The Parable of the Soils: On the Word

January 2, 2022 ()

Bible Text: Luke 8:4-14 |


The Parable of the Soils: On the Word | Luke 8:4-15
Phil Krause | January 2, 2022

It’s that time of year when a lot of us are thinking about fresh starts and new beginnings. We see silly drawings of the old year depicted as an old man that’s on his way out, and then the new year is like a baby in diapers.

Growing up in the country of Honduras, where I grew up, people there would actually take—have you seen the scarecrows that they put up in Buchanan on every light pole in the fall? Well, think of one of those sort of lifesize doll type things, and this is what they do: they dress it up like an old man, and they stuff it full of firecrackers, and then at midnight on December 31st they take el año viejo, the old year, and they put him out in the street, they light him on fire, and you can imagine what happens to his explosive innards. It’s very dangerous and a lot of fun for us kids.

I don’t know if you’re one of those people who likes to make New Year’s resolutions. I know I just said the r-word. It’s like all of a sudden we have two different camps, right?

We have the pro-resolution people—your patron saint is Jonathan Edwards, who by the age of 20 or 21 or whatever had written 70 resolutions for his life, and they’re grand, beautiful, God-centered goals that would kind of govern his life. If you’re not familiar with Jonathan Edwards and his resolutions, look it up sometime. It’s quite convicting and really inspiring; just don’t do it on a day when you’re feeling down or discouraged; it might actually put you over the edge. Seriously, though, these resolutions of Jonathan Edwards are great.

Your own list of resolutions might be something like shedding a few pounds or shedding a lot of pounds or reading through the Bible this year or exercising more, eating more healthfully, cutting back on social media, how much you’re drinking, or whatever.

On the other hand, maybe you’re a member of the crowd that says this: “There is no way I’m going to make a list of stupid promises that I’m going to break long before Valentine’s Day. What is the use?” Your patron saint is possibly King Solomon, who wrote in Ecclesiastes 5, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”

Well, regardless of which group you’re in, I think we can all agree on this: we all want our lives to make a difference, don’t we? We know inherently that if we don’t make intentional course corrections along the way in the journey of life we’re going to drift into wasted time, used-up energy with little or nothing to show for it, and we don’t want that. To put it in biblical terms, we know we’re made for a purpose, and none of us wants to get to the end of his or her life only to realize, “Yikes! I missed that purpose entirely.”

In a word, we want our lives to be fruitful. We know we can’t just coast into loving God or loving our fellow human beings better, so we know that there’s an intentionality and a purposefulness, proactivity that is needed.

This concept of producing good fruit is all through the Scriptures. The Proverbs talk a lot about the fruit of one’s lips, meaning the power of your words to effect change. In the Prophets, God compared his idolatrous people to a vineyard that was producing wild grapes, sour grapes—no good—or an olive tree in Jeremiah 11. It was supposed to produce really wonderful fruit, and at one time it had, but now it was good for nothing other than to be chopped down and burned up in the fires of judgment.

The apostle Paul said if we want to bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) we need to keep in step with the Spirit rather than the works of the flesh. The author of the book of Hebrews refers to the discipline of God as something we should welcome in our lives because it produces in us the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

And Jesus many times used agricultural analogies to help us understand our need to bear good fruit. Just a few months ago from this pulpit Pastor Brian showed us the extended metaphor in John 15, where he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, and the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, and neither can you unless you abide in me.”

So, fruitfulness—we all want it, we want fruitful lives, we want to be fruitful in our ministry to others. Today we’re going to look at one key to fruitfulness in a parable that Jesus told, so if you have your Bible, please open it to Luke 8.

Today we’re starting an eight-week series called Parables: Stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. This week we’re going to examine what is often referred to as the parable of the sower or the parable of the soils. I’m going to read it, Luke 8:4. It’s on page 865 in the church Bible under the seat in front of you if you’re looking at that, and you can also follow along on the screen.

Hear the word of the Lord, Luke 8:4-15.

“And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, ‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

“And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.’”

This is the word of the Lord.

