The Parable of the Sower appears in all three synoptic gospels. Jesus implied it is the key to understanding his other parables. Today, thinking of it as the parable of the four soils might make it easier to grasp. After all, the sower went out to sow seed, and the parable never mentions him again. It doesn’t really say much about the seed, either, except that it’s apparently some kind of grain. But the soils? They’re crucially important.
The three accounts are a little different, but the differences don’t alter the basic points.
A sower went out to sow seed. In those days, that meant taking a bag of seed and throwing it on the ground. He had presumably done whatever was necessary to prepare the soil. Some seed fell on the path, and birds ate it. Some fell on rocky soil and germinated, but it died because it could not put down roots. Some fell where thorns grew and choked it. Some fell on good soil and yielded a crop. Luke specifies a hundred-fold return. Matthew and Mark both say that some of the seed yielded thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was sown.
In each gospel account, Jesus concludes the parable saying, “If anyone has ears, let him hear,” knowing full well that most people would not.
What are parables?
We can think of parables as earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. That is, they’re stories that illustrate spiritual truth. They’re not quite the same as allegories, proverbs, fables, or other kinds of stories.
As we look at Jesus’ parables, we notice that he spoke some to the crowds that came to hear him preach, some to his disciples privately, and some to his adversaries. The first step in understanding parables, then, is to recognize the audience.
Jesus spoke the parable of the four soils to a crowd. Early on in his ministry, he did not speak to them in parables. In all three accounts, the disciples asked him why he used parables immediately after he spoke this one.
The disciples could receive the secrets of the kingdom, he said, but others (called “outsiders” in Mark) did not have that privilege. Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9-10, where God commissioned the prophet to preach to a hard-hearted population who would see without perceiving and hear without understanding.
Jesus told parables to the general public, he said, not so they would understand, but so they would not. They had no desire to understand or live according to the principles of the kingdom. If they understood and refused to live accordingly, they would be condemned. So Jesus told stories that made sense in their own way. Those who had grace to understand would let their lives be transformed. Those who did not would simply go their way.
Jesus explained the parable of the four soils to his disciples. The Bible gives no hint of what anyone in the crowd might have thought of it. Unfortunately, it’s easy enough to hear some really bad sermons and read some really bad articles by people who have somehow missed the point of the explanation.
How have people misunderstood the parable of the four soils?
Some ignorant people in the crowd may have heard a criticism of the farmer’s skill or tried to figure out instructions for how to get the best crop yield for themselves
Why criticize the farmer for not properly preparing the soil, as some preachers do? The parable is not a treatise on farming. Surely farmers followed certain procedures before sowing seed on the ground. The parable says nothing about them.
Plots of ground were much smaller than today’s fields. Farmers would have needed some kind of footpath. Surely they removed whatever rocks they could see, but the soil likely had rocks, or even rocky ledges, deeper than their plows could reach. Surely farmers pulled the weeds they could see, but they couldn’t see seeds in the soil that hadn’t yet germinated.
Why express shock that three fourths of the seed never bore fruit? Some commentators read that into the parable, but it doesn’t say anywhere that a quarter of the seed fell on the path, another two quarters on bad soil, and only one quarter on good ground. That would indeed be a sign of incompetent farming, but the parable focuses on the four soils, not on how much seed fell on them.
I once sat through a sermon where the preacher promised to show how to get a hundred-fold return and not settle for just thirty or sixty. The farmer is surely God. The seed is his word. He, not the soil, reaps the harvest. Anyone who reads this parable to figure out how to get something completely misses the point. Some believers are more fruitful than others. Other scriptures tell us how to be more fruitful so God gets a better return from us, but not this parable.
The meaning of the path
The sower would take a handful of seed and throw it on the ground. Any wind would alter the direction and distance of the seed. It was probably impossible to keep seed from falling on the path and not worth the trouble of trying to sweep it off the path into the prepared plot.
But why should we be concerned about it? In Matthew 5:45, Jesus pointed out God does not reserve sun and rain only for good people. It rains on the just and unjust. Everyone receives prevenient grace. Some will not respond, and it’s entirely their fault for being hard hearted. God does not withhold his word from anyone just because he knows they’ll neglect it.
In Mark’s account, Satan comes immediately to take away the word from these people’s hearts. They had a chance to respond to it but let it pass.
We should also not think of the path as representing only unbelievers. Let’s be honest as believers. We have each been all four kinds of soil at some point ever since we first believed. We have all read or heard inattentively, and at those times, the word does not penetrate at all.
