There’s something immediately quirky about the Parable of the Sower. The sower makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the story and then just leaves the stage. Surely it’s all about the seed and the types of soil it falls in, rather than the sower? Why not the Parable of the Soils? However there’s a very good reason that it’s called the Parable of the Sower. And that’s because that’s what Jesus called it. ‘Hear then the parable of the sower.’ (Matthew 13:18 – see also verse 37)
The Parable of the Sower occurs in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels and the account comes in three sections: firstly the parable itself, then Jesus’ giving the purpose of why he taught in parables, and finally the interpretation of the parable. And each of the three sections comes in each of its three Gospel accounts. So that seems to make it a Parable of prime importance, a key to understanding all the parables. As Jesus says in Mark’s account, ‘Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?’ (Mark 4:13)
The telling of the parable comes as part of a long, busy day for Jesus. He has already healed a demon-possessed blind and mute man. ‘And all the people were amazed, and said, ‘Can this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.’ (Mark 12:23-24)
After teaching about the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, he is then sought out by his mother and brothers, wanting to speak to him. Then out to the seaside, where great crowds, from town after town gathered. A huge crowd standing on the land facing Jesus: Jesus sitting in a boat on the sea facing the crowd. The opposite of our situation this morning: I’m standing, higher. You are sitting, lower. There Jesus took the lowest place, sitting in the boat. The crowd was all standing above him. Jesus, through the telling of this parable, effectively divides the crowd into two groups: the fruitful and the unfruitful, the hearers and the deaf. Is it not like the Day of Judgement? Is it not as though we are there too?
Now for a difficulty; in our day, with so much emphasis on equality, isn’t it offensive to hear Jesus reply to the disciples’ question, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’ (Mark 13:10-12)
Well that’s not ‘levelling up’, is it? So are the parables ‘divisive’? Not at all! The problem lies with us, those standing up and looking down on Jesus. He says: ‘This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.’ (Mark 13:13)
Parables give us the best chance of seeing, hearing and understanding. Jesus shows from Isaiah 6 the human problem, the human condition. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Isaiah 6:9-10)
The problem is with us, with our dull hearts, our stopped ears, our closed eyes, our innate spiritual unconsciousness.
‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.’ (Jeremiah 17:9-10)
‘For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.’ (Romans 8:7)
‘Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not, for they are a rebellious house.’ (Ezekiel 12:2)
Note that Isaiah’s message is to Israelites, the privileged folk who have been brought up in the church. May God open our eyes, unstop our ears and give us an understanding heart that we may receive his message.
So let’s consider the four soils:
1. The path
Our Sower is not careless because his seed is precious. He sows where there is a very good chance of getting a crop. But the path is not obvious. It is where men walk and where the soil is hardened. Outwardly it looks no different, but seed falling on it will not embed in the soil and will get crushed when it is trodden on. Easy pickings for the birds!
The path represents the downtrodden, those who have been walked all over, those who have had a hard life, those who have no hope.
‘There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!’ (Psalm 4:6)
Satan has them under his thumb and the word of God gets no entrance to them. They don’t understand it. They are through fear of death subject to lifelong slavery. (See Hebrews 2:15)
2. The rocky ground (Or, as Luke has it, the rock.)
This is superb soil! The seed goes in and gets off to a great start! The tender plants start well then the sun comes out and, oh dear! They wither away as quickly as they sprang up. Maybe not such good soil! There’s no depth! No chance to develop good roots to access the moisture within the soil because of the rocks, the stoniness, the shallowness.
The blazing sun does for them as the birds did for the seed on the path. The rocky soil represents the shallow person: shallow in heart, shallow in mind. ‘It’s all about me. I never do anyone any harm. All I want is a comfortable life, comforting comments from others, a comfortable body, comfort food, comfort music, entertainment, holidays… Maybe the gospel will bring me some more comfort?’
‘And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ (Luke 12:19)
But if living out the gospel involves tribulation or persecution or testing, well, forget it! And, of course, it does.