Today let’s break down this passage into the sections as they’re kind of laid out in what we just read. First of all we’ll look at the parable told, some observations about the parable itself (its setting and so forth); secondly, we’ll look at the purpose of parables that Jesus talks about there; and then third, the parable explained. In the Gospels we aren’t always privy to Jesus’ explanations of his parables, but this is one of the ones we do have the meaning of the parable spelled out for us by Jesus himself. We’re also going to talk about how this applies to our lives today. Okay? Let’s dive in.

1. The Parable Told

A parable is simply a story used to teach a lesson. You might have heard the definition before that it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.

Jesus wasn’t the first teacher to use parables in his teaching; it was a common literary device in ancient times, a teaching device. But Jesus did make extensive use of parables. In fact, both Matthew and Mark in their Gospels tell us, “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.” So it was very common in his teaching.

On the surface, parables can seem like they’re almost a simplistic story, but actually they’re designed to make us think. Depending on how you count them, there are a total of about 38 unique parables of Jesus recorded for us in the Gospels, and this one, the parable of the sower, is one of six that appear in all three Gospels, the synoptic Gospels, which are Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

So, let’s look at the setting here. You see in verse 4 that Jesus told this parable to “a great crowd” that was gathering. I mean, they were coming from all over, right? The word about this miracle-working healer and teacher was spreading like wildfire, and so the folks came. They crowded in; they wanted to see what was going on. This was in Galilee, near Capernaum, Jesus’ adopted hometown.

Matthew and Mark actually give us another detail that’s interesting about where Jesus gave this parable, at least on one occasion. He was sitting in a boat floating near the shore of the Sea of Galilee, teaching to the people on the land. This could have possibly been in the so-called Cove of the Sower, which forms this sort of natural amphitheater. You can see this cove in the aerial photo here. A man named B. Cobby Chrysler did a scientific study of the natural acoustics in that particular location, and he says that on a calm day, because of how sound carries over the water and because of the way the banks at the edge of the water go up, he estimates that 5,000-7,000 people could easily fit in that area and clearly hear every word spoken from someone near the shore or in a boat. The Bible doesn’t say exactly where it happened, but that could possibly be the place.

So it’s a great crowd, a large number of people. Of course, anytime you have a crowd of people, even in a group this size today, we’re all here from different backgrounds; we have different levels of understanding, different motives for being there. The people that came to hear Jesus had different needs and desires. They were of all different ages, of different socio-economic levels. It was a very disparate group. And Jesus taught them.

I want you to notice for just a moment some of the things he did not say in this parable. There’s no description of what the sower is like. We don’t know if the sower is tall or short or wealthy or poor or experienced or inexperienced at seed-sowing. No. It just says, “A sower went out to sow his seed.”

Note also in this parable Jesus did not talk about being careful to select the right kind of seed, or correct soil preparation, or proper seed-scattering techniques, as important as any of those things, I’m sure, were and are in planting seeds. But there’s no mention of methods at all, right? He just scattered the seed. It’s not, “Well, when the sower cupped his hand a certain way and tossed it this way, then he was more successful at his sowing,” or underhand versus overhand—no. None of that. Not in this parable. The emphasis, instead, is exclusively on the hearing and the receiving of the word.

In fact, Jesus finishes this parable with that challenge called out in verse 8: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

I didn’t read this, but later in the chapter verses 18 and 21 both talk about hearing the word of God and doing it.

We need to be careful not to stretch this parable beyond this intended message. It’s all about the hearing and the reception of God’s word.

2. The Purpose of Parables

Let’s look now at point number two, the purpose of parables. Verse 9: “When his disciples asked him what this parable meant—” and we’re going to stop right here for just a minute. I would submit to you that the disciples here are modeling something that is simple yet a profound truth that we dare not miss. When we don’t understand something that Jesus says, what should we do? What did the disciples do? They asked him!

If you’re reading along in the Bible and you run across something that makes you scratch your head and go, “Huh?” why not start by praying? Ask God to help you understand.

