Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23 - The Parable of the Sower
This is one of the best known parables ever spoken by our Lord and may also have been the first one. Although the rulers had hardened their hearts against Him, He was still very popular with the common people. They came in huge numbers to hear Him speak and He sat in a boat to teach them.
The Sowing Farmer
This parable seems to be clear, but the disciples asked Him for an explanation. There are things in this parable which are not readily understood. There is always a danger that we will understand and remember the illustration, but will not understand nor remember what it is to illustrate! Jesus took the figure from the common life of that time. No one has to be instructed in the figure He employed. It was that of a farmer who sowed seed by hand. He stepped along at a steady pace, reached into the bag of seed he carried and sowed it ahead of him from right to left. We must not get the notion that he was careless with the seed. The price of the seed was one of his greatest expenditures and he was therefore going to use it to its best effect. The parable does not say what kind of seed was being sown. That had no bearing on the meaning of the parable. The only thing which could be said about the seed was that it was good seed. Although the parable has also been called the parable of the various kinds of earth, verse 18 speaks of "the parable of the sower." The evangelists Mark and Luke also record this parable. These two accounts should be consulted to find explanations of some details. Luke, for example, says that the seed is the word of God. Matthew doesn't say this in so many words, but see verse 19.
"By the Wayside"
If one knew nothing about the land in Palestine, he would get the impression that the sower cast forth his seed at random. This was, of course, not the case. The first place in which our Lord mentioned that the seed fell was by the wayside. This was the hard-packed earth which was used as a path by all travelers. Of course, the seed could not penetrate this surface. Why did the sower not skip this kind of a place in sowing? This could scarcely be done. Nothing was said about the quality of this ground. That may have been as good as any of the soil found in the whole field. The use to which it had been put in the past made the difference. It may have been receptive soil at one time; now it was hard, impervious.
This represented the people, Jesus explained, who did not understand the word. The word remained a puzzle to them. It did not affect their thinking, their feeling or their willing. It made no impression on them. At one time they may have been impressed by the gospel, but not now. So many feet had packed the soil together that the seed did not fall into it. The birds came and picked up the seeds lying on top of the path. Strange, is it not! The devil did not allow this seed to remain. This seed was alive! He knew it. It could blow off the path on to good ground and still come up. Men may often have little respect for the word of God; the devil is scared to death of it! But, this seed brought forth no fruit. Was it wasted? God's word shall not return to Him void, but it seems as though much of the seed spoken of in this parable was wasted! For this seed to bring forth a crop, the path would first have to be plowed. Hardened hearts would first have to be broken before they could receive the seed.
"On Rocky Places"
The second soil into which the seed fell was rocky. This does not mean that it fell on rock, but into ground where the underlying rock was very close to the surface. This could not be seen by the sower. In Palestine there is a great deal of shallow soil lying on rocky substrata. When seed falls on such soil there is almost a miraculous growth of the sprouting seed. Because there is no depth of soil it warms rapidly. But because there is no depth of soil the roots do not go down and all the strength goes into the stalk. Plants growing in this type of soil soon disappoint. As soon as the roots must go down to nourish the stalk adequately, they strike rock which they cannot penetrate. Therefore the stalk soon withers and dies.
Again, our Lord had a certain class of people in mind in characterizing this kind of soil. These are the ones who accept the word gladly and are enthusiastic about all that the word is able to accomplish. It, the seed, falls into the emotions and there prospers. These people are often a joy to those who sow the seed, for they promise quick results. The sowers' work is rewarded immediately. The temporary faith shown by these people often appears to be the genuine article.
But, these people do not last. When difficulties come because of the word they stumble. They thought that the promises of the gospel were wonderful. Who would not enroll in this kingdom? But, when it becomes evident that to follow the Christ demands self-denial and bearing a cross, their response changes radically. This they will not do. The gospel must be all love and blessing. Difficulties attending the faith in Jesus Christ must not be mentioned to them. Their joyful reception of the gospel withers and dies. Jesus had observed this change in people of His day. Many who followed Him gladly in the beginning quickly deserted when they saw that He demanded everything! Today the number of such people is legion. Theirs is an emotional Christianity which has no depth. As soon as difficulties come they forsake the Christ and His church. How quickly the joy which was first experienced is turned into sadness in the experience of those who have not received the full counsel of God! Temporary faith produces no fruits.
