Matthew 13:1-9 NIV
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Here is a picture which anyone in Palestine would understand. Here we actually see Jesus using the here and now to get to the there and then. There is a point which the Revised Standard Version obscures. The Revised Standard Version has: “A sower went out to sow.” The Greek is not a sower, but: “The sower went out to sow.”
What in all likelihood happened was that, as Jesus was using the boat by the lakeside as a pulpit, in one of the fields near the shore a sower was actually sowing, and Jesus took the sower, whom they could all see, as a text, and began: “Look at the sower there sowing his seed in that field!” Jesus began from something which at the moment they could actually see to open their minds to truth which as yet they had never seen.
In Palestine there were two ways of sowing seed. It could be sown by the sower scattering it broadcast as he walked up and down the field. Of course, if the wind was blowing, in that case some of the seed would be caught by the wind and blown into all kinds of places, and sometimes out of the field altogether. The second way was a lazy way, but was not uncommonly used. It was to put a sack of seed on the back of an ass, to tear or cut a hole in the corner of the sack, and then to walk the animal up and down the field while the seed ran out. In such a case some of the seed might well dribble out while the animal was crossing the pathway and before it reached the field at all.
In Palestine the fields were in long narrow strips; and the ground between the strips was always a right of way. It was used as a common path; and therefore it was beaten as hard as a pavement by the feet of countless passers-by. That is what Jesus means by the wayside. If seed fell there, and some was bound to fall there in whatever way it was sown, there was no more chance of its penetrating into the earth than if it had fallen on the road.
The stony ground was not ground filled with stones; it was what was common in Palestine, a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. The earth might be only a very few inches deep before the rock was reached. On such ground the seed would certainly germinate; and it would germinate quickly, because the ground grew speedily warm with the heat of the sun. But there was no depth of earth and when it sent down its roots in search of nourishment and moisture, it would meet only the rock, and would be starved to death, and quite unable to withstand the heat of the sun.
The thorny ground was deceptive. When the sower was sowing, the ground would look clean enough. It is easy to make a garden look clean by simply turning it over; but in the ground still lay the fibrous roots of the couch grass and the bishop weed and all the perennial pests, ready to spring to life again. Every gardener knows that the weeds grow with a speed and a strength that few good seeds can equal. The result was that the good seed and the dormant weeds grew together; but the weeds were so strong that they throttled the life out of the seed.
The good ground was deep and clean and soft; the seed could gain an entry; it could find nourishment; it could grow unchecked; and in the good ground it brought forth an abundant harvest.
This parable is really aimed at two sets of people.
1. For Those Who Hear the Word
It is fairly frequently held by scholars that the interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:18-23 is not the interpretation of Jesus himself, but the interpretation of the preachers of the early Church, and that it is not in fact correct. It is said that it transgresses the law that a parable is not an allegory, and that it is too detailed to be grasped by listeners at first hearing. If Jesus was really pointing at an actual sower sowing seed, that does not seem a valid objection; and, in any event, the interpretation which identifies the different kinds of soil with different kinds of hearers has always held its place in the Church’s thought, and must surely have come from some authoritative source. If so, why not from Jesus himself?
If we take the parable as a warning to hearers, it means that there are different ways of accepting the word of God, and the fruit which it produces depends on the heart of him who accepts it. The fate of any spoken word depends on the hearer. As it has been said, “A jest’s prosperity lies not in the tongue of him who tells it, but in the ear of him who hears it.” A jest will succeed when it is told to a man who has a sense of humour and is prepared to smile. A jest will fad when it is told to a humourless creature or to a man grimly determined not to be amused. Who then are the hearers described and warned in this parable?
(i) There is the hearer with the shut mind. There are people into whose minds the word has no more chance of gaining entry than the seed has of settling into the ground that has been beaten hard by many feet. There are many things which can shut a man’s mind. Prejudice can make a man blind to everything he does not wish to see. The unteachable spirit can erect a barrier which cannot easily be broken down. The unteachable spirit can result from one of two things. It can be the result of pride which does not know that it needs to know; and it can be the result of the fear of new truth and the refusal to adventure on the ways of thought. Sometimes an immoral character and a man’s way of life can shut his mind. There may be truth which condemns the things he loves and which accuses the things he does; and many a man refuses to listen to or to recognize the truth which condemns him, for there are none so blind as those who deliberately will not see.
(ii) There is the hearer with the mind like the shallow ground. He is the man who fails to think things out and think them through.
Some people are at the mercy of every new craze. They take a thing up quickly and just as quickly drop it. They must always be in the fashion. They begin some new hobby or begin to acquire some new accomplishment with enthusiasm, but the thing becomes difficult and they abandon it, or the enthusiasm wanes and they lay it aside. Some people’s lives are littered with things they began and never finished. A man can be like that with the word. When he hears it he may be swept off his feet with an emotional reaction; but no man can live on an emotion. A man has a mind and it is a moral obligation to have an intelligent faith. Christianity has its demands, and these demands must be faced before it can be accepted. The Christian offer is not only a privilege, it is also a responsibility. A sudden enthusiasm can always so quickly become a dying fire.