3. The thorny ground
We might ask, ‘Why did the Sower sow on thorny ground?’. The answer would be that the thorns weren’t visible at the time – they would just be weed seeds. Whereas the problems with the path and the rocky ground become obvious immediately (the path), and quite quickly (the rocky ground), the problems with the thorny ground only come to light well into the season.
The grain is growing. But it’s facing intense competition – and losing. It’s getting choked. The thorny ground represents the busy, outwardly successful, people. They’ve heard the gospel and it has impressed them. But so have lots of other things: the cares of maintaining their lifestyle, the allure of riches, outward success.
‘But the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.’ (Mark 4:19)
‘And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.’ (Luke 8:14)
The vigorous thorns win and the tender grain loses. Truly: ‘But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’ (1 Timothy 6:9)
Note: the thorns they have cultivated end up piercing them.
4. The good soil
Not much to say here! It’s those, just like the others, who hear the word of God. ‘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.’ (Luke 8:15)
This suggests that those of the other soil types don’t have an honest and good heart, let alone a seeing eye or a hearing ear. But the good soil people understand it. They accept it. They hold it fast. They obey it. And they yield a superb crop.
Each individual of the great crowds of humanity is one of these different soil types: those of us in this room, those in our families, our communities – everyone. As Christians we should desire with all our heart to be the good, fruitful, soil. So what can we do, and how can we pray?
For the downtrodden on the path, let’s be optimistic. Yes, Satan snatches away the Word and they don’t understand it. But a path is only a path. There are no rocks and thorns. A path can easily be dug over to become good ground.
‘The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.’ (Proverbs 13:23)
‘Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.’ (Hosea 19:12)
Although the poor and downtrodden may seem ‘difficult’ targets for the gospel, let’s remember that: ‘For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)
And let’s make a stand against all that causes folks to be walked all over and downtrodden. For Scotland, I reckon it is the relentless assault on the Christian family model over the last 60 years that has done the most damage.
What about the rocky ground? This is much harder! The rocks need to be removed. Elisha, in commanding the three kings for their attack on the Moabites, says, ‘And you shall attack every fortified city and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree and stop up all springs of water and ruin every good piece of land with stones.’ (2 Kings 3:19)
This seems to me a good description of the people who are the rocky soil: outwardly content, inwardly barren, empty and aching. They will need to hear the word of God many times. They will need repeatedly to be challenged over their ruined state. But, ‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ (Psalm 11:3)
Elisha’s strategy for defeating the Moabites is being used today by the media, the entertainment industry and education to target everyone, but especially children and Christians. ‘Everything old is bad. Here’s the future, and it’s good.’ We need to model fruitfulness. We need to show people how to live.
What about the thorny ground? Here we come a lot closer to home. How many people do we know, who once seemed to walk closely and fruitfully with Christ, but whose lives are now choked with thorns?
It could be caused by laziness: ‘I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.’ (Proverbs24:30-34)
Or, maybe distraction. That desire for other things. ‘The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches…’ (Mark 4:19)
Or disobedience. They go on their way. (See Luke 8:14)
Whatever it may be: ‘Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.’ (1 Corinthians 10:12)
But they can be restored! The life where the gospel has been choked can be restored to fruitfulness. Here’s the test. What do you live for? Can we say, with Paul, ‘For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
If can live like that, then thorns will have no place in our lives.
Finally, the good soil. What’s with all the numbers? 100, 60, 30 fold (Matthew), 30, 60, 100 fold, (Mark), 100 fold only (Luke)?
In Genesis we read: ‘And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy.’ (Genesis 26:12-13)
So perhaps Isaac is the template for the fruitful Christian. How can his life teach us?
• His birth was supernatural. Christians are born of God.
• Even from childhood he seems to have walked closely with God.
• He was a man of prayer.
• He was faithful to his calling living as a stranger in the Land of Promise.
Perhaps the most telling thing about Isaac is the godly life he lived before his son Jacob, such that Jacob calls God, ‘The Fear of Isaac’ and then swears an oath by the Fear of his father Isaac. (Genesis 31:42 and 53) What a legacy!
To fear God is to prosper. To be holy is to be happy. May it be so with each of us!