Jesus is generally considered a master storyteller, popular for the many parables that he told which were renowned for their simplicity. Yes, these parables contain tremendous depth of meaning, much of which is concealed, and according to Jesus, deliberately so. When the apostles asked him why he spoke to the people in parables, he answered: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, he said that the meaning was also concealed from the prophets and righteous. Why would Jesus do that? Didn’t he want everybody to understand the things that he said? As we look at THE PARABLES OF JESUS in this brand new series, we should get a better understanding of the Kingdom of God and the treasures it contains. We begin with the Parable of the Sower, because Jesus says it is fundamental to our understanding of the other parables.
When Jesus was preaching on the beach one day, such large crowds gathered that he got into a boat and used that as his pulpit. He then told them a parable about a farmer who sowed seed, some of which fell on the path where birds ate it, some of which fell on rocky ground where they sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow but died just as quickly because they had no root, and some of which fell among thorns which grew up to choke them. Some seed, however, fell on good soil and brought forth grain that led to a wonderful harvest.
Later, when Jesus was alone with his apostles, he explained this parable to them because they didn’t understand it any more than the others who heard him. Although parables were generally simple stories used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, his seemed more like riddles.
Jesus told them that the seed was the word of God. The hard path represented people with hard hearts who didn’t understand the word, leaving it easy for the enemy to snatch away. The rocky soil represented those who received the word of God eagerly, but the moment trouble or persecution struck, gave up their faith. The thorny ground represented those who heard the word and received it eagerly, but were too enamored by the world to benefit from it. And the good soil stood for those who heard, believed, understood, accepted and obeyed; these would go on to bear fruit in abundance.
“So why didn’t you say this like it is,” the apostles wanted to know. “Why do you speak to us in parables?” If they expected a simple answer, they were to be disappointed.
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”
Jesus was, of course, quoting the prophet Isaiah, another great man of depth.
So why did Jesus speak in parables? There were several reasons. One was because he didn’t always find a receptive audience. Despite the great miracles that he worked, people didn’t come to repentance as in the case of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (see Matthew 11: 20-24).
Another reason was because his enemies constantly tried to trick him so that they could bring charges against him. One day when he entered the synagogue he found a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees asked him if it was lawful to cure on the sabbath. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:11-13). The Pharisees were furious and looked for ways to destroy him. When he spoke in parables, they couldn’t really figure out what he was saying. But neither could the others, except those who really were interested in the kingdom of heaven.
Which brings us to the third reason. Jesus once said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Most people couldn’t really be bothered with the kingdom of heaven. We figure we have one life here on earth; we might as well live it to the fullest, preferring to ignore the fact (if we consider it at all) that there is another life beyond this, and that lasts for eternity. We have to seek that life and only those interested can find it. If we do we have Jesus’ assurance: “Seek and you will find!” (Matthew 7:7; emphasis added), he says. Understanding our preoccupation with worldly necessities, he says on another occasion, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). But we need to seek. Only then can we find.
Fundamental to Understanding
This particular parable is fundamental to our understanding of other parables. In Mark 4, where we find another narration of the same parable, Jesus asks, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13).
The parable also gives us an understanding of ourselves and how we receive the word of God into our lives. We are one of the four types of people described in this story and it is imperative that we realize which type we are if we are to change.
Jesus is the sower, as he explains in another parable—the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares—but every preacher is a sower too, and as one such person, I see these types of people every time I preach. These personal glimpses might prove illuminating. Let’s take them in turn.
Jesus says these people are those who hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand it.
We need to first realize that many of these people, like the Pharisees, are believers, not atheists or followers of a different god, although Paul does speak of them and their condition in his letter to the Corinthians. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The god of this world is, of course, Satan, and while he contributes to the blindness, it is precipitated by our own hardness of heart.
Satan does the same thing with believers, whose hearts have become hardened by years, if not decades of legalistic practices doing things because they are taught to do them, without having a sense of the reasoning behind what they are taught. Jesus scolded the Pharisees for this attitude. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42).
I used to wonder about these people, because they come for mass services, retreats and prayer meetings and listen to the word, but do not seem to understand a thing that is said. It isn’t stupidity that prevents them from understanding, however, because they are definitely not stupid; on the contrary many are very intelligent. And they seem to be attentive, but the coldness in their eyes mirrors the hardness of their hearts, and you know that nothing you say is penetrating. They have evaluated you, sometimes even before the first word is spoken, and discarded everything you say as irrelevant or, worse, erroneous because it doesn’t fit in with their belief systems or the things they have been taught. One suspects the only reason they are listening to you is to gather ammunition they can use against you in case you trip up and say something wrong.
