One of Jesus' most famous parables is about a farmer sowing seed in his field. It’s a story that illustrates profound truths about the condition of our hearts and our responsibility to share the gospel as often and widely as possible.
Parables were an integral element in Jesus' teaching. In Matthew's Gospel alone, we find more than 20 of them. Before we turn our attention on the lesson of the sower, let’s take a moment to look at why Jesus taught in parables.
Parables reveal the heart of the listener
In the middle of the sower parable, the disciples ask Jesus why He chooses to speak in parables:
"He replied, 'Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
"'Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand'" (Matthew 13:11–13. All Scripture quotations from the New International Version unless otherwise noted).
Whether they know it or not, some people are not prepared or willing to receive the message of the kingdom. Jesus shared the gospel using stories and metaphors that even a child could understand, but because of a hardness of heart, many just couldn’t grasp the significance.
Paul addressed the issue in his letter to the Corinthians:
"The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Parables make the conceptual a little more concrete
Jesus toured the countryside sharing truths about God’s kingdom. This is a lot more difficult than one might imagine in a mostly uneducated Galilee region. He wasn’t speaking to people who had any interest in sitting around a coffee shop all day discussing theoretical concepts—let alone the luxury of doing so.
By teaching with parables, Jesus was able to explain abstract ideas in a way that people throughout Judea could relate to. Not only did this help them make a connection between their everyday lives and spiritual truth, but it also gave these truths sticking power. You know that they thought about the parable of the sower during every planting season.
Truth has a bigger impact when you have to work at it
Jesus didn't explain everything in complete detail—He expected His listeners to do some of the work. If He had filled in all the blanks for everyone, it wouldn't have had the same effect. One powerful thing about a parable is that the listener has to make the connection between the story and its truth. The "A-ha!" moment occurs when the hearer makes that connection.
Thousands of years later, we’re still turning over Christ's parables and discovering our own relationship to these spiritual truths.
Jesus' parables fulfilled prophecy
Psalm 78 kicks off with an interesting prophecy about the coming Messiah:
"My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old" (Psalm 78:1–2).
Not only is it predicted that the Christ would teach in prophecies, but Jesus also explains to the disciples that the response of the many hearers was also foreseen when He quotes Isaiah 6:
"In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
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.'
"But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (Matthew 13:14–17).
The parable of the sower
Now that we understand why Jesus spoke in parables, let's look at this important story:
"That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: 'A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear'" (Matthew 13:1–9).
This is the parable that the crowd heard. Later, after explaining to the disciples the reason he spoke in parables, he interpreted for them the story:
"Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (Matthew 13:18–23).
What does everything represent?
When we're interpreting Jesus’ parables, it's easy to attach too much meaning to every component of the story. The story itself is a metaphor, so everything within it must be a symbol for something, right? That’s a surefire recipe for getting off track and ending up getting off base. We want to make sure that we’re getting Jesus’ point and not overdoing it.
Thankfully, Jesus interprets the parable of the sower for us. Some elements He explains explicitly, and others are implied. Let's look at them:
What is the seed?
For a farmer, the life of the garden is found in a little kernel of seed. Each seed contained the raw materials for a transformational miracle. A seed can become a plant, bush, or a tree which would produce life-giving fruit.
But as we see in this parable (and as every farmer understood), many environmental factors determine how well a seed will thrive. If a seed is unable to make its way into the healthy soil, it cannot flourish.
In this parable, the seed is the "message of the kingdom." And like all seed, it cannot do its transformational work in the wrong environment. If the gospel seed falls on the bad soil (or is snatched up before it can find purchase), it just won’t sprout.
What is the soil?
Jesus makes it clear that the receptiveness of a human heart is represented by the parable's various soils. The effectiveness of the gospel's seed depends entirely on the soil where it lands, and the parable of the sower is ultimately about how various people respond to the gospel.
1. The bird-pecked soil
When we think about planting seeds, we envision a farmer plowing up the soil and then using a tool to insert the seed deep into the earth. While plowing did happen in the first century, it wasn't the standard. Typically a farmer carried a satchel of seed and scattered it around his land, and that’s the image that Jesus invokes in this parable. That's why we see some seed falling on the path and soil in various stages of readiness.
Birds represented one of the biggest liabilities for farmers scattering their seed. To birds, planting season was an incredible buffet. That's why farmers needed to be incredibly liberal when throwing out their seed. They needed to ensure there was enough to take root.
