The Parable of the Sower
1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown."
When he said this, he called out, "Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear."
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
" 'though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.' [a]
11 "This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
I’m always amazed by the varying responses of Americans following a speech by the President, regardless of what President it is. As soon as the President gives a speech or lays out some new policy measure that he is proposing, the twenty-four hour news stations go abuzz with responses to the President’s ideas. It’s almost dizzying, though, to switch back and forth between channels with different political perspectives and hear the differing opinions on the same speech. From one perspective, the President’s speech was a masterful work of oratory skill and brilliant policies that would be so wonderful for the country. Then you switch the channel and another commentator from another perspective is saying that this is one of the worst and most diabolical things they have ever heard. Surely if the country follows this path, says the pundit, the country will be far worse off. One speaker is full of kind words and admiration while the other one is full of criticism and disgust. It makes you wonder if they were listening to the same speech from the same President. But of course it was the same speech. So what accounts for such differing perspectives on the same speech, the same policy, or even the same person? It really doesn’t have all that much to do with the speech or the speaker, it comes down to the listener. It is the perspective of the listener that causes the vastly different responses.
This truth is illustrated beautifully by a piece of chocolate and some muddy ground. If you go to a spot of muddy ground on a very hot and dry day and put a chocolate bar down right next to the mud, something amazing will happen. The very same sun that is shining equally on the mud and the chocolate will have completely different results. For the mud, the sun will be an agent of hardening. It will turn the mud into a dry and hard surface that will, over time, get nearly as hard as rock. But that same sun will serve as a melting agent for the chocolate. It will turn the chocolate into a melting mess of goo. How can the same agent cause such different results? It is because of the difference in the make-up of the mud and the chocolate. The substance of those items will determine what the sun causes them to do. The sun causes the mud to harden while it causes the chocolate to melt but its the same sun.
It is important to keep this in mind as Jesus discusses, through this parable, the effect that the word of God as it was coming through his kingdom announcing, would have on those that heard him and those that continued to hear his words through Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ words would have very different effects on different hearers but that had everything to do with the soil, or the heart that the seeds of that word landed on. It wasn’t that Jesus was preaching different things in different places or that God had pre-determined that some people would not be able to have the privilege of responding to the gospel. It is just like the sun on that mud and chocolate. As the light of Jesus’ kingdom shone on the hearts of men, it would have very different effects based on the condition of their heart.
As Luke continues his description of Jesus’ kingdom announcing ministry in the outlying areas of Israel, he intentionally draws attention to the role of women in Jesus’ ministry, which should not be that surprising as Luke takes more care than any other Gospel writer to stress the importance of women in Jesus’ kingdom movement. By mentioning them this early in Jesus’ ministry, Luke likely wants to stress that these women didn’t just pop up at Jesus’ resurrection but they were integral to his ministry throughout. They not only traveled with Jesus quite often but they helped to support Jesus and the Twelve. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that having women travel with them and play such a vital role was unusual to the point of being scandalous in first-century Israel. With so many other elements of Jesus’ ministry, though, that pointed symbolically to important spiritual truths, this all pointed to the fact that women would be on the same ground as far as membership in the kingdom family as men would be (Gal. 3:26-28). These women weren’t just unnecessary bystanders but were vital to the development of Jesus’ church and women would continue to have equal status and esteem within the kingdom of God. Luke also ably reminds us that financial generosity is absolutely vital to the establishment and continuation of the ministry of the kingdom of God.
Jesus was simply a master teacher who was brilliant in his ability to take normal, everyday illustrations that the most common of listeners could understand and relate to. That is certainly the case here as he gives a parable that used the common concept of sowing seed, something that an agrarian society would have been quite familiar with. Jesus’ intent, though, is not to offer up a thorough and complete description of sowing practices and possible outcomes but to use generalizations to demonstrate something about his kingdom.
Up to this point, Jesus has had mixed results in announcing the coming of the kingdom of God. Despite the fact that he was the Son of God with authority over demons and illnesses and even the authority to forgive sins, his message was not universally embraced. Some, like those in the synagogue in Nazareth had the word sown to them but it was quickly trampled on and was gobbled up by their own preconceived notions of who God was and how he should be working. Some, like Pharisees who saw Jesus heal the man with the deformed hand, heard the word but it fell on the rocks of their own pride and messianic expectations and it withered away. Some, like Simon the Pharisee, heard the word and considered it, but then it was choked out by the thorns of his own cultural prejudices and refusal to embrace a new reality that recognized the humanity of all people. But others heard the word and believed it. Think of the Twelve who have left everything to follow Jesus, the men who in faith lowered paralytic friend through a roof, the centurion, and the grateful women who washed Jesus’ feet with her own tears. The word of God had found good soil and was producing a good crop.
This parable is all about the impact that Jesus and his word has on human beings. These truths are already on display in the hearts of those described in Luke’s Gospel but they are just as true in the lives and hearts of men and women that have been confronted with the word of God since then. The message of the gospel is the same for any human being, calling them to lay down their life and submit to the life of Christ in obedience to his word but the responses are varied. Just as with the chocolate and mud, the reactions to the gospel have everything to do with the heart of the one hearing the message. In that sense, the parables of Jesus were like the sun. He spoke in this somewhat enigmatic way so that those with humble and believing hearts would be able to grasp the truth of the message. But those who wanted to cling to their own expectations and trust in their ability to get themselves to God would find, just as Isaiah had declared (Isa. 6:9), that the word of God would not melt their hearts but actually make them harder. They would see but not really see; they would hear but never understand. Because of their pride, traditions, and indifference to God’s true reality they had hearts of mud that, when they came in contact with the warming sun of God’s love through the life of the Messiah, got dry, got hard, and cracked.
When we stand back at a distance of two millennia and look at this parable we often tend to think of it in terms of hearing the word for the first time and then deciding to become a Christian or not. The reality of this parable is that it does include the moment of initial decision, but that for Christians who have already made an initial response to the kingdom message, the far more pertinent point is that we must constantly examine ourselves according to the principles of this passage. How do we respond to the word of God on a day-in and day-out basis?
The first question we should ask ourselves is are we even sowing the wrod in our lives on a daily basis? If we’re not, that’s obviously a major problem. But if we do, what kind of heart soil does the seed of the word land on? Do we find ourselves listening to the schemes and temptations of the devil and allowing him to steal the word before it can ever take root? Do we take the word in a surface level, perhaps only at church or in shallow devotional times, only to find that when the hard times come we fall back on our own wisdom or will rather than God’s? Do we take the word into our lives but neglect to pull out the weeds of being drawn to the things of the world and allow those thorns to choke out the part of us that wants to do God’s will? Or are we that good soil? Are we constantly taking steps to ensure that when the word of God hits our hearts it will find good soil that is ready and willing to be obedient to God’s word? If our hearts remain soft to God’s word, constantly prepared to seek it out and be melted by it, we will find that it will continually produce a crop in our lives. When we bury the word deep in our hearts, we can’t help but find that after a time, the radical love and mercy of God will begin to burst forth from our lives and make themselves evident to the world around us.
Spend some time really reflecting on what kind of heart soil you have had lately. Is the word still consistently producing a crop in your life or has it found less-than-ideal soil lately? But don’t just examine yourself. Ask others who are very close to you what they see. Do they see consistent humility and growth in your life?