We are all more familiar with some of Jesus’ parables than others. The parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, is famous both within and without Christian circles. The parable of the wise man and the foolish man is popular within Christian circles, in no small measure due to the catchy Sunday school song we all love so much. Another beloved parable is the one often called the parable of the sower.
This parable is told in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; and Luke 8:4–15), although it can be argued that each Gospel writer recounts it with a slightly different emphasis. In Luke’s Gospel, the parable is really less a parable about the sower and more a parable about the soils. It is the response of the soils to the seed that Jesus wishes to highlight.
Luke deliberately records this parable after noting that Jesus was accompanied by believing women. In first-century Judaism, women were considered second-class citizens and any respectable rabbi would consider the value of his ministry on the basis of the number of faithful male followers he had acquired. Luke seems to be drawing attention to the fact that, while most religious Jewish men rejected Jesus, there was a small number of women whose hearts had rightly received the word he preached and who faithfully followed and ministered to him. He did not consider them to be second-class citizens. His parable revealed why.
In the parable, Jesus tells of a sower who went to sow seed, which fell on four distinct types of soil with four distinct results. In this account, Jesus does not specifically identify the sower, but he does identify the seed as the word of God (v. 11). Each of the soils represents a particular heart response to the truth.
The first type of soil represents an indifferent heart. This hearer’s heart is hardened to the truth of God. He has already made up his mind that the word of God is untrue and so the seed is snatched away by the birds before it even has opportunity to take root.
The second type of soil represents a superficial heart. This hearer initially receives the preached word with great joy. In the community of the faith, where it is safe to rejoice in preaching, he takes delight in it. But when he enters the world and faces opposition from those who do not believe, his belief withers.
The third type of soil represents a distracted heart. This hearer may listen half-heartedly to the preached word, but he is so distracted by other things that the seed bears no lasting fruit. By the time they walk away from their exposure to the truth, they have already forgotten what they heard.
The fourth type of soil represents a good heart. This hearer eagerly receives the preaching and is changed by it. The seed bears lasting fruit in his life.
The pressing question is, what makes the difference? The difference is not the preacher, since the same sower sows all the seed. The difference is not the seed, since the same seed is sowed in all four soils. The difference is the soil. The soil that has been prepared to receive the seed bears fruit.
As we sit under the teaching of God’s word, we so often want to evaluate the preacher. Was he engaging? Was he funny? Did he use enough illustrations? Was the sermon short enough? Did his preaching precisely match my personal theology?
Jesus’ point is that the heart that bears lasting fruit is not the heart that evaluates the sower or the seed, but the heart that allows itself to be evaluated by the seed. Lasting fruit comes to those who prepare to be taught.
As you reflect on the parable of the soils today, ask yourself what you must do, as you approach the preached word, to have a heart prepared to receive the word and bear fruit rather than a heart that rejects the teaching because it is ill prepared.