Many refer to this parable as the parable of the soils because it is not really about the sower or the seed - it's really about the different kinds of soil that the sower puts his seed into. This parable has 3 sections in it:
- The parable itself.
- An explanation of why Jesus used this style of teaching (parables).
- An explanation of the parable of the Sower and the Seed.
This is not a personality or story driven parable, rather it is based on a common observation that any person could make then as well as now.
In chapter 12:46-50 of Matthew's gospel we read about the family of Jesus trying to get Him to go home with them. The next chapter continues the story with what happened next.
1 That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. 2 And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach.
3 And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, "Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7 Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8 And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear."
- Matthew 13:1-9
Vs. 1 - The Lord apparently went home with them but on the same day returned outside and went to the water's edge.
Vs. 2 - Because He was crowded He used a boat as a makeshift stage so He could be separated from the crowd and be seated while teaching them as was the custom of the times.
Vs. 3a - At this point He begins to tell them a parable. As far as we know, this parable was the first one spoken by the Lord in His ministry.
Vs. 3b to 8 - The story is simple enough. A sower/farmer goes out to sow wheat or barley (usually sown by hand in Palestine in those days). The patch of land is not necessarily large, has no fences and has a road running alongside or dividing it somehow. Some of the seeds fall on this pathway and are eagerly eaten up by the birds. This is not done on purpose, simply seed that lands there while spreading on the patch.
Much of Palestine is rocky and so much of the tilled soil has spots where the rock is barely covered by the earth. The heat of the rock provides a good temperature for the soil to germinate seed but doesn't contain enough moisture to keep it alive in the hot sun. This is why plants take and grow quickly but don't last.
Much of the soil has thorns (weeds), which are cut but soon grow back with the crop and choke its growth. On the good soil (that which has depth, moisture and properly weeded) the seed sown produces a harvest. Like any harvest, each grain sown produces a variety of yield - but produces a harvest nevertheless.
Vs. 9 - Jesus tells His hearers that this simple story has a special meaning and if they try to understand they may grasp it.
In Mark 4:10, Mark says that His followers along with Apostles came to Him for an explanation of the parable and asked Him why He taught in this way. If anyone tried to understand the parable they would realize that they couldn't without help. The people who came to Him were those who were listening and searching for the answers.
Jesus begins His response by explaining the reason why He teaches in parables (because it's the first time He teaches this way) - and this will help these hearers understand not only this parable but all of the others as well.
The Reasons for Parables – Mark 4:11-17
Jesus acknowledges that He is speaking in parables and He is speaking in this way for a number of reasons:
1. The knowledge of the kingdom is a blessing
God is the one who reveals the mysteries of His thoughts and intensions. Through the parables He can hide the meaning and knowledge of the kingdom from those who He does not wish to have it.
11 Jesus answered them, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.
The Apostles and disciples have been granted the privilege to understand, to penetrate the mysteries of the parable (Jesus will explain in a moment). The scribes, Pharisees and those who follow them, along with unbelievers, will not be permitted to understand. The reason for this, of course, is that they will not come to Jesus who is the only one who can explain the parables and who is the central figure or key to all the parables.
12 For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.
Those who have begun to seek, follow and listen to Jesus will receive more knowledge and insight (eventually about the resurrection and reception of the Holy Spirit, etc.). Those who have simply listened to the parable and rejected Christ will drift away from Him eventually forgetting the parable and ultimately will become His enemy.
13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
For this reason (because some are believing and some are disbelieving) Jesus is beginning to separate the two by using parables. Parables become a sort of sifting device. Their disbelief (hearing without understanding; seeing without perceiving) will be made evident by Jesus through His use of parables. The knowledge of the kingdom is a blessing reserved only for believers. Disbelievers are filtered out by use of parables.
2. Their use was prophesied
14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
'You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
15 For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.'
The prophet Isaiah said that the people would ultimately not believe because they had cultivated a disbelieving attitude. This didn't happen all of the sudden. Generations of half-hearted worship, disobedience, rejection and manipulation of God's word had produced a nation that was dull of hearing and unprepared spiritually for their Messiah. What Jesus was doing and the reason for it was not a surprise or last minute thing - it was known and spoken of beforehand by the prophets.
3. The fullness of time had come
16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
They were blessed because they were living at a time when all of these things were about to be fulfilled. The patriarchs, the judges, kings, prophets - even the angels (I Peter 1:12) only saw the shadows, the promises and the visions of the coming Messiah. But they were blessed because they were living at a time when these things were actually being fulfilled and they could hear and see and touch and be taught by the Messiah Himself.
