Lessons learned from the Parable of the Sower
The parable of the sower, perhaps better referred to as the parable of the four soils, is so rich that doubtless it was told multiple times by Jesus to different audiences during His three-year ministry. We are going to focus on Luke 8:1-15 but you can find this same parable from different perspectives at Matthew 13:1-23 and Mark 4:1-20. This parable has its own internal explanation so there is little room for argument over what Jesus meant by it.
1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him,
2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;
3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
There were four soils, each representing a person who heard the Word of God and reacted differently:
1. The hard path,
2. The rocky ground,
3. The thorns, and
4. The good soil.
Our focus is immediately drawn to the types of soil – and it should be. With the built-in explanation, in verses 12 through 15, we can all see that we want to be the fourth soil, the “good soil” yielding a good crop.
But it isn’t that simple because there are some unusual aspects to this parable that hold lessons for the believer and for the church. Why is the farmer just throwing the seeds out and not carefully planting them? Surely his yield will be better if he buries the seeds all on good soil where he can watch over the field and scare away the birds. Why would he throw seeds down along a hard path, on rocky ground, and among thorns? Instead, he ought to head for the field, broken up and ready for a fresh crop. This farmer’s behavior is odd, to say the least.
The reader could either think that the farmer was sloppy, lazy or foolish. That thought would be expected when the parable was told to a people who were largely agrarian, such as the people listening to Jesus. The Jewish people knew farming and they would immediately know there was something very odd about this man’s farming methods. But since in this parable, the farmer spreading the seed is God, no reasonable listener or reader will think God is sloppy, lazy or foolish. So maybe there is another reason why this farmer is spreading his seeds everywhere. Maybe God knew exactly what he was doing when He sent Jesus and maybe Jesus knew exactly what He was saying! Is there a reason for this odd means of sowing seeds other than the farmer was sloppy, lazy or foolish?
Of course, there is another reason. The seeds represent the message of God’s kingdom, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason for throwing the seeds down in unlikely places is that God wants His Word spread everywhere and to everyone, including those lost people who are the hard-packed soil, the rocks and the thorns. The gospel is not just for the people who are good soil, even though they hear it the best, it is for everyone, even those not considered to be good prospects.
Peter saw that the gospel was for everyone and God wanted all to come home to Him in repentance. 1 Peter 3:9. Paul saw that the gospel was not just a message for the Jewish people. He recognized that God’s heart was for all to be saved, the entire world. Acts 15. Thus, if evangelists and churches try to be “seeker-friendly” and pattern their worship, music, sermons and appearance for those eagerly seeking the Lord, they are missing not only the majority of the population, but also those needing Him the most. That reasoning would have had Jesus preaching and teaching only in the temple and never doing such outrageous acts as dining with tax collectors in their own homes!
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The Word needs to be made available and be open to all. No person should be ignored and no group should be considered unreachable. That is the story of The Dream Center in Los Angeles, see The Cause Within You by Matthew Barnett with George Barna, the story of Jim Elliot and the Auca Indians, and the story of many persons who work to take the message to even those far away and hard to reach physically. On a closer and local level, that is the message of prison ministries like Passion for Prison begun and run by Scotty and Jessica Santiago as they travel throughout the state of Florida going into prisons to take the gospel to those who can’t be easily reached. See Matthew 25:31-46.
Would the Jewish farmers have understood this analogy? It is likely they would because they would probably have heard something like it before. Psalm 126 was written near the end of the Babylonian captivity. The Jewish people were in Babylon, settled in, owning their homes, and many had prominent positions in the government and administration of the Persian kingdom. Psalm 126 appears to have been written to help persuade many to give up what they had and return to the ruins of Jerusalem. In its final verse, the Psalmist wrote:
6 Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
This psalm was not really about farming. Instead, it was a message about sowing the seeds of the kingdom of God as the Jewish people understood it at that time; it was about having a heart for continuing God’s mission for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Jewish people. That is exactly the message Jesus gives us in the parable of the sower. If you are with God, you will sow kingdom seeds and yield a large crop as you sing songs of joy.
