Luke 8:1-15 – Parable of the Sower

Jesus continues to preach the kingdom of God, and in so doing uses a parable to explain how the kingdom spreads in the hearts of those who hear its message and accept it, but also how it’s rejected by those who hear its message but are too enamored with the world to believe it.  The Parable of the Sower shows there are four kinds of hearers in the world, and three of the four ultimately reject the kingdom message.  It goes along with Jesus’ earlier words in the Sermon on the Mount that the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it (Matt 7:14).  The world is hostile to the good news of the kingdom and does its best to obstruct, deny, or choke the message before its citizens can believe it.  Beyond what the world does, God also darkens the minds of those who reject the message such that they eventually can’t respond to the good news at all.  There is both encouragement for the believer and dire warnings for the unbeliever in Luke’s account of the parable.

Luke in his detailed way gives us a window into Jesus’ ministry that the other gospel writers don’t.  He explains how it is that Jesus can travel around speaking and healing without any visible means of support (nothing is said in any of the gospels about Him doing any carpentry work once His public ministry begins).  The answer is in a group of women – all of whom He’s touched in some way – that support Him.

It’s interesting to see the cross-section of society represented by the group.  Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward (this is likely Herod Antipas a/k/a Herod the Tetrarch who rules Galilee – he is the king who ran off with his brother’s wife and beheaded John the Baptist – how amazing is it that one of the most important men in his administration has a wife who travels with Jesus and supports His ministry??) is likely toward the top of the social hierarchy and Mary Magdalene – who was possessed by SEVEN demons – is likely toward the bottom.  Note that Luke says many other women support Jesus also (including someone named Susanna who’s not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament but who apparently is prominent enough that Luke doesn’t feel the need to attach any designation to her name). 

The women have all had personal interaction with Jesus and apparently support Him out of gratefulness for what He’s done for them (they’ve been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses).  When we consider that Jesus has certainly healed as many men as women, it’s interesting that only women are mentioned as being His supporters (and it’s certainly possible that Luke mentions only women because their support is unique, and not because men didn’t also support the ministry).  Notice that the text says the women support Jesus out of their private means.  That implies the women – with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene – are wealthy. 

It’s interesting to consider these verses in light of how Christianity is dismissed as anti-woman today.  Jesus’ ministry apparently attracts many women, and His message of mercy, love, forgiveness, and deliverance certainly isn’t seen as being against their interests.

The ministry the women support is all about the kingdom of God.  That’s what Jesus preaches and what He has said is His mission on earth (4:43).  To better explain that mission, He tells a parable to the multitudes who follow Him.

The parable is about a sower who spreads seed to four different areas with differing levels of success in cultivating growth.  The four areas are beside the road, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil.  The seed that falls beside the road doesn’t take root at all.  It’s trampled under foot or eaten by birds.  The seed that falls on the rocky soil does grow, but as soon as it grows it withers because it has no moisture.  The seed that falls among the thorns is choked by them.  The only seed that grows to maturity is the seed that falls on the good soil.  There it takes root and produces a crop a hundred times as great (as what was sown).

As Jesus tells the parable He repeatedly admonishes His listeners, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

When Jesus finishes the parable, the disciples ask Him what it means.  Before Jesus explains, He tells them that He speaks in parables so people WON’T understand and repent.  He tells the disciples that to them it’s been granted to have understanding, but to others it’s not been granted and so they don’t understand the parables He uses to illustrate His points.  It’s an amazing comment.  The parables are hard to understand ON PURPOSE.

What’s interesting is that the disciples don’t understand the parable either (until Jesus explains it).  That means that no one who originally heard it understood it.  So apparently Jesus told it not really for the sake of His hearers but for the sake of the disciples – who He’ll explain it to – and also for the sake of everyone who will believe in the future and read it in the gospels.  Jesus told this parable for us.

What do we do with Jesus’ statement that He speaks to the multitudes in parables so they won’t understand?  Note that He quotes Isaiah 6:9, which is a statement of judgment.  In the Isaiah passage, God commissions Isaiah to go to Israel but tells him the people will be kept from understanding his message because they have rejected God.  The logical connection with this passage is that the parables are judgment on those who have rejected the message.  To those who accept Jesus, the parables are understandable or will be explained (as Jesus is about to do for the disciples).  But for those who do not accept Jesus – like the religious leaders and the multitudes looking for a political Messiah or who simply want to see signs – the parables are indecipherable and unexplained. 

That means that His admonition – “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” – is ultimately for His disciples.  The others are incapable of obeying it.  Those who are His must listen and learn from the parable (once He explains it to them).

This then begs the question – why teach in parables at all?  If He has to explain the parable to those who are allowed to understand while those who can’t understand are simply left in their confusion, what’s the point?  The point is that it’s still an effective way of illustrating complex truths.  And for those who are His, it’s an opportunity to hear both the parable and the explanation, and thus understand in ways they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise.  Parables also act as a means to prove who are His and who aren’t.

