THE SEED AND THE SOIL
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear."
One of my daughters has been singing a song about Jesus that contains the line "Jesus was a story-tellin' man." When I first heard that line it seemed a bit flip, as so many contemporary Christian songs are. But as I thought about it I realized that it contains a real truth: though Jesus was much more than a storyteller, He was at least that, and as a result the people of His day flocked to Him and heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37).
Christ's words were always picturesque. He spoke of camels creeping through the hole in a needle (Matt. 19:24), of people trying to remove specks from another's eye when a plank was in their own (Matt. 7:5). He referred to a house divided against itself, destined to fall down (Mark 3:25), to tossing children's bread to dogs (Mark 7:27). He warned against the "yeast" of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15). Strictly speaking, however, those are not stories. The stories Jesus told fall into a particular category of story known as parable. A parable is a story taken from real life (or a real-life situation) from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. Examples are many: the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24), the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), and others, including the parables of the kingdom that will occupy our attention in this first set of studies. By my count there are about twenty-seven parables, though some are closely related and may simply be different versions of the same story.
Parables differ from fables in that a fable is not a real situation. An example of a fable is any of Aesop's stories, in which animals talk. In those stories the animals are simply people in disguise. Parables also differ from allegories, since in an allegory each or nearly each detail has meaning. C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia are essentially allegories. In the parables of Jesus not every detail has meaning. Indeed, to try to force meaning into each one can produce strange and even demonstrably false doctrines. Parables are merely real-life stories from which one or possibly a few basic truths are drawn.
Parables of the Kingdom
If a person were to begin reading the New Testament at page one (Matt. 1:1) and read consecutively, he would read quite a while before encountering this important element of our Lord's teaching. In fact, he would have to read one-fourth of Matthew's gospel, chapters 1-12, before coming upon even the first of the parables. But with chapter 13 that suddenly changes—here, not one but seven parables are recorded. They have one theme, the kingdom of God, and so are called the "parables of the kingdom."
It is no accident that these are the first parables encountered. It is sometimes said that Matthew's gospel presents the Lord Jesus Christ as "king of Israel," just as Mark presents Him as the "Son of Man" and Luke as the "servant." But whether we give Matthew that thematic emphasis or not, there is no doubt that Christ's proclamation of the kingdom is a major theme of Matthew's gospel. The very first verse introduces Jesus as "the son of David," Israel's great king. Jesus' forerunner, John the Baptist, is said to have come preaching "the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 3:2). Jesus Himself made that the first theme of His itinerant ministry (Matt. 4:17). Some regard the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) as the ethics of the kingdom; the miracles of chapters 8-12 demonstrate the kingdom's power. Since this is Matthew's early emphasis, we should not be surprised that the first parables develop this theme.
It is also no accident that the parables are presented in the order in which we have them, although methods of relating the seven stories differ. The most obvious division is into two sets of four and three respectively. In the first four (the sower and the seed, the enemy who sows tares, the mustard seed, and the yeast) Jesus speaks before the multitudes. The last three (the parables of the hidden treasure, the fine pearl, and the dragnet) are spoken before the disciples only. Some have grouped the parables by twos: (1) the parables involving planting and harvesting, (2) the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, (3) parables that stress the kingdom's value — the treasure and the pearl, and (4) the parable of the dragnet.
Both of these classifications suggest a development, but I prefer a third system of classification. To my mind the first parable stands alone, since it deals with the origin of the kingdom. The next three belong together, since (as I hope to demonstrate) they picture Satan's desire to thwart the kingdom's growth. Parables five and six go together and show the attitude of those who vigorously seek the kingdom despite Satan's wiles. The last parable, the dragnet, shows the kingdom's consummation. Taken together the stories show the nature, origin, hindrances to, and victory of Christ's work of spreading His gospel through His messengers between the days of His first coming and His coming again.
The Parable of the Sower
The first parable is an ideal one with which to begin, since (obviously enough) it deals with the beginnings or origins of the kingdom. Here it is compared to a farmer sowing seed. "A farmer went out to sow his seed ..." (Matt. 13:3-9). Not all of Christ's parables are explained. In fact, most are not. But this one is (vv. 18-23), and the explanation that Jesus gives is our starting point. The seed is the gospel of the kingdom, and the soil is the human heart (v. 19). The emphasis is on the various kinds of hearts and how they reject or receive Christ's message.
The first type of soil represents the hard heart, of which there are many today as well as in Christ's time. It is described as soil along the path (v. 4). Such ground has been trampled down by the many feet that have passed that way over scores of years. Because the soil is hard, the seed that falls there merely lies on the path and does not sink in, and the birds (which Christ compares to the devil or the devil's workers) soon snatch it away. What is it that makes the human heart hard? There can be only one answer: sin. Sin hardens the heart, and the heart that is hardened sins even more.
That type of person is described in the first chapter of Romans. He or she begins by suppressing the truth about God that may be known from nature (vv. 18-20), plunges inevitably into spiritual ignorance and moral degradation (vv. 21-31), and eventually comes not only to practice the sins of the heathen but to approve them as well (v. 32). Here we see both halves of the circle; sin leads to a rejection of God and God's truth, and the rejection of God's truth leads to even greater sin. What is it that leads such a person to reject the truth of God in the first place? According to Paul, it is a determined opposition to the nature of God Himself, which the apostle describes as human "godlessness and wickedness" (Rom. 1:18).
Virtually all of God's attributes—whether sovereignty, holiness, omniscience, immutability, or even the divine love—are offensive to the natural man, if properly understood. So rather than repent of sin and turn for mercy to a God who is altogether sovereign, holy, knowing, and unchangeable, men and women suppress what knowledge they have and refuse to seek out that additional knowledge that could be the salvation of their souls.