The meaning of the rocky ground
It appears that farmers of Jesus’ day scattered seed and then plowed to bury it in the ground. Their plows did not dig very deep. If there was some kind of rock formation close to the surface, but not close enough for the plow to discover, the seeds would germinate. Some plant would grow, but it could not put down roots in such shallow soil. It could not get adequate moisture. Eventually, it would dry up in the sun. Notice that plants need sunlight, but they can’t withstand it if they can’t draw sustenance from the soil.
Some people hear the word and receive it with joy. Then life happens. They pray and don’t see the results they want. Family, friends, or coworkers respond to their faith with hostility. Trouble and persecution arise because of the word. All believers face times of testing. Just as plants need sunlight, faith needs testing. Not all believers can withstand the test and let their faith grow from it. If their faith doesn’t grow, it withers.
Old-time preachers used to make a distinction between believers and professors, those who professed Christianity more for cultural reasons than from abiding faith. When some kind of trouble comes, professors might abandon Christianity entirely or they might continue to attend church and go through the motions. In either case, what has grown from the word withers unless, as some point they become more receptive soil. That happens only by the grace of God.
The meaning of the thorns
Any farmer or gardener knows that weeds will grow with whatever they intended to plant, whether food crops or a flower bed. After all, weed seeds are already hidden in the soil before any desirable seeds are sown. The weeds will compete for sunlight, moisture, and soil nutrients. In some parts of the plot, there may be more weed seeds than good seed. The weeds may grow taller or have broader leaves and therefore cast a shadow. If they are not removed, they will choke the desirable plants, which will grow but likely not go to seed.
If this parable were about the sower, we could fault him for not weeding his field. After all, the parable specifies thorns. In Matthew, the parable of the wheat and tares directly follows his explanation of the parable of the four soils. There, the farmer told his servants not to try to dig up the tares, which are indistinguishable from wheat until they both ripen. But thorns differ greatly from the word sown. Presumably the servants in the second parable would take them out.
In Luke’s account, Jesus compares the thorns with life’s worries, riches, and treasures. Mark further specifies the, the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things.
We can see an illustration of the word sown among the thorns in the story of Mary and Martha. As Martha acted as cook and hostess, she could probably have heard Jesus as he taught. She could have paid careful attention as she worked. Instead, she focused her attention on Mary not helping her out. Whatever teaching she heard didn’t register, even though she appears to have been a woman of strong faith who greatly loved Jesus.
The meaning of the good soil
Farmers sow with the intention of harvesting a crop. Only good soil yields a crop. The seed that falls on the path, the rocky soil, or among thorns yields nothing. The parable assumes that all the seed is good seed. It’s not difference in the seed that determines where the crops produce a harvest but the soil. The four soils correspond to hard, shallow, overcrowded, and good hearts.
The good soil, therefore, represents people who understand the word, attempt to live by it, and become fruitful. Understanding means something more than grasping intellectually. It means receiving it as a life-changing force. As Luke says, these people persevere. God harvests a crop from them.
Jesus illustrates the parable of the four soils even as he speaks it. Those who first heard it exemplified one of the four soils. They all heard the same word, but the word didn’t have the same result in all of them.
Now, soil has no choice in what kind of soil it is. As hearers of the word, we do have a choice. We can act on it or not. As James says (James 1:22-25), when we hear the word and do not act on it, we deceive ourselves. It’s like looking at our reflection in a mirror and then turning away and forgetting what we look like.
When we hear the word and act on it, the harvest does not come immediately. It happens at the end of a growing season. We have abundant opportunity to examine ourselves to see what kind of soil we are.
Will we produce thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold ? The answer may be none of our business. It’s only by the grace of God that anyone produces anything at all.
How does the seed grow?
Two of Jesus’ parables appear only in Mark. One of them (Mark 4:26-29) immediately follows Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils.
The sower sows, and in the parable, that is the end of his involvement. Surely, any farmer must work diligently between seed time and harvest, but it is the soil that causes germination and growth. The sower contributes nothing to the process, knows nothing about it, and can’t observe it. He can observe only the result, which happens slowly: first the blade, then the stalk, then the ripe grain in the stalk. When the grain is ripe, the farmer will harvest it.
Since, in the parables mentioned in this post, the farmer represents God, the harvest is a type of the second coming of Christ. The angels will separate the wheat from the tares, reject the tares, and harvest the wheat.
Believers will be all four kinds of soil at one time or another. Let us diligently try to be good soil as much as possible to bear as much fruit for our Lord as possible. Paul specifies what the fruit of the Spirit looks like in Galatians 5:22-23. May we all grow in producing that fruit.