The Sower and the Seed
By Peter Amsterdam
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In the parable of the sower and the seed,1 Jesus told of four types of soil on which the seed was sown: the path from which the seed was eaten by the birds; the shallow ground with bedrock close beneath; the soil which contained thorns; and the good fruitful soil.
He began His interpretation with:
Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.2
In Matthew, the seed is called the word of the kingdom; in Mark, it’s the word; and in Luke, it’s the word of God. The application of the parable is relating the seeds planted in four different soils to four types of reactions people have to hearing the message of God’s Word.
When seed fell on the hardened path bordering the field, it lay on top of the ground where it was easy for the birds to come and eat it. In Jewish literature in Jesus’ day, birds sometimes symbolized the devil. Some people are like hardened earth. The seed never has the chance to germinate in such hardened ground, because the person is unreceptive to the message. Such people may politely hear with their ears, but they don’t truly listen. The seed is then snatched away by the evil one.
Jesus then gave the interpretation of the second type of unfruitful soil.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.3
Unlike the seed along the path, in this type of soil the seed can germinate. There isn’t much soil, though, because the bedrock below it is close to the surface. Because of this, soil heats up early in the season and the plant sprouts quickly, but due to lack of water and shallow roots it soon is scorched, shrivels, and dies. This soil produces short-lived plants.
Within the context of the Gospels, this type of soil is representative of those who heard Jesus’ message, saw some of His miracles, and initially listened eagerly to His teaching. They had joy in the message, but their enthusiasm was not based on personal conviction but on external stimulus and emotions; and when the external was absent, the emotions cooled and enthusiasm dissipated.4 When difficulties, hardships, or persecution for the faith arrived, their initial enthusiasm faded and belief vanished. “Rocky soil” individuals have superficial faith; their roots don’t go deep. Times of trial mean the end of their faith. Though these sprout early and have some growth, they wither before bearing fruit.
Next, Jesus talked about the seeds sown among the thorns.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.5
This soil seems to be quite fertile, as the seed germinates and grows, as do the thorns which grow in the same soil. It’s clear that in this case there is a positive response to the Word, but it doesn’t bear fruit because other things crowd it out and stymie its ability to bring full growth and fruition.
The Greek word used for “cares” in cares of the world can also be translated as anxiety or worry, and some translations render it as the worry of the world. Such worry is common to everyone; it’s one of the conditions of living, as we don’t ever know what a day will bring. We can always think of things which threaten to do us harm in some way, and there are always things we would like to have but don’t.6
Jesus then explained the meaning of the seeds sown in good soil:
As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.7
The good soil produces those who hear and understand the Word; the ones who hear the word and accept it,8 and hold it fast in an honest and good heart.9 Those who hear and understand not only comprehend what the Word says, but also accept, believe, assimilate, and commit to it. It is these people who bear fruit.
Fruitful Christians are those who hear and understand God’s Word, and as a result, it bears fruit in their lives and the lives of others. Simply put, true Christians bear fruit.
For some people, God’s Word goes in one ear and out the other, and never takes root. Others receive the message with enthusiasm, are excited for a time, but when difficulties or troubles arise, these tests show the shallowness of their commitment. Some embrace the gospel, but gradually other interests choke it out of first place.10 The common result of these three is that they bear no fruit.
These non-fruit-bearing types, along with those that bear fruit, originally described those who came to hear Jesus speak and teach. There were great crowds, sometimes numbering in the thousands, who listened to Him—sometimes staying with Him for days at a time.11 But not all received and believed the word He gave, and not all who did hear and believe continued on. Some fell away. Nevertheless, Jesus continued to preach and teach—even when some of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.12
He was faithful to preach the message regardless of the results, which set the example for us to follow in our witnessing, teaching, and discipling of others. Not all we witness to will believe, and not all of those who believe will continue to grow or even continue on in the faith. Some will wither away, and some will become distracted by the cares of this world. Our job is to do what we can to share the gospel with others, to spiritually feed and nurture them, to challenge them to grow. But the result in their lives depends on their decisions and their commitment to spiritual growth.
When reflecting on this parable and adapting its message to ourselves and our faith life, there may be times when we mirror one of the three unfruitful soils. Perhaps there are times when we find ourselves like the hardened pathway, having lost interest in God’s Word and not being receptive to Him. In times like these, God may be trying to speak to us, but due to our unresponsive state of mind, His words don’t penetrate our hearts and are ineffective.
Perhaps the joy we had early in our Christian life has faded, and our faith and commitment are withering, like the seed in the rocky soil. Or perhaps the cares of life, the burdens, troubles, physical ailments, and other causes of worry have distracted us. Perhaps the pursuit of finances—either due to our desperate need or because we are so focused on gaining more—is choking out our faith and fruitfulness, like the thorns.
As disciples who focus on living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, we need to have self-awareness as to the condition of the soil of our heart. It is up to each of us to hold fast to God’s Word and bear fruit with patience; to remain good, receptive, and fertile ground so that we can bear fruit for the Lord according to our gifts and calling. As Jesus said: By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.13
Originally published March 2016. Excerpted and republished April 2019.
Read by Jason Lawrence.
1 Matthew 13:3–23.
2 Matthew 13:18–19.
3 Matthew 13:20–21.
4 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 520.
5 Matthew 13:22.
6 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 347.
7 Matthew 13:23.
8 Mark 4:20.
9 Luke 8:15.
10 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 384.
11 Matthew 15:32.
12 John 6:66.
13 John 15:8.