Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

78. The Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1 -23; Mark 4:1 -20; Luke 8:4-15)*

The recent preaching tour made by Jesus (Lk. 8:1) had led to a great influx of people from one town after another (8:4), into Capernaum, all eager to see and hear more of him. Mark’s word (4:1) might imply ‘the biggest crowd yet.’ So the mode of indoor instruction had to be abandoned. Instead, back he went to the old style of preaching on the beach. Once again the fishing boat of Zebedee and Co. (probably moored in a creek to allow the people to be fairly close on both sides) became his pulpit. Separated from the crowd thronging the shore he was able to discourse without the discomfort created by the too-close proximity of the people’s undisciplined eagerness.

Matthew’s phrase: “the same day”, tells an awesome story of what Jesus continued to crowd into one day’s activity:

Healing a dumb and blind man (12:22).
The Baalzebub controversy (12:24ff).
followed by a long discourse (12:31ff).
His pause to talk to a pious woman (Lk. 11:27).
Teaching in the synagogue (12:46).
His own family rebuffed (12:47-50).
Preaching from the boat (13:3).
A long series of parables (13:4ff).
Explanation of the parables to the disciples (Mk. 4:10ff).

Now, on the same day (Mt. 13:1) that his brothers would have taken him off home, saying: “He is beside himself” (Mk. 3:21), Jesus settled into systematic instruction by means of parables. Already on not a few occasions he had found this mode of preaching valuable.

His earlier teaching had already included parables about salt, light, the birds, the flowers, two gates, house-building, wineskins and patched garments. But now his parables became more systematic and, as allegories, more complete, this method was now to serve his purpose more than ever as a means of sifting the sincere and thoughtful from the hostile and the idly curious.

Somewhat remarkably, the Sower, the Mustard Seed and the Vineyard are the only parables recorded in all three synoptic gospels.


So, sitting as a teacher, he began with an imperative: “Hearken” (Mk. 4:3). Here Was the prophet like unto Moses with a parable very different from the tabernacle in the wilderness. “And (God said through Moses) whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him” (Dt. 18:19).

There was a further imperative of a different sort: “Verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which ye see, and did not see them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and did not hear them” (Mt. 13:17). It was an unselfconscious reminder of the high privilege which his presence gave them, a special blessing which has been without compare since the days of the apostles until these present days of imminent realisation of the divine Purpose. So it behoved the people to follow with undivided attention and to remember every word he spoke.

The story of the sower was one of the simplest and most effective of all that Jesus told. Its meaning should have been tolerably obvious to all who heard. Nevertheless his immediate disciples later insisted on an explanation, so Jesus supplied this point by point.

Seed and Soil

It is as much a parable of soils as of sowing (in Mark the emphasis switches from one to the other) for the outcome depends on where the seed falls. In one respect the story is not true to life. A good husbandman is careful to see that very little of his seed falls on stony places, in bypaths, or among thorns. He is at pains to ensure that all but a tiny fraction of it falls in well-prepared soil where there is good tilth. But Jesus, even when he spoke this parable, was casting his seed broadcast, regardless as to what kind of ground it fell into. And this is how he would have his Word proclaimed in every generation. Certainly today, by whatever means the Word is proclaimed, most of it falls in unfruitful places. But as an illustration of the varying kinds of response to the gospel, this story could not be bettered.

The Lord’s parable inevitably provokes the question: Why is this ground rich, and that barren? The only possible answer to this is: God made it so. The parable seems to take this fact for granted-possibly because, being a parable, it is only possible to present one aspect of truth at a time. Here, appropriately, Alford quotes from the Thirty-nine Articles: “God preventeth us (i.e. works before-hand) that we may have a good will, and worketh with us when we have that will”. Here, throughout, the emphasis is on the response of the individual, and not at all on the power of the seed. Yet how important a factor that is!

It is certainly true that bad soils can be made better before sowing time comes, by careful ploughing, by clearing of stones, and by good manuring. So the preacher is not at liberty to take one look at an opportunity for sowing the seed, and then to shrug his shoulders at the unpromising prospects and go away (cp. Lk. 8:18).

It has been suggested that Jesus framed this parable (and also the tares) as an expression of his growing sense of failure and as warning to the twelve to expect big discouragement. The recent bitter collision with the religious leaders may well have had this effect. And certainly before very long the Lord’s popularity graph was to take a sharp downward turn.

“The sower went forth to sow his seed: and as he sowed...” (Lk.). In the Greek text the key word comes four times in ten words. It is “his seed” which is sown; and on this Burgon comments: “Let ministers of Christ beware how they sow any other seed than His”.

“The seed is the word of God”. This splendid phrase is one of Luke’s favourites. He has it four times in his gospel and twelve times in Acts (thus providing a continuation of the parable of the sower).

But there are four kinds of soil-that which is trodden hard, rock with only the thinnest covering of soil, foul soil with the seeds and roots of many weeds, and the good tilth.

