By Peter Amsterdam
February 2, 2016
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The parable of the sower is one of four parables told in all three Synoptic Gospels.1 It can be found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. While there are some wording differences in the three different versions, they all make the same points. I will use the version told in Matthew as the basis for the explanation, and pull in some points from Mark and Luke as we go along.
This parable is unique in that Jesus told it to a large crowd and did not offer any interpretation at the time. He was later asked a question regarding the parable by His disciples, to which He responded with a rather difficult-to-understand answer, and then He explained the meaning of this parable to His disciples.
Let’s take a look at the parable as told in Matthew 13:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.
The people who were listening could easily visualize the scene. They would have either seen or participated in such an activity numerous times themselves. Most Palestinian Jews, like most other Mediterranean people of the time, resided in agrarian villages and towns and were involved in agriculture.2 The bag of seed would be slung around the sower’s neck and shoulders, so that the bag was in front of him. He would walk through the field, reaching into the bag at regular intervals, and taking out a handful of seed and scattering it as evenly as he could throughout the field.
The time for sowing crops like barley and wheat—which were the two principal grain crops in Palestine at the time—was generally in late fall or early winter, October through December, which is also the rainy season. The crop sprouted in spring, around April or May, and was harvested in late June.3 Two methods of sowing used within Palestine were referred to in the Old Testament. In some cases, farmers plowed their fields, sowed their seeds, and then plowed a second time to cover the seed. In other instances, farmers sowed their seeds on hard, unplowed ground, and then plowed the field.
While this parable is known as “the parable of the sower,” in fact it has almost nothing to do with the sower, nor for that matter the seed he sows. The focus is on the four different types of soil spoken of—the first hard, the second rocky, the third already containing thornbush seeds, and the fourth good. The focus is on how the seed fares in each type of soil.
Jesus began His parable by telling the crowd:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.
The picture is of a pathway either alongside the field or cutting through the field. In the course of seeds being thrown by the handful, some would fall in places they weren't meant to—in this case on or right next to the pathway. The pathway was hardened earth that wasn’t plowed, and thus the seed would only lie on the top of the ground and never take root. It became food for the birds. Luke adds that besides the birds eating the seeds, they were also trampled underfoot.4 This seed was wasted.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.
The rocky ground didn’t refer to parts of the field with lots of rocks, but rather areas of the field where there was a thin layer of dirt with limestone bedrock right beneath it, which is common in the Palestinian hill country.5 The bedrock was so close to the surface that there was no depth of soil on top of it. Because of this, when the weather warmed in spring, the shallow soil would heat up and the seed would sprout. The beginning was promising, as the seeds sprouted early and grew for some time, but as hotter weather came, they were scorched and died. Their root system was shallow due to the bedrock. Luke says: as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.6 This seed, too, was wasted.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
In this case, the soil could sustain growth, so the seeds germinated and grew, but they didn’t bear fruit due to being choked by thorn plants which grew up alongside them. These weeds can grow up to six feet tall and often bud with flowers. They take so much nourishment from the ground that nothing else can grow around them.
We see a progression in these three seeds. The first seed didn’t have any growth at all; the second germinated and had some promising initial growth, but then withered and died; and the third seed grew but bore no fruit.
Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
In contrast to the failure of the first three types of soil, the plants which grew from the seed sown in the good soil produced grain. Most likely the majority of the seed fell on good ground and was productive, though not all seed produced equally. The average Palestinian harvest is thought to have yielded seven and a half to ten times the seed sown. So harvests yielding thirty to a hundred times the seed invested were extraordinarily abundant for the area.7 In the book of Genesis we read that due to God’s blessing, Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold.8In other more fertile areas around the Mediterranean, a hundredfold increase was not rare.9
Jesus ended the parable with:
He who has ears, let him hear.
Jesus uses this phrase seven times in the Synoptic Gospels and eight times in the book of Revelation.10 The concept portrayed in all these passages is that the physical act of hearing is not sufficient. It is necessary to take in what is heard, to comprehend it, and assimilate it.11 This saying is a challenge to discern the meaning of the parable. Clearly not everyone has “ears to hear,” as Jesus made clear to His disciples later when they asked Him about this parable privately.
Let’s take a look at the disciples’ question and Jesus’ answer.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’”
The Gospels of Mark and Luke present an abbreviated version of Jesus’ answer, which conveys the same points.12
The disciples wanted to know why Jesus used the medium of parables as a means to convey His message. Why did He speak cryptically instead of spelling things out for the people?13 Jesus began His answers by saying that to His disciples it has been given to know the secrets (mysteries in some translations) of the kingdom of heaven, but that it wasn't given to those who weren't disciples.
