Note: This blog is the second in a year-long series of posts on the parables of Jesus. The series will run through most of 2019. You can find the first blog on the parables HERE.
Let’s jump right into our discussion of Jesus’ parables by looking at one of his most well-known parables: the Parable of the Sower. Remember, the parables of Jesus are (relatively) short, made-up stories about everyday people and things that teach a spiritual truth. They are extended metaphors, usually with only one or perhaps a handful of spiritual points. Jesus didn’t invent the parable, but he did use this teaching tool extensively throughout his ministry.
The Parable of the Sower is the first of Matthew’s “Parables of the Kingdom” in Matthew 13. This specific parable is also found in Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:5-15. In Matthew 13, Matthew lines up for his readers a half-dozen parables to answer a few very important questions. The Parable of the Sower is one of the few questions where we have recorded for us Jesus’ explanation of the parable, so interpreting it is fairly straight forward.
There are many different ways scholars analyze parables, but with my students I like to use a simple four question approach. These blog posts will follow that same pattern. I don’t intend to say everything there is to say about each parable. I do, however, want to point my readers in the right direction for understanding the meaning of each of the parables we discuss.
Question 1: What are the immediate circumstances of the parable?
The parables of Jesus aren’t isolated sayings that exist in a vacuum. Jesus had a reason for telling the parables when he did and to whom he did. When we interpret a parable, we should always look to the text to see if the Gospel writers give us clues as to why Jesus said what he said to those people at that time. All of Jesus’ parables had an audience. It is important to remember, however, that the Gospel writers also have an audience, which includes you and me. We can’t stop with the question, “Why did Jesus tell them this story?” We have to also ask, “Why is Matthew telling us this story?”
In the case of Matthew 13, Matthew puts a half-dozen parables together in one section to teach us about the Kingdom of God. Jesus and Matthew are answering three important questions we should have about the Kingdom of God by the time we reach Matthew 13.
Matthew, throughout his Gospel, is giving us the story of Jesus. He begins with Jesus’ birth (chapters 1-2) and the beginnings of his ministry (3-4). Then Matthew gives us Jesus’ seminal sermon: the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). In it Jesus explains the message of the Kingdom: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Then Matthew gives us a collection of miracle stories (8-9) to show us that Jesus really is who he said he was. Matthew follows that with instructions for Jesus’ disciples and the sending out of the disciples to preach the good news of the Kingdom (10). In the next two chapters Matthew tells us what happens as a result of this wide-spread preaching of the Messiah and his followers. Jesus begins to have serious conflicts with the religious establishment (11-12). It is in this context, that Matthew gives us the Parable of the Sower “that same day . . .”
The Parables of the Kingdom throughout chapter 13 collectively answer three important questions raised by Matthew’s Gospel to this point. First, Matthew is explaining to us why it is that the people who should know God the most—the Jews, especially the Pharisees—were the ones most staunchly opposed to Jesus. It stands to reason that if God showed up in a human body on planet earth as the fulfillment of prophecy, God’s people would accept him, not reject him. Is it possible for God to literally come to earth and people miss it, and if so, why? Second, Matthew is answering the question, “What is the Kingdom of God like?” He is explaining to us the nature of the Kingdom—it is here already, and yet the Kingdom is not yet here, not like it is going to be. Third, Jesus and Matthew are explaining why the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like we expect it to look, that is, unless we know what to look for. The Parable of the Sower specifically answers Matthew’s first question: How could Jesus really be the Messiah of Israel and so many in Israel miss it?
Question #2 – What is the structure of the parable?
Most parables have a repeating structure, and many parables have a full fictional structure with characters, rising action, climax, and resolution. The Parable of the Sower has an obvious repeating structure: “And some seed fell . . . other seed fell . . . other seed fell . . . other seed fell.” Each one of these types of ground upon which the seed fell is one of the spiritual points of the parable.
Question #3 – Is there anything in the details of the parable modern readers need to understand?
This is a parable about a farmer scattering seed in order to plant it in his field. We don’t need to know much about ancient farming practices to get the gist of this. There is the path—the land around the field that had been tamped down by human feet and the hooves of beasts of burden.
There is rocky ground—the dirt pile the farmer made once he tilled the earth and pulled out all the rocks. There are the thorns—most likely the wild, untilled patches of earth around the farmer’s field. And there is the good soil—the tilled earth where the seed is supposed to go in order to grow.
Question #4 – What is the meaning of the parable?
Taking all of the above into account, we can arrive at a meaning, four spiritual truths, for this parable. It also helps that in Matthew 13:10-23 Jesus explains the parable for us. Jesus and Matthew are both quite clear about what each type of ground represents.
(1) The hard ground represents people who don’t understand the gospel when they hear it, and the evil one is constantly at work making sure they don’t understand.
(2) The rocky ground represents people who like the idea of the gospel. They like the idea of following Jesus, and for a time they are on-board. But when hardships or persecutions come, their apparent faith withers to nothing. They want to follow Jesus, but only if they prosper, and only if it is easy.
(3) The thorny ground represents a different kind of person who likes the idea of the gospel and of following Jesus. But they very quickly realize that there are other things they love, things like the “cares of this world” and “riches” that conflict with following and loving Jesus. They know they have to take a side, and they know that they love those things more than Jesus and his Kingdom. They refuse to give up their loves and follow Jesus, and their so-called faith is choked out.
(4) The good soil is the soil that isn’t the other three. These people understand the gospel. They see Jesus as something other than a means to a prosperous end. The gospel gives them a love for Jesus that exceeds all other earthly loves. Their true faith grows abundantly.
Jesus wants his followers to understand that not everyone is going to hear the gospel the same way. It isn’t the message or the messenger that is deficient. It is the human heart. The Pharisees and many in the crowds that follow Jesus are rejecting him. But they aren’t rejecting the Messiah because he hasn’t offered them sufficient proof. They aren’t rejecting the Messiah because of their understanding of the Old Testament. They are rejecting the Messiah because of their ignorance about what the Kingdom of God really is, because of their desire for prosperity and power, and because of their love for this world and the things in it.
Matthew, I think, wants his readers to know all that, and then he wants us to ask the question, “What is my faith like?” Sure, I love Jesus. I’ll tell anyone that. But would I be willing to say that tomorrow morning if I knew it meant I’d get fired from my job? What if I knew that saying “I love Jesus” would mean I’d be killed tomorrow morning? Would I still say it? Matthew is calling us, his readers, to search ourselves for the truth about our faith. And if we find our faith deficient, Matthew invites us to read on. Read about the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Find in God’s Word a Kingdom worth living and dying for, a savior worth loving more than anything in this world, and a mission worth giving your life to.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.