The Parable of the Sower

The Sower by Van Gogh 1881
“The Sower” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9, NIV)

Introducing the Parable

I have been preaching sermons for over thirty-five years, so I have seen my share of people falling asleep in church.  The most common ways of drifting off during a sermon are, what I call, the “Snapback” in which the head dramatically snaps back from its gradual descent backward; the “Pious Nod” where it might appear the person is praying until the head either hits the pew in front of it or snaps up, as in the snapback; and, the “Cozy-Sweet” where the head goes to the side and eventually lands on its neighbor’s shoulder for a bit of a nap.

I tend to believe if you need to sleep, you need to sleep – and I find the nodding-off antics of parishioners as bringing some light-hearted levity to my life. That said, for the Christian, it is important to listen to the Word of God.  We need, first and foremost, to take a posture of listening, really hearing what Jesus has to say so that we can do the will of God.

The Parable

“Whoever has ears, let them hear,” said Jesus.  Truly hearing Jesus’ words and listening with focused attention is the key to life.  Our ears are the soil of our lives.  Ears that are attentive and devoted to listening to Jesus are good soil; ears that are distracted and inattentive and stopped up with ear wax are the bad soil.  Receptive listening to the Word of God brings a fruitful harvest of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  The Parable of the Sower (or Soils) lets us know that sowing (planting) the Word is important.   It is sown on four different soils….

  1. The seed on the path. A path is for walking, which is why the seed never takes root.  Here there is no listening. When we act without listening, our actions will be misguided.
  2. The seed on rocky soil. Here there is no deep listening.  A lack of attentive hearing results in a shallow person who perhaps relies more on Christian clichés or on his/her personality or abilities instead of the sown Word.
  3. The seed on the thorny soil. Here there is significant listening. However, there is too much listening to a cacophony of voices and not enough singular listening to the sown Word.  Listening to the wrong voices will cause an unfruitful life, so we must be careful to the kind of preaching and type of preachers we hear!
  4. The seed on good soil. A devoted listening to the Word without distraction leads to a productive, fruitful believer.

The Nature of Parables

A parable is a genre of biblical literature.  Parables are as much about concealing truth as they are conveying truth.  A person needs to give focused attention to the story to learn from it, much like a good novel conveys truth about the human condition without being preachy or outright saying the truth; or, much like a good movie that relies on character development and the power of story for its message instead of being a straightforward documentary.

Jesus neither strong-arms people into the kingdom nor puts a person in a full nelson to force them to do God’s will.  We will miss the kingdom if we are looking for a big dramatic hoo-ha of an event, because it comes as an awareness within people and works its way out. For the person who has no intention of changing, they will find Christ’s words confusing.  They might “hear” Jesus yet fail to really listen since they have their own ideas about how the kingdom ought to operate.

Yet, grace is present.  The very fact that Jesus addressed the crowd of people demonstrates he cared enough to communicate.  He could have said, “Hey, you guys, get lost, I’m just going to interact with people who really listen to me.”  Jesus, however, is full of mercy.  Instead of coming at the crowd and bursting through the front door, he came at them through the side door so that they would be able to receive the message well.

When I was a young Christian, I had a habit of puking the good news of Jesus all over people without really listening to them.  Being blunt without being attentive is not the best approach; neither is being worried about saying something offensive, so nothing is said at all.  Others cannot listen if we are either obnoxious or silent. A better approach is to ask permission to tell your story of what Jesus means to you, or what you have learned from God’s Word.

The Sower by Van Gogh 1888
“The Sower” by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Parable Interpreted

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:18-23, NIV)

The focus of the interpretation Jesus gave is the experience of the seed in a variety of soils.  The outside powers that act on the Word – devouring birds, rocks, the burning sun, choking thorn-bushes – demonstrate that the Word is central and needs to be received well:

  1. The soil on the path is the person who hears the message yet is unable to hear God’s Word because their heart is hard. The devil snatches it before any real understanding can take place.  We see that the devil is real and has ability to influence people who have listening issues.
  2. The rocky soil is the person who hears just enough to respond with joy but drops out when hard circumstances come around. “I didn’t sign up for this!” is their cry.  They needed to count the cost of discipleship before responding to the message.  This is merely a professing Christian, nothing more.  Rather than listening and internalizing the Word, there is only positive affirmation without any action or practice. So, tomorrow the message is gone and forgotten.  When difficulty comes, there are no supporting words to draw from, so the person fades away, unable to navigate life successfully.
  3. The thorny soil also hears and responds to the message. This person is also a professing Christian, nothing more.  The issue with such a person is that he/she also listens to the voices of worry and wealth.  Like some sort of spiritual attention-deficit-disorder, there is no ability to filter all the voices calling out, and so there is no growth.  The Word of God must reign supreme; there cannot be two thrones of Wealth and Word and two Masters of God and Money.
  4. The good soil is listening with the intention of understanding and putting into practice the message heard is what brings about fruit. Receiving the Word through careful listening brings about spiritual growth.  God brings the growth when we focus on the Word.  So, priority must be to listening well to the Word of God.  When a whole group does this, then it creates a greenhouse effect in which people cannot help but grow in the Lord!

Conclusion on the Parable

The simple reception of God’s Word makes a person fruitful.  The first soil did not receive the Word at all, though it listened to it; the second received it with joy but under pressure let it go; the third received it with only one hand because the other hand was busy; only the fourth soil received the seed of the Word with both hands.

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3, NIV)

George-Whitefield
George Whitefield (1714-1770) preaching outdoors by English artist John Collet (c.1720-1780)

George Whitefield, arguably the greatest of all revivalists, addressed the topic of listening in a mid-eighteenth- century sermon based on the words of Jesus in Luke 8:18, “Take care how you hear:”

  1. Come to church out of a sincere desire to know what God has to say to you. Sermons are not for entertainment. They are to reform our hearts and teach us our duty towards God and men.
  2. Give focused attention to the things that are spoken. Listen as you would to the voice of someone you respect; the King of Kings demands even more respect! The stuff of sermons concerns eternal matters and not just the things of this world.
  3. Guard you heart against prejudice to the minister. Even when ministers urge us in the ways they themselves have trouble with, don’t refuse the urging on that account. If what they urge is biblical, receive as though Jesus were the one who spoke.
  4. Guard your heart at thinking more highly of a minister than you ought.It was the Corinthian evil that they began to prefer one preacher to another openly with terrible consequences for the body of Christ. Though one may minister to you more than another, respect both for what God does through them to the body of Christ and remember they are people just like you.
  5. Make application to your own heart of everything that is said.  Beware of that roving eye that says in a sermon, “That was meant for him” or “I sure hope she heard that!”
  6. Pray to the Lord, before, during, and after the sermon. Pray that the minister might be endued with power and boldness to declare the whole counsel of God and not be intimidated by anyone. Pray that God would apply the words to your own heart.

Whitefield concludes: “If only all who hear me this day would seriously apply their hearts to practice what has now been told them! How ministers would see Satan, like lightning, fall from heaven, and people find the Word preached sharper than a two-edged sword and mighty, through God, to the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds!”

May it be so, to the glory of God.

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