:1), we are ensuring that when the Holy Spirit sows His truth in our hearts that the soil will be ready to receive righteous seeds which will grow and mature into spiritual fruit that remains.
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Why Is This Parable Found in All Three Synoptic Gospels?
This “parable of the soils” is only one of three parables which are recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 13:3; Mark 4:3; Luke 8:5). Though it is impossible to say for certain why each writer included it, we can safely affirm that each man was moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) to make this parable part of their gospel account.
It is possible that this parable was told and repeated by Jesus on many occasions and achieved a popularity that other teachings simply did not. This particular parable was also a well-known analogy in Jewish and Greco-Roman circles and almost certainly Jesus would have simply adapted it to fit his purpose and culture.
Whatever other reasons which might have motivated Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is most likely that they simply understood how important the teaching was in light of the new kingdom ethic which taught: Christ’s rule was first and foremost an issue of the heart. And no illustration demonstrated this more vividly than the Parable of the Sower.
What Does This Parable Mean Today?
Through the years, as I’ve heard this parable explained, it is almost always presented against the backdrop of evangelism.
Typically, each of the soils is presented as the various heart conditions which are possible when a person hears the gospel message. Hence, those who hear and believe, when the word takes root, become believers, and those whose hearts are not penetrated by the gospel message remain lost.
However, I would suggest that even though these same conditions might apply to the unbelieving heart, this is not Jesus’ entire intent.
As Kingdom men and women, we are to be sowing God’s word into others and having God’s word sown into our lives each day. Every time I open the Bible I have to ask myself, “Will the word find a home in me, or will it find soil that is impenetrable or hostile?”
This parable in each of the three gospels warns us that hardness, shallowness, love of money, and the cares of the world will only prevent the germination of the fruit which God intends. This is not related only to hearing unto salvation, but hearing which leads to sanctification also.
May the Lord help us all to see our kingdom identity and purpose like never before, and may the word of Christ dwell in us richly and shape us daily into the Lord’s image.
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