The next type of soil which Jesus brings to our attention is the soil which is good in itself but is infested with weeds. Also this is not visible to the sower. The roots of these weeds or thorns fill the ground but they are not yet above ground. When the seed is sown it has enough soil to sprout and has enough depth to grow. The soil is of a quality that might bring forth a crop, but it is full of other things. The seed is not there by itself — it does not have the soil all to itself. The weeds or thorns grow much faster than the shoots of the seed which has been sown. This is a law of nature. As a result, the thorns soon choke out the sprouts coming from the seed which was sown.
People so described have more depth than the former class of individuals. The seed has not only fallen into the emotions, but seems to have reached the conscience. They are aware of the fact that something must be done with the demands of the gospel. However, this is not easily done. The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches soon begin to crowd out the influence of the word of God. After all, we are in this world! We have to live here. The word often stands in the way of obtaining the riches of this world. These people are the double-minded. They have a certain respect for the word of God but also for the philosophy of this world. These go "halting on two opinions." The seed has fallen into unclean ground, that is, into unclean hearts. Both the word and the world are to share space in them. The world allows this, but the seed which has been sown demands all the space. Seeing it does not receive all the space, it is soon choked out and becomes unfruitful. In the final analysis, it makes very little difference whether the seed was sown by the wayside or where the rock was near the surface or where thorns infested the ground, all are unfruitful. Some have thought that this constituted seventy-five percent of the seed sown. That conclusion does not follow from the parable, but the parable does focus attention on the disappointing reception of the gospel by many who need it desperately.
"Into Good Ground"
The fourth classification mentioned by Jesus was the seed which fell on the good ground. Here it was also received with joy. Here there was understanding of the word. The word was received, kept, and understood.
Then it brought forth fruit. It is amazing, of course, that there is still a classification which brings forth fruit to the glory of God. Here the seed penetrates to the heart. The whole person is affected by it. The people so described also experience all the storms which come before the crop is mature. Yet, they endure because in them the "seed" is deeply rooted. The storms do not uproot it; neither are other things in this life allowed to compete with it. These are the ones who have an eye directed to the glory of God. It must be remembered that their growth is a developing process. Even though our Lord has not laid the emphasis on this aspect of the matter in this particular parable, this is understood. The shallow soil seemed to promote more rapid progress than the good ground. But, only in the latter is a crop assured.
An Abundant Crop
It must not be forgotten that the good ground is not all the same. There is no equal production brought forth by all good ground. Some of it brings forth thirty-fold. Not bad, but not outstanding! Some brings forth sixty-fold. Better, but still not great! Jesus said that some also brings forth one-hundred fold. Scripture often uses this number to indicate an excellent crop. However, is that the best which a land "flowing with milk and honey" can do? We see much better today. One kernel of corn brings forth hundreds! Is our production always on the low side?
The emphasis of the story is on the fact that none of the previously described soils brought forth anything and this soil brought forth a harvest! Only when the seed of the word of God is received into hearts which are not hardened, which are not shallow, which are not infested with many other things, can it bring forth fruit. That word has life. When it is brought into contact with soil which is good, it will produce. But, its productiveness is never fully realized unless it comes into soil well-prepared by the Spirit of God!
Questions for Discussion
- How do you harmonize the statement found in Isaiah 55:11: "...my word shall not return unto me void," with the teaching of Jesus in this parable? Does His word "return void" if it doesn't bring forth a crop? Discuss.
- What does the seed sown on the pathway teach us concerning children who have heard the word, accepted it at one time, and now are calloused toward it? Is it possible for parents to keep a child sensitive to the word?
- Is there an emphasis in American Christianity on the fact that the gospel should affect the whole person? Why is Calvinism rich in emphasizing this principle?
- How do we have to wage war against encroaching worldliness? How does the worldliness of today "choke out" the word of God? Are all those things which choke out the word evil in themselves? Explain.
- Are there degrees of glory in heaven? Does one who has produced more fruit receive greater glory? May we use this as a proof text?