The Parable of the Sower
In the year that King Uzziah died, God lifted the prophet Isaiah in a vision to the holy throne room. He saw the Lord sitting high and lifted up, surrounded in praise by the angels. In response, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
In a moment of clarity, Isaiah saw himself as he really was. He saw his people as they really were. He saw God as he really is. And in response, he fell on his face before the Lord. He was humbled and repentant. He understood the wickedness of his sin. He felt his depravity. He would have accepted his condemnation. But he received forgiveness. An angel flew to him, and with a burning coal from the altar, touched his mouth and made him clean. His guilt was gone. His sin atoned. Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, and it freed him.
God then needed a man who understood forgiveness to go to his people preaching of forgiveness. Who would he send? Isaiah pipes up, “Send me!” So God does. But Isaiah was given a tough assignment.
“Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
God’s prophet takes God’s word to God’s people, but they are unable to hear. The greatest task of their lives is one they fail to accomplish because they’ve traded the glory of God for the glory of man. They have exalted themselves above the Lord, and in so doing, have failed to attain the glory they seek.
The world Isaiah stepped into was a world at war with God. Jesus stepped into the same world. But the war was subtle. Shots weren’t fired all at once. Time was still pregnant, awaiting the fullness when all hell’s fury swelled toward the cross. God came offering peace, but the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, and the Israelites of Jesus’s day, refused to accept the terms. Instead, they waged war.
All Isaiah’s hearers had to do was listen and repent. But they couldn’t. Can you?
The Parable of the Sower - Mark 4:1-20
1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Jesus takes to the floating pulpit as his congregation gathers on the shore. The time has come to teach about his Father’s kingdom. He’s miraculously healed their diseases with his hands; now it’s time to touch their hearts with his words.
What Jesus’s first-century audience needed is the same thing we need today: to be confronted with God’s Word. We need the Holy God to break through our world, our heart, our experience, and shake the very ground upon which we stand. We cannot come alive to him on our own. We need him sounding the alarm. We need an awakening.
In the gospels, we receive such an awakening. We have Jesus Christ bringing not only God’s word to earth, but bringing God himself to earth. He became nothing in this world to bring everything down from heaven. He humbled himself to death on the cross so we could see how massive the love of God really is.
That day so long ago, Jesus opened his teaching ministry with a sharp command, “Listen!” As a parent would call out to get a child’s attention, our Lord is demanding us to heed his words. Our teaching today rarely begins with such an imperative, but perhaps it should. After all, listening to the word of God is the primary task of the Christian. It is the path in which we walk side by side with the Lord. It is the divine classroom, the heart searcher, the wisdom producer. When God speaks, we should listen. But we must be careful how we listen. We must not be passive. Our listening must be active. The words coming in can’t swirl aimlessly. They must find a spot to land.
Jesus knew not everyone gathered on that beach would hear the message he was proclaiming. He knew some had already made up their mind about who he was—or wasn’t. They were listening without listening, hearing without hearing. The words went in one ear, through the predetermined filter, and landed on the rock-hard surface of their heart. For some, the hearing wasn’t as dull. They enjoyed the entertaining story. It impacted them. It changed their mood. Life appeared to take root. But what began couldn’t last. For others, the message was heard and received. The seed fell into the soft soil of the heart and began to grow. What made the difference? To find the answer, we must look at this parable in two parts. First, we must consider the sower and the seed. Second, we must understand the types of soil.
The Sower and the Seed
The parable is simple on the surface. A sower went out to sow. Jesus tells us the sower sows the Word of God. The image of God sowing his word is not a new one to Jesus’s audience. Mark’s gospel draws heavily on the book of Isaiah. Even in this parable, in verse 12, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10. Isaiah uses sowing imagery to prophecy that God’s seed would not return empty.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Seven hundred years later, Jesus showed up speaking the same language. God sent his word out into the world, and it will accomplish his purposes. Jesus was another man in a long line of men who appeared bringing God’s word to a hard-hearted people. But Jesus was unique. He was not a man in need of God’s forgiveness. He was the one to bring God’s forgiveness. His parables held the authority of a sinless man. They are not simply stories with a moral application, or tales holding a life lesson. They are the seed of God’s word sowed in expectation of harvesting.
