Jesus began to teach in parables because so many who heard him didn’t get it. The Parable of the Sower and Soils tells why many don’t get it, but some do. The important difference between those who do and those who don’t isn’t the soil, or the seed. The difference is in the harvest. Read this parable again. You may see something new, just like Jesus’ followers did.
The Parable of the Sower and the Soils
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NIV
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
A Major Turning Point For Jesus’ Ministry
I have mentioned before that for the next several weeks we’ll be looking at the Gospel of Matthew, and the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. Matthew likes to refer to the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Heaven, but those terms are interchangeable. But whichever term we use, we are encountering a dramatic turning point in the ministry of Jesus in Matthew 13.
Because the lectionary is not taking the Matthew passages in the order in which they are found in the Gospel, you might be a little disoriented. But, let me set the context for you. In Matthew the chapters cover these topics:
- Chapters 1-2 cover the birth of Jesus stories.
- Chapter 3, John the Baptist and Jesus baptism
- Chapter 4, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and calling the first disciples
- Chapters 5-7, The Sermon on the Mount
- Chapter 8 and 9, healings (plus calling Matthew)
- Chapter 10, sending out the 12
- Chapter 11, praising John the Baptist, prayer to the Father
- Chapter 12, Sabbath and various teachings
- Chapter 13, beginning of parables with 5 different parables
So, Matthew has a very logical progression. From Jesus’ birth, through his baptism and temptation, to the beginning of his ministry, the calling of the disciples, the landmark teaching of what life in the Kingdom of God is like in the Sermon on the Mount, and then the demonstration of Kingdom power in healing and casting out demons, Matthew presents Jesus’ ministry as different than anything the Jews had seen.
Until we get to Chapter 13, Jesus has also been very careful not to proclaim his messianic mission, or to allow others to do so. When he heals, he sends people back home and urges them not to tell about him. But in Chapter 13, Jesus’ ministry reaches a turning point. He starts to speak to the crowds in parables.
The Parable of the Sower, which many also call the Parable of the Soils, is the first and most dramatic example of Jesus’ use of parables. So, let’s take a look at what he says.
The Setting of The Parable
Jesus is not having a good day on the day he tells this parable. This is possibly the Sabbath, or the day after the Sabbath. In Chapter 12, Jesus and his disciples have had not one, but four run-ins with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees.
First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grainfield on the Sabbath, and the disciples get hungry. So, they grab the heads of grain, pull the grain into their hands, and begin to eat. Kind of like New Testament granola, or cereal on the run. The Pharisees see this and accuse the disciples of breaking the Sabbath. (Ever wonder how they saw what the disciples were doing in the grainfield? Probably because they were spying on them, but that’s another story for another time.) Jesus has a reply and says that “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” That was not exactly what the Pharisees wanted to hear.
Next, Jesus goes to a synagogue on the same day. There a man with a withered hand, no doubt from a stroke or some type of palsy, was there. The Pharisees try the Sabbath-breaking bait again, asking Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Of course, their implied answer is “no,” but Jesus gives his own answer by healing the man’s hand.
Then, Jesus left the synagogue, followed by a large crowd. Someone in the crowd pushes forward a man who is blind and mute because he is possessed by a demon. So, Jesus heals him, too. As a matter of fact, Jesus heals everybody who is sick (12:15), but he warns those in the crowd not to make him known – not to give him away, in other words.
The Pharisees, who are spiritually blind, accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the chief demon, Beelzebub. Jesus answers by saying, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” (12:28b)
Finally, after some more words, the Pharisees regroup and ask Jesus for a sign. As it healing a man’s hand, and casting out a demon so that a blind mute man can both see and speak isn’t enough. Jesus rebukes them.
But, if that isn’t enough, Jesus’ mother and brothers show up. Some thing presumably to take him home, to take him away from all the trouble that he is stirring up. And he says, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (12:50)
A Change In Strategy
Chapter 13 opens with these words: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea.”
Undoubtedly, he needed a break. Jesus had been defending himself and his disciples, and his ministry, all day long if this was just one day. Perhaps Matthew is less concerned about the precise time that has elapsed than with communicating that Jesus is being questioned, opposed, and plotted against by the religious leaders. In any event, something changes in Jesus.
A large crowd gathers around him while he is seated on the seashore, so he gets into a boat, and with enough water to keep the crowd at bay, but still close enough to shore for them to hear him, Jesus begins to teach again.
But his time, he begins to tell a story. Perhaps a farmer is sowing seed in his field and Jesus points to the hillside behind the crowd to make his point – “A sower went out to sow…”
Whatever his motivation for using that story in that setting, this marks the beginning of a new chapter in Jesus’ ministry. For the reason Jesus shifts his teaching approach, we have to read the text we skipped, Matthew 13:10-17 NIV:
10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
So, here we have Jesus’ conscious decision to stop speaking so that the Pharisees can pick a fight with him. He’s going to speak in parables that some have called “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning.”
It isn’t that God does not want the Pharisees and other doubters of Jesus to hear and understand. It’s that the result of their hard hearts, closed ears, and blind eyes (remember the man Jesus healed?), is that they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it.
Back To The Parable
Okay, with that in mind, we’re back to the Parable of the Sower and the Soils. We could also throw in the Seed as well – The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils. Because there are three elements here. Let’s look at them more closely.
The story is right out of the Farmers’ Almanac. Okay, maybe not literally, but it certainly would be understood by the rural folks who had come out to hear Jesus. Farmers, herdsmen, and even small town craftsmen would understand this story.
A sower goes out to sow seed. He’s planting seed in anticipation of a harvest. Possibly, the sower is sowing grain, like the field the disciples just came through earlier that day.
