The best place to consider how the soil affects sowing and reaping is the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15). Several aspects of ancient farming, which we explored in the first post in this series, are reflected in this important parable. For example, we noted that farmers sometimes plowed the ground before scattering seed and other times scattered seed first and then plowed it under. The latter seems to be assumed in the parable of the sower, since the seed was scattered on all different types of ground.
In fact, the different types of ground that the seed fell on is the emphasis in this parable, and so some have referred to it as the parable of the soils, instead of the parable of the sower. The sower clearly has a vital role in sowing and reaping, and we will say more about that in a future post. The seed or word is also vital, and we considered that in the previous post. In the Parable of the Sower or Soils, the seed that was scattered was always the same. What differed was the soil, and that had a significant effect on whether or what was reaped.
When Jesus explained the parable, he associated the different types of soil with “those who…” or “the one who….” He is clearly describing different types of people and how they respond to the message. More specifically, the key to the different responses is the people’s hearts. Two of the accounts refer to the word being in people’s hearts (Luke 8:12; Matthew 13:19), and one explains the good soil explicitly in terms of the heart (Luke 8:15). So, this parable describes the different ways people with different kinds of hearts respond to the message about the kingdom.
The first kind of people or hearts Jesus described (those along the path) are those who heard the word with their hearts, but then Satan took it away (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). As a result, they could not “believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12), which states overtly that this is what the parable is describing. Jesus here makes it clear that Satan is at work and has the ability to take the word away (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4). We need to be aware that both the Lord (Acts 16:14) and Satan can work in people’s hearts when the message of the kingdom is spoken.
Matthew’s account explains that these people did not “understand” (13:19), and this gives us some insight into why Satan can take the message away from people. The word “understand” (suniemi, pronounced “soon E a me”) does not refer merely to a person being educated well enough to understand the meaning of words and sentences. Rather, it refers to people whose hearts are capable of spiritual perception. This can be seen in the way the same word is used three times just before Jesus’ explanation of the parable in Matthew (13:13, 14, 15). The people mentioned could see and hear but did not truly see, hear, nor understand. They didn’t actually perceive. The problem was that their heart had grown dull so that they couldn’t understand with their hearts. In other words, their failure to grasp the message was not due to what we would describe as a lack of intellectual ability but rather to a heart problem (for more on the heart in this sense cf. Mark 6:52; 8:17, 21; Luke 24:45; Romans 3:11). Their hearts and wills were not open to God’s word. Stated bluntly, they didn’t really want to hear the message (cf. John 7:17).
The second kind of people or hearts (those on rocky ground) Jesus described are those who immediately received the word with joy and believed for a while, but then fell away when they were tested by persecution or tribulation (Matthew 13:20-21; Mark 4:16-17; Luke 8:13). All three Gospel accounts mention the joy with which they received the word, which indicates that their response was genuine. But when they were tested by persecution or tribulation it led to their falling away. The problem was that they didn’t have a strong root (speaking agriculturally) or lasting endurance (speaking literally). The need for perseverance is underscored in Luke’s description of the good soil as people who “hold it fast” and “with patience” (Luke 8:15).
The third kind of people or hearts (those among thorns) heard the word but then it was choked by the worries or cares of the world, the deceitfulness of wealth, and pleasure or the desire for other things so that it did not bear fruit and mature (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18-19; Luke 8:14). The thorns mentioned are some of the most common things that preoccupy people and keep them from assimilating the word. These very same things, and more, often chock the word in our day as well.
The fourth kind of people or hearts (good soil) heard, understood, accepted, and held fast the word and bore various amounts of fruit (Matthew 13:23; Mark 4:20; Luke 8:15). “Understands” (Matthew 13:23) is the same word and kind of understanding as that mentioned above—heart understanding. It corresponds to Luke’s description of these people as having an “honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15). As noted, Luke also mentions the necessity of holding fast and patience, which the rocky ground people were lacking. The fruit borne by people who are like good soil seems to refer to the Christlike qualities and deeds that emerge in people’s lives, rather than additional sowing, though the latter would not be excluded. Matthew and Mark mention that differing amounts of fruit were borne but do not give any specific indication that the greater fruit is regarded as more pleasing to Jesus than the lesser. This is further supported by the fact that Luke does even not mention the amounts. The point of this fourth type is to tell us that when the seed is sowed in good soil, it will produce fruit. In such cases sowing leads to reaping.
