The Parables of Jesus - Part Four: The Sower, Seed, and Four Types of Soil

The parable of the sower is found in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8.  To get a better understanding of what had been happening and what leads up to the occasion of Jesus teaching this parable, I recommend you read the paper "This Evil Generation" before you continue, it chronicles the events recorded in Matthew 12.  Then, later that same day (see Matthew 13:1-3) Jesus began to teach the people in parables.

And, although the number of parables, and in some cases the specific parables themselves, recorded at this point in these three Gospels differ; there are two things consistent in each account, one is the parable of the sower and the other is a situation that arose between Jesus and his family.  So, I want to look at that situation and the events that precipitated it, as I do believe they are directly related to the meaning of the parable.

If you read the paper mentioned above, you know that Jesus had just been engaged in a heated confrontation with the Pharisees.  In fact, it was so heated they wanted Him dead (Matthew 12:14Mark 3:6).  The Pharisees were nervous and angry.  Large crowds had begun to follow Jesus wherever He went.  The religious leaders saw their power and influence over the people slipping away.  Jesus was healing and casting out demons.  And in the midst of all this excitement and commotion, the question was being asked, "Could this be the Messiah?" (Matthew 12:23)  And to make matters worse, Jesus was just on the edge of telling the people what they wanted to hear and what the Pharisees were afraid they were going to hear – that He was the Messiah.  He calls Himself the "Son of Man" (again, literally, "The Son of God Who is a Man") and says He’s greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:40-42).

Now, Jesus’ mother and his brothers and sisters had been traveling with Him (John 2:12) and were there in the crowd (Jesus’ family is described later in this chapter, Joseph had died by this time, but His mother was there with her four sons and three daughters, see Matthew 13:55,56).  They saw what was happening; they heard what was being said.  They thought Jesus was out of control.  As they saw events unfolding, they realized Jesus was not doing anything to diffuse this dangerous situation.  Instead, He seemed to be enflaming it.  And, they feared for His safety, so much so, they wanted to stop Him before things got totally out of control.  This is Mark 3:21.

"And when His family heard what was being said, they went to take Him away, by force if necessary.  And they kept saying, He’s out of His mind."

Let me clarify one thing here.  The KJV translates hoi para autou "friends" ("His family" in the translation above).  The Amplified Bible correctly says "those who belonged to Him", a literal translation of hoi para autou.  The NIV considers the context and translates it "His family".  This brings us to the situation I mentioned earlier.  As I said, it’s found in all three Gospels (Matthew 12:46-50Mark 3:31-35and Luke 8:19-21).  This is the account found in Matthew.

"And as Jesus continued to talk to the people, His mother and brothers stood outside asking to see Him.  Then someone told Him, Your mother and brothers are outside and want to speak to you.  But He replied to the man who had said this, Who is My mother and who are My brothers?  Then pointing to His followers, He said, Here are My mother and My brothers.  For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, the same is My brother and sister and mother."

It’s interesting at this point to notice that Jesus experienced rejection from His immediate family.  This rejection was predicted in the Old Testament (Psalm 69:8); Jesus Himself reaffirms it (quoting Micah 7:6 in Matthew 10:36, but read verses 32-39); and His family is seen trying to hinder His work (the passages given above, see also John 7:1-10).  It is only after His resurrection that His mother and brothers finally join the faithful who gathered together following the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 1:14) and James becomes a prominent figure in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:13) and the author of the Book of James.

This sets the tone for the parable of the sower.  The issue is whether or not people respond to Jesus’ message of the kingdom with a determination to do the will of the Father.  Or, are they going to allow themselves to be swayed by the circumstances and pressures brought to bear by the world and its religions.  Jesus’ family allowed themselves to be influenced by the fierce opposition they saw coming against Him from the religious Pharisees.  Their emotions got the better of them.  Their fear for His safety (and, possibly, for their own safety as well) and the stress caused by the continual tumult surrounding Him was greater than their determination to know and follow truth.  It is this reality that is illustrated by the parable of the sower.

This is the parable from Matthew 13:3-9.

"And then He told them many things using parables, saying, A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell by the side of the road, but the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell in rocky places where there was little soil and they sprouted quickly, because there was no depth of soil.  Now, when the sun came up, they were scorched, and because they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them out.  Still other seeds fell on properly prepared soil and yielded fruit – some a hundred times as much as was sown, some sixty times as much and some thirty."