Now, the disciples actually had Jesus right there, physically with them—but we have the Holy Spirit. If you are a believer in Christ and you’ve been regenerated, you’ve been given a new heart, you have the Holy Spirit of God, and one of his roles in the lives of believers is to illuminate the word to us. He helps open our eyes so that we can understand.

Don’t just gloss over that verse 9 there. The disciples are wanting to learn from their rabbi, so they ask him; and we should do the same.

Now comes Jesus’ answer in verse 10. He says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.’”

Okay, this is one of those head-scratchers, right? Let me break this down quickly.

First of all, remember Jesus is talking now, at this point in the conversation, it’s just to his disciples. It’s later; it’s not to the whole crowd. He says, “To you it has been given . . .” This knowledge, this understanding of something that has before been hidden is a gift from God. It’s not that the disciples were really smart guys and they could figure things out—no! If anything, the picture we have of the disciples in the Gospels is less than flattering, right?

Jesus is talking here about divine revelation, God condescending to reveal things to us, things that we otherwise wouldn’t get on our own.

That phrase “secrets of the kingdom of God” implies that this knowledge that they’re being given is something that up until then had been hidden, or not understood. You see all through the Old Testament that people assumed they knew how God’s kingdom was supposed to work, right? Basically, “God gave us the law of Moses, and our job is to keep it, and God’s job is to choose a son, send us a Messiah, and he’ll overthrow the awful Gentile, Roman government and set up his kingdom.”

Well, then along comes Jesus, who some say is the Messiah, and at times he sounds like he’s claiming to be the Messiah, yet the kingdom he’s talking about isn’t a political kingdom at all. In fact, here he’s sharing this basic story about a farmer planting seeds, and it’s supposed to have some amazingly significant meaning? “Jesus, I don’t get it!” I think that’s really what might have been going through the minds of at least some of the people there. So Jesus says, “You disciples have a privileged position here.”

He continues, “. . . but for others, they [meaning the secrets] are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”

Now, that concept does not fit the standard church growth narrative that you sometimes hear. That narrative goes something like this. “Well, Jesus told stories to capture people’s attention and to help them understand spiritual concepts better, so therefore you, if you’re a preacher or a teacher of God’s word, you also need to tell stories so that it will capture people’s attention and they will understand things better.”

Sounds good, except that’s not what Jesus is saying here. He’s saying, if anything, he’s telling parables to make it harder for people to understand. What’s going on here?

Did you notice that Jesus is quoting something there when he says, “Seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand”? Your Bible might actually have a little note in the margin to tell you what Jesus was referring to there. He’s quoting from Isaiah 6.

In Isaiah 6 the prophet Isaiah has an amazing vision of the throne room of heaven. You’re probably familiar with some of the wording there. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” There are there cherubim and they’re calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” There’s an earthquake; everything’s shaking and trembling, there’s smoke.

Isaiah, the prophet whose job it already had been in the preceding five chapters to pronounce woes and curses on idolaters and sinners and liars and drunkards and all those who call evil good and good evil—Isaiah now, in the presence of Almighty God, pronounces another curse: “Woe is me, for I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

You remember that scene, right? It had to be this amazing experience for Isaiah. The seraphim cleanses his lips with a coal from the altar, he says, “Your sin is atoned for.” Then what happens? Isaiah hears the voice of God. “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

Isaiah speaks up: “Here am I; send me.”

He had been cleansed; he was now commissioned, and God says to him, “Go and say to this people, ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy and blind their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed.’”

What? God is telling Isaiah, “I have a job for you to do, and you’re going to need to go preach to these people, but guess what? They’re not going to listen, they’re not going to obey, they’re not going to understand.” Can you imagine how that might have felt a little frustrating for Isaiah?

Back to Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. He was referring to that passage from Isaiah as the reason he used parables in his teaching.

Here’s the deal. Both Isaiah and Jesus had similar audiences. They were people with a lot of preconceived notions about what God is like and how he should behave toward them, and, “Oh, he won’t notice if I just compromise a little here and there.” They made assumptions about God and about themselves that were, frankly, wrong.