The Parable of the Sower or Soils show clearly that the type of soil the seed falls into has a significant effect on what type of plant emerges, if any. Or, stated literally, the type of heart a person has largely determines the effect the word will have on them. Previously we described the basic point of the metaphor as “sowing leads to reaping.” We might now modify that basic truth when used of to evangelism to say “sowing leads to reaping, when the seed is sown in good soil.” Or, speaking literally, God’s word will cause people to “believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12) and endure and bear fruit, if they have “an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15). This is the main message of the parable.
The parable reflects some other secondary but important truths as well. First, it is clear that reaping won’t occur without sowing. There will be no harvest into eternal life unless we speak the word of the kingdom. This means our God-given role of sowing the seed is vital in the process. Related to this, the parable implies that we are called to sow the seed broadly without seeking to determine what kind of soil we are sowing on. While we may get an impression of what kind of heart a person has, we cannot know for sure. Like Ananias, we might hesitate to speak God’s word to someone who strongly opposes Christianity, such as Saul (Acts 9:10-14). But in that case, surprisingly, the soil turned out to be good. The immediate result was fruit, and the long term result was massive additional sowing and reaping by Paul. There are other places in Acts also where the seed was sowed to people who did not appear to be good soil (Acts 4:1-12; 5:17-32), and often they indeed were not (4:13-18; 5:33). But these spokesmen show us that it is right to speak the word to them anyway (4:19-20, 29-31; 5:41-42). There is a also a time to dust off one’s feet and move on (Matthew 10:14; Acts 13:51), and we should not cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), but we do not make such determinations without first speaking the word to them.
One of my great concerns today is that I don’t see or hear much emphasis on actually speaking the good news of God’s kingdom to people outside of Christ. I do see much emphasis on doing good deeds and maturing disciples. This is wonderful, because these, too, are essential to our calling. Jesus, however, did all three—good deeds, good news, and good teaching (Matthew 4:23; 9:35). We need a balance of all three in our ministries. If you want to read more about our responsibility for the telling good news part, see the previous post.
A second lesson is that only a minority of the seed bears fruit. Speaking literally, only a minority of people who hear the word respond favorably and bear fruit in their lives. I doubt Jesus intended to give us exact percentages, but it is striking that only one in four examples turned out favorably. The same mixed results are seen in Jesus’ ministry and in Acts.
Sometimes we evaluate people, methods, and ministries based on results. Usually when we do this, we are thinking more like Americans than Christians. A high conversion rate makes us think an approach is good and worth using. In light of this parable, however, shouldn’t that make us suspicious of the approach? Do we think we are going to come up with approaches that have a higher conversion rate than Jesus had? We cannot increase the harvest by “sowing harder.” Nor will we increase the harvest by “sowing smarter” or “sowing better,” unless we were sowing badly to begin with. The harvest may increase if we sow more broadly, but even so, we should not be surprised if only a minority receive the word.
The reason for this minority response is a third lesson, namely, we are not the only element in the sowing and reaping process. There is not only a sower but also soil. There is not only a speaker but also a hearer. God is involved as well. That means there are three components—speaker, hearer, and God. Our role is vital, to be sure, but it is not the only one. There is no guarantee that our sowing in a particular case will lead to reaping, and we do not control the harvest. Even when we sow the message of the kingdom as we ought, the working of God and the condition of a person’s heart still have a significant effect on the outcome.
A fourth lesson is that sowers should pray for people’s hearts. As noted, the parable teaches that people’s hearts in large part determine how they will respond to the word. The vital role of the heart is mentioned elsewhere also (Matthew 13:15; Mark 3:5; 6:52; 8:17; Luke 21:34; 24:25; Acts 2:37; 7:51; 16:14; 28:27; Romans 10:9-10; 2 Corinthians 3:15; 4:6; Hebrews 3:8). While God has told us some things about the heart, there is also some mystery about it. I don’t fully grasp why some people’s hearts are good and others are not, but I do know God is involved (Acts 16:14). So we must pray that God will work and open people’s hearts to the word.
For more on how the ministry of Empowering Subjects equips God’s people to work in his harvest field, see here.