Now, the meaning of this parable isn’t difficult to comprehend, because Jesus explains it later in Matthew 13:18-23.  Before we look at His explanation, though, let me make a few observations.  I purposely titled this parable "The Sower, Seed and Four Types of Soil".  Each is symbolic and important to the point made by the parable.  The Sower is Jesus.  The Seed is His message of the kingdom.  The four types of soil represent the four possibilities of what can happen when people hear the message.  And as we’ll see, three out of the four give in to circumstances and pressures.

So, let’s look at Jesus’ explanation point by point and identify the four possibilities they represent.  The first is explained in Matthew 13:19.

"When anyone hears the message of the kingdom and fails to consider it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.  This is the seed sown along the path."

There are two words here that must be examined to grasp the full impact of what Jesus is saying.  The first is suniemi, "consider" in the translation above, "understand" in most others.  A combination of sun, "together with", and hiemi, "to send", the literal meaning of this word is, "to put together".  It is often translated, perceive, notice, recognize or understand, and illustrates the process of putting information together and making sense out of it.  Here, Jesus is describing those who hear the message of the kingdom, but don’t take the time or effort required to consider what they’ve heard so they can understand and act on it.  They’re lazy, easily distracted, dominated by their flesh and spiritual issues are of little or no consequence to them.  Their hearts are hard and unreceptive to truth, just as the path along the roadside is hard and unable to receive the natural seed that was sown.  They don’t understand because they don’t care to.  It’s just not important.

This leads to the second word, harpazo, to snatch or rob.  This word is used by Jesus to describe the activity of the evil one in coming suddenly to take away the message.  Now, the question has to be asked, how does he suddenly take the message away?  There are several things to consider.  In the parable Jesus says the birds come and eat the seeds that are sown on the roadside.  Then in His explanation the birds are linked to the activity of the evil one.  The symbolism should not be mistaken – Jesus is describing the activity of demons.

In the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, immediately following the parable of the sower, Jesus describes the activities of the enemies of God in sowing seed that produces something that looks like wheat, but isn’t.  In His explanation of the parable later in verses 36-43 Jesus explains that what His enemy sowed produced something that looked like true children of the kingdom, but were, in fact, children of the evil one.  What we will see in Part 5 of this series when we take a closer look at this parable, is that the program of the devil and his demons is to sponsor religion.  Religion is what steals away Jesus’ message of the kingdom in the parable of the sower.  Religion is what the enemy sows in the parable of the tares.  Religion produces what looks like children of the kingdom; but they’re really children of the evil one.

Later, in the parable of the mustard seed (verses 31-32) Jesus uses the same symbolism to further describe the activity of these "birds".  The word is peteinon, and means, "that which is able to fly" (for a more detailed explanation, read "The Kingdom of Heaven" where I talk about the parable of the mustard seed towards the end of the paper).  In the parable of the mustard seed this word is used with ouranos, and literally describes "those who are able to traverse the heavens".  In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a large tree that becomes a shelter for birds, literally, a worldwide religious conglomeration in which resides the deception sponsored by the devil and carried out by his imps.  Paul alludes to the same, warning against the "doctrines that demons teach" (I Timothy 4:1).

It is religion that snatches away the message of truth.  It is religion that counterfeits truth.  It is religion that offers a better way to God, an easier way, a quicker way.  It is religion that the evil one offers to replace the difficult, narrow path (Jesus’ words, not mine) that leads to God.  Satan’s devices have never changed from the beginning.  He questioned what God had already said when he spoke to Eve in the garden.  She rejected God’s truth and accepted the lie.  And from that point in time down to the present, the Old Testament and then the New Testament chronicles the history of the rejection of truth and the acceptance of the alternative (religion).  Satan continues today to question the words of Jesus and people are quick to grab onto the counterfeit he offers – the traditions, rituals and false doctrines of religion.

And so, what we see in the first part of this parable is an illustration of the effect of religion and its purpose in leading those who embrace it away from God and His message.  I will repeat, again, religion is never what God intended.  Religion is not from God.  Religion does not represent God’s message of deliverance to man.  Religion finds its source in evil and is sponsored by the enemies of God.  It does not lead man to salvation; it leads him to destruction.  And, we will clearly see, as we look at what follows the parable of the sower, Jesus illustrates this fact over and over again in Matthew 13 with the parable of the tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, the fishnet and the householder’s treasure.  These all contain warnings about the deception of religion.

The second part of Jesus’ explanation is found in Matthew 13:20-21.  This is what He says.

"As for what was sown on rocky soil, this is he who hears the Word and immediately accepts it with joy.  But since he has no root, he endures for only a short time.  And when he experiences tribulation or persecution because of the Word, he’s repelled by the difficulty and, eventually, he falls away."

Here Jesus illustrates typical revolving door Christianity.  There are those who receive the Word gladly.  Yet they endure for only a short time because they have no root.  And here I have to refer to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He explains this idea of having no root so well.  This is Ephesians 3:17-19.

