The Parable About Parables

Matthew 13:1-23

9/7/2008

It is somewhat daunting to preach to farmers this parable that uses farming images. I don’t know nearly as much about farming as almost any of you listening here tonight. Nevertheless, I hope actually to use that to advantage. I think sometimes that we assume our modern world when we read an ancient text. Farming looked different to the first-century world than it looks to us today. I hope to bring out some of these differences so that the text can strike us afresh and make us sit up and take notice about what it means for us.

Last week we looked at the passage that comes in-between the parable and the explanation of the parable. We saw that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. We saw that a parable has a twist to it, something that seems strange to us. Oftentimes, parables have a “gotcha” moment. The most famous parable in the Old Testament is the one that Nathan told David. David had murdered Uriah the Hittite and committed adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan then goes to David and tells a parable. That parable got around David’s defenses in a way that a direct accusation probably would not have done. Nathan gets David to condemn himself, and then says, “you are the man!” We are going to see this kind of pattern in the parables over and over again. This parable is a parable about hearing, or about the Word of God, about the other parables. It is a parable about parables. We can see that in verse 13, where Jesus explains why He speaks to them in parables, and quotes verses from Isaiah which reflect very closely the meaning of the parable of the sower. Different people react differently to the Word of God because different people have different hearts. We also know that this is a parable abou parables from the parallel account in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus says “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” Plainly, then, the parable of the sower is a parable about parables. It is a gateway parable, an entrance into the world of Jesus’ parables.

However, the name of the parable itself might be misleading. It is not really a parable about the Sower, whether that sower is Jesus or any preacher. Rather, it is a parable about the four kinds of soils. It is a parable about the heart, and how the heart hears the Word of God. This parable has four parts corresponding to the four different kinds of soil that it is possible to have.

The first kind of soil is the soil along the path. The sower goes out to sow with a bag of seed slung over his shoulder. We might ask ourselves why the sower would even sow seed along the path. Wouldn’t this be counter-productive? A good farmer would try to sow seed only where there is a chance of it growing. So what is strange here is that the farmer seems to be careless. He seems to be throwing his seed everywhere, including by the path. What is true of first-century farming is important here. They usually let the seed drop, and then someone would come along in behind the sower and plow the seed into the soil. The plowing then happened after the sowing. So the farmer is not quite so dumb as he might appear at first. In fact, later on we will learn another reason why the farmer seems so careless, but I don’t want to give it away just yet.

In the interpretation of this first soil in verse 19, we learn that this soil can hardly even be called soil, for it is so hard. This is allegorical of a heart that is so hard that the seed cannot penetrate at all. It cannot germinate. It would be like trying to plant seed on the paved road right here in Hull. The birds would get it, as indeed they do. The birds symbolize Satan coming along to snatch away the seed before it even has time to sink in and germinate. There are many ways that Satan does this. A lack of understanding makes a hard heart. A confirmed rebellion against God makes a hard heart. Inattentive listening makes a hard heart. Of course, Satan does everything he can to try to help the hardening of our hearts, so that the Word cannot penetrate. There are few things that Satan hates more than the Word of God, especially if that Word has a chance to penetrate our hearts. So, whenever there are distractions that might make you forget the sermon, or if there is rebellion in your heart, or if you do not understand because you do not want to understand, these things are all characteristic of how Satan tries to keep that Word from penetrating our hearts.

The second soil is rocky soil. This represents the shallow heart. We are to understand here that there is a layer of rock covered with a thin layer of soil. The seed can indeed germinate in this soil, but it cannot send its roots down deep. The root system is shallow. Why would a farmer drop seed here? Presumably he knows the ground well enough to know that this soil is rocky and probably will not grow very well. This seems foolish to us. Why would he sow here? Again, wait on the answer. There is warmth in this soil, which is symbolic of enthusiasm. Jesus says that this kind of heart receives the Word with joy. However, it is missing several things. It is missing depth of soil, and it is missing a supply of water. So, when the sun comes upon it, or when the wind blows hard, the plant doesn’t have a chance. Trouble and persecution are the things which bring out the shallowness of this kind of soil. We can find out a lot about our faith by observing what we do when trouble and persecution come along. Is our faith deep or shallow? When every wind of doctrine blows along, are we tempted to join on those bandwagons? When people start thinking about us as strange, and they do not want to associate with us, do we think that we need to compromise so that we can rejoin the “in” crowd?

