The Parable of the Sower
Today’s message is based on a parable told by Jesus. A parable about a farmer who sowed seeds in his field. It is recorded in the first 9 verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew. The explanation of the parable is in verses 18 through 23.
Before we get to the parable, let me share that right before Matthew 13, there was a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus did most of His teaching in Jewish synagogues, but here and most of the teachings to follow until the very end of His ministry, Jesus did most of His teaching away from synagogues, where people were living their day-to-day lives.
The reason for the change is that Jewish leaders, by that time, were growing increasingly opposed to Jesus. They had shown that opposition by positioning themselves in synagogues where they could hear Jesus, not so they could learn, but to see if they could find something in what He said or did by which they could accuse Him, the hope being they could shut Him up. Even their postures and their facial expressions inside the synagogues had shown that hope.
Of course, Jesus had been able to answer all the accusations from the religious leaders. In fact, He would continue to do so when those leaders began to join the common people away from the synagogues, where they would continue to try to interfere with His teaching. However, Jesus thought it better to be where He was at least a bit freer to teach. He chose to center His teaching on those who wanted to learn away from the synagogues.
So it was that on the day recorded in Matthew 13, Jesus went from the house where He had been teaching. Again, it was a house, not a synagogue, where He had just taught. On that day, Jesus went from that house to the Sea of Galilee.
As great crowds gathered about Him, which showed the support Jesus had among the common people, Jesus got into a boat, which would have raised Him up a little, making it easier for Him to be heard. He sat down in the boat and began telling the people parables, including the parable of the sower.
Here is that parable, which I will interrupt from time to time to make some points.
“A sower went out to sow.” Being by the Sea of Galilee, there were fields close by. Perhaps a farmer was, at that time, out in one of the fields. If so, Jesus might have pointed to the farmer, using him as an object lesson, but even if a farmer being pointed to was not the case, farming was a familiar occupation to those in the crowds listening to Jesus that day. It was something they could relate to, including the difficulties of that work.
Jesus began, “A sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.”
There were two common ways of sowing seeds back then.
One way was to scatter the seeds by hand as the farmer walked up and down the field. However, if the wind was blowing, some of the seeds would be caught by the wind and blow all over the place, such as the path beside the field.
Fields were long narrow strips of land. The areas between the fields were walkways that were beaten down by people and animals. Obviously the paths were too hard for seeds to penetrate and grow.
The other common way of sowing seeds was to put a sack of seeds on the back of an animal, tear or cut a hole in the corner of the sack, then walk the animal up and down the field while the seed ran out. That, too, was an inefficient way to sow seeds. At least at the sides of the field, seeds could easily end up on the beaten paths between fields.
In either case, the result was the same. Some seeds fell along the path. Because of the hardness, the seeds simply laid on the ground. There was no germination. Birds landed and ate the seeds, which was the end of them.
Of course, whichever method of sowing the farmer used, not all the seeds ended up on paths. Most of them fell on the field. However, as Jesus continued, “Some fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil. Immediately the seeds sprang up, but since they had no depth of soil, when the sun rose, the results of the seeds were scorched. Since they had no root, they withered away.”
That kind of soil is common in Palestine. Many places there is a thin skin of earth, sometimes just a few inches, on top of a shelf of limestone rock. The soil allows seeds to germinate, but with no depth of soil, the new plants cannot get nutrients or water. The new plants starve and are unable to withstand the heat of the sun.
That is of course not a good outcome. Nor is the next part of the parable a good outcome. Jesus continued, “Other seeds fell upon thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them.”
We know about that even now. If we plant a garden or some flowers, mixed in with the soil are weed seeds. Both seem to thrive at first, but weeds seem to be stronger than plants we want. If not checked - pulled or zapped with something like Round Up - the weeds - thorns as they are worded in the parable - can choke out what is desired in the garden or flower bed.
For the farmer in the parable, some of the seeds he sowed fell on paths around the field. Birds ate them. Some of the seeds fell on rocky soil. Those seeds sprouted, but quickly died. Other seeds fell on thorny soil. Those seeds also sprouted, but were choked out by weeds.
All those are bad results of farming. However, not all was lost. “Some of the seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty times” more than each single seed.
What kind of soil was the good soil? Deep, clean, and soft soil. Soil in which a seed could gain entry, find nourishment, grow unchecked, and bring forth an abundant harvest.
That is the parable of the sower, which was taught by Jesus. He ended with the words, “He who has ears, let him hear.”
Apparently the disciples did not hear. At least they did not understand the teaching of Jesus. That led them to kind of sidle up to Jesus. Maybe there was a break in the teaching time. That must have been the case since more parables were shared later in the chapter. The disciples kind of sidled up to Jesus. They asked Him what His parable of the sower meant.
The disciples wanted to know the lesson Jesus intended to get across. Jesus’ answer begins in verse 18 of Matthew 13. “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom [the word of the kingdom is another of saying the word of God, which is what Jesus was preaching, earlier in the Jewish synagogues, now out with the common people], and does not understand it…” My thought is an intentional lack of understanding, which can be caused by a number of things, like hearing with a shut mind. Or hearing with an unteachable spirit. Or hearing with pride, reacting with the thought that you can do anything and everything on your own and do not need God’s help. Or hearing, but being negatively affected by a fear of learning or trying something new. Or allowing immorality to take away interest in the way of God.
What happens if someone hears but chooses to not understand the word of God? Like the farmer’s seeds that fell on paths, the evil one will come and snatch away the word. It will do no good. The word of God will be taken away before it can even germinate.
Jesus said, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself. The joy of the word of God endures for a while, but when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately that one falls away.”
Do we not know people - at least know of people - who go after every new craze, including spiritual crazes? Or people who take religion quickly, but then drop it?
