This is the first parable Jesus spoke and the message within these words are critically importance to understanding any of the parables. This passage appears in three Gospels: Matthew 13:3-9, Mark 4:2-9, and Luke 8:4-8. This kingdom growth parable is the foundation upon which His teachings rest. It is important to realize that the parables focus on attitudes, beliefs, and relationship with the Father rather than providing answers to specific issues or problems we may be facing at the moment.
The typical title given this passage is “The Sower,” but a better name would be “The Seed and the Soils” because after the farmer sows the seed, he has no part in the story. Instead, the narrative focuses on the seed and the different soil upon which the seed falls. The response to the message of salvation and the hindrances to a successful planting of the seed is the same today as at the time of Jesus.
Matthew 13:3-9 And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow (4) and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and devoured them. (5) And others fell upon the rocky places, where they did not have very much soil; and immediately they sprang up because they have no depth of soil. (6) But when the sun had risen, they were scorched, and because they have no root, they withered away. (7) And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. (8) And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. (9) He who has ears, let him hear.”
Mark 4:2-9 And He was teaching them many things in parables and was saying to them in His teaching, (3) “Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow (4) and it came about that as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. (5) And other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. (6) And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. (7) And other seed fell among the thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. (8) And other seeds feel into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they were yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (9) And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear; let him hear.”
Luke 8:4-8 And when a great multitude were coming together, and those from the various cities were journeying to Him, He spoke by way of a parable. (5) “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road; and it was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. (6) And others fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away because it had no moisture. (7) And other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. (8) And other seed fell into the good ground, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The setting of this parable is unique because Jesus speaks to the crowds from a fishing boat. The multitude is so large He asks Simon Peter, a local fisherman if He could board his boat and for Simon to move the boat away from the shore. From this vantage point, Jesus tells a narrative about a farmer sowing seeds. At the time, this was a common sight throughout the region. In the month of October “at the end of a long and hot summer the farmer would go to his field, and sow wheat or barley on the hard ground. He would plow the field under to cover the seed, and wait for the winter rain to come to germinate the kernels.” [i] It would be incorrect to infer the farmer was performing the task improperly because this is not how farmers plant crops today. Fields were small, and the farmer would carry seed in a bag on a shoulder. As he walks, he would reach into the bag, and broadcasts the seed. Naturally enough, the seed falls on different surfaces. An example of this action today would be someone, after using a rotary spreader to fertilize a yard, to reach into the bin, gather the remaining granules, and fling them across the yard.
Some of the seeds fall on the road, and the birds eat them. As most people went from place to place by foot, walkways were packed down hard. Since the sower does not plow this part of the plot, those seeds are easily noticeable by the birds. Other seeds fall on the shallow or rocky soil. The explanation of these seeds sprouting quickly, yet perishing when the sun scorches is an accurate synopsis of what happens to these seeds. It is quite common in the region for a layer of rock to be just below the surface of the ground and retain the warmth of the sun after the end of summer. When the winter rains came, the moisture and the heat from the underlying rocks would stimulate germination, and the plants would begin growing. While most of the plot would be barren, those plants in the rocky soil would be spectacular in appearance. However, lacking a good root system, they would expire when the heat of the sun bore down.
The farmer casts other seeds among the thorns and thistles. At first glance, these seeds would seem to have a better chance of success than those on the path or in the rocky soil. Because these are sown on the ground and not warmed by underlying rock, they germinate at the proper time. The problem is that thistles and thorns already exist where these plants seek to establish toots. As time went by, the new plants would grow and develop root systems but the advent of the warm season, the thistles and thorns would also begin to grow. Because of their pre-existing root systems and their fast-growing nature, the thistles and thorns would overwhelm the new plants. Competition for sun and water result in a minimal or non-existent harvest. It would not be unusual for these plants to fully develop but produce little or nothing because of the competing thistles and thorns. Other seeds which fall on fertile soil would produce a bountiful return. The harvest of this type of farming is around tenfold. A crop generating thirtyfold is uncommon, and a hundredfold return is a hyperbole. Both Matthew and Mark downplay the significance of the tremendous results but the version in Luke contains the impact by shocking the listeners with a hundredfold return.
When Jesus begins speaking, it becomes quickly apparent He is introducing a parable. Two of the Gospels record the introductory “behold.” The repetitive use of the phrase “seeds fell” is another indicator. The last words of the narrative reiterated He is telling a parable. Despite that this narrative is a verbal device to convey a message, the business practices of the farmer and the yield of the crop “have been examined to clarify the imagery of the parable. Does the parable depict a typical act of sowing and its consequences? Are the yield figures extravagant or realistic? Is the owner reprehensively careless (does he deserve to get a poor crop)?” [ii] This is a good example of critics trying to discredit a parable, thus dismissing Jesus. Another example of critics who try to refute this parable and the teller is to claim the “sower seems not to care that much of his seed will go to waste. Here is no typical farmer, eking out a living and needing to maximize the yield from his precious seed grain. He knows he is in line for a bumper yield; he can afford to be generous with his seed.” [iii]
After the crowds depart and the disciples and Jesus are alone, they seize the moment to question Him as to the meaning of the parable.
