Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels (see Mark 4:3-8, 13-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15). The traditional name of the parable is not accurate. The parable is more about the soil that the seed. The seeds are not bad, but some of the soil has not been prepared to receive the seed.
Why does Jesus teach this series of parables? These parables are explaining why the kingdom has not come / is not coming in the manner which some of the crowd was expecting. If they were looking for a messiah who would be a new David and establish a real military kingdom in Rome, they will be disappointed in Jesus who intends to inaugurate the kingdom by sacrificing his life on the cross.
Jesus Teaches the Great Crowd in Parables
The Parable of the Sower follows the Pharisee’s rejection of Jesus (12:22-37) and their demand for a sign (12:29-45). Even though they have condemned him as having his authority through the “prince of Demons,” he still commands the attention of a large crowd. The crowd was so large that in order to separate himself to teach he had to go out in a small boat. Some see the boat as security against anyone who might wish to silence him.
In the Parable of the Sower Jesus gives three examples of soil which has not been prepared to receive seed and does not bear fruit: in a pathway (v. 4), on rocky ground (v. 6-5) and among the thorns (v. 7). The see which falls on prepared soil produces a good crop (v. 8).
Jesus ends the parable with “he who has ears, let him hear” (13:9). This phrase is to invite the listener to think about what he has said and understand the meaning. The phrase appears in the gospel of Matthew three times all within the context of this passage. The phrase means, “if you have enough spiritual insight to figure this out, do so and react appropriately.” It usually has the implication that the listeners will not understand it!
That the crowd did not understand this parable is clear from the question from the disciples in verse 10. They seem to be perplexed, wondering the reason Jesus has chosen to speak in parables to the crowd rather than the more direct teaching that he did at the Sermon on the Mount.
The Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower
After explaining to his disciples why he is teaching in parables, Jesus interprets the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23). If seed is the “message of the kingdom,” the then sower is Jesus. The act of sowing the seed is his preaching of the message of the kingdom in Matthew 4:12-12:50.
Some of those who heard the message of the kingdom were not prepared to fully accept Jesus’s teachings (they do not “do the will of the Father,” Matthew 12:50).
The seed that fell on the pathway (v. 4) is like the one who “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” (v. 19)
The seed that fell on the rocky ground (v. 6-5) is like “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” (v. 20-21). This seed found soil, but not enough to survive, it was shallow dirt. Literally this is “no depth”, probably meaning there was a thin layer of soil over rocky ground, cf. Sirach 40:15, “The children of the ungodly put out few branches; they are unhealthy roots on sheer rock.”
The seed that fell among the thorns (v. 7) is like “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” (v. 22). This seed also found some soil to grow, but the land was not properly prepared for the seed, and it was choked out by weeds.
The Prepared Soil
But some who heard Jesus’s message of the kingdom accepted it, they had “ears to hear” and will bear fruit (13:23). In contrast to the other three types of soil, this is good soil and the seed grows immensely. The seed planted in the right soil that has been properly prepared will grow and produce fruit. The typical yield for seed at the time was six times, ten was considered a very good return. This is a good example of hyperbole used to grab attention. The listeners would be amazed that any farmer got even thirty times return on their seed.
This is parable explains Jesus’s ministry up to this point in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is describing exactly what he expects from his disciples:
- Commitment to Jesus
- Grounded in the Word
- Strong under persecution
- No mixed loyalties with the world
- Production of fruit
In its original context, the Parable of the Sower refers to those who have rejected or accepted Jesus’s message about the nearness of the Kingdom of God. But like most parables, the four soils in the parable can be easily applied to spiritual condition of the modern church.