The Sower and the Seed: The Path
7/19/2016 4:19:33 PM
July 17, 2016
Scripture: Luke 8:4-15
The sower and the seed- one of the most familiar parables in the Bible. Also, one of the few parables in all 3 of Matthew, Mark and Luke! Although called the parable of the sower and the seed, in many ways it should be called the parable of the soils because it seems that the different kinds of soils are the focus of the parable.
Wait, what is a parable you ask? Ah, yes. A parable is a story taken from everyday life used to illustrate a spiritual principle. Jesus used parables extensively, but there are other examples of parables in Scripture. In the OT, when the prophet Nathan had to confront King David with his adultery and murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, Nathan used a parable. [2 Sam 12] David was able to identify with the principle hidden within the parable and in declaring judgement on the parable declared judgement upon himself.
For the next couple weeks, we are going to take a close look at this parable of the Sower and the Seed. We are going to examine the four different kinds of soil in the parable and tease out the importance of what Jesus is saying. Now, for us to understand the parable, we need to do some cross-cultural research. The parable was taken from everyday life in 1st Century Palestine, not everyday life in 21st Century Canada!
The first thing I want to point out before we read the parable in Luke is that in that time, in that region, farmers didn’t plough the land first and then plant seeds in neat little rows. Rather, they tossed the seeds out onto the soil in a manner somewhat like how we scatter salt on our icy driveways in the winter time. Once they had scattered the seed, they then went over the ground with a plough to plough the seeds under the soil.
Much of the land in ancient Israel was a thin layer of soil over top of hard rock. This was even true of many farmers’ fields. This was commonly understood to all of Jesus’ listeners.
Bearing these things in mind, let’s turn to our passage for today, Luke 8:4-15.
What It Says
What is happening in this text? We have Jesus teaching this parable, then there is a short interlude and then he explains it to his disciples. Large crowds are gathering to hear Jesus teach, but it is only to his inner circle, his disciples, that the explanation is given.
The parable itself is composed of 4 basic points. The farmer goes out to sow his seed and the seed falls on four different kinds of soil. The first is the hardened path. The seed on the path is trampled by people walking along the path and eaten by the birds flying overhead. These seeds don’t even have a chance to sprout.
The second soil is the shallow soil that I mentioned before. There is a thin layer of dirt over top of rock. Here the seeds sprout up quickly, but they can’t dig down roots. Because they have shallow roots, or no roots, when the sun dries up what little moisture is in the shallow layer of dirt, the plants wither and die.
The third soil is deeper and has nutrients, but also has weeds. In those days there were no herbicides to kill weeds, so the weeds grew up along with the seeds. The weeds then strangle the growing seeds and choke them out.
The fourth soil is good soil. Here the seeds take root, are watered, find nutrients and are free of weeds. These seeds grow up and produce, in Luke’s description, a crop 100 times what is sown! This is a remarkable yield, miraculous even!
Jesus ends his message with the call to his listeners, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Basically, this means, “Listen up! You need to understand this!” But he knows that many people have ears that hear the sound, but they don’t take the time to discern the meaning of the words, so they don’t actually “hear” the message Jesus is proclaiming. Some have ears to hear the words but they do not hear the message.
To Jesus’ original listeners, this is a mysterious message. It’s not clear to them at all what Jesus is getting at, and frankly, without Jesus’ explanation, I don’t think we’d get it either! So the disciples ask Jesus what it means. Before giving his explanation, though, Jesus says something very interesting. He tells the disciples that they are privileged. He tells them that they have been given “the knowledge of the secret of the kingdom of God.” However, to others Jesus speaks in parables so that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah in the OT, “Though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.”
I want to stop here for a moment. There are a few things to explain or clarify. Some of you will be familiar with this, but others may not be. What is the Kingdom of God? Remember, when we speak of kingdoms we mean countries. We mean areas of land and groups of people. But that’s not at all what the word kingdom means in Greek which is the language this passage was originally written in. In the New Testament, “kingdom” means authority to rule. So the “kingdom of God” means the authority of God to rule.