Matthew 13:18-23 “Hear then, the parable of the sower. (19) When any one 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 the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. (20) And the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; (21) yet he has no firm root in himself but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. (22) And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (23) And the one on whom the seed was sown on the good ground, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”
Mark 4:13-20 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all of the parables? (14) The sower sows the word. (15) And these are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. (16) And in a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; (17) and they have no firm root in themselves but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. (18) And others are the ones on whom the seed was sown among the thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, (19) and the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (20) And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good ground; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”
Luke 8:11-15 “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. (12) And those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heats so that they may not believe and be saved. (13) And those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, and they have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. (14) And the seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (15) And the seed in the good ground, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”
“Allegorical interpretation of parables is generally avoided as arbitrary and subjective. Only when the original teller of a parable gives an allegorical interpretation is it acceptable, because only in this instance can it be certain that this is the intended rather than an imagined meaning.” [iv] That the disciples did not understand the parable is evident when Jesus asks “And how will you understand all of the parables?” For this reason, Jesus explained the meaning of the story. This narrative feature “ought to warn against a primarily Christological reading of the parable.” Mark presents this narrative as the lead parable in his Gospel, not only because it is the first in a series but because the other parables rest upon the foundation of this parable. This is even more evident when this is one of the few parables in all three Synoptic Gospels.[v]
While Mark is thought to be the first Gospel written, many scholars think Luke is “the most authentic in regard to the actual words of Jesus, for that version preserves the original balance of a Hebrew parallelism.” [vi] The step parallelism is between the sowing of the seed and the results.
Seed fell beside the road – birds came and ate it.
Seed fell on the rocky ground – it did not have enough soil.
Seed fell among the thorns – thorns grew and choked it. It yielded no crop.
Seed sown on the good ground – hears and understands. Bears fruit.
Several expressions in Luke indicate a more Semitic flavor. The reference to “his seed” is a Judaic expression and “the birds of air” (heaven) is another. Matthew and Mark omit the reference to “his” seeds and only mention the birds that consumed the seed. Mathew and Mark also exclude the expression “of the air or heavens.” The expression “the word” is taken to mean the Gospel or Good News. Matthew adds the phrase “of the kingdom” and Luke expresses it as the “word of God.” As the sower clearly represents Jesus, this parable announces the beginning of the kingdom of heaven and how the kingdom would grow. It was this approach to establishing the kingdom of heaven rather than a cataclysmic event that many did not understand.
This parable is essential to understand the kingdom of heaven for it explains the responses to the Gospel. It is crucial for what “the parable and its exposition describe is the final fate of the Word in the hearts of men. When life is done, some show a harvest; the rest show no harvest. Some never let the Word in, some never let it root, and some never let it mature. This final fate of the Word is shown us now so that we may examine ourselves as to how we are treating the Word now before life is done.” [vii] Both Matthew and Mark refer to Satan snatching the Word before it can take effect in the heart. This could refer to those who listen to the Gospel but have no intention of responding or those who are uninterested, for whatever reason. Several passages make reference to the heart and seed providing additional insight into these terms.
Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord. “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it, and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Mark 7:20-23 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defines the man. (21) For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, (22) deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. (23) All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
1 Peter 1:22-23 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified our souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, (23) for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God.
The seeds falling on rocky soil represents the second group of people. They respond excitedly to the message but as the heat of the day scorches these plants; these individuals prove to be unwilling to pay the price of discipleship. Those not well rooted in Scripture, rarely pray, or do not have fellowship with fellow believers and fall away when difficulties arise. Also this parable, Jesus deals with this issue numerous times during His ministry.
Matthew 8:19-22 And a certain scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” (20) And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nestsbut the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (21) And another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” (22) But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”
Mark 8:34-38 And He summoned the multitude with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. (35) For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel's shall save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? (37) For what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (38) For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
Luke 18:18-24 And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to obtain eternal life?” (19) And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. (20) You know the commandments. 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.'” (21) And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” (22) And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.” (23) But when he had heard these things, he became very sad; for he was extremely rich. (24) And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.”
Unlike the first two types, others hear the words and respond positively. These are akin to the soil with thorns or thistles. As they begin to mature in the power and teaching of the Gospel, concerns or distractions arise and cause the Gospel to be ineffective. When the seeds are cast on the soil, the thorns and thistles already in the soil are dormant waiting for the rain. With the advent of the rain, all of the plants came up but the thorns and thistles already being established and possessing root systems, these plants can overwhelm the new seeds. This is indicative of a person leading a hesitant life, desiring to obey the call of Jesus, yet not allowing the Holy Spirit to permeate every aspect of life. Because of their desire for wealth or private sins, the individual is unwilling to confess and repent. This is indicative of thorns and thistles allowing the seed to grow into a plant, yet producing little or nothing.
The last group is those that fall into the fertile ground. The devil does not snatch the seed before they can respond and distractions and worldly idols and values do not encumber their lives. It is in this soil the seed properly geminates and develops roots to acquire the necessary water and nutrients to produce abundant results. These are the people who willingly respond and submit to the lordship of Jesus and are productive servants in His church. The beginning of the kingdom of heaven “is compared to the harvest. The abnormal tripling, presented in true oriental fashion, of the harvest's yield (thirty, sixty, a hundredfold) symbolizes the eschatological overflowing of the divine fullness, surpassing all human measure.” [viii]