Jesus Tells a Parable
Jesus had been going through town after town, village after village, telling people about the good news of the Kingdom of God.
According to Jesus, God's perfect reign and rule was not to be regarded merely as some ideal future state - as though it were limited to heaven for example. While it was true that the fullness of God's Kingdom did lie in the future Jesus nevertheless declared that with his coming this divine rule had actually invaded space time history. This meant that when a man or a woman put their faith and trust in Jesus they immediately entered into the Kingdom of God and began to experience this wonderful reign right then in their everyday lives.
Not only did Jesus teach such an exciting message but he also had power which he used to heal the sick and to destroy the works of the devil in people's lives.
The existing religious elite might feel that their authority was threatened by such a man as this but the common people loved it all and flocked to see him whenever they could. And so throughout the gospels we meet again and again with crowds of people who were curious about Jesus.
If Jesus had just been going through town after town preaching the good news then now we find that a great crowd had gathered from town after town to see more of this man. And Jesus doesn't keep them waiting: as the crowd continues to swell Jesus spoke to them and he told them a story.
Jesus the Story-teller
There's something magical about a story. The child eagerly pesters his parent or grandparent: "Tell me a story", "Read me a story" – and our ears still tend to prick up when we catch those words "Once upon a time…"
So, "Are you sitting comfortably?" "Then I'll begin."
The story Jesus told that day was a parable and an important parable at that. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus telling this particular parable. Mark tells us that when Jesus' disciples asked him for an explanation Jesus responded in a way that suggested this parable really was foundational.
Mk.4:13 "And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?"
And what was this parable all about? It has gone down in history as the Parable of the Sower. The title may not be the best however as the sower doesn't get much of a mention in the story. We are given much more information about the different types of soil into which the seed fell!
The story is, on the surface, very easy to understand:
A sower went out to sow his seed
This seed fell onto different types of ground:
Good fertile soil
The seed prospered depending on the different soil it fell upon
People walked on it or birds ate it on the path
Initial upward growth but with no moisture the plants quickly withered on the rocky ground
Some growth occurred but due to the competition of the weeds, life for these seedlings was soon choked off in the thorny ground
Good growth, maturity and fruit was the end result of seed falling on good soil
This was a simple straightforward description of what would have been very familiar indeed to Jesus' hearers. They lived in an agricultural society and understood what sowing and harvesting was all about. They had probably seen just such a scenario as Jesus here described – some of them may well have been sowers themselves. If Jesus intended to teach them some new agricultural techniques he would have had to say a whole lot more than this!
But Jesus was not thinking about agriculture at all he was simply using a story that would be readily understood by his hearers in order to lead some of them on to some serious thinking in a completely different sphere altogether.
You see a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was not the only person ever to have used parables, Jewish rabbis used them too, but Jesus was the Master Storyteller using just a few words to teach profound spiritual truth.
And this is why he repeatedly called out to his hearers to use their ears and really listen to what he was really saying.
v.8 "As he said these things, he called out (Imperfect tense), "He who has ears to hear, let him hear.""
Did he really have to insist like this if all he was doing was passing on some very obvious gardening advice?
No, of course he didn't. They had seen this sort of thing many times before. No, there was something more important than gardening here – Jesus wanted to talk about spiritual matters.
His own disciples realised this. As soon as they got the opportunity they asked Jesus what he had meant by telling this particular little story. They realised he wasn't just talking to the crowds about agriculture but they were yet quite sure what was really on his mind and so they asked him.
Jesus Explains – Part I
The first explanation Jesus gave concerned his very purpose in using parables at all.
Fundamental to his explanation is the distinction to be drawn between the person with faith and those who have no faith.
This is what Jesus said:
v.10 "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’"
A mystery (or a secret as some translations have it) is a truth that is inaccessible to human research but a truth which has nevertheless been made known by revelation.
I wonder if you appreciate how important this is. We like to imagine ourselves to be in control and able to understand almost anything we chose to put our mind to. We certainly like to act as though grasping spiritual truth is entirely within the range of our own abilities and we demonstrate this by unhesitatingly giving our opinion on spiritual matters. Until God works powerfully in our lives we like to imagine that our views are just as valid as the next man's and that regardless of whether we have done any serious thinking or not.
Here Jesus says to his followers ie. to those responding in faith towards him, that knowledge of the truth has been given to them – they have been chosen and because of that divine choice they will understand - their spiritual perception is a gift they have received. This however does not mean that understanding will always be quick and easy for them but it does mean that such understanding will be theirs. But humility is the order of the day and they come to a Jesus who is ready and willing to explain everything (including as here the truth contained in his parables) to those who seek to know the truth.
By means of parables Jesus teaches the truth to those who have been made spiritually aware by the grace of God. To such people parables will prove to be helpful memorable stories that serve to illustrate and anchor the truth in their lives.
On the other hand, parables are not designed in order to make spiritual truth obvious for all and sundry to grasp it. For those who show themselves to be spiritually indifferent, spiritually dead, and who refuse to believe, parables are employed to keep them from any further trampling upon the truth. To them parables will simply remain nice stories but they will not teach them anything about the deeper spiritual realities they illustrate.
So Jesus used parables in order to avoid casting his "pearls before swine".
As Jesus explains his special use of parables he is actually applying the truth that he teaches in this very parable – he is distinguishing between different types of people (those who have faith and those who don't). There is nothing at all wrong with his teaching the problem is to be located rather in the heart-condition of his hearers. That is why he ended his parable with the urgent exhortation to listen attentively and carefully!
v.8 "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
These words will be further emphasised a few verses further on:
v.18 "Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away."
