The Sower – Matthew 13:4-23
For a seed to germinate, it must be in toxic-free soil at the right depth. Maturation is dependent upon the soil on which it falls. When a seedling has exhausted all the food resources stored within itself, it enters into the next phase. When germination ends, a stage called “seedling establishment” begins. Seedlings have a high mortality rate, for they are the most vulnerable to their surrounding environment. Three primary elements affect germination: moisture, oxygen and temperature. It is from basic agricultural facts such as these Jesus draws His analogies for this parable.
Agricultural illustrations are common in the Old Testament. God likens Himself to a sower (Jer. 31:27). Jeremiah commands us not to sow God’s Word among thorns (Jer. 4:3). We are exhorted by Ezra to sow in righteousness and reap in mercy (Ez. 10:12). The Psalmist likens the Believer to a fruit-bearing tree which is firmly planted (Ps. 1:3).
Jesus uses agricultural analogies throughout His teachings. Believers are known by their fruit (Mt. 7:20). Jesus cursed the fig tree because it bore no fruit (Mt. 11:14). He teaches that all unproductive trees will be cut down and burned (Mt. 7:19). We must be periodically pruned in order to produce more fruit (Jn. 15:2). Such allegories and illustrations are also common in Paul’s writings. Believers are expected to harvest souls for God (Rom. 7:4 & Col. 1:6). We are to reproduce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Gal. 5:22). Paul encourages the Corinthian Believers to plant and water in order to harvest souls (I Cor. 3:7). He later speaks of the “spiritual things” he has sown into their lives (9:11). The author of Hebrews reveals how chastening produces the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11). People from every nation can easily relate to a story so alive with rural imagery.
Although farmers perform numerous tasks, the Lord calls our attention to the activity of sowing. In the related parable of the Tares, Jesus identifies Himself as the Sower (Mt. 13:37). God has much to do, but all His activities are subordinate to sowing. However, the parable centers on the actions of the soil rather than the sower. Seed typifies the Word of God needing to be planted in receptive hearts. As God’s Word, the seed is always good, but grows to maturity only in the right soil. How attentively one listens determines how effectively the Word germinates and produces. From the moment an individual receives God’s Word, they begin controlling their productivity rate.
In this parable, Jesus makes it clear He is comparing soil with human response. The often-repeated phrase, “he that receives the seed” proves the soils represent human recipients (Mt. 13:19, 20 & 22). Because the kingdom of God is subject to a variety of responses, Jesus calls every Believer to carefully consider how he allows God’s Word to take root.
There are three types of soil that do not produce crops and one that does. Each depicts one of four ways in which people reject or accept God’s Word into the soil of their hearts. The various responses of those who hear God’s Word depend upon where the seed falls. Only reception into good soil can result in seed germination, plant growth and productivity.
Only Believers truly hungry and thirsty for truth will be filled (Mt. 5:6). When Jesus is alone with His disciples, He expounds the meaning of certain teachings (v. 34). Jesus not only tells this parable, but translates it as well (Mt. 13:4-9 & 18-23). He emphatically states we must understand this parable if we hope to understand His other parables (Mk. 4:13). His interpretation of this story thus becomes a template for accurate interpretation of all His parabolic teachings.
In the passage between the parable and its meaning, Jesus explains why He teaches in parables (vv. 10-17). He reveals His secrets only to those determined to discover the mysteries of the Kingdom (v. 11). In order to better comprehend this parable, we will place Jesus’ own thoughts regarding each of the four soils immediately after the verses.
The Wayside and the Unresponsive Heart
“Picture a sower going into his field to plant. As he sowed, some seed fell along the footpath. The birds swooped down and quickly ate them” (Mt. 13:4).
When anyone hears the message of the Kingdom and does not comprehend it, the devil comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart. This illustrates what happens to the Word sown along the footpath” (Mt. 13:19, paraphrased).
Represented by the hardest of the soils are people who are indifferent, calloused, spiritually insensitive, unconcerned, and apathetic. The path was compacted by foot traffic, just as sin causes men to harden their hearts (Heb. 3:13). A closed mind cannot receive God’s Word any more than a seed can penetrate trampled soil. Demonic influences are represented by birds that devour the seed. Among these may be the owls of intellectualism, the ravens of skepticism, and the buzzards of destructive criticism.
The Stony Ground and the Uncommitted Heart
“Some seed fell among stony places where the earth was shallow. Because of this, they quickly sprouted, but the sun scorched them and they withered and died” (13:5-6).
He that receives the Word in stony places symbolizes the man who accepts the Word enthusiastically, but only temporarily. When suffering and persecution come because of the Word, he quickly gives up” (vv. 20-21, paraphrased).
