Today we will focus our attention upon one of Jesus' parables found in Matthew 13--commonly known as "The Parable of the Sower." It should be noted that although we are only reading Matthew's account of the parable, both Mark and Luke also record it, and they offer some additional details that we will incorporate into this lesson at the appropriate places. Careful students of God's word will observe that there are many minor differences in the language used by these three authors. These differences are not unique to this parable alone but are encountered numerous times throughout the gospel accounts. These differences show that the writers who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to record Jesus' speeches were not always restricted to His exact language (otherwise there would be no variations in His words among the authors). These writers were evidently led by the Spirit to reproduce Jesus' words only to the extent necessary for an accurate transmission of His thoughts. The original Greek text did not make use of quotation marks to indicate that one's words had been recorded verbatim, as we do today in the twenty-first century. Quotation marks were added by men to the biblical text and are generally helpful, as long as one understands that they do not necessarily indicate the exact words of the speaker.
Let us now read the parable, and then we will go back and analyze each verse individually.
In Matthew 13:3-9, Jesus says - "Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside, and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on the stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"
Jesus begins by stating that "a sower went out to sow" (Matt. 13:3). In Jesus' day, isolated farmhouses were practically unknown. A farmer would live in town with every one else and perhaps have to walk several miles out to his field. The seed sown by the farmer falls on four different types of soil.
(1) "Some seed fell by the wayside" (Matt. 13:4).
This indicates hard-packed earth, perhaps a well-trodden path or road, running through or around the field. This soil would not allow any of the seed to sink in, much less take root. The result was that this seed quickly became bird food (or perhaps it would be crushed underfoot - Luke 8:5).
(2) "Some fell on stony places" (Matt. 13:5).
There are two general types of stony ground. Stony ground that has "much earth" and stony ground that does not have "much earth." Jesus says that this stony ground is of the latter type. The first type of stony ground has the potential to produce fruit-bearing plants as long as the stones do not hinder the roots from developing properly. The second type of stony ground exists when a very thin layer of soil is covering a layer of rock. This causes the seed to sprout and spring forth "immediately." This likely happens because the plant is not using its energy to grow deep roots. Therefore, most of the growth occurs rapidly above the surface. This plant will do well only until the blazing sun scorches it (Matt. 13:6). Due to its lack of proper roots, this plant doesn't have the ability to draw much moisture or sustenance from the soil. It will soon wither and die.
(3) "Some fell among thorns" (Matt. 13:7).
Many times farmers would not remove thorns by the roots but instead burn them or cut off the portion above ground. This was only a temporary solution because the thorns would eventually come back stronger than ever. Such is the case here. The seed sprouted and grew, but it was no match for the thorns that were growing up around it. Over time this plant would be deprived by the thorns of everything essential to its growth (i.e., nutrients and sunlight). It would die before being able to yield a crop.
(4) "But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop" (Matt. 13:8).
"Good ground" is soil that allows the seed to penetrate (i.e., it is soft), it allows roots to develop properly (i.e., it is deep), and it is not already dominated by other vegetation (i.e., it is free from impurities). Ground that meets all three of these criteria will yield a crop. Of course, the productivity will vary based on the specific conditions of the soil and environment. Jesus indicates such by talking about the yield varying from a hundredfold to sixty to thirty.
Although these four types of soils are very distinct, they may all be found lying close to each other in a particular region. Due to the rather indiscriminate manner in which seed was sown in that age, seed would definitely fall on all of these four types of soil. It should be noted that ground that is not currently "good" could be made such with a lot of hard labor. Hard ground can be tilled, rocks can be removed, and thorns can be uprooted--if there is a desire to do such.
Then, in Matthew 13:9, Jesus said - "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" This is a statement that our Lord made frequently. He used it here to prevent the people from regarding the parable as merely a physical story about farming. It should have indicated to them that there was a meaning beneath the surface that they should seek for.
Well, we've considered the physical aspects of the parable, but what is the deeper spiritual meaning? What is the meaning beneath the surface that we should be looking for? This parable is unique in that we have an inspired interpretation of it recorded, which is not the case for most of the parables Jesus delivered. Let us consider Jesus' interpretation of the parable and expound upon it.
Jesus said in Matthew 13:18-23 - "Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root within himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
As Jesus began to explain the parable, He said - "The sower sows the word" (Mark 4:14). Ultimately, Jesus is the sower, and the seed is the incorruptible word of God (Luke 8:11; I Pet. 1:23). But, all disciples are commanded to become sowers. Matthew 28:19,20 - "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you..." One cannot make disciples without sharing the word of God, which is spiritual seed. Let it be observed that physical seed, when scattered from the hand of a child, will grow as readily as if from a grown man, though it may not be scattered as skillfully. All Christians should be sowers of seed. It matters not how much experience or confidence they have. It is not smooth speech or a refined approach that saves the souls of men--it is the gospel! The gospel is God's power to save man (Rom. 1:16,17). The power is in the seed, not the sower! May we never forget such and excuse ourselves from sowing God's word into the hearts of men. We have a duty that we must endeavor to fulfill to the best of our ability.