Recently I heard a conversation between two women in which one asked, "Why is America in such a declining moral state today?"
Her friend replied, "Because the people love sin." I cannot think of anything more profound than that. That is the message of Romans 1 in five words. People love sin. Sin hardens their hearts. Therefore, they will not receive the gospel of the kingdom of God when it is preached to them.
The opposition of the unregenerate heart to God's sovereignty is particularly evident in these kingdom parables, for kingdom means rule, and rule is the same as sovereignty. When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, He came preaching God's right to rule over the minds and hearts of all people. But that is precisely what the people involved did not want. Adam did not want it. He had great freedom, but he was offended by God's unreasonable and arbitrary (so he judged) restriction in the case of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If God exercised His sovereignty at that point, it was here that Adam would rebel. So he did—and fell, carrying the race with him. That spirit of rebellion against the sovereign God works itself out in history until eventually the Lord Jesus Christ Himself comes to earth and the response of His people is: "We will not have this man to rule over us."
So it is also today. That is probably the greatest reason for the rejection of the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ at this or any other time in history. I heard of a man who said, "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for sinners. But I guess I just don't want to give Him my life. I want to make my own decisions."
The second type of soil stands for the shallow heart. Jesus described it as soil covering rocky ground. When the seed fell there it sank in, but only to a very shallow depth. It sprang up quickly, but it also faded quickly in the sun's heat because it had no root. Jesus later described that person: "What was sown on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away" (vv. 20-21).
Many people fit that description. We see them in our thriving evangelical churches. Their shallow hearts are attracted to the joy and excitement of a church where much is happening. They hear the gospel and seem to fit in. Many even make a profession of faith. But then some difficulty comes—loss of a job, misunderstandings with other Christians, sickness, even a bad romance—and just as suddenly as they once seemed to embrace the faith, they fall away, because they were really never born again.
Not long ago I noticed an extreme case. The newspapers reported the arrest in Lakeland, Florida of a man named Joseph Paul Franklin. He was wanted for questioning about a year-long series of shootings in Salt Lake City, Johnstown (Pennsylvania), Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. He had grown up in a bad home, had dropped out of school at seventeen, and began getting into trouble, with several arrests for carrying concealed weapons and disorderly conduct. But then, as one magazine went on to say in tracing his early life, "he became an Evangelical Christian." After that he became a Nazi and then a Ku Klux Klansman. At one point he told friends he was going to join Ian Smith's Rhodesian army.
I had been reading that news item with only minimal interest, but when I came to the line about his being an "Evangelical Christian" my attention picked up. I wondered why that had been slipped in and whether it was just one more attempt to discredit genuine Christianity. I do not think it was; Franklin had actually gone through Christianity as one stage in his warped development, and the magazine was simply reporting that fact fairly. The tragedy is not that such a thing is reported but that there are far too many in Franklin's category within our churches. Just being in church, mouthing the things you hear other people say, does not make you a Christian. Yours may be the shallow heart. Yours may be the rocky soil.
The third type of soil stands for the strangled heart, strangled by things. The Lord describes those things as thorns, and says, "What was sown among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful" (v. 22). I do not need to point out how many lives are choked by riches today. It was true even in Jesus' day; we know that because of our Lord's many warnings against riches: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 19:23); "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25); "Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort" (Luke 6:24).
On one occasion a rich young man turned away from Jesus sorrowfully because Jesus had told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, and he was unwilling to do it (Luke 18:23). But if that was true in Jesus' day among people whom we would regard for the most part as very, very poor, how much truer it is in ours. How much more choked we are with riches—we who have cars and houses and boats and bank accounts and all the modern gadgets of our materialistic culture.
There is this point, too: riches do not choke a person all at once. It is a gradual process. Like the weeds in Christ's parable, riches grow up gradually. Slowly, very slowly, they strangle the buddings of spiritual life within. Beware of that if you either have possessions or are on your merry way to acquiring them. Above all, beware if you are saying, "I need to provide for myself now. I'll think about spiritual things when I'm older." Jesus warned against that in another story about a man whose fields produced such a good crop that he tore down his barns and built bigger ones, saying to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." Jesus' words were, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" (Luke 12:16-21).
The last type of soil is the one to which the entire parable has been heading. It is the open heart, the heart that receives the gospel like good soil receives seed. This soil produces a good crop, "yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (v. 23). Here many minor points might be made. We could show that only a portion (in the parable, one-fourth) of the preaching of the gospel bears fruit—in Christ's or any other age. We could show that the only sure evidence of a genuine reception of the Word of God in a person's life is the bringing forth of spiritual fruit. We could show that the presence of fruit is the important thing, not the amount (at least in most cases). But those points are less important than the main one: it is only the open heart that receives the benefit of the preaching of the gospel and is saved.
Is your heart an open heart? Are you receptive to God's truth? Do you allow it to settle down into your life and thinking so that it turns you from sin, directs your faith to Jesus, and produces the Holy Spirit's fruit? You may say, "I'm afraid not. I wish my heart was like that, but I'm afraid it is hard or shallow or strangled by this world's goods. What can I do?"
The answer is that you can do nothing, any more than soil can change its nature. But although you can do nothing, there is one who can—the divine Gardener. He can break up the hard ground, uproot the rocks, and remove the thorns. That is your hope —not you, but the Gardener. Notice what He says through the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote to the hard-hearted of his day. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws" (Ezek. 36:25-27).
I think of that rich young man who turned away from Jesus sorrowfully. After Jesus had remarked how difficult it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples asked, "Who then can be saved?" They recognized the dimensions of the problem.
Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (Luke 18:2627). In other words, "With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). And so they are! They are possible for you. Come to Christ and allow Him to give you a heart that will receive the gospel.