But reading the parables is no easy task. Many have gone too far in their interpretation, others not far enough. In our interpretation, we much watch for the danger of allegory, finding significance in every detail of the story, which can distract from the main point. But in this case, the parable is allegorical because Jesus himself provides the interpretation, and his interpretation is allegorical. It is not only that the sower went out to sow but that Jesus himself is the sower sowing as he’s speaking. He is, in the Apostle John’s language, “The Word,” God himself made manifest to us (John 1:1). Jesus speaks for himself, by himself, on behalf of himself, with the very words that point back to himself. Everything Jesus says in this parable is self-referential though he makes himself the minor character in the plot. Though the sower goes out to sow, it is neither the sower nor the word that is the focal point. It is the soil, which we will consider in a moment.
First, we must consider the sower who sows the word (Mark 4:14). The sower is anyone who sows the word of God. He is you and me. He is the preacher on Sunday morning. He is the evangelist in the third-world country. He is the employee at lunch with his co-workers. He is the parent telling the bedtime story. He is anyone who shares God’s word, spreading the seed as he goes. But it is also true is that Jesus is, in a cosmic sense, the sower, fulfilling and encompassing the totality of it. He spreads the seed of the word, calling all to repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
It is this call to all that is so striking in the parable. The sower sows the seed indiscriminately, spreading it far and wide on all kinds of ground. By modern farming techniques, this would be considered wasteful. But in the ancient world, it was common. A farmer could not rid his field completely of rocks. He could dig a foot in the ground, but without modern tools, going deeper would be difficult and time-consuming. What appeared to be good soil could have been rocky ground without him knowing. So, he spread his seed throughout his field, doing what he could to prepare for an abundant harvest. Then he waited to see what the harvest would yield.
For the many souls gathered on that beach, and for the many gathered around this parable throughout the centuries in church congregations, Bible studies, and personal devotions, the Divine Sower does his work. He spreads the word of God far and wide, reaching into the places others would find bordering on the edge of stupidity. He goes to the ones forgotten, trod down, pushed out, and removed, just as he goes to the ones in the castle, on the throne, in the public eye, and loved by many. The sower does not care where the seed lands because every inch of dirt is an opportunity for growth in God’s kingdom. This parable and this Sower and this seed are features of the Kingdom of God, come now to earth to do the Father’s work. The sower is going out to sow his seed. What will the harvest find?
The focal point of the parable is neither the sower nor the seed. Each is vital—without them the ground lays unfarmed—but, primarily, Jesus is driving us to an evaluation of four types of soil.
“Some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:4-8)
Jesus explains these four types of soil for us.
“And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:15-20)
For all the questions we ask of the Bible, the Bible also asks questions of us. And it is the questions the Bible asks of us that should claim our attention before anything else. It is true, we can ask God whatever we must, we can seek and search, but our questions don’t come first. Until we’ve placed ourselves under God’s microscope, we’ve failed to take the Bible seriously. Until we’ve allowed God to question us, we have no right to question him. After all, it was not Adam who, after he sinned, littered God with questions. It was God who came looking for Adam asking, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). It was not Job’s insistence that God answer him that changed his heart during his suffering. It was God’s questions of him that turned the tide. “I will question you” (Job 38:3). This parable, then, is not merely a story of a sower sowing seed. It is a question from God to all of us. What kind of soil is our heart made of? When the sower sows his seed, what will the seed find to rest on?
It is after this parabolic question that Jesus’s disciples draw near for clarity. They heard his words, but does it mean what they think? There are four types of soil. Which types are good and which are bad? In his grace and mercy, Jesus gives us the answer. Though the parable presents four types of soil, there are ultimately only two kinds. There is the soil of unfaith and the soil of faith. Three are bad. One is good. Why, then, present four types? Because in our experience of sowing the seed of the word, we find all four. This parable helps us see why. It peels back the layers, showing what’s beneath the surface, helping us understand the various responses.
Tim Keller points out that if you read the first three chapters of the book of Mark, you find these first three types of soils reflected. The soil on the path is the group of Pharisees—the religious leaders. They who should have understood the word of God fail to receive it because it comes from outside their preconceived ideas. The soil on the rocky ground is the crowd gathered around Jesus. They’re extremely pleased with him, enjoying his miracles. But when the word falls on their heart, they have no depth. They wanted a show when they needed a savior. The soil with thorns is Jesus’s family. They’re embarrassed and ashamed of Jesus because he’s making a spectacle of himself with his crazy talk. They’re allowing the cares of the world to choke the good news he’s preaching. The soils are responding to the seed, and for theses first three types it’s a disaster. Nothing lasts long. Death is overtaking the life. That’s how it was for Jesus in his life—death lurked.
