Sower and Soils.
In the Scriptures, God had said he was going to intervene and bring about better times and had referred to setting up a kingdom. The Jews had read those words and were looking forward to their fulfillment. In the first century they were expecting God’s kingdom to come (Mark 15:43; Luke 17:20; 19:11). Unfortunately, they had many distorted ideas about it (see post). Since God’s kingdom is not of this world but is rather “from another place” (John 18:36), we should not be surprised that it is different from our assumptions and expectations. Jesus, however, clarified the true nature of the kingdom in his teaching, especially by parables. Many of them begin with, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” We will consider some of these over the next few posts.
The parable of the sower and soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:1-15) can teach us many things. Although scholars sometimes warn us not to turn parables into allegories that contain multiple points of correspondence, Jesus’ own explanation of this particular parable indicates that there are in fact several correlations between it and the kingdom. I want to call attention to four truths from this parable that are particularly important for our efforts to help others come under God’s kingship.
First, The nature of the kingdom is to grow. This truth is so basic that we easily miss it. Here and several other places Jesus compared the kingdom to something organic—agriculture, not to a mountain nor the ocean nor the stars. This particular parable shows the kingdom actually growing and fruit being born. No, the kingdom doesn’t always grow in every situation. This parable shows that as well. Still, the fact that Jesus found agriculture “like” the kingdom supports the fact that growth is basic to its nature.
Second, the effect of God’s word is dependent on the heart of the one who hears it. The seed is the same in every case. What differs is the type of soil it falls into. In Luke’s account, the good soil is specifically stated to be “those with a noble and good heart” (8:15), so it is safe to think the other types of soil are other types of hearts. Since the types of soil change in the parable and culminate with the desirable type producing fruit, there seems to be some emphasis on this point. The effect of the word depends on the type of heart. This is why many people prefer to refer to this as the Parable of the Soils. According to the teaching of Jesus here, non-growth is no big mystery or occasion for fretting. Many hearts simply will not respond.
Third, when the word reaches the right kind of heart, there will in fact be remarkable growth. I’m not enough of a farmer to understand it specifically, but the experts tell us that crop that produces even thirty times what was sown was extraordinary. Sixty to one hundred times, though not unheard of, would be phenomenal. The description of the effect of the seed that falls into good soil seems intended to say that sometimes God’s word will have an enormous and profound effect on a person. This will happen when the seed reaches someone with a “good and noble heart” (Luke 8:15). I’ve seen this take place occasionally, and perhaps you have as well. Sometimes a person responds eagerly and wholeheartedly to the good news, and it radically changes their life. Some scholars suggest this might even be the primary point of the parable, with a view toward encouraging Jesus’ followers not to give up speaking the word. That leads to the fourth truth.
The word must be spoken. Perhaps it’s true that the emphasis of the parable is on the different kinds of hearts, and perhaps it is more accurate to call this the “Parable of the Soils.” Regardless, the parable simply does not work if the word is not spoken. No one would be surprised by a lack of crop if no seed had been sown.
I’m tempted to tell a parable of my own, the parable of the farmer who did not sow. There are many possibilities: “There once was a farmer who was going to sow but then he didn’t because he didn’t think any soil these days really wanted seed.” “There was a farmer who was going to sow but then he got distracted by all the other things that needed to be done around the farm.” “There was a farmer who was going to sow but the members of his family made so many other demands on him that he didn’t have any time to do so.” “There was a farmer who was going to sow but decided to focus instead on updating his equipment and methods to match what the cutting edge farmers around him were doing.” I’m afraid I have lived most all of these. Would a parable that began in one of these ways tell the story of your church? Or can you think of an opening line for a parable that does tell the story of you and your church?
A lot of people are talking about how little interest people have in spirituality and church today, although it seems to me there is more interest in the former than the latter. Churches and Christians are responding to this seeming lack of interest in a variety of ways. Sometimes I wonder, though, how much actual experience of speaking the word to people our conclusions are based on. The fact that they are not beating down the doors of your church building doesn’t necessarily mean they are not open to God’s word. Those are two different things. Have we actually been speaking the word to people and found them not interested? Or do we merely perceive they are not interested and so not speak the word? As stated above, no one would be surprised by a lack of crop if no seed had actually been sown.
Though this does not seem to be the main emphasis of the parable, I also believe it’s valid for us to consider what seed we are sowing those not in Christ. The seed in the parable is the “word” (Mark 4:14). It is “the word of God” (Luke 8:11). It is “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:19). I believe we need to take the time to prayerfully clarify the message that is to be spoken, that has the power to change people’s lives. I’m referring less here to our church sermons and more to the message we share with non-Christians when we get the opportunity. Matthew’s “word of the kingdom” is precisely the message that both Jesus (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:42-44; 8:1) and his first followers (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31) announced.
I also believe we need to ask and answer honestly, How many times have we and the others in our church actually told people the good news about God’s kingdom so far this year? If that is what sowing is in these parables, isn’t that a key question? Based on the amount of actual sowing done by your church, is the amount of harvest you’ve seen any surprise? We can’t really attribute a lack of results to infertile soil if we haven’t even been scattering seed on it.
I realize that it is no easy matter to find opportunities to tell the good news of God’s kingdom to people. It’s much easier to allow ourselves to be “the Distracted Farmer.” But since it is the nature of the kingdom to grow, and since the word of the kingdom will indeed produce a substantial crop when it falls into good soil, I believe we need to put more focus on finding opportunities to meaningfully communicate that message to others. I don’t have it figured out and probably never will. But it is something that is at the forefront of my mind and a part of my regular prayers. Lord, please open a door for the message and help us be ready to speak.