The first hearts Jesus addresses are those that are never able to internalize the gospel because it's snatched away by the evil one. These are people who never have the opportunity to make a decision about the good news. Their hearts are never softened through reflection, conviction, or repentance.
So when the gospel is presented to them, they're too focused on life's material aspects—what they can see, touch, smell, and taste. They’re so consumed with the world's entertainments and baubles that the kingdom message has no way to have any significant influence.
2. The rocky soil
Plowing allows a farmer to turn over the soil and remove all the rocks. But even if they can pull out a lot of the stones, they can’t account for soil that's just too hard-packed for seeds to make any headway. If the ground is too rocky, there’s no way for the plant's root to sink into the ground for the nourishment it needs.
These are the people who hear the gospel and rush down to the altar to respond. They're completely sincere, but the gospel meets resistance as it works its roots into their heart.
Jesus promises us that "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
These people fall away when they start experiencing pain and resistance. Maybe it's because they believe that following Jesus should put them above opposition and unrest, or perhaps it's because they just don’t know how to place their trust in Him. Either way, they’re unable to develop the root system they need to sustain them when life gets complicated.
3. The thorny soil
Soil is incredibly deceptive. Even when a farmer does his best to prepare it and remove all the impurities, there are imperceptible fibrous roots of weeds waiting for an opportunity to spring to life and take over. These weeds grow up and suck the moisture and nutrients from the intended crop—eventually choking them out.
What's terrible about weeds is that you’re never finished dealing with them. You don't weed once and remove them; they’re always there—just waiting to come back and crowd out your fruit.
The heart of the thorny soil is enthusiastic about the gospel, but it's too easily distracted by the what the world has to offer. They're so busy grasping at everything that they forget what they should hold onto. It’s not that any of these distractions are wrong in themselves, it’s that they divert the heart's attention. It’s like Paul explains to the Corinthian church:
"'I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything'—but not everything is constructive" (1 Corinthians 10:23).
When the heart can’t differentiate between what is beneficial and what's destructive, the destructive forces eventually crowd everything else out. What's difficult is that re-establishing your priorities isn't a one-time job. Like a weed, once you pull out one misplaced priority, there are thousands of concerns waiting to take its place. Developing single-mindedness is a must for disciples.
4. The good soil
Sometimes the seed falls on soil with just the right nutrients and pH balance, and everything works like it's supposed to. It sends out a root that takes hold, a beautiful plant grows, and it produces fruit. As Jesus says, it produces a crop yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.
It's probably wise to point out that, just like we see in flora, the seed is in the fruit. As the Christian heart develops, it produces healthy fruit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). The more fruit a healthy heart produces, the more it impacts the environment around it. When people see that fruit in people’s lives, the more receptive they are to the seed of the gospel.
This is how we produce such a bountiful crop.
But who is the farmer?
The identity of the farmer in Jesus' parable is the question we haven’t tackled yet. In context, Jesus is the farmer. He spent three years of His life sharing the message of the kingdom with varied results.
When we see God as the sower, it's incredibly meaningful. It's wasteful for a farmer to throw seed away on soil that's not going to produce, but the farmer is so hopeful that He's willing to do it anyway. Jesus doesn't differentiate between worthy and unworthy soil; He throws as much grace and gospel seed as He can at us because He's just so consumed with a desire to see us be reconciled to Him.
Ultimately, however, the church is the sower. Jesus said as much in the Great Commission:
"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'" (Matthew 28:16–20).
It's our job to be in the world sowing the seed of the gospel. If we want to create disciples, we have to be mindful of the various kinds of soil. If we desire to grow a bountiful crop, we need to spread as much seed as we possibly can, knowing that a lot of it isn't going to take root. The farmer's focus is on producing a lucrative crop. He's not overly concerned with whether or not the some of the soil is going to reject the seed—that’s a given.
Like Jesus, we're to sow the gospel as liberally as possible. If we try and guess which soil is most likely to support the message of the kingdom, we’re going to get it wrong. We need to scatter the gospel as widely as we can. It’s the only way to produce the kind of yield the Lord would like to see.
The sower's twofold message
In the end, the parable of the sower leaves us with two responsibilities. We need to:
1. Get busy growing
2. Get busy sowing
We are God's field, and He is looking for us to produce fruit. And we are also God’s farmers, and He's looking to expand the size of His crop. Let's get busy!
The "JESUS" film includes the scene of Jesus sharing the Parable of the Sower. We also encourage you to use Jesus Film's® resources, such as the We Are All Missionaries guide, as we partner with you in sharing the gospel with others!