There is, however, is one type of good soil. Who is that in the story of Mark’s gospel? The good soil is anyone who follows Jesus for who he really is—not only for what he’s done in his miracles but for who he is in himself. They are the ones who accept Jesus wholeheartedly. They follow him, willing to go all the way to the end. In the story of Mark thus far, this is seen best in the disciples. They’re a mess. They’re sinners. They’re unsure of some things. But they’re seeking Jesus. They don’t hear the parable and say, “Well, that’s a nice story. Ok, what else you got?” Instead, they seek him out and press in further. They’re the fertile soil ready to swallow the seed. In short, they want Jesus for who he is, not for what he can do. When presented with the story of the kingdom of God, they press in because they want to become a citizen.
So we may approach Jesus with questions: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2)? “Could this be the Christ” (John 4:29)? “What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 27:22)? But it is not the questions we ask of Jesus but the questions Jesus asks of us that determine our future. And here the parable of the sower serves as Jesus’s opening question, plowing the field of the world. What kind of soil are we?
The answer is not elusive. We can know what kind of soil we are. Furthermore, now is the time to evaluate! Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6, describing the hard-heartedness of Israel, not to hide the answer but to warn us to seek the answer. The time is at hand. There is still time to repent. Will we? Will we listen to the Lord or will we turn our noses up at him, walking away with our pride intact and our soul in danger?
If you’ve been following Jesus, the surest way to find out the kind of soil you are is to look at the fruit of your life. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. The good soil produces a harvest. Not all of us will yield a hundredfold, but all who trust in Jesus yield something. How much is up to him. If you’ve not yet followed Jesus, the surest way to gain the good soil is to ask him for a new heart. All we must do is offer our heart as the soil in which he plants his seed. He’ll do the rest, which leads us into the deepest truth of this passage.
If only one soil is good, how do we get it? Is it being a good person? If so, good by what standard? Is it by pulling out the weeds in our life? If so, how can you be sure you got the root? Is it by removing the rocks underneath? If so, how can you see down far enough? It can’t be any of that. It must be another way.
Interestingly, the only gospel account that doesn’t include this parable is John’s. Throughout the first eleven chapters, Jesus continually says his time has not yet come. But in the 12th chapter, Jesus turns and begins saying his time has now come. He enters Jerusalem to a singing, palm branch-waving crowd. The King has arrived in his city. But it was not the throne to which he was going. It was the cross. This surprising turn of events has to be explained to his disciples. So, he says to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
With these words, Jesus shows us the truth embedded in the parable of the sower. For the seed to take root and grow, death must occur. When it dies, it can grow. This isn’t only the way God created agriculture to work. It’s the way he created the Christian life to work. Christianity is not basically about achieving the life required to attain heaven. Christianity is about dying to the life keeping you from heaven, and accepting the life Jesus alone gives. Christianity is about death before it’s about life. If you want the heart made of good soil but realize you can’t create it on your own, you’ve entered the truest part of Christianity. You can’t create the fertile heart. Only God can. And the news we call good news, the gospel, is that God not only can give you the good heart, but will give it to you. All we must do is ask.
The deepest truth about the words John records, and the most profound truth about the parable of the sower is that Jesus is the sower who became the seed. He denied himself and took up his cross, enduring the suffering for the splendor beyond. He fell to the earth and died. And in his crucifixion, he tilled the heart within our breast, transforming stone into flesh. Then, glory of all glories, the seed planted in the earth rose to bear much fruit, blossoming through the world.
The way to the good soil is not anything of our own doing. It’s the work of Jesus Christ. He’s the sower creating the soil and sowing the seed. As we place ourselves beneath his question, our great hope is not that we can root out all hindrances from our heart, cultivating the good soil on our own. Our great hope is that we have a great Sower with a powerful seed that can grow in the hardest of hearts because he’s powerful enough to break the hardest ground. The good soil becomes good because of the supernatural work of the Good Sower. We embrace the seed of the word because Jesus gives us a new heart. All we have to do is admit our need. Jesus will provide the rest. He’s purchased on our behalf what we could never create on our own. He prepares the soil to receive the seed; all we do is enjoy the growth.