I’m so glad we don’t live in a day like that now, right? No, actually, we do. We all do this. Jesus had huge crowds of people coming to check him out. Many of them were just curious. They just wanted to see a flash-bang miracle, and speaking to them in parables was a way for Jesus to sort of sift out the different types of people. If the first thing they hear is, “A sower went out to sow his seed,” and this homey little story, half the people in the audience (the ones that popped the popcorn and brought it for the circus show), they’d be like, “What? What’s this all about? What’s so amazing about this Jesus guy?”

But the ones who were being granted the gift of faith would hear everything with different ears, and they’d be a lot more likely to stick around and ask questions and learn from Jesus.

I think that at least touches on some of what Jesus meant when he gave that purpose of using parables to teach. Really, if you think about it, any time you and I open God’s word we’re faced with the same choice of those hearers of Jesus’ parables. Am I going to be just aloof and stand back and just be a bystander here, or am I going to let the word of God affect me, change me, transform me?

3. The Parable Explained

That leads us to point number three, the parable explained. In verses 11-15 Jesus goes on to tell the disciples the meaning of this parable.

Verse 11: “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.” I’m going to pause again. Notice how little is said about the sower. He’s just spreading the seed of the word of God. In the immediate context of Jesus teaching the people there, Jesus himself is the sower, right? But by extension, the disciples and you and I—anyone who teaches or preaches or speaks the word of God is acting as a sower. In the context of Jesus’ explanation to the disciples, I think he was also thinking of them as sowers, and he didn’t want them to be discouraged when they shared God’s word and maybe didn’t have a strong response.

I briefly said earlier that Jesus didn’t say much about the seed either. We need to be careful not to mess with the seed of God’s word. There should be “genetic modification” of this seed.

I got this concept from none other than our own pastor, Brian Hedges. In a sermon on this passage, he said, “We need to be careful not to tamper with the word. We can do this either by addition or subtraction. Addition is trying to make the gospel something that it’s not, confusing it with politics, morality, or the promise of health or wealth or prosperity. Subtraction is trying to make the gospel more palatable by eliminating some of its essential features—the reality of sin, offense of the cross, the demands of repentance or exclusive trust in Jesus, or the cost of discipleship.”

So, the seed in the parable represents the pure, unadulterated, powerfully transformative word of God.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it well in a sermon he preached in 1888: “The seed was good, thoroughly good. The sower got it from his master, and his master’s granary contains no seed which will not grow.”

Then Jesus goes on to explain the different kinds of receptions or responses to the word of God. Let’s look quickly at these four kinds of soil. Keep in mind, the desired outcome here is that concept that I mentioned at the beginning of fruitfulness, right? Being useful, being productive, multiplying, expanding the kingdom of God.

(1) The first kind of soil. Jesus said in verse 12, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

The path would have been the place where people, obviously, walk, so that ground gets harder and the seed wouldn’t be able to penetrate into the dirt there. But there is a kind of hearing that happens for these people, according to Jesus, right? The sound waves actually do enter their ears and vibrate their eardrums, but there’s no understanding. In fact, Matthew in his account of this parable actually uses that word “understanding.” Matthew 13:19, “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.”

I think it’s obvious that this kind of response is one of no faith, and it results in no fruit.

(2) The second kind of soil. Some of the seed falls on rocky ground, we see in verse 13. The land of Israel is very rocky, and apparently there are quite a few places where you can have a thin layer of soil, but underneath it is just rock, a limestone ledge. Jesus said these represent an initially emotional, joyful response. He says they “receive it with joy.” But what’s missing? There’s no root system to support the plant. So turn up the heat in these people’s lives and they fall away.

This is what I call “fake faith.” It also results in no fruit.

(3) Next, Jesus tells the disciples in verse 14, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”

So they do hear. The seed does germinate, it starts growing, but it’s choked by the thorns and weeds. Now, from what I understand, everyone listening to Jesus would have been very familiar with these thorns. Initially, when you go to plant, they’re not visible. They’ve been cut back or whatever. But the roots of these weeds are already in the soil, so the good wheat or barley, the grain, grows, and as it grows so does this thorn bush.