Jesus faced the same problem with the religious leaders of his time. What he said was so radical, they couldn’t even begin to accept his teachings, although they had judged him much before they heard a single thing he said. This judgment was delivered at the very start of his ministry soon after he had asked Levi, the tax collector, to follow him. Levi invited him for dinner along with several of his friends and when the scribes and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with people they deemed a disreputable lot, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (see Mark 2:13-17). They had already decided that a man was known by the company he kept and the company Jesus kept said a lot about who he was.
This is why, when Jesus was explaining the Parable of the Sower to his apostles, he said that many prophets and righteous people longed to see what they saw and longed to hear what they heard, but neither saw not heard, because they didn’t listen and didn’t perceive. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:14-15).
The Stony Places
The second type of person that Jesus talks about are those who hear the word and immediately receive it with joy.
These people are a preacher’s delight. Well, at least at first. They hear the word of God and the joy in their faces is so transparent, it makes the entire job of proclaiming the word of God seem so incredibly satisfying. Unfortunately this doesn’t last long, because theirs is only an emotional response to something that makes them feel good at that particular moment. They don’t have a solid foundation. Like a plant without roots that are deep, these people wither away at the slightest sign of persecution. Jesus said: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:26-27).
Sometimes the sowers (preachers) are to blame. More eager to ratchet up numbers than actually bring people to a deep conversion experience, they promise listeners a happy life with Jesus taking care of all their needs and resolving all their problems, instead of preaching the basic gospel message, which is that Jesus is there to bring us to salvation. This is primary. When people discover that their problems have not disappeared and all their needs are not being met, they toss Jesus aside believing they have been fed a lie.
Evangelist Ray Comfort illustrates this wonderfully when he tells us to imagine telling a plane traveler that strapping a parachute on his back will make the flight comfortable and pleasant. He gets on the plane and finds the flight anything but comfortable. He cannot sit properly for one and the parachute starts to weigh him down for another. Soon he will be even more discomfited by the sniggers of the other passengers and in disgust will take the parachute off and toss it aside.
Imagine, however, that the passenger is told that at some point in the flight he will have to jump out of the aircraft. Any discomfort now becomes irrelevant and the others can laugh as much as they like, he knows that the parachute is going to save his life and he is not going to take it off his shoulders for anything in the world.
This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t bring us peace and doesn’t take care of our needs; he does, but that is not the main reason to believe in him. The primary reason is that he takes us to heaven. And that precedes everything else. As he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (the things we need) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
Among the Thorns
The third type of person that Jesus talks about are those who hear the word but the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the pleasures of life (added in Luke’s gospel) choke it so it yields nothing.
All of us are familiar with the three “thorns” that Jesus speaks about here. Who hasn’t, at some point or the other, been preoccupied with the constant pressures of ordinary life—providing for our needs and the needs of our family, gainful employment, social duties and responsibilities, and the like? These can be very distracting, causing us to ignore God and Christian growth.
Every time I finish preaching a retreat, I invite people to join a year long program where they are taught the faith with three express purposes: to learn it, to live it, and—most importantly—to share it. This program requires a mere three hours a week, and although the response is wonderful, many of those who don’t join say the reason is because they have other commitments: house cleaning, taking their children to sports practice, their TV time, and similar excuses. I do not deprecate the importance of these activities, but I do question the priorities. God and spiritual growth is usually at the bottom of the list.
Who hasn’t, also, been seduced by the lure of riches? The desire to buy the things the world keeps trying to sell us, while upgrading our lives constantly to outdo our neighbors and secure our future is something that has motivated everybody since the beginning of time. Yet, isn’t this so fleeting? We place our security in our finances instead of our God, unmindful of the fact that this might not last. Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer who once had a huge crop (see Luke 12:13-21). Instead of being happy, he began to worry about where he was going to store it all, until he thought about it and decided he would tear down his old barns, build new ones where he could put everything and then eat, drink and make merry for the rest of his life. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:20). Jesus then made his point: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
Furthermore, in our pursuit of wealth, we have often been dishonest, manipulative and oppressive. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, writes: “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
As for the pleasures of life, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling and other vices have beckoned most of us at some time or the other with their promise of instant gratification. But as anyone who has ever succumbed to the lure of these things can testify, the gratification is short lived and never quite delivers on its promise, binding many in a trap from which there seems to be no escape. Paul cautions: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8).
