1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” – Mark 4:1-20 ESV
For whatever reason, Luke records this event as taking place before Jesus’ mother and brothers showed up to see Him. Matthew and Mark place the telling of this parable after their arrival. This is not an example of a contradiction in the Bible, as much as it is an example of the gospel authors arranging the events of Jesus’ life in order to drive home the point they are attempting to make. Each of them places a different emphasis on the various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry because they are chronicling the story from their own personal perspective and with a specific audience in mind.
But all three authors of the Synoptic Gospels include this parable. Over the centuries, it has been referred to by many names, including the parable of the seeds, the parable of the sower, and the parable of the soils. But regardless of what you call it, this parable is a classic example of a teaching style that was common in Jesus’ day. Parables were extended metaphors that attempted to communicate difficult truths through the use of comparison. Jesus utilized this teaching method frequently, especially when addressing large crowds. But as we will see illustrated in this passage, Jesus would often take time to explain the meaning of the parable to His 12 disciples.
Matthew records that Jesus told this parable on the same day His mother and brothers had come to see Him.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables… – Matthew 13:1-3 ESV
It is important to remember what Jesus had said earlier that same day.
And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:49-50 ESV
The next scene reveals Jesus sitting in a boat just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as a large crowd gathers on the shoreline to hear what He has to say. Mark indicates that Jesus began “teaching them many things in parables.” As usual, His audience would have included all types of people, including His faithful followers, the simply curious, those hoping to be healed, and the ever-present Pharisees and scribes. It is likely that HIs mother, Mary, and his half-brothers were also in attendance that day. The diversity of His audience will become increasingly more important as the parable unfolds.
Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out to sow. This imagery would have been very familiar to His audience because they lived in an agrarian culture where this scene was commonplace and uneventful. But in His story, Jesus describes the farmer’s valuable seeds falling onto four different surfaces: A well-worn path, rocky ground, a thorn-infested patch of land, and finally, a field that had been properly prepared for seeds.
The mostly rural audience to whom Jesus addressed this parable would have immediately guessed the outcome of the story. You didn’t have to be a farmer to understand that many of the seeds had been scattered in places that would prove to be inhospitable and unfruitful. Those seeds would have been wasted. And Jesus confirms this conclusion by describing the seeds as being eaten by birds, scorched by the sun, and choked out by thorns. In a few cases, the seeds took root but failed to produce fruit.
This story would have resonated among people who were heavily taxed by the Romans and who saw poverty and deprivation all around them. For many of them, just making ends meet was a daily struggle, and the thought of valuable seeds being sown so carelessly would have gotten their attention. It’s likely that the people began to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of the story. They were familiar with the use of parables and would have known that there was some hidden lesson to be learned. Some probably assumed that Jesus was pointing out the carelessness of the farmer. His haphazard scattering of the seeds was meant to illustrate the need for good stewardship. Others might have focused their attention on the seeds themselves, noting that some of the seeds were quickly consumed, while others sprouted, but failed to produce fruit. Maybe Jesus was illustrating the need for good works. The farmer had intended for all the seeds to produce fruit, but most did not. And in the works-based environment of Judaism, it would have been easy for some in the crowd to assume that Jesus was promoting the need for the faithful observance of the law.
And Jesus makes no effort to explain His story, but simply concludes it by stating, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9 ESV). The NET Bible provides a bit more forceful rendering of Jesus’ words: “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!”
This wasn’t just a story. It was an important lesson that was to have real-life implications. So, Jesus warned them that hearing what He had to say would not be enough. He expected them to listen and learn. His lesson behind His story was meant to be apprehended and then applied.
But the people were confused. Mark indicates that some of Jesus’ followers approached Him asking for an explanation.
…those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. – Mark 4:10 ESV
Matthew adds that the 12 disciples had a more specific question for Jesus.
“Why do you speak to them in parables?” – Matthew 13:10 ESV
And Jesus revealed to His closest followers the purpose behind His use of parables.
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables…” – Mark 4:11 ESV
In a sense, Jesus was revealing that the 12 disciples had been set apart by God to receive knowledge that was unavailable and inaccessible to everyone else. They were being given the privilege of knowing divine truths concerning the kingdom of God of which the scribes and Pharisees were ignorant. The religious leaders of Israel were famous for their knowledge of the Mosaic Law and their encyclopedic understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. But they were ignorant of what God was doing. Jesus would later say of these men:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39-40 ESV
And even these learned men were unable to grasp the meaning of the parable Jesus told. Jesus said it was hidden from them. He quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that it is God who chooses to reveal hidden truths and, according to His sovereign will, He sometimes blinds the eyes and deafens the ears of some so that they might not turn and be forgiven.
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” – Mark 4:12 ESV
What Jesus was saying was that the ability to hear and understand the deep truths concerning the kingdom of God comes from the Father. He alone can open the eyes and ears of the spiritually blind and deaf to perceive the truth. The scribes and Pharisees spent years studying the Scriptures but were oblivious to the truths revealed in them. Despite their knowledge, they were ignorant of what God was doing in their midst. And unless God opened their eyes, they would remain blind to the truth regarding Jesus. Unless God opened their ears, they would hear but never understand the message of the gospel.
In the Gospel of John, we have a record of Jesus’ powerful words concerning the inability of men to understand the ways of God.
“The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” – John 6:63-64 NLT
And He went on to reveal man’s complete reliance upon God for salvation.
“That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” – John 6:65 NLT
Which brings us back to the parable. Jesus knew that His disciples had not yet grasped its meaning, so He explained. The seed represented the word or the message He had come to proclaim. And don’t forget what that message was. Mark described it this way:
Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” – Mark 1:14-15 NLT
It was the good news of the King and His Kingdom. The Messiah had come. But while John the Baptist and Jesus had proclaimed that message near and far, it had fallen on deaf ears. There were many who had heard it and begun to believe that Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah, but they had begun to have their doubts. Their initial faith got choked out by the cares and concerns of this world. There were others who heard the word and simply refused to believe at all. They rejected it wholeheartedly. Insert the scribes and Pharisees here. Then there were others who heard it but allowed the threat of ex-communication by the religious leaders to drive them away.
But Jesus describes the fourth group: “the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20 ESV). They are those, like the 12 disciples, whom God has chosen to understand the truth concerning the King and His Kingdom. The Word concerning the Son of God has fallen on them and taken root and, in time, it will produce much fruit. But their ability to hear and accept the Word of God concerning the Son of God is the result of the Spirit of God. Because “the Spirit alone gives eternal life” (John 6:63 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.