Seed Sowing and Soils

Seed Sowing and Soils

It took us a while, but Ron and I finally got around to planting our vegetable garden a few weeks ago. We got lucky. Since we buy young vegetable plants rather than growing our veggies from seeds we’ve planted ourselves, by the time we got around to doing so, the selection had significantly dwindled from past years. One of the reasons I go with young plants instead of seeds is because this is what my father, who grew up on a farm, always did so I’ve always assumed small plants would yield a better crop. Well, as all of us who are summer vegetable garden stewards look forward to fresh vegetables, this morning’s passage provides a sobering account of seeds and soil we would all be wise to heed. In it Jesus, as was his wont, uses an image or story from everyday life as a springboard to present a deeper spiritual truth—which is essentially the definition of a parable.

This account begins with Jesus sitting by a lake (v. 1). While there, as often happened, “large crowds”— probably in the hundreds—“gathered” (v. 2). These crowds may have been present due in part to his teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. But their presence may also have been due to news of the many miracles he had done having spread. Who wouldn’t want to witness a miracle? Regardless, we know that Jesus’ message was one that he lived out for he was the promised Messiah, the Christ promised by the Old Testament prophets. That he was indeed Messiah was evidenced by both his words and deeds. And at the end of verse 2 into the beginning of verse 3 we’re told that Jesus “got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore.Then he told them many things in parables.” Parables were one of Jesus’ favorite means for teaching and this is the first one Matthew records in his Gospel.

This particular parable is a well-known one commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Sower” [1] and the sower here, or the one planting the seeds, is a farmer. This farmer is sowing seeds liberally in the hopes of a healthy crop. Specifically, “[a]s he was scattering the seed” (v. 4) we’re told about four different outcomes that vary according to the type of soil the seed landed upon:

1) “[S]ome fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up” (v. 4).

2) “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” (vv. 5–6).

3) “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants” (v. 7).

4) And last, but not least, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (v. 8).

Jesus ends this parable with what must have been a confusing statement in verse 9: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” I say confusing because the parable’s meaning must have seemed self-evident. To those listening—and even to those of us who aren’t farmers—it would have been obvious that good soil produces good crops; bad soil doesn’t. Therefore, be careful where you sow!

But as we know, the point in Jesus’ parable isn’t the natural meaning but the spiritual meaning to which the natural points. Now in verse 10, we’re told that Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”[2] And the answer Jesus provides starts in verse 11: “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables.” If we’re open to learning from and about God, he will reward that openness and teach us more about himself; if we’re closed to his teaching, even what little understanding we have of God will decrease in time. And then by way of further explanation, starting in verse 14 Jesus tells how parables fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah, addressing the nation of Israel, foretold, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”[3] Hardness of heart and being closed to God’s message and word isn’t a new phenomenon. Since the time of the Fall, people have preferred doing things their way rather than God’s way. Their hearing isn’t affected, but their understanding is; their seeing isn’t affected, but their perceiving is. This habitual discounting of God’s Word and ways gives rise to a hardness of heart with the result that they have become calloused in both their understanding and perception. As Isaiah puts it, “they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (v. 15a). Again, if only they did “see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn,” then the Lord—then Jesus—“would heal them” (v. 15b). Even in the midst of their hardness, God’s healing of their hardened hearts and closed ears and eyes, is extended.

In these verses we’re dealing with the mystery and tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility for Scripture clearly teaches that except for God’s enabling by his Holy Spirit; except for God opening our eyes and ears; except for God’s provision of his grace, the underserved merit he bestows that enables us to see Christ Jesus for who he is—God in the flesh who has come to take on our sins and give us his righteousness that we might be reconciled to our heavenly Father—we would be those who are calloused and hard-hearted. Though we may not be able to wrap our minds around the mystery of salvation we do know that all who come to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ are able to receive what Jesus offers in verses 16–17: “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Those living from the time of Messiah’s coming, from the time of Jesus the Christ’s coming, are especially blessed because they live not in the time of promise but in the time of fulfillment. The prophets and righteous in Old Testament times longed to see the day of his coming; Jesus’ disciples and all of us now living in the Church age, are living out the Kingdom of God that King Jesus inaugurated. We know who Messiah is—he is Jesus the Christ who lived, suffered, died, and rose for us and our salvation that we might know and love and be loved by him now and forevermore.