So some did not see or hear because they were born too soon. Others did not see or hear because their hearts were dull and unbelieving. Still others were born at the right time and believed in the right person and thus were privileged to gain knowledge of the kingdom long promised and finally come.
The Meaning of the Parable - vs. 19-23
As I said at the beginning of this chapter, this parable is not about seed or the sower but rather about soil. Jesus describes four kinds of soil that receive seed and how the seed fares in each type of soil. We learn that the soil is a person's heart (his attitude, feelings, beliefs, will); the seed is God's word of the kingdom; the sower is Jesus. The parable explains that a person's spiritual life, death or development is based on how that person receives God's word in his heart.
1. Hard Soil
19 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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road.
The side of the field on the pathway is hard packed in dirt. The birds come and take the seed away even as it is being sown.
We see this happening with people who are full of disbelief, cynicism, skepticism or the hard heart of a sinful life. The birds are all the reasons and excuses Satan sends to prevent these people from believing. For example, they say that the word is not inspired or that it is all exaggeration in order to frighten men. They often use the excuse that "Christians are hypocrites" as a reason for their disbelief. Some secretly think that belief may interfere with their sin (whatever it is). The net result is that the word produces nothing except a faint recollection that it landed on the conscious mind for a moment before being snatched away.
2. Rocky Soil
20 The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.
This is the thin layer of warm soil with hard rock underneath. This is the person who receives (understands) and quickly shows much promise in the word. Enthusiastic at first, ready to join in, knows the plan, encourages others to follow him into Christ. Plants need the sun and heat to grow. Christians need the heat of trials and struggle to grow as well. This person's hard heart is never dealt with or seen at first.
The hardness could be basic selfishness or any of the sins that all people struggle with from time to time (pride, fear, laziness, greed, lust, etc.). When the word begins to force him to deal with these issues he is immediately gone. This is the person who wants a blessing, wants grace but is unwilling to die to self or allow the Holy Spirit to deal with him as a Christian. When his faith costs him something he is unwilling to pay and is quickly gone, he is quick to convert and quicker to revert back to the world.
3. Thorny Soil
22 And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
Here the plant dies but the death is a slow death, unlike the seed in rocky ground. It takes awhile for the weeds and thorns to completely choke a good plant. Jesus describes two particular thorns present in this person's heart.
Worry of the world. Each generation has its things to worry about. This is normal. In this case a person allows these worries to overcome his life in the kingdom. He invests more emotional energy into concerns over worldly things than concern and involvement in the kingdom.
Deceitfulness of riches. The world and its wealth and attractions seduce one away from the kingdom. Many Christians start well but become distracted and finally pulled completely away from Christ because they are:
- Too busy
- Too stressed
- Too involved
- Too many bad habits
For these people the word has no impact, no challenge, no authority, no comfort or inspiration any more.
4. Good Soil
23 And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.
The good soil (heart) is described as being one that hears and understands. Hears with the ears and the heart. Understands the primary and secondary meaning of the parables.
This is a person ready to believe and obey the words. This heart will put forth a harvest where each seed will produce differently.
We are stronger in certain parts of our spiritual life and service than in other parts. We bear different fruit in different areas of our lives depending on sin, knowledge, talent, etc. The important thing is that unlike the other soils, there is a harvest and it is plentiful.
So from this parable we glean several more pieces of information for our kingdom puzzle.
1. The kingdom is planted in a person's heart. This is where the growth and perception of it is.
2. The kingdom is planted by means of the word. The kingdom exists in a person's heart through the agency of the word of God. This is how you have it in your heart.
3. The kingdom can be destroyed.
- By total disbelief and rejection.
- By a refusal to persevere with Jesus.
- By too great a concern over worldly matters or worldly riches.
4. The kingdom grows at different rates in different people. Some mature quickly and bear much fruit. Others take longer to grow or are slow in professing their faith. In the end, however, there is a harvest to offer the Lord.
5. The kingdom can be missed. When you patiently teach and explain to no avail, don't feel bad if some just don't get it or don't want to get it. Don't blame yourself. Jesus said that three of the four soils would not have a harvest.
People rejected Jesus, the one who spoke the parables and died for their sins, so don't be disappointed if certain ones do not hear or understand or respond to you. There are still hard, rocky and thorny soils that exist in abundance today.