How do I respond to the gospel message? Jesus’ told a story about the sower, the seed and the different kinds of soil. Its meaning seems clear. Isn’t it all about the different ways people respond to the gospel? Or is it also about how I respond?
Matthew 13 is a chapter of parables that Jesus introduces with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like. . . .” In speaking of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, Jesus isn’t talking about some vague hope or future utopia. Jesus talked about the kingdom because he was the king; the kingdom was present in him. His coming into the world marked the decisive moment when God personally intervened to bring salvation to all who turned to Christ in faith.
God’s kingdom means the defeat of evil, the redemption of those in bondage, the forgiveness of sinners, the reconciliation of broken relationships, the transformation of society, the restoration of the creation, the salvation of the people of God. As you might guess, it’s a pretty important subject. And it all happens through Jesus. If you want to be part of the kingdom, you have to know Jesus, trust in Jesus, and be following Jesus.
That’s the message of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. In one way or another they all strike a decisive note. They point to a personal crisis, and the need to make a decision. Because whenever you hear the word of God you are confronted by Jesus and his claims upon you. And you have to choose. Will you listen to him and believe, or not? That’s the point of these parables, and especially of the first and most familiar one, the parable of the Sower.
A sower went out to sow [Jesus said]. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.
The parable of the Sower is a description of how people respond to the gospel, as Jesus himself explains (vv. 13-20). The seed is the Word, that is, the gospel, or Christ Jesus himself, who is both present and presented whenever he is preached from the Scriptures. The point of the parable lies in the various kinds of soil, which represent a variety of responses to the word. The different soils are different hearers, different hearts, that hear the gospel and respond either for life or death. As one old expositor remarked, this parable doesn’t need explanation, it only needs application.
So the first soil Jesus describes is where the seed fell on the path (v. 4). It’s hard for us to imagine how a farmer could scatter seeds on a roadbed; he must have been terribly careless, or had a bad aim, to toss his precious seed so far wide of the target. But we need to change our mental picture of what the field looked like. In North America we are used to countryside that looks like a checkerboard, with nice square fields neatly separated by roads and ditches. It’s easy to tell where the field ends and the path begins.
But in the Palestine of Jesus’ day (as in some places in the world today), that was not the case. Fields lay all about the villages, and the paths from one place to another ran haphazardly right through them. Tillage was minimal, and planting was done by broadcasting seed indiscriminately, so some would inevitably fall on the hard-packed soil of the trails, where it would simply lie on the surface until birds came and ate it.
This hard-packed dirt which the seed can’t even penetrate represents people who listen to the word without really hearing it, without responding in any way. Eventually the word disappears altogether, it no longer bothers them. Weeks and then years pass when their conscience is undisturbed by even a single thought of God. Not the tiniest plant is growing in their soul; there is just the steady tramp of feet on the path, beating it harder and harder.
The second sort of response to the word is symbolized by the rocky soil. Here Jesus pictures an area where the bedrock is covered with a thin layer of dirt. This field appears promising because you can’t tell by looking at it that the soil is only a few inches thick. The germination of the seed is excellent here, but the fair beginning does not last. Later in the season, when the sun turns hot, the seedlings shrivel up and die for lack of depth. They have no roots.
With this soil the Lord is describing people who hear the gospel and respond to it superficially. Their emotions may run high (cf. v. 16). They produce a bumper crop of excitement and enthusiasm, but it doesn’t result in faith that builds character, obedience, and endurance through tough times.
Here’s something important to remember. It’s not so much how you start the Christian life but how you finish it that counts. The promise of salvation isn’t given to those who make a show of commitment at the outset but to those who faithfully follow the Lord Jesus to the very end.
The next soil also looks good at the start, for it runs deeper than the stony soil. In fact, it is the most promising planting yet. This dirt is rich and ready, and it yields an excellent early stand. But then a major problem arises. You look at the field one time and it’s full of beautiful young plants; look again and it’s nothing but ugly spikes. The grain is choked out by thorns. That’s like the person whose faith is overcome by worldliness, says Jesus.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (v. 22)
So we hear the message of Jesus, and we’d sort of like to respond, but the world’s competing messages drown out his word. The thing is, though, these other messages are lies. We know all about the deceitfulness of riches, don’t we? We’ve heard all the enticements with which the world tries to seduce us.
- If I only had more money, I would be happy.
- If I’m having a problem, buying something nice for myself will solve it.
- If I’m sad or depressed, spending a lot on myself, even if I have to borrow to do it, will cheer me up.
Beware of the world’s messages. They’re deceitful. And they can choke your faith to death. There’s only so much sunlight and water in a garden, and the weeds compete with the good plants for it. There is only so much time, energy, and resources in each day, each week, each life; take care what you invest them in. The list of the world’s pursuits, both good and bad, is endless. It is so easy to allow careers and families, food, clothing, investments, properties, hobbies, travel, entertainment, sports, television, to so dominate our lives that God gets crowded out.
The point of Jesus’ last picture, the one featuring the good soil, soft, dark, productive, is that a field is proved by what it produces. Good soil produces fruit, and good faith produces godliness, the fruit of the Spirit. The word of God does that when it takes root in your life. It grows and flowers and yields its increase, sometimes thirty, sometimes sixty, or even a hundred-fold.
So what is it exactly that Jesus wants? What is he getting at here? It’s clear, isn’t it, that the point of his story is the overwhelming importance of bearing fruit. The whole problem with the bad soils comes down to the same thing in the end. Whether it was because the seed never germinated in the first place (the hard soil), or because it never matured beyond a young shoot (the shallow soil), or because it died out in competition with other plants (the weed-choked soil) the result is the same: no fruit. Different causes, identical outcomes.
So the truth Jesus wants us to take away from this story is that the seed must bear fruit, that is, the word must work in our lives to produce results. But what is the fruit that Jesus is looking for?
We find the answer to that question in several other places in the gospels, where Jesus explains just what it is he wants. And what it boils down to are two things: first, Jesus wants to see the fruit of repentance (see Luke 13:1-9). And then he looks for the fruit of obedience (see Matthew 8:24-27).
The key really to the parable of the Sower comes in the tag line that Jesus adds at the end. “He who has ears, let him hear.”
That sounds almost trite, doesn’t it? It’s easy to skip right by it. After all, don’t we all have ears? Aren’t you listening to the word right now, at this very moment? But it’s so easy to listen without really hearing. It’s so easy to let the word go in one ear and out the other. What we need is to hear it, really hear it, so that it changes us, breaks us, moves us to repent, drives us to Christ, transforms us completely.
Do you have ears? Are you hearing?