Much of the soil in Palestine is a thin layer of earth over limestone. Although germination does occur, this shallow topsoil does not permit seedlings to grow. Stony soil represents those who are easily impressed and responsive, but do not allow themselves to be spiritually rooted and grounded in God’s Word (Eph. 3:17). In contrast to the hardhearted, those represented by this soil are happy to receive God’s Word. They are thrilled and enthused by the Gospel message. They rush to the altar and shed tears of joy. They join the church, sing in the choir and attend prayer meetings.
However, a superficial commitment to God will not long endure the scorching sun of persecution. The sacrifices, self-denial, and suffering required of Believers soon cause them to quit. A hasty reception of the Word often results in a hasty rejection of the Word. Like grass struggling to grow in sidewalk cracks, heat soon kills the seedling. Only those who persevere to the end will be saved (Mt. 10:22). Good fruit cannot be produced without good roots.
The Thorny Ground and the Preoccupied Heart
“Some seed fell among the brambles, where the thorns choked the life from them” (13:7).
He that receives the Word sown among the thorns symbolizes the man that hears the Word, but the cares of life and the allurement of wealth choke the Word and render him unproductive” (v.22, paraphrased).
Whereas the person represented by stony soil is endangered by persecution, the type of person represented by thorny soil is endangered by prosperity. The thorny ground characterizes both worries and wealth. Individuals depicted by this type of soil are those deceived by a preoccupation with materialism. Riches are “deceitful” because they promote the illusion of self-sufficiency. In attempting to serve both God and gold, one’s attention becomes divided (Mt. 6:24). The root of all evil is the love of money (I Tim. 6:10). Jesus tells us it is extremely difficult for the rich to enter into the Kingdom (Lk. 18:24). As a young plant is choked by thorns, personal ambition can grow until it dominates one’s life. Worldly cares are depicted as entangling and strangling seedlings before any significant growth can occur.
The Good Soil and the Responsive Heart
“But other seed fell into good soil. These yielded a rich harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown” (13:8-9).
But he that receives the Word sown into fertile soil symbolizes the man who continues to hear and understand the Word. Such men produce thirty times, sixty times or even a hundred times as much as was sown” (v.23, paraphrased).
The one element which distinguishes fertile soil from the others is productivity. In contrast to those soils, the heart open to God is not hard, shallow or preoccupied. Good soil is characterized by reception, retention and reproduction. We must allow God’s Word to take deep root in our lives. Then Satan cannot steal it, our emotions will not control us, persecution will not deter us, and greed will not sidetrack us.
Jesus calls fertile soil an “honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15). He deliberately omits any mention of proper irrigation, nurturing, fertilization, weeding or pruning. Such things are not relevant to the main point of this parable. But like a wise farmer, He knows exactly what nutrients are needed for growth to occur. After spiritual germination takes place, God becomes directly involved in the cultivation process.
In the case of the first three types of soil, the seeds sown yield nothing. But the parable does not suggest crop failure, for the sower has not labored in vain. Jesus’ emphasis is not upon mere germination, for seedlings cannot produce fruit. Plant maturation is directly related to productivity. The numbers He proposes are realistic. Thirty plants for every seed sown can be considered an average yield. Sixty-fold is a bumper crop. But Jesus ends His parable with a note of optimism, suggesting the possibility of a hundred-fold return. Although God blessed Isaac with a hundred-fold harvest, such a large return is exceptional (Gen. 26:12). The yield is dependent upon the character of the soil. For those who accept the Gospel, there is a wide range of productivity. All who go forth weeping, bearing His precious seed will return with a rich harvest (Ps. 126:6).
This parable teaches patience, for we must confidently and expectantly allow God’s Word to grow. It teaches responsibility, for we must pro-actively hear, obey and sow God’s Word. It also teaches potential, for His good Word in good soil is always productive.
The Sower came from heaven to sow His global message in the hearts of men and women. In order to reap a harvest of millions of souls, the Father sowed His only Son into the world (Mt. 13:38). The Church continues to grow from the seed He continues to sow. God, who spoke the worlds into existence, still seeks the receptive soil of human hearts in which to dwell.
Points to Ponder
1. What verses in this parable prove the different soils represent human recipients of God’s Word?
2. What is Paul’s point regarding sowing and harvesting (II Corinthians 9:6-10)?
3. Interpret Paul’s analogy regarding sowing and reaping in Galatians 6:7-9
4. What illustration does Jesus give regarding plants in Matthew 15:13?
5. Describe the person represented by the hardest of the soils (Mt. 13:4 & 19).
6. What type of person is represented by stony soil (Mt.13:5-6 & 20-21)?
7. What type of individual is represented by thorny ground (Mt. 13:7 & 22)?
8. Who is represented by good soil (Mt. 13:8 & 23)?
9. Paraphrase Isaiah’s remarks regarding proud princes and judges (Isa. 40:23-24).
10. What does Job say in relation to sowing (Job 4:8)?
11. What does the Psalmist say about sowing in Psalm 126:5-6?