The Parable of the Sower
This parable of the Sower is a great one to study because Jesus took the time to explain it in detail to His disciples. His explanation reveals a lot about how we should interpret the other kingdom parables. Another important thing we can learn from this passage is the reason why Jesus taught in parables to begin with, which may be surprising to some. First, we’ll take a look at the parable and Jesus’ explanation of its meaning.
“And He told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears let him hear.’” Matthew 13:2-9
“’Hear then the parable of the sower. 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 what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’” Matthew 13:18-23
Who is the Sower?
The sower is the person who shares the “word of the kingdom.” This could be a preacher, a Sunday School teacher, etc. The seeds being sown are the words of God, the preaching or teaching of the gospel. The types of ground are the different kinds of people who hear and how they respond. Isn’t it interesting that we are made from dirt and in the parable, we are the kinds of ground the seeds fall upon! It is from the seed that the fruit grows. The fruit we bear is never called the fruit of the believer, but the fruit of the Spirit. It is God working in and through us, not our own works. Nothing we do, including being saved is “by works, lest any man should boast.” Another thing to notice is that the sower is not chastised for sowing his seed on “bad” ground. He is broadcasting the seed everywhere – just as we also broadcast the gospel to everyone within our range. I find it notable that we use the “broadcast” for sending out information over the airwaves today just as Jesus uses the word in this parable.
The evil one snatches away what has been sown…
Whenever we share the gospel with someone there are at least four ways they could respond according to Jesus’ parable. First, if they do not understand what they hear, they won’t respond at all. The “evil one,” aka the devil, will snatch the word from their hearts. This word “hearts” is referring to the mind and understanding rather than the emotional part we think of as being the heart. The emotional part of our makeup is actually called “bowels” in Scripture. Not as romantic a picture as the heart! This same thought is mentioned again by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:14, where he says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Someone who has no desire to know God or to come to Jesus in faith will not understand the words of the kingdom. What they hear will be immediately forgotten because Jesus said that the devil will wipe it from their memory. Notice that Jesus used the imagery of the “birds of the air” to describe the devil taking away the word. Whenever this term is used in scripture there is usually a negative connotation surrounding it. Because God does not mix His metaphors, He will use figures of speech consistently throughout His Word. Just be mindful of that the next time you come across the “birds of the air” in a passage. (See verses 31-33 for an example)
“On rocky ground…”
Secondly, if the word lands on a rocky, or hard heart, it might seem to take some root at first. But as soon as there is any type of challenge this person will stop believing. God says that He will give His people new and soft hearts to replace the old hard ones in Ezekiel 36:26-27: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Those who hear the word but only seem to respond at first are really those whose hearts are still hard and who don’t have God’s spirit within to help them walk in His ways. In other words, these people were not saved by the hearing of the word because they didn’t actually repent and put their faith in Jesus. They have the same old hard heart.
“Sown among thorns…”
A third way that people will respond is to hear but to allow the cares of life to keep them from bearing fruit. These people seem to believe but are far more concerned with their own lives and with making money and being successful in the world’s eyes than they are with living for the Lord and bearing fruit for His kingdom. In my experience, this would seem to define many people today who claim to be a Christians. Many people who claim to be Christians are far more concerned about their careers and their social status than they are with doing the work of God’s Kingdom. As a result, they bear no fruit as a Christian.
Jesus uses the imagery of thorns as the reason these people are unable to grow and bear fruit. Thorns are used throughout scripture to typify sin. In Genesis 3, God placed a curse on the earth because of Adam’s sin. That curse was that thorns would grow and make our work harder. The worst weed in the flower bed or garden is one that has thorns! Usually, it is also some sort of vine that twists itself around the plant and chokes it down. It’s very painful to remove! Just as the thorn rips and cuts our skin when we try to remove it from the flower bed, sin causes pain when we are overcome by it and when we try to remove it. Remember also that it was a crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head at His crucifixion. Those thorns represented the sins of the world being placed on Him. The Roman soldiers thought they were simply mocking Jesus, but they were unwittingly being used to teach us something by symbolism. Those thorns were visibly demonstrating the sins of the world being placed upon Jesus so He could pay for them on the Cross. So, in this parable, it is sin that is keeping the hearers from producing the fruit of God’s kingdom. And since they are not maturing and producing any fruit, it means that they have never repented of their sins and had them dealt with by God. It’s not that we are sinless after becoming a Christian. It is that we are forgiven, and God begins a process of sanctification in us that changes us little by little into the Christian He wants us to be. Instead of being overcome by sin, He shows us our sin and convicts us so that we can repent and learn to walk by His Spirit so that sin will no longer have dominion over us.