And there are four kinds of result to be looked for-some seed never gets the chance to sprout, some sprouts and withers just as quickly, some is choked by weeds and makes no head of grain, and some is really fruitful.

Gospel Variations

It is interesting, and not unprofitable, to compare the main differences in the reporting of the parable by the three synoptists:

Mt. begins: “Behold” (his characteristic exclamation mark). Mk. has: “Hearken”. Lk. makes a bald start: “A sower...”
Although (in Mt. Mk.) the seed is all the same, Lk. differentiates, using “heteros... heteros”, i.e. different seed; thus to emphasise the varying results.
Describing the good soil, Mt. has 100,60,30 fold; Mk.: 30,60,100; Lk.: 100 only.
In Lk. the disciples ask for this parable to be explained. Mk. says “the parables”, thus implying that he knows of others spoken then by the Lord but not included in his gospel. Mt. has: “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?”
The Lord’s justification for his parables is: Mt.: “because seeing they see not”. Mk. Lk.: “so that seeing they see not”,
Mt.: “lest...they should turn, and I should heal them”. Mk.: “lest they turn again and should be forgiven”.
Mt.: “Many prophets and righteous men longed to see the things you see”. Lk.: “Many prophets and kings wished to see the things ye see”.
Mt.: “The evil one snatches away that which was sown”. Mk.: “Satan”. Lk.: “the devil”.
Although there is variation of pronouns in the three records, they all fail to make any appreciable distinction between the seed and the soil into which it falls, for the fairly obvious reason that it needs both seed and soil for there to be any result at all, either good or bad.

The Wayside

The prospects for the seed falling on a pathway were doubly hopeless. For there germination was hardly possible, and if it did germinate the feet of passers-by would tread it. down (Lk.). But the birds saw to it that the seed had a different earlier fate.

Jesus interprets. This soil represents those who have no real understanding of or appreciation for the gospel (Mt. 13:19). Before ever patient instruction can foster early acquaintance with the gospel, worldly influences ruin the slightest disposition to heed the message.

The enemy is called Satan because he is an adversary to Truth, and the Devil because he is anti-God in his attitude, and “the wicked one” because he is a man of evil influence (as in Mt. 5:39 s.w.).

What can the preacher of the gospel do in such defection? The only answer seems to be: Try again, or try elsewhere.

Rocky Ground

The seed on stony ground has a better chance of escaping the attentions of the birds, and there is some moisture-holding soil to encourage rapid germination. But quick growth is followed by quick withering as the shallow pockets of soil dry out under the fierce heat of the sun. (Jas. 1:11 alludes to this; cp. also Jer. 17:8 where LXX has the same word: “moisture”). There is no eager root to search its sterile environment for sustenance, so the heat which should encourage growth shrivels it up instead.

Three times Jesus used the word “immediately” with reference to this class of believers. They give spontaneous joyful response to the message of the kingdom. But their conversion is superficial and will in no way stand the test of tribulation. Come hostile persuasion, hard circumstance, or persecution of the name of Christ, and just as quickly this disciple is a disciple no longer.

Pliny, administering the emperor Hadrian’s rules requiring loyalty to Caesar, found this sympton among the Christians in Bithynia. Earlier, in Nero’s reign, Paul, to his great discouragement, had the same sorry truth brought home to him: “At my first defence no one took my part” (2 Tim. 4:16). At that very time Demas seems to have taken an easy way out rather than share Paul’s danger with staunch loyalty (2 Tim. 4:10).

Such “have no root in themselves”. It is a puzzling phrase, probably equivalent to “understandeth it not: (Mt.). Before there is a proper grasp of what faith in Christ really means, confident persuasion or else persecution (Mt. Mk.) work their grievous damage and all is lost.


There is also the seed which falls into potentially fruitful soil, but already weeds are in possession (Jer.4:3). The soaking rain and warm sunshine which quicken the sower’s seed give even greater vitality and vigour to the unwanted crop. No matter how the good seed struggles to make growth, its nourishment from below and its light from above are alike cut off by greedy flourishing useless neighbours, which seem to conspire (Gk.) to hinder progress. So, whilst this time there is continuing growth, it can never come to anything of value. There is no fruit to reward and gladden the sower.

Here is vivid and indeed poignant representation of disciples who find the world too much for them. Disciples they fain would be, but in the way of life which they choose they will not forego close association with “thorns and briers, which are nigh unto cursing.” In the Lord’s interpretation these overpowering influences are “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things.” The first of these could, perhaps, be read as “endless worry”, and who would say that this is not a prime evil in choking the spiritual life of many a believer, especially when it is centred round progress in career or business? And since these ambitions invariably are close-knit with moneymaking, the association with “the deceitfulness of riches” is apt enough.

This second phrase will also bear looking at further. The King James version has translated accurately but has not explained. The RSV, reading “delight in riches” has attempted to interpret but has lost accuracy in the process. The NEB has combined translation and interpretation perfectly: “the false glamour of riches”. Jesus never had a good word to say for wealth, yet his warning runs ineffectually off the back of approximately 100% of his disciples-for the simple reason that to each of them “riches” always means “having at least twice as much as / have”.

