The Parable of the Sower, 13:1-9, 18-23

The story about the Sower, or better, the Four Soils, serves to illustrate the need for a right-hearing of the gospel.

The passage

v1-2. Opposition to Jesus was growing, even to the extent of the religious authorities plotting to kill him. So Jesus is on the move and now finds himself beside lake Galilee. With the crowd pressing in, Jesus uses a boat as a pulpit. As usual, the teacher sits and the students stand.

v3. Jesus is no longer preaching the gospel openly, but rather in the form of quirky stories, stories similar to Old Testament marsals, riddles. These parables usually begin with the phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like ...." Their sole purpose is to announce the coming of God's eternal reign; they reveal the gospel news of God's coming kingdom. The seeker, of course, grasps the gospel message, but the rest hear strange stories about mustard seeds and the like. Before presenting a selection of kingdom parables, Matthew records Jesus' illustrative story about the different ways people respond to the gospel / kingdom parables. The story of the Four Soils warns us to listen carefully to the gospel message.

v4-9. The story concerns seed sown in a field and how different types of soils effect the final harvest.

v18. The fact that many people fail to respond to the gospel, that they are like hard, shallow or weedy soil, prompts Matthew to record Jesus' explanation to his disciples as to why he seemingly promotes this response by preaching the gospel in riddles, v10-17. Now, at this point, Matthew returns to Jesus' story about the sower, in particular his explanation of the story.

v19-23. The picture presented in the story of the Four Soils and the way the different soils respond to the sown seed, represents four different ways people respond to the preaching of the gospel. Craig Keener nicely summarizes the story's message in his commentary on Matthew: "In some cases, the word goes in one ear and out the other. Such neglect is the devil's work; Some embrace the gospel excitedly, but tests ultimately prove the shallowness of their commitment; Some embrace the gospel, but gradually other interests - wealth, security, family and the like - choke it out of first place; But some dare to believe the gospel rather than the values they see lived out around them." As Jesus says in v9, "Are you listening to this? Really listening?", Eugene Peterson.

The lesson of the four soils

A friend of mine once worked as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. Those days have long gone; today we simply buy an interactive DVD from our local computer shop for $50 instead of twelve massive tomes for well over $1,000. I always thought it was a terrible job, but then I couldn't face having a door slammed in my face dozens of times a day. Yet, he had a formula; he knew the percentage response rate. The majority of people would slam the door in his face, but a percentage would give him a hearing and a smaller percentage would make a purchase.

I'm sure one of the reasons why the parable of the Sower was preserved by the first century church was because it gives us the percentages. Not the exact percentages, of course, but it prepares us for the different responses we will face when we set out to communicate the gospel to our local community. From the early church right through till today, believers have been encouraged by the fact that although, for many, the gospel goes in one ear and out the other, or is embraced excitedly, but then abandoned, or is embraced, but then choked out by other interests, there remains some who do dare to believe it - they open the door and make the purchase!

It's worth noting that Jesus didn't tell the story of the sower to encourage his disciples, even though it does encourage us. He actually told the story to warn those listening to his gospel preaching to take care how they listen. It's just too easy to hear the message of the gospel, but fail to grasp it, fail to take it on-board. The reasons are simple enough. It's easy just not to address it. So, it's in one ear and out the other. Then again, it's very easy to address it initially, to respond superficially, but then, ho-hum. Again, it's easy to superficially take the message on-board, but then let the business of life crowd it out. Thankfully some do believe, but of course, is that someone me? Is that someone you? "Are you listening to this? Really listening?"

It's strange how a story like this reminds us that we are all of the above - we sleep through sermons, our Christian life is superficial, our daily life clouded by things, but when it comes to the crunch, by grasping the thin thread of faith we possess the fruit of salvation. Which, by the way, means we are listening. Still, it doesn't hurt reminding ourselves that "hearing" the gospel must also entail "understanding" it, or as Mark puts it in his gospel, accepting it. Be reminded, it is very easy to leave the seed on hard, shallow, or weedy soil.


1. Note the four soils and explain how each illustrates a particular response to the gospel.

2. How does a knowledge of these responses serve to encourage us in the business of evangelism?

3. Construct a modern example of the "Sower" illustration for use with a gospel presentation.