Earlier in this letter Paul speaks about how the Spirit and the flesh constantly wage war against each other. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:17-21).
The warning doesn’t seem to perturb those inclined toward such things which is another reason they choose not to listen. Why change?
The Good Ground
And finally we come to the good soil, the people who hear the word and understand it, and fortunately there are a lot of them.
These are people who do not blindly accept anything said to them, but like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see if what was told to them was true. These are people who hunger for the word, listen to it, gain understanding, and then do what it says. And, consequently, these are people who bear fruit in great abundance.
What kind of fruit will they bear? The fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
This leads to becoming true disciples, which, in turn, helps us to win souls to Christ, fulfilling the great commission that Jesus has given all of us who claim to believe in him. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).
Application for Listeners to the Word
It is one thing to understand the meaning of the parable; quite another to apply it in our lives, and the best way to begin is by asking the question: What kind of soil am I?
If I am like the soil by the wayside, and I have heard the gospel message and understand what it means and am not yet a Christian, the longer I wait the harder my heart is going to become.
If I am a Christian but am so rigid in my practices that my heart is closed to the things that God is saying to me, I should start to open my heart to him. And then, as James says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25).
If I am like the soil sown in stony places, and have responded to the gospel with enthusiasm but then fallen away, I should take another look at Jesus and the real reason I need to believe in him. It isn’t to give me days of unbroken sunshine, but to give me an eternity with him in heaven, and just this knowledge is enough to result in lifelong rejoicing.
If I am like the soil among the thorns that bear no fruit, I should remember to heed what Jesus said about branches that bear no fruit. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). But then I can take hope from what he says next: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:7-8).
If I have responded like the good soil, then I can be assured of several things. That I have a good and noble heart, that I have come to understand the word, that I have been keeping it with fortitude, and that I am bearing the fruit of the Spirit that God says I should.
Application for Sowers of the Word
If a successful harvest depended only on the existing conditions of the soil, then the sower can do precious little except toss seeds and hope they land in the right places. However, as any good gardener can tell us, we can make the soil more fertile, by taking the rocks and thorns out of the soil, plowing long and deep so any hard clumps of soil are broken, adding good soil, and enriching it with the proper nutrients and fertilizer. Once planted, we just need to make sure the seeds germinate and then are well tended, receiving the requisite amount of water and sunlight.
All this takes time and effort, but it is tragic how few preachers of the word spend time on preparation, many just going through the motions because it is something they have to do once a week, not understanding the huge responsibility that lies on their shoulders. This is kingdom growing, and has to be taken seriously because we will be called to account for it. The preparation has to involve time spent with God, because we need his wisdom and revelation to be able to understand the things he wishes to tell us. The prophet Isaiah said:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Understanding the thoughts of God are in a way like ants trying to understand our thoughts. Yet, it is possible through the Spirit of wisdom and understanding the prophet speaks about (see Isaiah 11:2). Paul prayed that we would receive them, because he knew that without them, we would be “listening without understanding and looking without perceiving”. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (Ephesians 1:17).
This, however, requires humility. Years of theological study can give us a lot of knowledge about God, but actually knowing God comes from time spent with him, seeking his truths like a little child. This is why Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25).
We can learn from others as well, even those who may not have had the education and experience that we have had. This comes from a willingness to listen to others. A wise man was once asked why he usually remained quiet in conversations when he had so much to share. His reply was edifying. “I know what I know,” he said. “But others might know things I don’t know. How can I learn if I don’t listen?”
Good gardeners invest time and money in purchasing new equipment and acquiring new skills, yet those engaged in the far more important work of growing God’s kingdom invest little, if anything. Public speaking classes, vocal training exercises, the judicious use of illustrations and anecdotes, and even some drama, all help to make the soil ready for planting. We might have prepared the world’s best sermon, but of what possible benefit if everybody in the congregation is fast asleep? Seminaries put students through years of studying, but it is the rare seminary that invests in teaching them to effectively share the prodigious knowledge that they receive.
There is the story told of three boys talking about their fathers. One of them said, “My father is a great professor. When he talks, only ten people in the world can understand him!” Not to be outdone, the second boy said, “My father is great brain surgeon and when he talks about his work only five people in the whole world can understand what he is saying.” The third boy said, “My father is a preacher. When he preaches nobody can understand what he is saying.”
If people can’t understand what we say, let it be because of their inability to listen, not our own inability to speak clearly. May the Lord bless us all. ν