In this context there are two groups of people: those who are disciples, who do the will of God; and those who don’t. Mark’s Gospel puts it this way: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.”14 Those who are “outside” are those who are not part of the new family to which one gains entry by belonging to Jesus,15 as He described earlier in Matthew when He stretched out His hand toward the disciples and said: “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”16
Some feel that Jesus was saying that He spoke in parables in order to prevent those outside His circle of followers from understanding His teachings so that they wouldn’t enter into a relationship with God. But that interpretation would convey the exact opposite of what we generally understand about Jesus and His mission and about the intent of the parables. His teachings, parables, exorcisms, and miracles were all means of showing the nature and character of His Father, of revealing God’s plan of forgiveness and restoration to anyone who would listen and receive. Parables like the lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, compassionate employer, and others reveal God’s love, care, mercy, and desire for people to enter a relationship with Him. It seems unlikely that Jesus would use a method of conveying His message that would intentionally hide His message and make it difficult to understand.
In Jesus’ response above, He quoted from the book of Isaiah, which gives helpful information as to the message He was conveying in this parable. Isaiah was a prophet, and Jesus, though more than a prophet, did portray Himself as a prophet, and the people saw Him as such.17 Understanding the meaning of what Jesus said to His disciples regarding parables, as well as understanding the parable, starts with recognition of Jesus’ role as a prophet. The message of Isaiah, and most of the other Old Testament prophets, was that Israel had gone too far in their turning away from God and that judgment was already decreed by God. The nation had refused God's appeals, and Isaiah’s call presupposes that the hardening of heart had already occurred and that judgment was coming.18 Neither Jesus, nor Isaiah before Him, purposely spoke in a manner that would hide God’s message; rather, they made exaggerated statements in strong words, with the hope that people would hear, understand, and obey, even though their hearts had already been hardened. It wasn’t that the parable was so hard to understand, but it was hard in that it demanded a decision, a commitment, that many were not willing to make.
In quoting Isaiah 6:9–10, Jesus was referring to those who, though they had heard and understood, chose not to obey because of their hard hearts. This verse was quoted five other times throughout Scripture to depict that same hardness of people’s hearts.19
Brad Young explains:
The text of Isaiah speaks about how people hear but do not understand. A closer look at the wording of Isaiah shows that the people comprehended the message, but they were not willing to repent. Jesus wanted everyone to accept his message concerning God’s reign. The people heard and understood Jesus, but not all were willing to accept his message concerning God’s kingship. Many followed Jesus. He raised up many disciples from beyond the inner circle, as one sees clearly from the book of Acts and the history of his early band of followers. Nonetheless, not all received the word with a good heart.20
Jesus was putting emphasis on people’s responsibility and willingness to hear and understand. He wanted them to avoid doing as Israel had done in the past, refusing to hear and respond to God’s messages through the Old Testament prophets.
When Jesus spoke about the secrets or mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, the original Greek word translated here as secrets does not refer to what is mysterious and unknown, but to revelation—to what would be unknown if God had not revealed it.21 It meant the revelation from God which is given to the godly. To those like the disciples who heard, believed, and made a commitment, Jesus said it was given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. However, to those who refused to believe, it has not been given. The disciples who believed, and thus had been given the secret, were then in a position to gain more spiritual truth and revelation, while those who rejected were not given more teaching and lost the teaching they had heard. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.22
R. T. France wrote:
In the manner of spiritual perception, both gain and loss are compounded; it is the disciples, to whom the secret has already been given, who are now in a position to benefit from further teaching. Once you have started on the road of spiritual enlightenment, the blessings multiply, but those who do not accept the “message of the kingdom” will lose everything.23
Jesus ends His explanation with:
Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
The disciples are blessed because they see and hear, they understand, they commit. They are blessed in the same sense that blessed is used in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter five.24
Leon Morris explains:
What they are seeing and hearing is that to which prophecy has been pointing throughout the centuries. Many of God’s great ones would have liked to have taken part in the events then taking place … Such giants of faith from of old would have liked to see and hear what the disciples see and hear, but did not attain that blessing. Jesus is saying that his mission in the world is the culmination of the purpose of God made clear in prophecies from of old. The servants of God in olden times may have looked for these days and desired to be involved in them. But that was not their privilege.25
Having explained to the disciples why He taught in parables, Jesus went on to interpret the parable for His disciples. We’ll discuss the interpretation in part two.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 The other three are The Mustard Seed—Matthew 13:31–32, Mark 4:30–32, Luke 13:18–19; The Wicked Husbandmen—Matthew 21:33–43, Mark 12:1–11, Luke 20:9–18; The Faithful Servant—Matthew 24:42–51, Mark 13:33–37, Luke 12:35–48.
2 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 375–76.
3 Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 723.
4 Luke 8:5.
5 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 724.
6 Luke 8:6.
7 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 378.
8 Genesis 26:12.
9 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 378.
10 Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8, 14:35; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9.
11 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 284.
12 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:10–12).
When his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (Luke 8:9–10).
13 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 510.
14 Mark 4:11.
15 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 511.
16 Matthew 12:49–50.
17 Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4, 15; Luke 4:24, 7:16, 13:33, 24:19; John 6:14, 7:40, 9:17.
18 Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008),159.
19 Jeremiah 5:21, Ezekiel 12:2, John 9:39, 12:39–40, Acts 28:26–27.
20 Brad H. Young, The Parables, Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 264.
21 Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 163.
22 Matthew 13:12.
23 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 512.
25 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 344.