Whatever the crop, the sower is broadcasting seed everywhere. Some falls on the path, some on stony ground, some among thorny weeds. But some falls on good soil, which provides an ideal growing environment.
The seed that falls on the path just lies there and the birds eat it. The seed that falls on stony ground doesn’t have enough soil for deep roots, and so when the hot sun comes out, it shrivels and dies. The seed that falls among the thorny weeds sprouts, but the young tender plants get choked out by the voracious weeds who suck up all the water, thrive in drought conditions, and grow like crazy.
Only the seed that lands on good soil sprouts and thrives, ultimately producing a harvest. But even that harvest varies from seed to seed.
Okay, this is a pretty typical agricultural story. Jesus leaves out other threats to plants, like wind, flood, fire, predators, and so on. His point is simple – there are three main elements in the sower, the seed, and the soil.
Here’s The Meaning
Then, after explaining why he’s speaking in parables, Jesus explains the parable to the disciples. Now, we think they were a little slow, because we know the answers. But if we had been in their shoes, or sandals, we would have been as clueless. What does this story have to do with anything that Jesus has been saying or doing up to this point?
The story isn’t about treating others as you want to be treated. It’s not about relationships at all, which is primarily what Jesus has been talking about and demonstrating up to this point.
The story isn’t about anything the disciples understand. What’s the point?
Jesus tells them. The seed is the word of the Kingdom. The NIV translates it as the message of the Kingdom, but the Greek word is “logos” or “word.” The various kinds of soil are the various kinds of people who hear the word of the Kingdom, or the word of God. The harvest is limited only to one kind of person, the person who hears, understands, and bears fruit. The fruit, or the yield per person, does not have to be the same. Some will yield a symbolic 30x, others 60x, and others 100x. The yield is not so important, but the fact that that person, or soil, produces something is.
Quickly, let’s look at the three elements. First, the sower is Jesus. We don’t get that from this parable, but Jesus gives us this answer in the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:36-43, when he says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man…” We have no reason not to believe that this is true for this first parable also.
Jesus was sowing the word of the Kingdom into every place he went. The main characteristics we need to note about the sower is that he is generous and extravagant. The sower is throwing seed everywhere. He isn’t miserly with his seed, he isn’t hoarding seed, and there apparently is no seed shortage. He is broadcasting seed with generous abandon. Where the seed lands is not so much his concern. His concern is that he get enough seed out there so that there will be a bountiful harvest.
Jesus continually teaches that the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of abundance. In the Sermon on the Mount he encourages his hearers not to worry about tomorrow, what they will eat or what they will wear. He says that God who takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field will also take care of them.
His healing, and especially his healing of all who come to him, is another sign of the abundance of the Kingdom of God. No one gets turned away, there is enough healing to go around. The “shalom” of God never runs out.
The same is true for physical food. There is enough. There was enough to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children. There is never a shortage of anything in the Kingdom of God.
Even in the future, when the Kingdom is fully come, the new Jerusalem is a perfect cube 1500 miles wide, 1500 miles long, and 1500 miles high. It’s like a celestial highrise, only with really nice furnishings. The point of those dimensions is that there’s room for everyone. And, John the Revelator says that the multitude gathered is too great to number, and from every kindred, tongue, tribe, and nation. Everybody is represented, no one is squeezed out because of lack of room, there are not quotas, no limits, no lack in the Kingdom.
By the way, the early church so believed this that they put all their money, goods, and property together and everyone had enough.
So, the sower is extravagant, and the seed is abundant.
The seed is the word of the Kingdom. This is not the Bible, although the Bible would be included in the “word of the Kingdom.” The word of the Kingdom is that which defines the Kingdom. The word of the Kingdom is the call to follow Jesus, to live like Jesus, to act like Jesus, and behave in a different way from others.
That’s why some can hear it and it doesn’t take root. They are not interested. They don’t get it. And, just in case they might someday wake up and embrace the word, the evil one snatches it away. Because if you leave the word of the Kingdom there, it will have a result.
But, that’s also why some embrace it with joy, and then when persecution (or public opinion comes) they wilt like a flower in rocky soil. The word of the Kingdom isn’t just surface dressing, its roots must go down into the soul, to change and transform.
Some hear the word, understand it, but are distracted by the cares of the world and ambition. Some have other ideas about how life should be lived, and those ideas are incompatible with God’s idea of how we should live.
But, then there are those who hear, understand, and produce a harvest – fruit 30x, 60x, or 100x their own size or weight. Which is the miraculous thing about seeds. When given the chance, one tiny seed can produce 20 tomatoes, or lots of cucumbers, or a dozen bell peppers, or hundreds of beans.
What is the fruit? It’s the reproduction of like kind. That’s what seeds do. They contain the potential of an abundance, but an abundance just like they were. Okay, in this day of hybridized and genetically-engineered seed, you can’t say that anymore, but in Jesus’ day seeds produced more of their own kind.
The good soil incubates and germinates the word of God, which in turn produces more just like that seed. Not more soil. But a harvest of the Kingdom. A bounty of Kingdom-bearers, who then are broadcast extravagantly into the world, again, and the cycle repeats itself endlessly.
We Are The Soil
Okay, here’s where the parable leaves off. Jesus’ point was an observation – some get it, and some don’t. Those who don’t get it, don’t for a variety of reasons. But the seed goes everywhere.
The danger of pushing parables too far is that they break down. Jesus was using his run-ins with the Pharisees to make a point. And in the natural world, soil can’t move itself, or change itself.
But, the lesson for us is to be receptive soil. Not for our own selfish ends, but for the harvest. We are the incubators of the harvest. We are not the sower, and we are not the seed. We are not the harvest. We are the soil. But unlike the soil, we can change, we can hear, we can respond. We can be that which nurtures and furthers the Good News, the word of the Kingdom, just as others before us have done.