So the parables Jesus told not only fulfilled what Isaiah had prophesied, but as throughout the Old Testament those who heeded God’s words were blessed and those who obeyed God’s words were cursed, those who understand and obey Jesus’ parables are blessed and those who do not are cursed. In this sense, parables function in a manner similar to prophecy and God’s commands in general: Heeding prophecy and obeying God’s commands will lead to blessing in the sense that such obedience will draw us closer to God, enabling us to better know, love, and be loved by him; conversely, disregarding prophecy and disobeying God’s commands will lead to cursing in that we will be cut off from knowing, loving, and being loved by God, receiving his judgment and wrath rather than his mercy, compassion, and grace. We deny God—we deny Jesus Christ—at our own peril for we were created by him and for him that we might love and follow him for our ultimate good.

Starting in verse 18, Jesus returns to the parable of the sower. And he does something that he rarely did when he spoke in parables: He provides us with an interpretation of it: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means.” So he returns to the four different outcomes for the seed that has fallen in various types of soil:

1) As to the seed that “fell along the path” which “the birds came and ate it up” (v. 4), Jesus explains in verse 19: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.” I think of seed “falling along the path” as akin to hit-and-run evangelism in which we hand out tracts or share our faith with or ask strangers about their faith—strangers who, in all likelihood, we will never see again. And it’s not that God can’t or won’t use such impersonal contacts; it’s just that such impersonal contacts don’t allow for follow-up or relationship building. By virtue of their impersonal nature, seeds sown in such a path are more susceptible to Satan snatching them away and hindering them from taking root. Especially in this day of impersonal communication—twitter or snapchat or instagram or the media that seems to enter our lives at any and all times of the day via radio, TV, and smartphones—it’s difficult to imagine hit-and-run evangelism as being terribly effective since we’re already saturated with news overload. Seed can’t grow unless it’s nurtured; God’s Word can’t take root unless there’s teaching and discipleship involved. I heard years ago that a change Billy Graham made at some point in his evangelistic ministry was that in addition to having altar calls as part of his message, his association would additionally contact local churches in the cities where the rallies were being held so that those who did come forward would have an immediate church home where they could grow in their understanding and practice of their newfound faith in Christ. This kind of loving follow-up provides some safeguards from the Enemy’s snatching away this seed that has fallen along the path.

2) Next, as to the seed that “5 fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil” and thereby “sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow” whose 6 “plants were scorched” “when the sun came up…and they withered because they had no root” (vv. 6–7), Jesus states in verses 20–21: “20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” Have you ever had someone say something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t try telling me about Christianity. I’ve tried it and it didn’t work for me!” Well for starters I’m not sure what Christianity “working” for someone actually looks like since the heart of Christianity isn’t a concept but a Person; It’s knowing Jesus Christ—talking with, praying to, turning to him; intentionally getting to know him, sharing our lives with him, in matters big and small; expressing our love for and gratitude to him. In other words, since God in Christ is a Person, Christianity is about getting to know and love him and getting to know and love others who know and love him, our brothers and sisters in our heavenly Father’s family.

But rocky soil conversions are conversions in name only. They have the feel of a fad—something you try because so many people are excited about it but that ultimately has no staying power. They are surface or superficial conversions because they haven’t counted the cost of following Christ and therefore they quickly conclude that Christianity doesn’t “work” for them. They haven’t understood that God is a jealous God, demanding our all, allowing for no other contenders for our highest and greatest commitment and love. They haven’t understood that God isn’t there to do our every beck and call, but calls us to follow him and promises to be with us wherever he calls. This is why when we share Christ with others, it’s important that we not make it sound as though once someone comes to faith, life becomes easy. If this were the case, we would have no need for the prayer requests I regularly elicit from you. Notice again Jesus’ words here in verses 20 and 21. Though this individual receives the word immediately and even with joy, “when”—not if—“trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” In other words, as followers of Jesus we should expect trouble or persecution. If he wasn’t spared suffering, neither will we. The key difference that knowing Christ makes in our lives is that when trouble or persecution come, we can be confident, we can rest assured that he will be with us and in us by the Spirit he’s sent to and sealed us with. Therefore when trouble or persecution comes, we will not be alone for he will never leave us or forsake us,[4] not in this life; not in the next.

3) Next, as to the seed that “fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants” (v. 7), Jesus explains in verse 22: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” This situation differs slightly from the previous one. In this case it isn’t so much trouble or persecution that cause the falling away, but worries and misplaced priorities. Because the God who made us in his image and desires to redeem us by his love cares for us so much, he wants us to depend upon him in matters big and small rather than to waste our time worrying. As we saw last week, God desires those who are weary and burdened to come to him that he might give us his rest; to take his yoke and learn from him, from Jesus who is gentle and humble in heart, that we might find rest for our souls for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.[5] As we’ve also seen, Jesus reminds us that not even a sparrow falls apart from our heavenly Father’s care—and we are worth far more than sparrows. For even the hairs on our head are numbered.[6] Earlier in Matthew, in his sermon on the mount, Jesus similarly exhorts those listening not to worry about life—what they’ll eat or drink or wear and there, too, he references the birds of the air whom our heavenly Father feeds.[7] He mentions as well the splendor of the flowers of the field and again reminds those who are listening how our heavenly Father knows we need clothes and food and drink so we should seek first his kingdom and righteousness and all these will be given to us.[8] Our challenge in life is keeping our priorities straight—if we place God first, everything else will fall into place. If we place anything but God first, we’ll be unable to live the lives God intended in the first place. Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “I think earth, if chosen instead of heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in hell: and earth, if put second to heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of heaven itself.”[9]