"May Christ actually make His home in your hearts through your real experiences with Him (faith), so you can be firmly established (rooted) with a secure foundation (grounded) in His love, so you can have the ability that all of God’s people have to grasp (comprehend) the breadth and length and height and depth of it, and so you can really come to understand in a practical way through your own experiences (to know) the love of Christ, which far surpasses mere knowledge without experience (passeth knowledge), so that, finally, you may become filled and complete in God."

This passage is another example of why words and their specific meanings are important.  To save time I put some of the key words from the KJV in parentheses, instead of explaining them.  Now, let me point out two things in this passage that are appropriate for this discussion.  First, Paul tells us we’re rooted or established in God and in the reality of His love through our personal experiences with Him.  Then he says that knowing God in a practical way through experience is well beyond any capacity we could have to know Him through mere knowledge alone without that experience.

This goes to the very heart of religious deception.  Religion offers traditions, rituals, systematic teaching, rules, programs, activities, empty promises, entertainment and, I’m sure, other things I can’t think of right now.  The purpose of these things is two-fold.  The first, and most important, is to gain people’s loyalty and participation in order to perpetuate the religious institution.  The second is to dispense some knowledge about God. Individual experience with a personal God is almost never mentioned. Group activity and common thought is the order of the day.  In fact, religion has convinced most of its followers that mere knowledge is the only possibility; real, personal experience with God is out of the question.  These people have no root, no practical experiences with God, no reality of God in their lives.  So, when trouble comes, either from circumstances (tribulation) or from other people (persecution), they move on.

This is the revolving door I mentioned earlier.  These people have no root. They’re not secure in God.  They have no foundation based on real experience.  They never learned the difference between religious pretense and spiritual reality.  And they lack the spiritual strength they need in their lives to face the opposition and difficulties that are sure to come to test the reality of their faith (Luke 17:1I Corinthians 11:19).   So, when something happens they don’t like, they move on.

And it is precisely here that I must make an important distinction.  In the parable Jesus says that these "wither away" and later in His explanation they "fall away".  To really understand what Jesus is saying here, one must have the proper perspective.  What do they wither and fall away from?  It’s certainly not religion!  For 35 years I watched weak, insecure, immature "Christians" drift from one religious institution to the next.  Any time things didn’t go their way, when something was said they didn’t like, if a decision was made they didn’t agree with, whoosh, they were gone – to another church.  It is not religion that they fall away from, because religion is not what they received with joy (Matthew 13:20).  It is truth and spiritual reality that they fall away from.  For most, the counterfeit half-truths (religion) remain more or less constant in their lives.

This is the third part of Jesus’ explanation found in Matthew 13:22.

"As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the Word, then the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches begin to push the Word aside and so, it bears no fruit."

Yep, you guessed it.  I’m going to blame religion for this one too.  Remember, Jesus is not talking about the world in general, but about those who hear the Word.  In the first part they fail to consider the message and quickly fall prey to Satan’s devices; they’re herded into a religious institution where the truth is systematically taken away from them.  In the second part they fail to develop any security or stability in God because religion is all about head knowledge and talks them out of the possibility of experiencing Him in any real way.  Now, in the third part they never progress far enough with God to recognize that they’re not to be citizens of this world; they’re to strive for the next.  So, instead, they struggle to gain what this world has to offer.  And they do it with the encouragement, support and blessing of religion.

Jesus is absolutely clear on this issue.  He says we have to deny ourselves – let go of our worldly plans, desires and interests (Mark 8:34).  He tells us that those who strive to pursue the life they want will lose the life God has for them in eternity and those who are willing to reject what the world has to offer now will have what God desires for them later (Matthew 10:39John 12:25).  Paul then tells us that our submission to God and His purpose makes us citizens not of this world, but of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19) and that we’re to be strangers in this world looking for a better, that is, a heavenly existence (Hebrews 11:13, 16).  And, finally, John is very pointed in saying that we’re not to love the world or what the world has to offer, and if we do, the love of the Father isn’t in us (I John 2:15).

Religion on the other hand promotes the world by appealing to the flesh. Remember, it started in the garden with Satan telling Eve to use her intellect to justify her fleshly desires.  She thought it over and decided it would be OK to ignore God’s instruction.  So, what else is new?  Most of the things people do today in the name of religion have little or nothing to do with what God has said.  It has more to do with what they think and what they want.  As I’ve said before, most people involved in religion think it’s up to them to decide what they want and when they want it, and then it’s up to God to snap to attention and give it to them.  They don’t come to God with a heavenly perspective and a hope for eternity; they come to religion with their fleshly desires and to a god of their own making, hoping to gain what they want in this life.  And religion teaches them to assume that provision for the next life is automatic, no problem.

