The Expository Files


The Sower and the Souls


It was a common sight on the hillsides of Palestine in the days of Jesus -- a sower sowing seed. So when Jesus uttered the immortal words, "Behold a sower went out to sow...." (Mt. 13:3), He was describing a scene that the multitudes, who had come to hear Him preach, knew all too well. They were familiar with the smell of freshly plowed ground. They knew what it was like to carry a heavy bag of seed. After all, they were farmers and husbandmen. So when Jesus said that some of the sower's seed fell by the wayside and was trampled under foot and eaten by birds (Lk. 8:5), they knew from their own experience that the seed which fell on the narrow hard-packed footpaths that circumscribed the plots of common ground in Palestine quickly became the food of birds. When Jesus said that some of the sower's seed fell on stony places and sprang up quickly, only to be scorched by the searing heat of the sun (Mt. 13:5-6), they knew that He was talking, not about soil mixed with small stones, but about shallow soil barely covering a submerged stone ledge which provided no room for a tender plant to sink its roots deep into the earth. When Jesus said that some of the sower's seed fell among thorns, they understood that Jesus was talking, not about ground visibly infested with weeds when the seed was sown, but about soil that was adulterated with thorn seed which eventually sprang up and choked out the plant so that it produced no fruit (Mk. 4:7). When Jesus said that some of the sower's seed fell on good ground and brought forth fruit (Mk. 4:8), they knew about that kind of ground, too.

But Jesus was talking about much more than a sower and his seed and the soils that received it. This was an "earthly story with a heavenly meaning." But its meaning was beyond the immediate grasp of the disciples (Lk. 8:9), so they asked Jesus to explain the story's significance. His explanation indicates that the Parable of the Sower contains three basic elements: the sower, the seed, and the soils. While the sower is not specifically identified, he obviously represents a faithful teacher of God's word (whether Jesus or the apostles or some other teacher). The seed is identified as the word of God (Lk. 8:12), and the soils obviously represent different kinds of human hearts.

Although the power and the function of the seed is not the primary focus of this parable, it is important for us to understand that God's word is the germinating seed of spiritual life (Phil. 2:16). The gospel really is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17). By it one is begotten again (1 Pet. 1:22-23; Jas. 1:18, 21). and built up in the most holy faith (Acts 20:32). Without it, there can be no salvation from sin. But while the power of life resides in the seed, the production of life will be dependent upon the condition of the soil into which the seed is planted, and this is the primary focus of this parable.

The wayside soil represents what we might call the hardened heart. This is the person who is exposed to the gospel, but he does not give the word a fair hearing (Lk. 8:12). His heart is too hard to allow the word of God to penetrate. Perhaps his heart has been turned to stone by arrogance, or the love of sin, or religious prejudice, or misguided intellectualism, or any number of other things, but regardless of the cause, the wayside soil allows not even a trace of spiritual life to be produced.

The stony soil represents what we might call the shallow heart. This is the person who immediately and impulsively and joyfully accepts the gospel without looking down the road and counting the cost (Mk. 4:16-17). This person does well until he is faced with obstacles and opposition because of the gospel. When the novelty and the excitement wear off and when the tough times come, he withers away, because he failed to consider the cost of discipleship (cf. Lk. 14:25-35). While the stony soil produces life (momentarily), there is little growth.

The thorny soil
represents what we might call the overcrowded heart. This is the person who hears and believes the gospel and even begins to grow until he becomes distracted and preoccupied with other things (Mk. 4:18-19). It may be the pursuit of any one of what I call the pernicious P's: profession, position, power, prestige, profits, possessions, pastimes, pleasure, projects, or politics. Whenever anyone becomes absorbed with "getting ahead" and "climbing the ladder" and "making his mark," even though none of these things are inherently sinful, he makes a mistake of eternal proportions. While the thorny soil produces life and growth, there is no fruit. But "the whole point of planted seed is not the growth of a plant, however luxuriant, but the production of fruit. The child of the kingdom of heaven is not just to look good, but to do good and be good. The problem with the heart of the thorny soil is that it has become too crowded with competing concerns, and the seed of God cannot prosper in a divided heart." (Paul Earnhart, "The Crowded Heart," Christianity Magazine, January 1993, p. 27).

Of course, the good ground represents the good and honest heart (Lk. 8:15). Unlike those with hardened hearts who refuse to hear and believe, this person hears, understands, and accepts the word. Unlike those with shallow hearts, who accept the word but then later fade away when opposition comes, this person holds fast the word that he has heard. Unlike the overcrowded heart who eventually becomes distracted by other things, this person refuses to become enamored by the glitter of the world, and he bears fruit with perseverance. The good ground produces not only life and growth, but also fruit, and that's what the Christian life is really all about.

As you think about these words of Jesus, let me ask you some probing questions. Are you like the wayside soil? Prejudiced and disinterested. Are you like the stony soil? Unwilling to sacrifice. Are you like the thorny soil? Preoccupied and distracted. Or are you like the good ground? One who will hear and accept God's word, hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance? Only you can answer those questions. But the wonderful thing about this is that each one of us can change if we need to. We can become "good ground" if we really want to. This is not possible in the natural realm, ground is ground; it cannot change itself, and it is not responsible for the kind of ground it is. But men and women are responsible for who and what they are, and they can actually change from one type of person to another. This means that if you want to understand, if you want to be faithful in spite of tribulation, and if you want to serve God despite the allurements of the world, you can. If you look at yourself in the mirror of God's word and you know you're not the "good ground," you can change if you want to. Do you want to? Will you change?

By Kevin Kay
From Expository Files 14.1; January 2007