The principle that Jesus is touching on here is that we cannot serve God and mammon, i.e, God and money. If we do, as Jesus explains, “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”[10] Though it may sound odd, one of my favorite parts of our weekly worship is when we offer up our tithes and offerings to God. It’s such a wonderful reminder that we—all of us, in the entirety of our being—belong to him and that even the things we consider to be “ours,” including our money, are really on loan from him. For we are stewards of our lives—of our bodies, our loved ones, our material goods—and as such we are entrusted by God to do what we can to bring about his will on earth as it is in heaven; to do what we can to allow our earthly lives reflect heavenly values and priorities. Holding this perspective is what will keep the thorns of life, the worries of this life, the desire for wealth, from choking God’s Word and keeping it from being fruitful.

4) Well, last but not least, we come to the seed that “fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (v. 8). About this Jesus explains in verse 23 “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

The “good” seed is those who respond in faith to Christ and his Word and do their best to live lives that are pleasing to him.

The “good” seed is those who seek to live their lives in dependence upon him as they seek to be stewards of the people and goods he has placed in their lives.

“Good” seed seeks to live life in a manner that reflects who God is—with compassion, mercy, and justice. “Good” seed seeks to exhibit the fruit of Christ’s Spirit by the enabling of that very Spirit within and among us. To exhibit his love, his joy, his peace, his forbearance (or patience), his kindness, his goodness, his faithfulness, his gentleness and his self-control.[11]

“Good” seed seeks to do God’s will on earth as it’s done in heaven, trying to make things as they ought to be, as God intended them to be.

“Good” seed seeks to share the good news of God’s Kingdom having arrived in Christ Jesus, our King, that others might be added to the family of our heavenly Father.

At its heart, this parable of the sower has been misnamed for it isn’t really about the sower nor is it about types of seed. At its heart this parable is about various types of soils. Though the sower here may be Christ, anyone who shares about the Kingdom of God is, in effect, a sower. And in each case the seed is the Good News of the Kingdom of God having arrived in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. This seed, the Person of Jesus Christ, is what is being accepted or rejected by the various types of soil that are singled out by Jesus.

Poor soil is distinguished by lack of depth and understanding:

It can be hard, like a path, making it easy for the Enemy to whisk it away before it’s able to take root.

It can be shallow, like rocky ground, allowing God’s Word to sprout quickly but not lastingly. Instead it falls away at the first hint of trouble or persecution.

It can be diverted by thorns—by worries in life, by a desire for wealth that choke it and keep it from bearing fruit.

Good soil, on the other hand, is receptive to the seed—is receptive to Jesus Christ. It’s receptive to believing and receiving the truth of who God in Christ is. And this very receptivity, this willingness to depend upon God, is what allows it to take root and produce a crop. As Paul states in his first epistle to the Corinthian church, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but”—in case you missed it the first time—“only God, who makes things grow.[12] 

Brothers and sisters, as we ponder this parable, let us pray for ears to hear—for hearts that our soft—for minds that are willing—for emotions that turn and cry out to the One who has loved and will love us for all eternity; let us pray for the desire and the will to make and keep Christ central in our lives that we might know him more intimately and deeply; let us pray that his Kingdom come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven in our lives individually and amongst our family here at Linebrook; and let us pray that he will help and teach us to sow seed liberally that others might experience the fullness of knowing and loving and being loved by him.

So let us now pray.

[1] Parallels may be found in Mark 4:1–20 and Luke 8:1–15.

[2] In the parallel in Luke 8:9 “His disciples asked him what this parable meant.”

[3] Isaiah 6:9, 10.

[4] Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5–6: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”[Deut. 31:6] 6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”[Psalm 118:6,7]

[5] Matthew 11:28–30: 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

[6] Matthew 10:29–31: 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[Or will; or knowledge] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

[7] Matthew 6:25–27: 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

[8] Matthew 6:28–34: 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

[9] The Great Divorce Introduction, p 8.

[10] Matthew 6:24: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Luke 16:13: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

[11] Galatians 5:22–23: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.

[12] I Corinthians 3:5–7.

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