And they choose to believe they can have everything the world has to offer and heaven too.  Forget the fact that Jesus says they can’t.  Religion says they can.  So, whom do they trust?  Jesus tells us we can’t serve two masters, God and the things of the world (Matthew 6:24); religion says we can.  In fact, religion says that’s what God wants us to do.

So, what happens to the seed sown among thorns?  What happens when the message of truth tries to coexist with the things of the world?  Jesus tells us in this parable the truth gets pushed aside by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.  In the text, "care" is merimna, a word used to describe a distraction, especially one that causes anxiety.  In other words, merimna is used to illustrate the things people commonly worry about.  Never mind that Jesus says we’re not supposed to worry about what we have or don’t have; but, instead, we’re to learn to be content, trust Him and keep our priorities straight (Matthew 6:25-34).

The "deceitfulness of riches" is apate, to give a false impression, used with ploutos, material possessions.  This combination of words tells us that material possessions create a false sense of security.  Again, Jesus is crystal clear in warning us not to trust in riches (Mark 10:24-25, read also the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21).  The rich, young ruler was grieved because Jesus essentially told him he had to make a choice between eternal life and his extensive possessions (Matthew 19:16-24).

And yet, even though this account is in the record, clear and obvious in its meaning, most people embrace the false promises of religion and make the same choice the rich, young ruler made.  This is Jesus’ point in the third part of the parable of the sower.  If you try to take the truth into the world and coexist with it, the truth will get pushed aside and the things of the world will take over.  If you don’t make a continuous effort to keep the truth separated from the world, to see yourself as a citizen of another, better place, then the truth will be lost to you and the world will win your loyalty and affection.

This brings us to the fourth part of Jesus’ explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:23.

"As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the Word and considers it carefully; who indeed bears fruit, some a hundred times as much, some sixty and some thirty."

The key to understanding this last part is the meaning of the word "fruit". This is karpos, used here, as in many other places, as a word picture to illustrate the outward manifestation of the inward character of God.  In part three above, those who get entangled in the world don’t bear fruit.  John the Baptist challenged the religious crowd to bring forth fruit (Matthew 3:7-8), something most of them had no intention of doing.  Jesus explains in John 15:1-6 that this fruit is the result of fellowship with Him.  And in Matthew 21:43 Jesus says that the kingdom is taken away from those who don’t produce it and is given to those who do.  Paul tells us to strive to produce this fruit by following the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives, tells us what it looks like and lets us know what the flesh produces so we’ll know the difference (Galatians 5:16-26).

The other point that has to be made here is that the hundred, sixty and thirty-fold yield is not a reference to the result of religious evangelistic efforts.  This is Jesus’ way of telling us that some, depending on their faithfulness, determination, and in some cases, even their ability, will reach different levels of maturity.  The thief on the cross next to Jesus received the promise "today you’ll be with Me in paradise".  He had little opportunity to produce the character of God in his life.  But Jesus recognized enough in that moment in time to give him that assurance.  Paul, by contrast, had much more time and opportunity, took advantage of it and produced more.  How much more is not for us to say; Jesus will sort that out in the end.

So, there you have it, the parable of the sower, the seed and the different types of soil.  Jesus describes the four possibilities of what can happen when people hear the Word.  Three of them are bad.  Three of them are a condemnation of religion and the wrong choices people make.  The first possibility is that those who hear the Word don’t take it seriously and fail to consider it carefully.  Then religion comes immediately to systematically steal the Word away by replacing it with religious deception.  And most people quickly embrace the easier, more enticing message that promises them what their flesh craves.

The second possibility is a continuation of the first.  Those who follow religion never develop any stability in God, because religion says it’s not possible.  They never learn to experience God for themselves, never gain any real spiritual maturity and aren’t able to stand firm in the face of opposition. They continually compromise truth to protect their own interests.  When situations arise that call on them to suffer, sacrifice or humble themselves, they resist and move on.

The third possibility then follows.  They’re solidly entrenched in the world and the world’s system.  They give lip service to God, but what they really want is to gratify their flesh.  They pretend to want God, but only if they can have the world too.  So they coexist with the world and the world wins – they can produce none of the character of God in their lives.

Then there are the "few" (Luke 13:23) who comprehend the message, understand what God is offering them and what they must be willing to do to get it.  They don’t water down the message.  They don’t try to change it. They take God at His word and determine to do whatever He requires to gain what He has.

To be continued in Part 5 – The Tares