If you’ve been part of the annual rhythms of cultivating, planting, watering & harvesting, you’ve experienced how it becomes part of you. The sights & smells of soil & rain, animals & equipment are so familiar. The daily prayers for rain and sun in just the right amounts and prayers for a good harvest are still so easy for you to pray.
But those experiences are shared by far fewer people than they once were. We’ve moved from an agricultural society to an industrialized society and now we’re living in the information age. We wonder, if Jesus had come to earth in the 21st century, would he have told parables about farming? About sowing & reaping? Instead of seeds, maybe he would have talked about data and digital bits of information. Imagine what the parable might sound like . . .
An author sat down at his computer to write stories. Some of his stories, he forgot to save, and they were lost when his computer shut down. Some of his stories were saved, but because he had failed to update his security software, a malicious virus crept in and corrupted the file. But some stories were saved, backed up to the cloud and stored on an external hard drive. The stories were successfully posted to the author’s website where they were read by millions around the world.
Now, that’s an interesting, updated version of the Parable of the Sower. But, even for those of us living comfortably in the digital age, it lacks something. When we talk about the kingdom of God, images that are natural and organic are much better than the artificial and mechanical. That’s why, even today, in our high-tech environment, when we talk about spiritual truth, we use words like health, growth, fruitfulness, walking, running, breathing, eating. We use these words and ideas because they are biblical, but also because they are integrally connected to our lives, our bodies, and the natural world that we still depend on for our survival. So, even though few of us are farmers, the word pictures of Matthew 13 still speak powerfully to us.
Of course, in first century Palestine, the Parable of the Sower would have captured the imagination of all who heard Jesus tell it. The routines of sowing, plowing & harvesting were second nature to them. So, if Jesus, their Teacher, is describing these familiar scenes, it can’t be because he wants to make them better farmers. He has some other point, but he’s not explaining it. Later, after the crowd dispersed, the disciples asked Jesus why he used parables to teach the people because, “Quite frankly, Master, parables aren’t that easy to understand.”
And on that day, Jesus did something very unusual—he explained to them in detail the meaning of the parable. The seed is the word, the truth of God, and, more specifically, it’s “the message of the kingdom,” according to verse 19. And the soil represents the hearts of people and their responses to the seed of the gospel.
The disciples are perplexed by opposition to Jesus and his preaching “Why is the message of the kingdom not embraced by everyone? If Jesus is the One sent from God to heal the brokenness of our lives, to give us eternal hope, why wouldn’t everyone run to him and gladly invest their lives in the kingdom?”
We have those questions, too, don’t we? In your own family, there may have been totally different responses to Jesus. Among your close friends, some have given their lives to Christ, and some have had no interest whatsoever. And in our nation, which has such a strong Christian heritage, we witness the impact of secularization, religious pluralism, and skepticism about truth. Why is it this way?
The Parable of the Sower is given, in part, to answer these questions. There are many kinds of soil, just as there are many kinds of people. And Jesus intends for all who hear this parable to apply it personally: What kind of soil am I? When the seed of the kingdom is sown right here in my life, does it find a place to grow?
The people who hear the message with their ears, but not with their hearts, the ones who don’t understand it—they’re like the hard-packed soil of the path where the birds easily snatch away the newly sown seed. Just as birds learn to follow the Sower so they can swoop in to snatch away the seed as soon as it hits the ground, there is an enemy of our souls who wants to prevent people from understanding the message of the kingdom.
Then there are people who love the message when they first hear it and receive the good news with joy. But then they discover there’s a stigma. They lean that some people will make a joke of their faith or think they’re a fool for believing or even hate them because they follow Christ. Verse 21 says, “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” They consider the cost of discipleship to dear. These people are like the shallow, rocky soil where it’s almost impossible to put down roots.
There’s another kind of people: those who allow the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth to choke out the message of the kingdom. And this part of the parable stings a lot of us. “The worries of life.” We live in a culture of stress. We run on empty too much of the time. We’ve forgotten how to maintain margins in our lives: margins of time, margins of money, margins of solitude. We’re maxed out. And because we live at such a frenetic pace, our relationships, our health, and our peace of mind all suffer.
Jesus says these worries of life are like weeds, brambles, or thorns. They don’t kill the seed, but they choke it and make it unfruitful. In other words, the stresses & worries of life stunt our spiritual growth and prevent us from becoming who we could be in Christ.
Closely related to this is “the deceitfulness of wealth.” Materialism is one of the primary stressors in our society. Too many people have believed the lie that meaning and value come from how much money and how many things we can accumulate. It’s the philosophy of life summed up in the phrase: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Not only is this a rival gospel, it’s a false one. Money doesn’t deliver on its promises. Part of the deceitfulness of wealth is that when we fall in love with it, it creates an insatiable hunger for more. Instead of contentment, we’re driven by the need to continually consume. No wonder Jesus said, “You can’t serve God and Money. You’ll hate one and be devoted to the other.”
So, these are the kinds of soil where the seed is not going to do well: the path, the rocky soil, and the places where brambles and weeds grow. So, why does the Sower waste his seed on those places? What kind of a farmer is he? Surely, he knows the difference between good soil and bad, right?
Here’s how they farmed back then in Palestine: First, you sow, then you plow. In other places & times, it’s common to plow and cultivate the field first. But in the New Testament world, they scattered the seed first, then plowed it into the soil. So, the Sower walking along, broadcasting the seed. He’s scattering the seed everywhere because he knows he’s going to come back with the plow and turn the soil. He’s going to plow the hard path, he’s going to do his best to push the plow through the shallow soil where the limestone is just below the surface, and he’s going to plow all those thorny weeds under. He will give the seed a chance to grow wherever it can.
And here’s the beautiful meaning of this parable. While some Sowers might concentrate all their labor in the part of the field where they know the seed has the best chance to grow, the Sower in this parable scatters his precious seed even in the places where it appears to have very little chance. He throws the seed everywhere because he’s going to come back with his plow and do all he can to create the conditions for that seed to grow.
The Sower is Jesus Christ. He looks at people like you & me and he knows some of us are very poor soil; we’re risky investments. But he can’t help himself. He’s not willing that anyone should perish but wants everyone to come to eternal life. He looks at the soil with your name on it and he knows exactly what the risks are. The Sower wants every patch of soil to have a chance.
What a picture! Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sower, because of love, walks through the field and with reckless abandon throws his seed everywhere in the hope that even the hardened soil, even the rocky soil, even the thorny patches will respond to the seed and to the efforts of the loving Sower to make it grow. This is a parable of grace.