Hence the next expression used by Jesus, which, more literally, is: “evil desires concerning the rest”, that is, concerning the rest of the material pleasure which the world goes offer.

All of these, “entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful”. The Lord did not speak too strongly. Every generation has had its tragic examples of the truth of his words — men in whom spiritual life has not died out but in whom it has been spindly and frail and often-times imperceptible because of the lush growth of worldliness all around.
Luke’s version of the parable has here one short phrase, badly obscured in the King James Bible, which is the key to all the rest: “having heard, they go on their way, and are choked...” When a man chooses thus to go his own way, spiritual atrophy is almost bound to set in, and the outcome is near to being a foregone conclusion. Luke’s version has also another very telling word with a powerful double meaning. “They bring no fruit to perfection” is a good, fairly literal, translation. But the Greek expression can also mean: “they do not pay”. This seed, although it continues to grow, might just as well not have been sown, for all the return the husbandman has from it.

Good Ground

There are no more spiritual tragedies described in this parable. The seed which fulfils its true function is that which ultimately justifies the telling of the story. The synoptic gospels are .delightfully complementary to each other in the .way they report the Lord’s own interpretation here. In Matthew this is “he that heareth the word, and understandeth it” (contrast 13:19). In Mark he “receives it” (RSV: accepts it). And in Luke he “keeps it” (RV: holds it fast- unto eternal life; Jn. 8:51). There is a “Pilgrim’s Progress” of ideas here eloquently telling the experience of many a saint in Christ. These are the outward tokens of “an honest and good heart” which “brings forth fruit with patience”- “growing up and increasing” (RSV), looking better and better every day. This word “patience” sums up both the slow steady growth of the plant to maturity and fruition, and also the life of steadfast loyalty and striving of the Lord’s faithful followers. The Lord who has gone forth weeping, bearing precious seed, will come again with rejoicing bearing the sheaves of his Passover offering with him (Ps. 126:5,6; Lev. 23:11).

Thus, ultimately, and inevitably (Mt.: de), “fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, an hundredfold”-good, better, best- and all of it seed which has grown more and more like the original seed which, Jesus says, is the WORD, himself! And the parable stops there, as though to emphasize that if a man brings forth fruit to Christ in faith, service, and evangelism he has already sufficiently fulfilled God’s intention with him.

Rather remarkably, Luke mentions only “an hundredfold”, perhaps intending to steer his reader to consideration of another “hundredfold”-the prosperity which God gave to Isaac in his harvest in the land ot the Philistines (Gen. 26:12).

Appropriately in that passage the Hebrew text of the next verse says three times over in the most emphatic way possible that Isaac “grew”. The harvest in that land of Gentiles was the growth also, in the face of strife, of the blessed Seed of Abraham. Here is yet another parable.

There is a kind of progression about the sections of this parable. The seed by the wayside is snatched away immediately. That falling on rocky soil springs up quickly but shrivels up quickly. The seed among thorns persists in a feeble useless fashion and bears no fruit. But that in good soil grows steadily through the season and “with patience” brings forth ample fruit.

Thus both in response and in the time involved there is a graduation. Also, alas, where the first three are concerned there is a steadily increasing degree of tragedy.

Packed into these five verses of parable are lessons enough, if only a man will seek honestly their relevance to himself. And, of course, this is what Jesus meant when he ended with his concise but searching “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”.

The profound importance of these simple words may be measured by the frequency of their repetition, for the Lord Jesus is found using them on no less than twelve separate occasions (in fifteen different places in the NT text).
A man may be physically equipped with ears and yet have, alas, no hearing at all. But if those ears have any degree of normality, then, when a message is spoken, he cannot help but hear and act on it. And so it is also in the life of the Spirit.

Here is yet another parable.

Notes: Mt 13:1-23

Sprang up. The word for the sun’s rising (v. 6) is almost the same.
Withered. Is. 40:7,8,24 anticipates this figure - that of the hot desert wind, making the summer heat more fierce*
Thorns. The OT has 11 different words for “thorn” but only one for “seed”, and it comes more often than all the 11 put together.
Brought forth. An impressive continuous tense after a sequence of aorists.

Lk. 8:4-15

He that hath ears... The 15 passages are: Mt. 11:15; 13:9 (= Mk. 4:9 = Lk. 8:8); Mt. 13:43 (= Mk. 4:23); Lk. 14:35; Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22; 13:9. Is the original to be found in 2 Sam. 7:22? That was not a parable, but a prophecy, of the kingdom.
The devil = Satan (Mk.) A good illustration of how the NT makes no appreciable distinction between the two.
Fall away in Gk. is middle voice, implying that they think they do this for their own benefit -but it isn’t really!
With patience. Lk. 21:19 has the only other occurrence of this word in the gospels. See also Rev. 3:10 (allusion this passage?), and Col. 1:6,10.

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