Let’s put this understanding back into the verse we have here, Luke 8:10, “The knowledge of the secret of the authority of God to rule has been given to you….” What does this mean? It means that God’s rule is not obvious to everybody. God’s authority is not obvious to everybody. How to live within the rule of God, how to live in the kingdom of God, how to live with God ruling your life is not obvious to everybody. We are going to come back to this, but I want to highlight it now because it is easy for us to skip this little aside Jesus has because we are eager to get to his explanation of the parable. But I think if we miss or gloss over this middle section we may miss a very important aspect of the meaning of this parable!
Jesus then goes on to explain the parable to the disciples. The seed is the word of God. Different people respond to the word of God differently. Some are like the seed that falls on the path. Before the word of God can take root in their hearts, the devil comes and snatches it away “so that they may not believe and be saved.” There are a couple things to point out here. First, remember that the heart is not just a person’s emotions. It’s not that the word of God is snatched away from our feelings. The heart means the emotions, but also the mind, desires, preferences and imagination.
Satan, the devil, desperately wants to prevent anybody from allowing the word of God to penetrate their mind! He certainly doesn’t want anybody to have the word of God penetrate their desires! How often does the devil lead us around by tempting our sinful desires? Nor does the devil want our feelings, preferences or imagination shaped by the word of God! So he tries very hard to snatch the word of God away from us when we hear it before it has a change to create meaningful change in who we are.
Second, let’s work backwards from what we see about this first type of soil. If the word of God penetrates the soil and grows up what happens? The exact opposite of what the devil wants. That means if the seed has the desired effect, or if the word of God has the desired effect, people will believe and be saved. The goal of the word of God (the seed) is for people to believe and be saved.
What does it mean to believe, though? Given that the original hearers of this parable were looking at Jesus in person when they heard it, believing the word of God does not mean merely believing Jesus existed! In fact, like the words kingdom and heart, the word for believe in Greek has a deeper meaning than the English word believe. We can use the word “believe” to mean that we think something is true in our head. I believe the world is round. But that doesn’t actually take hold of me. It doesn’t really affect the way I live my life. It makes little difference to me on a daily basis if the world is round or flat.
But in Greek, the word for believe is the same as the word for faith. In Greek the word for believe involves a commitment. What the devil is trying to prevent is the word of God entering people’s hearts and causing a commitment. He doesn’t want the word of God to shape a person’s mind, emotions, desires, preferences and imagination. He doesn’t want a person to “believe” and thereby commit themselves to living under God’s authority. That would mean a radical change in that person’s life, a radical change in the direction they are going, a radical change in the whole orientation of who they are! And that radical change that comes from a committed belief leads to the person being saved.
Let’s put that together with what we’ve seen already. The devil snatches the word of God from some people’s hearts so that they do not believe and therefore are not saved. That is, he snatches away the word of God so that their minds, emotions, desires, preferences and imaginations are not changed by believing and committing to the word of God. Such a radical change, such a commitment leads to salvation and that is the last thing the devil wants. Such change is what it takes to live under the authority of God. Such change is what happens when a person enters the kingdom of God. This is the secret of the kingdom of God! The secret of the kingdom of God is to let God’s word enter your heart, believe it and commit yourself to it and be radically changed by it. That is what the devil is deathly afraid of happening. That is what the seed is intended to do. That is what happens in the good soil!
So this is a lot to learn from just the first type of soil, but it is key to understanding the other kinds of soil. Let’s take a moment, now, to look at the second and third kinds of soil. The second soil is shallow. When the word of God lands on it, the word immediately sprouts us. That is, people accept the word gladly! But they have no roots. They have no depth. I would even expand on that as “they have no depth of commitment” or no “depth of belief.”
What does this look like? We will get into this in more detail next week, but I think it means those people who make an initial commitment, or perhaps have a conversion experience in the moment, but drift away when times get tough, when they experience a time of spiritual dryness, when it’s not all fun and easy being a Christian. Sadly, I think many of us know people like this- people who profess to be a Christian, but the word of God no longer had a hold on them. They are no longer having their heart transformed by the word. Their depth of commitment is lacking and so the depth of their change is lacking. Ultimately, the seed here dies in the parable. It is safe to conclude that the people represented by this soil die too, they are not saved!
