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For many people, this parable isn’t “the Parable of the Sower”; it’s “the Parable of the Soil.” We often focus on Christ’s explanation of the four types of soil (in Matthew 13:18-23) and apply this to our own hearts. We ask ourselves, “Which kind of soil am I?”
Am I the soil who allows the evil one to snatch the gospel from me? Am I the soil that initially receives the gospel with joy, but then falls away when met with opposition? Or am I the soil who allows worry to choke our faith before it reaches full bloom?
When pastors preach this sermon, they often insist that we need to pull out our spiritual weeds and prepare our metaphorical soil for Christ’s word. When Jesus preaches this sermon, however, his focus isn’t on the soil; it’s on the sower.
“Hear then the parable of the sower,” Jesus says (Matthew 13:18). Although Jesus explains the meaning of the soil to his disciples, he chooses to emphasize the sower (and not the soil) in his title. Why?
As it turns out, if you take your eyes off the soil and focus on the sower, you’ll find an interesting question staring back at you: Why is this sower tossing precious seed into barren places?
If you ask any farmer, they’ll tell you that seed is precious—it isn’t unlimited—and so you have to be strategic about where (and how) you sow it. Seeds, after all, can’t grow just anywhere. This is why farmers have fields and why these fields have to be plowed, rotated, and regularly maintained.
This sower, however, tosses precious seed onto the road (where it is eaten by birds), into rocky places without much earth (where it withers away), and among thorns (where it is strangled). Isn’t this strange?
What would you think if you walked outside and saw a farmer throwing seeds onto the road? Onto a pile of rocks? Into a tangled mess of thorns? What would you think if you knew that this was the first place he chose to sow these seeds?
You would probably wonder what he was doing. The action is so strange that it must have some explanation: No grown person would choose to plant seeds in the street!
To answer this question, however, we must ask another: Why does Jesus tell this parable? Too often, we read scriptures out of context. If we do not read the events that happen before and after a scripture, we run the risk of shaping the scripture around our own lives (instead of shaping our lives around the scripture!).
Also, when we read scripture out of context, we get the impression that it is a series of timeless truths, rather than the invasion of God into the ordinary times of human life.
Jesus is telling this story in response to something—but what? We have to travel back a few chapters to find out. That’s because this scripture passage isn’t its own story—it’s a continuation of the story that we have been reading for the last month.
This story begins with Jesus’ heart being moved within him at the sight of the crowds that are following him (Matthew 9:36). He thinks of these crowds as “sheep with no shepherd”—but why?
Because their religious leaders are no longer able to recognize the God which they claim to serve.
Before this scripture, three times the religious leaders accuse Christ’s power of coming from the devil.
“It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons,” they cry (Matthew 12:24). Claiming that God’s power comes from the devil, however, is the unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:31-33).
In other words, the very people who should have been shepherding God’s people had sinned and their sin could not possibly be forgiven. They were leading people away from God and this deeply troubled Jesus.
So, Jesus gathers together his 12 closest followers and instructs them to go out and minister to his flock.
“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he instructs the disciples (Matthew 10:8). He then warns the disciples that when they do this, they will face opposition. When they travel into villages, people will reject them—even though they are proclaiming the truth, healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.
Jesus even guarantees the disciples that they will face opposition from their own families (Matthew 10:34-38). As they attempt to act as shepherds to those who have gone astray, they are guaranteed persecution.
What this isn’t just the way that Jesus’ disciples will suffer—it’s the way that Jesus, himself, will suffer!
In Matthew 12, Jesus takes the withered hand of a man at the synagogue and makes it new. The religious leaders are outraged.
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” The religious leaders say (Matthew 12:10). The scripture tells us that they confront Jesus for the sole purpose of publically accusing him of wrongdoing. So, when the tables turn and they are publically corrected by him, the leaders begin to plot for ways to destroy him.
Later on in this passage (in a different place), Jesus heals a man who is blind, mute, and suffering from demon possession. Instead of rejoicing, these religious leaders malign him once again.
“This fellow does not cast out demons expect by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons,” they say (Matthew 12:24). Jesus responds by explaining how this cannot possibly be true, but the religious leaders pay no attention.
“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you,” they say.
This request comes from the very religious leaders who (1) watched Jesus heal a man who was blind, mute, and demon-possessed and (2) are responsible to God for directing the people to him. How painful this must have been! This is why Jesus told his disciples that the religious leaders would reject them: because they first rejected him.
Even more painful than being rejected by religious leaders, however, is the rejection that Jesus faced at the hands of his own relatives. Mark 3 tells us that when Jesus’ brothers and mother heard about what he was doing, “they went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). Jesus’ own family thought that he was crazy.
Everything that Jesus said would happen to his disciples happened to him.
But, what, then, is the question that Jesus is responding to? The same set of questions that his followers find themselves confronted with today: How can Jesus be God if the few people who follow him are tax collectors and sinners?
“How can you be God if the religious leaders reject you?” People challenge him. “Your own family thinks that you’re crazy! Why should anyone listen to you?”
So Jesus tells a story about a sower who sows in strange places. A sower who sows in a place where he knows there will be no harvest.
This isn’t a story about a sower who tosses seed onto the road in the hopes that at least one seed will take root and grow. Jesus is very clear: The seed is gobbled up by the birds. The seed is withered by the sun. The seed is choked by the weeds. Therefore, the sower is deliberately putting seeds in places where he knows it won’t grow—but why?
Because the sower is mirroring an aspect of God’s character that has been true of God’s character throughout the Bible: He does not only send his word to those who receive it. In Romans 1, Paul tells us that God has shared his word with everyone—even those who reject it. He also tells us why.
[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made, so [every human being is] without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
God presents his word for two reasons: (1) to redeem those who are willing to receive it, and (2) to judge those who reject it. He does not reserve his word only for those he knows will accept it—and neither should we. God sends his word even to those whom he knows will (by their own choice) reject him. It isn’t God’s will for these individuals to perish, but he is well-aware of the choice which they will make before they make it.
Always, God’s word brings out the darkness in people’s hearts. This isn’t to say that this darkness is created by God’s word—the darkness always exists within the person. John 3:20 says, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come to the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” The light of God’s word reveals the darkness that was hiding in us all along—it reveals the deeds which we do our best to hide.
In Acts, we see that, typically, the disciples are rejected by the first group of people to whom they preach—the Jews. Paul was even stoned and left for dead by a group of Jews. Shortly after this, however, he pulled himself up from the ground, dusted himself off, and walked back into the city. He began proclaiming the gospel again to an entirely new group (the Gentiles)—who were much more receptive to the message.
This is the character of God—He sends his word out everywhere and to everyone. We must go and do likewise. The sower does not begin with the fertile field. He first plants seed where he knows it won’t grow. Even after this, he chooses to plant in another place where the seed will ultimately die. The fertile field isn’t his first attempt—it’s his fourth!
Let us now go and preach in our hometowns—even though they reject us!
Let us continue to preach—even when religious leaders threaten us!
Let us share the gospel with our family—even if they think we are crazy!
In Jesus’ parable, the seed which falls on the fertile ground is said to produce a hundredfold harvest. This phrase should remind us of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
When Jesus says “harvest”, he is not referring to material prosperity—he is referring to the church. If you sow the seeds of the gospel, you will find that every so often your seed will fall upon rich soil: Someone will hear God’s word and believe. This person, this harvest, will be your new brother or sisters in Christ.
Even when everyone else rejects you, the church will always be there for you—you will always have your brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if these brothers and sisters don’t share your culture, ethnicity, political views, denomination, or interests, they are your family in Christ, your hundredfold harvest.