Lessons for the church and for others
One lesson is that while certainly no church should ever be “seeker-unfriendly,” churches need to do far more than just oil the front door and sweep the entry mats. They need to be out in even the unlikely places, seeking to let people know the good news. This is a gospel for everyone, even the unlikely and those some call unlovely.
But don’t think the lessons stop there, because they do not. There is a lesson in this parable for everyone, for the unbeliever as well as for the believer who is strong and faithful – and to those who are not as strong or as faithful.
For the unbeliever
The sower is, of course, God. God has made His Word so that it is to be spread everywhere, hard ground along a path, stony ground, ground with thorns and good soil as well. The hard ground along the path represents the hardened unbeliever, unwilling to accept or even listen to the truth of the gospel. This hardened heart involves a person with a life full of sin. He hears the Word of God and doesn’t listen and has no interest in doing what he knows is right. James spoke to this person:
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror
24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
Imagine a path in the wilderness beaten down by years of people and animals walking along it. The ground is hard, dry and very unwelcoming to seeds. Some people have hearts equally hard – very difficult to penetrate. Hearts can be hardened in many different ways and how a person’s heart grows hard isn’t the point. The point is that the Word of God, the seed, sits on the surface, never penetrates, and never gets a chance to grow. A person with a hardened heart like this never really hears the message.
For the baby Christians and less hardened unbelievers
Now we come to the second of the four soils. In Israel, most land is on a limestone base, similar to most of Florida. In most areas there is little topsoil and just below the surface is hard rock.
Without soil to hold water and provide nutrients for growth, a seed will sprout but quickly die in the sun. The stony ground represents an unbeliever who may show interest in and awareness of the gospel, but he isn’t convicted. Or this person could be a believer, but an immature one, not willing to read the Word, hear the truth or pay attention to what the future holds. This could be the believer Paul wrote to in 1 Corinthians who lives on milk and has not progressed to solid food, a babe in Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. When the going gets tough, and satan will make sure that happens, then that person’s faith isn’t strong enough to persevere. Just as the seeds sprout and start to grow but then die, such a person’s faith withers and dies quickly in the trials and troubles of life. Shallow rocky ground is no place for a plant to grow; and a shallow faith is not one that will likely survive long.
For the cultural Christians
The thorny ground is a person who might even claim to be a believer and may even go regularly to church, however s/he has too much invested in sin and the world or is too burdened by the weight of the world to last.
His/her spiritual life is smothered by the trials, temptations and worries of the world.
For the growing Christians
Finally, the good soil is a person who has heard the Word of God, recognizes the truth, and acts upon what is heard. The seed of the gospel takes root and grows well. This person grows and can become a mature Christian. The blessing of this person is the crop that comes out of his or her life, “a hundred times more than was sown.”
That raises another question, “what is that hundred-fold crop?” One thing believers are to produce is fruit, a crop of new believers. See:
9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
The crop is the fruit we are expected to produce. In the mission of life we are co-laborers with God.
1 Corinthians 3:8-9
8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.
9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
The key, what makes the seeds grow, is the good soil. In this parable, the good soil represents a good heart, not hardened by sin or skepticism.
That concept of the crop leaves all believers and the church with a clear mission – to reach out to the world and create a harvest of followers of Jesus Christ. Our efforts may fail, but the worst failure is the failure of doing nothing and being the hard path, the rocky ground, or among thorns?
We are to be prepared and able to share the blessing of our faith.
1 Peter 3:15-16
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,
16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
May you and the church do this well and with the grace of God and yield a hundred-fold crop.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.
This is the fifth in a series of articles on financial and other issues facing the American church in this no longer very new millennium. These articles represent the personal thoughts and reflections of the author and are not necessarily a statement of The Idlewild Foundation. These articles are based upon parables told by Jesus and stories from the gospels on events in His life, applying His life and teachings to the lives of believers and to the church as a whole and not to any one church in particular.