The third kind of soil is the thorny soil. Here we should take note that the thorns are probably not obviously present. Verse 7 tells us that the the thorns grow up right alongside the seed. So probably the thorns and weeds are in the soil, but may be there only in seed fashion, or maybe only having roots. Here again, we can question the ability of this farmer. Why didn’t the farmer root out the thorns before he sowed? Why didn’t he pull out the weeds by the roots? Again, wait on it. There is a reason. In the interpretation, Jesus tells us that the thorns symbolize the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth. These things are like the thorns which God promised to Adam as punishment for his disobedience. You remember that God punished Adam by inflicting the ground, saying that there would be weeds, and that only by the sweat of his brow would he eat. That passage is connected to this, for part of the punishment for our rebellion is that our hearts are easily choked by worldliness and fail to hear the life-giving seed of the Word of God. This happens in our lives whenever we think that we need all these other things just as much as need the Word of God. We need a fat bank account, or security in life, or pleasure, or anything that belongs to this world. We think we need that just as much as we need the Word. And, by the way, they need not always be bad things that can get in the way. Maybe our problem is our relationships, which we pursue to the detriment of the Word in our lives. Maybe we let legitimate crises in our lives prevent us from hearing the Word. And thus there is no fruit. The plant springs up, but it does not get enough of the soil’s nutrients to sprout heads of grain.

But now, we can answer the question of why the sower seems to be such a bad farmer. He isn’t a bad farmer at all. For he knows something special about this seed. He knows that the seed is super-fruitful when it falls on good soil! We don’t know exactly what kind of seed this is. It is probably wheat or barley. Those were very commonly grown in ancient Palestine. It certainly was not corn, soybeans, or sunflowers. But what we see with the good soil, and the seed that is sown in it is a very healthy result. In fact, it is better than healthy. It borders on miraculous. The yield for a bushel of wheat today in North Dakota is about 23 or 24 times what is sown, on average, so the farmers tell me. So, even 30 times what is sown is a very good harvest. Of course, when one factors in the differences in farming techniques, the fact that we can irrigate and fertilize today (not to mention cultivate), the ancient people of the first-century could only expect about half of what we get today, as most scholars say. So, even 30 times what was sown is a tremendously good harvest. But 60 and 100 times what was sown is miraculous. So the farmer knows that when his seed falls on the good ground, it will certainly make up for the seed that did not produce a crop.

At this point it is necessary to qualify carefully what is being said here. The farmer does not sow three quarters of his seed on bad soil and one quarter of his seed on good soil. Presumably, he sows most of his seed on good soil, but is very generous in how he sows, such that some seed falls on soil that is not so good. Jesus is not saying that three-fourths of the seed is wasted. Rather, He is saying that there is only one kind of soil that is fruitful.

There are so many applications here that it would be difficult to enumerate them all. All the applications come down to one big application, and that is that we should all tend our gardens. We need to tend our gardens. Some of you might remember that this passage (or one of the parallels) was the text of the sermon preached at my ordination by Rev. Tom Penning. This was the main application that he drew from the text. Tend your gardens. He also made the point that this text applies just as much to believers as it does to non-believers. Oftentimes, the believer’s heart is hard, or shallow, or choked. What we must do is to tend our gardens by the grace of God. Only God can ultimately change the soil itself, and God oftentimes does. However, we need to uproot those worldly things that choke out the Word of God. We need to plow the ground and pick up those rocks that make our soil shallow. We need to plow and tenderize that hard ground in our lives where the seed cannot even penetrate.

And, of course, this passage also applies very well to missionary activity. We need to sow the seed, not worry about whether that seed will germinate or not. The power of the seed lies in the seed, not on how well you threw it onto the ground. There will always be different responses to the Word of God among those who do not believe. And so it is important to realize this so that we do not become discouraged when we find that sharing the Gospel does not always convert someone. Indeed, sometimes it might seem as if three-quarters of the people reject the message! We are to sow the seed anyway, because we know what the Farmer knows: the power of the seed lies in the seed. The power of the Word of God to germinate in someone’s heart depends on itself and on the Holy Spirit, who is the One who changes the soil from a bad soil to a good soil. We merely to need to make sure that we are sowing the Seed, and not something else, certainly not those weeds that choke the Seed.

So, to conclude, recognize that God sows the Seed very generously. He offers it to all kinds of people. The way people respond shows what kind of heart they have. And so, as it applies to us, we need to tend our gardens, making sure that our hearts are not hard, shallow, or distracted by the choking things of this life. And, when we share the Gospel, we must trust that the Seed will do the work, and that all we need to do is to drop the seed onto the ground. That doesn’t sound so hard, does it?

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