(iii) There is the hearer who has so many interests in life that often the most important things, get crowded out. It is characteristic of modern life that it becomes increasingly crowded and increasingly fast. A man becomes too busy to pray; he becomes so preoccupied with many things that he forgets to study the word of God: he can become so involved in committees and good works and charitable services that he leaves himself no time for him from whom all love and service come. His business can take such a grip of him that he is too tired to think of anything else. It is not the things which are obviously bad which are dangerous. It is the things which are good, for the “second best is always the worst enemy of the best.” It is not even that a man deliberately banishes prayer and the Bible and the Church from his life; it can be that he often thinks of them and intends to make time for them, but somehow in his crowded life never gets round to it. We must be careful to see that Christ is not shouldered out of the topmost niche in life.
(iv) There is the man who is like the good ground. In his reception of the word there are four stages. Like the good ground, his mind is open. He is at all times willing to learn. He is prepared to hear. He is never either too proud or too busy to listen. Many a man would have been saved all kinds of heartbreak, if he had simply stopped to listen to the voice of a wise friend, or to the voice of God. He understands. He has thought the thing out and knows what this means for him, and is prepared to accept it. He translates his hearing into action. He produces the good fruit of the good seed. The real hearer is the man who listens, who understands, and who obeys.
2. For Those Who Preach the Word
We said this parable had a double impact. We have looked at the impact it was designed to have on those who hear the word. But it was equally designed to have an impact on those who preach the word. Not only was it meant to say something to the listening crowds; it was also meant to say something to the inner circle of the disciples.
It is not difficult to see that in the hearts of the disciples there must sometimes have been a certain discouragement. To them Jesus was everything, the wisest and the most wonderful of all. But, humanly speaking, he had very little success. The doors of the synagogue were shutting against him. The leaders of orthodox religion were his bitterest critics and were obviously out to destroy him. True, the crowds came to hear him, but there were so few who were really changed, and so many who came to reap the benefit of his healing power, and, who, when they had received it, went away and forgot. There were so many who came to Jesus only for what they could get. The disciples were faced with a situation in which Jesus seemed to rouse nothing but hostility in the leaders of the Church, and nothing but a very evanescent response in the crowd. It is nothing surprising if in the hearts of the disciples there was sometimes deep disappointment. What then does the parable say to the preacher who is discouraged?
Its lesson is clear–the harvest is sure. For discouraged preachers of the word the lesson is in the climax of the parable, in the picture of the seed which brought forth abundant fruit. Some seed may fall by the wayside and be snatched away by the birds; some seed may fall on the shallow ground and never come to maturity; some seed may fat among the thorns and be choked to death; but in spite of all that the harvest does come. No farmer expects every single seed he sows to germinate and bring forth fruit. He knows quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop him sowing. Nor does it make him give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that, even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will certainly come.
So then this is a parable of encouragement to those who sow the seed of the word.
(i) When a man sows the seed of the word, he does not know what he is doing or what effect the seed is having. H. L. Gee tells this story. In the church where he worshipped there was a lonely old man, old Thomas. He had outlived all his friends and hardly anyone knew him. When Thomas died, Gee had the feeling that there would be no one to go to the funeral so he decided to go, so that there might be someone to follow the old man to his last resting-place.
There was no one else and it was a wild, wet day. The funeral reached the cemetery; and at the gate there was a soldier waiting. He was an officer, but on his raincoat there were no rank badges. The soldier came to the graveside for the ceremony; when it was over he stepped forward and before the open grave swept his hand to a salute that might have been given to a king. H. L. Gee walked away with this soldier, and as they walked, the wind blew the soldier’s raincoat open to reveal the shoulder badges of a brigadier.
The brigadier said to Gee: “You will perhaps be wondering what I am doing here. Years ago Thomas was my Sunday School teacher; I was a wild lad and a sore trial to him. He never knew what he did for me, but I owe everything I am or will be to old Thomas, and today I had to come to salute him at the end.” Thomas did not know what he was doing. No preacher or teacher ever does. It is our task to sow the seed, and to leave the rest to God.
(ii) When a man sows the seed, he must not look for quick results. There is never any haste in nature’s growth. It takes a long, long time before an acorn becomes an oak; and it may take a long, long time before the seed germinates in the heart of a man. But often a word dropped into a man’s heart in his boyhood lies dormant until some day it awakens and saves him from some great temptation or even preserves his soul from death. We live in an age which looks for quick results, but in the sowing of the seed we must sow in patience and, in hope, and sometimes must leave the harvest to the years.