Jesus first explains that the seed is the word of God.  He spreads the news about the kingdom of God and the seed represents that message.  In the future – and for our purposes – the seed represents the gospel.

The four areas and the seed’s success in growing in them is explained as follows:

Beside the Road
The soil beside the road represents those who hear the word but do not understand it.  This goes along with what Jesus just said about the people to whom He only speaks in parables.  They are the ones whose hearts are too hard to comprehend the gospel.  The seed is sown in their hearts – to the Hebrew mind this is the seat of both the intellect and the emotions – but the condition of their hearts makes the seed ineffective.  Because they do not understand the word, it is effectively forgotten.  Satan makes sure they do not contemplate it for long. 

Of the four soils, this is the only one that does not accept the word in any way.  This is the person who is too intellectual, too busy in life, or too caught up in religion to bother with the truth.  He is a member of the wise and intelligent who Jesus refers to in Matthew 11:25 (the message is foolishness to him because its meaning has been hidden from him).  There is no doubt as to his condition; he sees nothing in the message of Jesus that attracts him or is worthy of his consideration.  He is so given over to his own perspective and worldview that there is no room for the gospel.

Rocky Places
The shallow soil covering rocks represents the person who readily accepts the gospel but does not truly understand what he accepts.  He is the person who hears it, gets excited about it (receive the word with joy), and perhaps thinks it’s the answer to all his problems and his ticket to a happy life.  But when trials come into his life as a result of the word, he immediately forsakes what he has claimed to believe because the trials destroy his premise for believing in the first place.  He finds out to his dismay that the way of the disciple is hard (Matt 10:16-25).  This is the person who most likely gets carried away with the emotion of the moment.  He wants to be part of the community of believers and join others who respond to the message, but does not count on having to stand up for his faith under persecution or persevering through unexplained difficulties.

This person is similar to the one represented by the rocky places except he doesn’t receive the word with joy; perhaps emotions do not play as large of a role.  This is one who accepts the word and changes his life for a while – perhaps in the midst of a crisis or when dealing with death – but later realizes that it does not fit with the worldly pursuits he doesn’t want to give up.  This might be someone who says, “I tried Christianity and then moved on – I outgrew it.”

Note there is nothing wrong with the soil here – it’s deep enough for the seed to take firm root.  But the soil already supports the thorns; there is simply not enough room or resources for the seed to fully grow.

The thorns are there because he cannot take his eyes off the world and pursue only God.  He thinks of the Christian life only in terms of what he must give up, not in terms of it being an amazing gift from God.  He measures everything from the perspective of this life only.  He cannot fit through the narrow gate because of all he wants to bring with him.

[The description of this soil has application to the Christian also.  If we are not growing or we find we have little victory over our besetting sins, could it be that we are too accepting of the thorns in our lives?  Are we trying to live a heavenly life with an earthly perspective?  Do we see the temptations and wealth of this world as thorns or goals?  Note that Jesus could have used many different examples of what corrupts this soil, but He used riches and pleasures because He knows the rewards of this world mean everything to the unrenewed mind.  So are we willing to pull the thorns out by the roots, thus showing that we are radically different from the world around us, or are we content to just cut them back periodically while largely living with the same priorities as everyone else?  The extent to which we destroy the thorns in our lives is the extent to which we will bear fruit for the kingdom.]

Good Soil
These hear the word and understand it, believe it, and hold it fast.  They receive the word in an honest and good heart.  Implicit in their receiving is the work of the Spirit.  The Spirit enables them to hear and understand.  And notice the proof of their understanding – they bear fruit.  This is the only soil that produces a harvest.  The word cannot take root without bearing fruit.  Said another way, if there isn’t fruit, then the word didn’t take root.  No fruit, no root.  No root, no fruit.  And lastly, notice the fruit comes with perseverance (patience).  Sanctification progresses by the work of the Spirit and the work of the believer.  He who perseveres to the end is saved.

Jesus essentially uses a parable that is incomprehensible to those excluded from the kingdom to illustrate the difference in comprehension between those who are in the kingdom versus those who are excluded from it.  The people who aren’t His disciples cannot follow a parable that is ultimately about what happens when people like them hear the word of God and reject it.

What’s interesting is that the parable itself illustrates both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  God sovereignly decides who will respond to His message.  Yet man focuses on himself and the world and decides there are things ultimately more valuable than the word.  It’s a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but man can reject the word and then be judged by no longer being allowed to respond to the word. 

For the Christian, the parable of the sower illustrates the truth that the sower’s responsibility is to spread seed, not guarantee the harvest.  And it’s revealing that of the four areas, only one bears fruit.  We should not be surprised or discouraged when the gospel is accepted by only a few.

At the end of the day, this text shows how thankful we must be if we live in the good soil and bear fruit.  We have been chosen to receive and understand the mysteries of the kingdom.  And the fruit we bear ultimately is a product of the Spirit that’s been granted to us and indwells us.  We should thank God every day if we’re able to hear the word in an honest and good heart, hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

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