Concerning following Christ, it is common for someone new to the faith to be excited. That should happen. But we know the word of God gives some very specific teachings about how to live in our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. With Christ, all those teachings are doable, but they can be difficult to do, especially when they are opposed by others, which can result in tribulation and persecution.
Some choose to not obey. Their reaction to the word of God is meant by the description of rocky ground. The result is a quick dying of faith in Jesus.
As for what was sown among thorns, Jesus said this is “he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
Cares of the world. How about the problems of life? We know all about them personally and from the news.
Delighting in riches? We know about that, too. It refers to interest in making money and having the best of everything. Neither of which is bad - unless they are the most important things in our lives. More important than things like worshiping and studying and praying and fellowshiping and sharing.
The word of God can easily get crowded out of our lives. That is perhaps more possible now than ever before with TV and internet. We can get so busy or preoccupied with other things we can forget to become familiar with the word of God, making that word part of us.
A scary thing about this part of the parable is this. We may not intend for thorns to choke out our faith. We may not even see it happening. But the cares of the world and the delight in riches are dangerous. We need to beware of them.
However, “as for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it.” That means his mind is open, he is willing to learn, he is prepared to hear, he is neither too proud nor too busy to listen, he is willing to think things through and is ready to accept God’s word, and he puts what he knows into action.
The result? He indeed bears fruit. Spiritual fruit. In one case “a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
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In a moment, still on the theme of farming, some suggestions of what kinds of seeds we should be sowing. What kind of spiritual fruit we should be producing. Before that, a quick summary of another lesson from today’s passage that I came across, along with a couple examples.
The other lesson is that the harvest is sure.
Yes, there are seeds that fall on hard paths or rocky ground or thorny ground. There is never a promise that every moment of our ministries will be effective.
Think of the disciples of Jesus. They had to have been discouraged, at least at times. At that time, the doors of the synagogues were being shut on Jesus. The Jewish leaders were very critical and were obviously out to destroy Him. At that time, Jesus still had a lot of common people following Him, but few showed any change in their lives. They enjoyed Jesus’ healing power. Some of them enjoyed the free meals He provided. But most, as soon as they received what He gave them, went away.
The disciples must have been discouraged sometimes. We can be discouraged today. But did we hear it? Not everything we do will be successful, but the harvest will come. It will come from those who have open minds, open ears, open understanding, and a willingness to put what we know into action.
The point? Keep sowing. Keep hoping. Sometimes we will have an impact, even though we may not know the impact we are having.
There is a story I read about a man who died. He had outlived all his friends. Hardly anyone knew him.
When he died, another member of the man’s church decided to attend the funeral so someone would be there. Maybe it was a small congregation, or maybe the congregation did not have much compassion, but the man who decided to attend the funeral was the only one there.
After the service, when the short funeral procession arrived at the cemetery, there was, at the gate, a soldier. Before the casket was lowered into the ground, the soldier walked to the grave and swept his hand to a salute.
Afterward, the soldier’s coat fell open a bit. It was discovered he was a decorated officer.
When asked about the salute, the officer answered that the man being buried had been the soldier’s Sunday School teacher many years earlier. The soldier had been a wild kid back then. He had been a terrible bother to his teacher. But the teacher had continued to sow the seed of the word of God. Eventually it settled on good soil. As the officer said, he owed everything to the man’s consistent sowing.
Our role is to keep sowing the seed of God’s word, hoping - being sure - that some will land on good soil. Not all of it will. Even Jesus faced that. But some will. May that fact keep us excited about the ministries we each have.
And then this, which is a hopefully interesting way to explain what we are supposed to end up with when we are the good soil that produces a bountiful spiritual harvest. The explanation is what we are supposed to produce with the seeds of God’s word, which of course we can share with others.
The explanation comes in the form of describing a garden. May each of us have each of these things in our spiritual gardens.
First, we need to have three rows of peas - peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of soul.
Second, our spiritual garden is to have four rows of squash - squash gossip, squash indifference, squash grumbling, squash selfishness.
Do you like lettuce? Let’s have four rows of lettuce - lettuce be faithful, lettuce be kind, lettuce be obedient, lettuce really love one another.
No garden should be without turnips.
(I am glad this is referring to a spiritual garden. My dad used to have a garden. I can still taste the squash he grew - crooked neck, I think - which I have never liked. My dad grew dozens and dozens of them each summer. Enough to last through each winter and spring until the next crop came on. The only thing worse, to my taste buds, were turnips.)
But spiritually, let’s turnip for worship, turnip for study, turnip to help one another.
And then, in one of the corners of our spiritual garden, we need to have thyme - thyme for God, thyme for prayer, thyme for fellowship with other Christians.
Of course, water is needed. Let’s water freely with patience. And we need to cultivate. Let’s do that with love.
* * * * *
Let’s allow Jesus to make each of us good soil - not hard soil or rocky soil or thorny soil, but good soil. Let’s allow Him to make us fruitful. Spiritually fruitful. May we do that for our good and for His glory.
Today’s closing song is Take My Life and Let It Be. As we sing, let’s be committed to being good soil ourselves - good soil in our hands, feet, lips, voices, money, and love. Let’s also pray that as we become an abundant crop spiritually, we will have a willingness to continue to spread the seed of God’s word, knowing that some of our sowing will fall on good soil.
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love,
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee;
Take my voice and let me sing
Always, only, for my King,
Always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages for Thee;
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my love, my God, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee,
Ever, only, all for Thee.
Lord, please help us to accept and use Your word so we can be abundantly fruitful. Help us to sow Your seed among others in the world, trusting that some of it will land on good soil. Keep us encouraged. Thank You. Amen.