In Matthew 13:19, Jesus begins to compare each of the four types of soils to a type of human heart.
(1) THE "WAYSIDE" HEART
"When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart" (Matt. 13:19). It appears that God's word only lies on the surface of those who have "wayside" hearts; they do not allow it to penetrate. They are too hardened for the word of God to make an impact in their life (at the present time, anyway). Possible reasons for this hardness of heart include pride, worldliness, and apathy. Once they reject the word, Satan can use any insignificant, passing thoughts or distractions as a bird to carry out of their minds anything they may have heard. For such an individual, the teacher's voice has barely ceased until some criticism or passing thought regarding another matter causes him to forget the spiritual message being shared.
(2) THE "STONY" HEART
"He who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy" (Matt. 13:20). An individual of this type responds positively to the gospel but only in an impulsive way. He receives the word vigorously, but his enthusiasm is shallow and short-lived. His joy is not the joy that results from genuine repentance; it is superficial. This is the type of person who is always starting projects but never completing them (cf. Luke 14:25ff). Such a one needs to "count the cost" and realize that there is a daily "cross" to bear when one follows Christ faithfully. This type of individual doesn't allow the word to really take root in his heart, and thus, he is essentially unchanged by it and unwilling to make the necessary commitment. As soon as difficulties and persecutions arise, he will fall away (Matt. 13:21). It should be noted that sunlight strengthens the healthy plant but withers the sickly, ill-rooted one, just as tribulation and persecution strengthens real faith but destroys counterfeit faith (cf. James 1:2-4; e.g., John 6:60-66). Today, this type of person is often the one who is "won to Christ" on the basis of frills rather than the truth of the gospel. They accept the word superficially, but they will not last long enough to bear fruit for the Lord.
(3) THE HEART DOMINATED BY "THORNS"
"He who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful" (Matt. 13:22). This type of individual begins well, but later allows matters of this life to become his master (cf. Matt. 6:24). This individual has the potential to bear fruit, but that potential is not realized because of misplaced priorities. The Scriptures clearly teach that preoccupation with matters of this life, whether it be "cares" or "riches," is, by nature, an exercise in self-deceit (e.g., Luke 12:16-21; 18:18ff; II Tim. 4:10; Rev. 3:15-17).
(4) THE "GOOD" HEART
"He who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" (Matt. 13:23; e.g., Acts 2:37ff; 10:33ff; 17:11,12). Honesty is manifested in the sincere reception of the truth. Goodness is seen in the practical application of the truth, so as to bear fruit (Luke 8:15). A person has a good and honest heart if he genuinely pursues the truth at all times and maintains a strong desire and motivation to always do that which is right, regardless of the difficulty or consequences. It should be understood that it is certainly not enough to bear one crop and then fall into unfruitfulness--one must persevere (cf. Matt. 10:22; Rev. 2:10). The fact that even when the word reaches the good heart, the yield may vary is easily understood in light of the unique set of circumstances surrounding each individual hearer. Differences in such factors as innate ability, upbringing, education, life span, and sphere of influence will quite naturally result in different degrees of productivity in God's kingdom. The Lord will hold each individual responsible according to his or her ability. If you can only bear "thirtyfold," then do so and receive God's blessing. If you can bear a "hundredfold," then do so and receive God's blessing, but don't try to deceive God by only bearing "thirtyfold" (cf. Matt. 25:14ff)! Clearly, the purpose of sowing is to provide a crop to be reaped; this is true physically and spiritually. The power, as we noted earlier in Romans 1:16,17, is in the seed (i.e., the word), but its power will be of no effect if it is not sown. All faithful disciples must do their part to evangelize!
In summary, this parable divides the hearers of the gospel into four general categories: (1) the hearer who rejects the gospel, (2) the shallow hearer whose emotions are superficially touched yet his heart is still hard, (3) the hearer whose heart is fully right but allows himself to be conquered by outward temptations and worldly pursuits, and (4) the persevering and fruitful receiver of the word. All hearers of the gospel fall into one of these four general categories. Dear listener, to what category do you belong? The simple fact that you are studying this lesson suggests that your heart is not impenetrable to God's word. It is our hope that you have a good and honest heart, an attitude that loves God's word as divine truth and diligently seeks to understand and apply it so that much spiritual fruit may be produced for the Lord. However, we realize that many, tragically, fall into the second and third groups. These are individuals who are partially committed to the Lord and His kingdom, yet there is some resistance to fully following Him. Friends, if this describes you, please take action today! You can cultivate a heart that is completely devoted to God, but you must first desire such. Then, you must fervently labor to remove the impurities and distractions from your life. You can do it with the Lord's help! Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.