Jesus Explains – Part II
His disciples had shown spiritual perception and spiritual appetite – they knew his parable meant something significant and they wanted to know what that was.
Are you like them in any way? Do you have any personal spiritual hunger?
Having explained why he used parables Jesus then moved on to explain what this simple story really meant and this is what he said.
The seed that the sower sowed was not wheat or barley or anything like that. This sower was about the spiritual work of spreading the word of God. (In context it is Jesus who has been doing this work of a sower but today it can be applied to any person preaching or sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.)
There is nothing the matter with the seed either – if not every seed sown grows it is not the seed that is at fault but the ground that it falls upon. The same seed that produces no fruit on the first three types of ground is yet capable of producing a great harvest when it falls on good soil.
The different types of ground/soil represent the heart condition of four different types of people. True religion is always a matter of the heart. The heart of a man/woman is what makes them what they truly are and true religion must always deal with this reality: it is never to be left as a mere adjunct or optional extra, some add-on to his life. After all God looks not on outward appearances he looks on the heart!
Perhaps we should underline the purpose that the sower has in sowing his seed. That purpose is not for the sake of emptying his seed sack, of filling a few hours of his time, no his purpose is in seeing a harvest! And here a spiritual harvest is in view.
Well, if the different soil types represent different heart conditions let's take a closer look at just what those conditions are:
The path – the unresponsive heart. This provides an inhospitable welcome for the seed. The seed simply can't penetrate and has absolutely no chance of growing. A part of the seed is crushed as others walk on it and another part is stolen away by the birds.
Two people listen to a sermon and when it is over one turns to the other and rubbishes everything the preacher has said. The second paying attention to this critical voice finds that the seed has been crushed for him too and he also goes away unchanged.
Or as soon as the sermon is over no effort is made to keep a hold on what has been said and so quickly the message is pushed into the background, forgotten and lost. Instead of giving heed to the word any other subject of conversation will do and Satan's little birds take the seed away. There'll be no growth here.
The rocky soil – the impulsive heart. What is in view here is not a piece of land with lots of stones in it but a piece of land with solid rock strata just under the surface covered with a very thin layer of soil. Seed falling here can only go one way and being unable to put down roots it springs upwards. Initial appearance might well seem promising but without moisture the plant will wither just as speedily as it sprung up.
Faith here - if it be called faith at all - is merely temporary faith and as soon as difficulties come along that's it. Fair-weather believers but because there is no root the plant dies when the heat increases.
The thorny soil – the preoccupied heart. This time the message seems to have been well received but the ground is cluttered. The weeds have not been removed and the weeding isn't done now either. And so the weeds grow and grow and the young seedling has its life choked out of it. The weeds, the thorns, are of various kinds – they can be cares, worries or anxieties or they can be wealth and prosperity that so take over the heart that no room is left for anything else; they can be the pleasures of this life – and these pleasures become all-consuming.
It is the heart of someone who for a time doesn't want to completely reject the gospel message but who doesn't want to respond seriously either and so goes on for a time trying to serve both God and mammon – but in that contest there is just one winner because God withdraws – where he cannot be Lord of all he will not be lord at all. Perhaps it is the heart of someone who says simply "not yet" and who finds out to their eternal loss that the other things in their life have caused them to delay too long.
The fertile soil – the responsive/prepared heart. Here the seed is properly welcomed and received. The word is not treated lightly or flippantly but held fast and held fast in the heart too. The growth might not be particular rapid to the onlooker but real genuine growth quietly takes place; The seed germinates in the heart and roots are put down then the seedling emerges and withstands the various onslaughts that come its way and in due season a rich harvest is born.
This is the only soil that actually sees the seed producing its fruit and this is the only decent soil there is.
My friends I must press on you an important question this morning as we come to a close: What is your heart like? Which kind of soil does your heart most resemble?
It is not enough to be in a crowd of people to hear about Jesus and to hear about the stories he told. There were plenty of folk in the great crowd that day who only heard an earthly story and never understood at all that it had a heavenly meaning. They just enjoyed the moment and once it was over everything was forgotten.
Others didn't take onboard the need to put down roots – they responded with some emotion but never bothered to think seriously about Jesus and his claims. When life didn't turn out to be a bed of roses they were looking for they gave up at once.
Some liked what they heard but they also liked so many other things in their lives too. These were unwilling to change their priorities and simply tried, for a time, to add Jesus onto their lives only to find that soon any interest they had once had had now died. Perhaps you are hedging your bets – a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of what the Godless world has to offer.
Just one type of soil produced fruit. These are the people who respond well to God's message that comes to them. They hold firmly on to this word that has become precious to them and they press on with honesty and sincerity of heart – they alone bear fruit in due course.
Which group most closely resembles the condition of your own heart? If it is any of the first three then you need to be converted. You must give up fighting against God as though you knew more than he does and you need to put your trust in Jesus asking him for him to come into your life as Saviour and Lord. Then and only then will you be in a position to begin to bear fruit as the Holy Spirit comes to live in your heart and to transform your life
And what of you who see yourselves in the fourth group? Well praise God if you are in this group – these are the ones to whom the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are made known. Well are you growing in your understanding of God's revealed truth? Is your trust in God's revealed Saviour growing and developing? And under the influences of the Holy Spirit is your life bearing the kind of fruit it ought to be bearing? Are you bearing as much as you ought to be bearing?
All of us must come and keep on coming to the Lord Jesus Christ as he is the only One who can do our poor souls everlasting good.
And to God be the Glory.