This type of hearer is one who never truly believes and commits their life to God. Jesus told us that we will “know them by their fruits.” Those who don’t produce any fruits of the Spirit show us that they are not a part of God’s family. In Jesus’ other parables, the true believers always produce fruit and the false believers do not. The very next parable recorded in Matthew 13 is about a field with real wheat and a wheat look-alike called a tare. The wheat produces grain (fruit) but the tare does not. In that parable, the tares are gathered and burned – a symbol of judgement. In the parable of the vine, the branches that do not produce grapes are gathered and burned. These teachings seem to be showing us that a true believer will produce at least some amount of fruit, which is what we see in the final type of soil.
“The good soil…”
The last way people respond to the Word of God is to produce the fruit of the Spirit and live for God. Interestingly, the metaphor is that they produce grain. In other parables, the children of the kingdom are wheat, and the false converts are tares which don’t actually produce any grain. These are those who work hard as good bond servants of Christ and produce yields of – 100-fold, 60-fold, or 30-fold. These differences probably account for the maturity and ability levels of believers. We produce less fruit as a young believer, especially if we come to Christ as a child, than we produce as a mature believer who has more knowledge and understanding and has had more years for God to build our character and faith. God is reasonable and just. He created us to grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. We are only expected to accomplish what would be reasonable for someone at our level of maturity and ability. We should strive for the 100-fold faith that produces as much as possible for the Lord and for His kingdom. It is clear from these differing levels that God expects us to produce at least some amount of fruit, and He is pleased when we do so. Another parable that speaks of being productive for the Kingdom is the Parable of the Talents. The one who hides his talent in a hole is thrown outside the kingdom where there is weeping a gnashing of teeth. The others are commended equally even though they produce varying amounts of money. They are judged based on what they did with what they were given. Clearly, God makes people to differ from one another. He gives differing abilities and gifts as well as differing intellectual abilities. He is only concerned that we use what we have been given to the best of our ability. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others because we are called to be the individual God created us to be. The current social justice teachings fly in the face of this Biblical truth.
Why does Jesus speak in parables?
Then the disciples came and said to Him, “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. 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. 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 hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” Matthew 13:10-15
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, He said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” Matthew 13:34-35
I’ve heard many preachers and teachers say that parables are meant to help better explain spiritual truths, but when we read this passage, that’s not what it says. Jesus is saying here that parables are meant to hide the meaning from those who refuse to believe. Those who rejected Jesus and His words were not allowed to understand what He was saying. God alone knows what is in our hearts. He knows what we are willing to do with the gospel. Those who will come to Him in faith will be able to understand because His Holy Spirit will open their minds and grant understanding so that they can turn (repent) and believe. If they do that, He will save them. Those who stubbornly refuse to repent and believe will not understand the things of God because they are spiritually discerned. They need God’s Holy Spirit to give them discernment, but they don’t want it, so He doesn’t give it to them. We know that God is just, good, and fair. He will reveal Himself to those who seek to know Him, and He will remain hidden from those who hate Him. This could be due to His grace. The more you know and understand, the more you are accountable for your actions. In keeping people who reject Him from understanding, He is lessening their judgment. It is also important to note that we do not know who will come to Jesus and who won’t. God commands us to share the gospel with everyone and compel them to be saved. God will draw those who will listen. We are not accountable for the responses of the lost, we are accountable for our obedience.
Another reason Jesus spoke in parables was to fulfill prophecy. The parables were revealing mysteries that were not known in the Old Testament. The church is hidden in the Old Testament. It was hidden because the Kingdom was being offered to the Jews right up until their final rejection of Jesus at His crucifixion. Once they crucified Him, (which was God’s plan due to His foreknowledge of what would happen), the kingdom would be given to the mostly gentile church. Jesus is giving veiled hints of the church age to His followers, but the meaning behind everything He was teaching was hidden from those who were rejecting Him. When we look at His parables today, it seems to us that they are making it easier to understand His teaching, but that is only because we are seeing everything after the fact, and we have the benefit of the Holy Spirit within us to help us understand. Those who reject the gospel will never be able to understand the Bible the way we do, because they reject the Word made flesh. If they reject Jesus, then they also reject the written Word. Parables cannot help them to understand like they help us to understand.
(One important thing to note is that the earthly kingdom that Jesus will set up at His Second Coming will include Jews who come to faith during the Tribulation. God has not rejected the Jews forever. There will be a remnant of Jewish believers who will be preserved during the Tribulation and go into the Kingdom in their physical bodies. The land that was promised to them thousands of years ago will one day be theirs in full.)
Our responsibility versus God’s responsibility
We need to remember that unbelievers will have all these differing responses to the gospel. When Jesus taught, the people in His day responded to Him in the same ways. Some listened and believed while others rejected Him. We should not take it personally when people reject our attempts to witness to them about the Lord. They are not rejecting us - they are rejecting Jesus. When we talk to unbelievers, we must pray that God will soften their hearts and help them to turn to Him in repentance. Only God knows how they will respond and only He can soften their hearts and give them the understanding that they need to be saved. We are not responsible for their response. We are only responsible for our obedience to share the good news of the gospel.