The third kind of soil has depth, but here the word of God is choked out by competing concerns. Notice that both positive and negative things distract the people who represent the third soil- it is life’s worries as well as riches and pleasures that choke out the word of God. Let’s keep in mind our understanding of the heart and apply it here. These people have God’s word in their heart, initially shaping their desires, preferences and imaginations. But worldly concerns and pleasures are also at work influencing their desires, preferences and imaginations. These people allow the worldly elements, the worldly desires, preferences and dreams to win out over the godly desires, preferences and dreams and so their growth or change is stunted and choked out. The end result, sadly, is that they are not saved either!
Finally, the fourth kind of soil is the good soil. Verse 15 describes them, “The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” Notice the heart comes into it again. The good soil are those people with good and noble hearts who let the word of God penetrate their heart, penetrate their minds and feelings, their preferences, desires and imaginations. They allow the word of God to change these things, they subject their thoughts and feelings, preferences, desires and imaginations to the rule of God, the authority of God. They go on to produce a miraculous crop! These are the people who are saved!
What It Means
Now, we’ve taken an extensive look at this passage already! We’ve seen a lot of what it means by taking a close look at what it says. This is a passage many Christians are familiar with, but I doubt many of us have taken the time to go back through and put 2 and 2 together to see the full depth of what Jesus is saying in his explanation of the parable. We have to remember what kingdom means, what heart means and what believe means in the NT. Then we have to compare what success looks like for the seed in this parable with what failure looks like. When we do that, we come away with a much richer understanding of the parable!
But if that’s what the parable means, how do we understand it? If that’s what Jesus is saying, how do we develop this more? How do we understand this in light of what the rest of the Bible teaches?
The first meaning or interpretation of this parable is to explain why so many people have such different responses to Jesus and God’s word. Even in Jesus’ own day, some people completely rejected Jesus and the word of God he spoke. Others listened to Jesus for a little while, maybe the followed him around and were excited about the miracles he performed, but when difficulty came, or when Jesus gave some hard teaching, they fell away. Others also followed Jesus and believed, but were distracted by other desires. Judas is a good example of one who followed Jesus and believed in Jesus, but the his desire for wealth, or perhaps his desire for Jesus to hurry up and set up an earthly kingdom like Judas imagined the Messiah would bring, pushed Judas to betray Jesus. These “weeds” strangled the truth of God’s word in Judas’ heart and killed it. Others, however, believed in Jesus, committed to him and his words from God and were transformed, such as the other disciples, not just the rest of the 12, but the number of women who followed Jesus, and people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Nicodemus and others.
Another important purpose of this parable is to challenge people to examine themselves as to which type of soil they may be. That is the meaning behind Jesus’ words when he finished the parable, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Jesus wants us to think about how we receive God’s word. Do we let it put down roots into our very character and nature? Or do we let the devil snatch it away, or fail to let it put down roots, or fail to ruthlessly eliminate the weeds that spring up with it?
Furthermore, this parable is an encouragement. Even though only 1 in 4 types of soil produces a crop, the crop is amazing! It yields 100 times what was sown! This would have been encouraging for Jesus’ early disciples who were few in number and faced by huge opposition. It is encouraging to all Christians today when we are discouraged by a seeming lack of response to the gospel by people around us. Yes, many will fail to hear and understand in the long run, but those who do will produce a miraculous result!
These three applications or interpretations of the parable would all have been relevant to the original hearers. However, today I want to help us see more in this because we are coming from a different perspective than Jesus’ original hearers.
Another important lesson from this parable is that we have an enemy who does not want us to be saved. Many people today dismiss the idea of the devil out of hand. Because we are supposedly so sophisticated, we don’t believe in a devil. That’s the case for many in our society today. They dismiss most supernatural things. But we must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus himself and the Bible as a whole take the devil very seriously. While there is a development in Scripture when it comes to the existence of pagan gods, there is no such development or change in thought when it comes to the existence of the devil.