Commenting on these thorns, Darrell Bock explains this. “These Palestinian weeds can grow up to six feet tall,” as tall as I am, “and often bud with flowers of various colors, red, blue, or yellow. They also take so much nourishment from the ground that nothing else can grow around them.”

It’s interesting; here Jesus says that three things can choke out the word. He mentions cares, riches, and pleasures of life. Cares would be worry, anxiety, stress, these pressures of life. Riches would be the desire for or the pursuit of and accumulation of wealth, to the point that you’re controlled by it. Then pleasures of life would be just enjoyment, enjoying the pleasures, whether it’s something that’s inherently good that we’ve elevated to a level that is too high, we’ve made an idol out of it; or something that’s inherently sinful. These pleasures can choke out the word.

I call this “floundering faith.” In Jesus’ own words, the fruit doesn’t mature.

(4) Now, verse 15. Finally, the fourth kind of response to the seed of God’s word is the good soil. Verse 15, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.’”

Ah! Here is where we finally have full and healthy faith, a right response to the word, and the result is fruitfulness.

Again, Darrell Bock in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke: “There are three keys to the success of the seed. The first is the right kind of heart (an honest and good heart). The second key response is holding fast to the word, which is another way to speak of faith, since the verb portrays clinging to the word. One does not let go of commitment to God’s promise; one perseveres in faith; one is unfailingly wedded to God’s promise. The third response also involves a term unique to Luke: patience, a quality needed to bear up under the pressure of living faithfully. It’s the opposite of falling away.”

In conclusion, let me just ask you, which kind of soil are you? How are you going to respond to the word of God? Are you an “in one ear and out the other” kind of listener? You’re just ready to get out of here and go on with life, and God’s word really has no bearing at all on your choices or your behavior. If that’s you, I plead with you right now, turn away from that kind of life. Don’t let the devil take away the seed of God’s word; cry out to Jesus, the living word, to soften your hardened heart.

Secondly, is your faith a fake kind? Oh, you might have had some kind of emotional experience at some point in the past, but if you’re honest, you’re mostly just going through the motions, and you know that as soon as difficulties come you’re tossing it all overboard.

Or maybe you’ve had a genuine love for God and his word, but you find your relationship with him choked by worries, anxieties, the pursuit of money, the pursuit of pleasure. You need some serious spiritual herbicide applied to your heart.

Here’s the beautiful news. No matter which of the three kinds of soil you might be, God is in the business of plowing up hard hearts, of breaking up rocky ground, and of pulling out stubborn weeds. So turn to him, ask him to make you that good kind of soil, ask him to plant the seed of his word deep in your heart.

Finally, one other application here. If you are a sower—and you are any time you’re speaking the truth of God’s word into someone else’s life—if you’re a sower, be faithful. Keep scattering the seed. There are going to be different responses. Not everyone’s going to be on board. Don’t let that discourage you. The power’s not in you, it’s not in your methods of evangelism, it’s not even in the soil, the response of the people you’re talking to. The power is in the seed of the word of God.

I mentioned at the beginning that this is the time of year many of us start fresh. So let’s get God’s word into our hearts every day this year, and let’s ask him to make 2022 a year of hundredfold fruitfulness in our lives. Let’s pray.

Father, thank you for giving us your word. Thank you that you haven’t left us to fend for ourselves, because if we were on our own we would all be that hardened ground, the thorny ground, the rocky ground, and we would be fruitless. So thank you that you have not only provided a way for us to break up that hard ground, but you’ve also given us the seed of your word to plant in us and to make us fruitful. So we do ask and commit ourselves afresh to you this day, this year. We want you to be glorified in us and your word to have its way in us. Thank you, Jesus; you are the living word of God, and in that sense you are both sower and seed, and that is a beautiful thing. We don’t want to try to live this life apart from your work in us. So we do ask that you be glorified and thank you. Thank you for the seed of your word. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.