What do I mean by that? In the early parts of the OT, there is a belief that idols represent real gods. There is a belief among the people that there are many different gods. Then, as the OT progresses, this belief develops and matures. Later generations and later contributors to the OT seem to believe that these other gods, these pagan gods represented by idols, exist, but that Yahweh, the God of Israel is greater than all of them. Finally, by the later parts of the OT and certainly in the NT, there is a recognition that these idols are not gods at all, that idols are just statues. Yahweh, the God is Israel, the God of the Bible is the only God.
But if you examine the Bible’s treatment of the devil, while there is a development in the understanding of the devil and his role, the Bible never comes to the conclusion that there is no devil! Always the devil is taken seriously as a real entity. We need to remember this today too. We must not dismiss the existence of the devil out of hand or else we will be blind to our greatest enemy and he will be able to operate against us much more easily because we refuse to even acknowledge his existence!
If you don’t want to fall into the category of being the first kind of soil, the hardened path, you better take seriously the prospect that you have an enemy working to make sure you don’t hear and respond to the word of God!
Lastly, notice that all four kinds of soil receive the seed. That is, all 4 kinds of people represented in this parable hear the word of God! One conclusion we are forced to draw from this is that all 4 kinds of people are actually present in the church! [Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew vol 2, p. 17] All four categories are hearing the word of God but are responding so very differently. It’s easy to dismiss the hard path people as the staunch atheists. It’s easy to think of them just as people like Richard Dawkins who not only rejects God’s word but is so angry that anybody accepts it.
But while it’s true that people like Dawkins have had the word snatched away, while it’s true that they have not believed, they are not the only examples of people who are the hardened path. In the parable, even the path gets the word sown on it and where is the word of God most frequently spoken (or sown)? In the church! So we have to assume that all 4 kinds of people may be found in different churches.
Why It Matters
So why does all this matter? How do we apply this? I hope as we’ve been going along you’ve already begun to ask yourself what kind of soil you might be. Maybe you’ve also begun to think about different people in your life who may fall into these different categories. Think now about your “reach one” person. Think about that one person in your life, whether it be a family member, co-worker, neighbour or friend who you are praying for to respond to the gospel. Do you think he or she is an example of the hard path? Or perhaps a person who once believed gladly but had no root? Or perhaps they are a person for whom the cares and pleasures of the world are choking out the life of the word of God in their hearts? Whatever kind of soil you think they may be, let this shape your concern for them and how you pray for them. Let it shape how you think about approaching them and reminding them of the good news of Jesus.
In order to be good soil, people need to have 2 things at work. They need to be both teachable and humble. That is, good soil people are both teachable and humble enough to submit themselves to God. As we work through the other kinds of soil, we will look at this concept of being teachable and humble in more depth. However, for today, understand that the hard path people are neither teachable nor humble. They are not teachable which means they don’t want to hear the word of God. They don’t want to learn what it means. They may think they already know what it says. Their hearts are hardened against the truth and they don’t want to hear the truth at all. They are unteachable.
Furthermore, they are proud. They are not humble. They don’t want to submit to the rule of God. They don’t want another authority in their lives telling them what to do, how to live, what to value, what goals to pursue. They are in love with their own autonomy and are in rebellion against God’s rightful rule over them as their creator. Even if they heard the word and understood it intellectually, their hearts are too hard to let that truth penetrate their character and change who they are on the deepest levels. They are not humble enough to accept the truth that they don’t measure up to God’s standard. They are not humble enough to sit under the authority of the word of God and be judged by it.
Given that all four soil types may be found in any given church, let me challenge you with Jesus’ words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Examine yourself! Ask God to show you what kind of soil you are. Ask God if you are teachable? Ask God if you are humble? Ask God to show you if you are the hard path soil or not. If the answer is yes, beg God to soften you! Ask God to soften your heart so that Satan does not snatch away God’s word from you. Pray that God will make you good soil so that his word will penetrate your heart, infuse your mind, emotions, desires, preferences and imagination.
No matter what kind of soil you may think you are, we all need God to reveal the secret of the kingdom of God to us. This is not something we discover on our own. This is not something we puzzle out by ourselves. Rather, this is something we are given, something we receive. So pray that God will reveal to you the secret of the kingdom of God. Pray that you will hear and understand. Amen.
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