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The Parable of the Sower - It's Not about the Sower (also, What Is a Parable? from Matthew 13:1-13)

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 13:1-13

Partly in punishment for their unbelief, Jesus controlled His most important teaching (that the Kingdom of God had come in Him) to the people. Some would understand and some wouldn’t, and the parable of the sower tells us that we bear responsibility for the quality of our own hearts.

For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. Matthew 13:13

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Modern Parables

A film company actually did a video series of a modern retelling of 6 of Jesus’ parables (including the sower). Tim Challies compiled the online trailers for each on his blog——where you can watch them. Even just the trailer gets you thinking! If you really like one, search for it on YouTube or Vimeo; they’re all available for purchase, of course.

A Google search on “modern parable” had multiple hits for this same story. If you haven’t heard it, it’s cute:

“A young lady was waiting for her flight in a boarding room of a big airport. As she should need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a pack of cookies. She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace. Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading. When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought, "What the nerve! If I was in the mood, I would punch him for daring!" For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn't want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought: "Ah... what this abusive man do now?" Then, the man taking the last cookie, divided it into half, giving her one half. "Ah! That's too much!" she thought. She was too much angry now! In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to the boarding place. When she sat down in her seat inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take her eyeglasses, and to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched... unopened. She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong... she forgotten that her cookies were kept in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter, while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing his cookies with him. And now, there are no chances to explain or apologize.”

You can see the value—it’s a cute story that lots of us can relate to with a clear message but that can be interpreted a number of ways (it has multiple lessons).

A lot of movies function as feature-length parables—very clear commentary without being based on specific events. Here are some that come to mind (if these help spark some ideas for discussion, then great): Her (2013), Frozen, Avatar, The Wizard of Oz, High Noon, The Brave Little Toaster, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Look up “the hidden meaning of [xxx] movie” if you need help. I give you a lot more about parables inside to help you catch the difference between a parable, an allegory, a fable, and a story with a moral. But for the purposes of an introduction, any movie that has a powerful, underlying truth in it will get your class thinking the right direction. Of course, there is a lot of value in “parabolic” teaching! Just about every Berenstain Bears Book functions as a parable (or fable) for kids, as does every VeggieTales episode. We use parables (or other stories we just make up) to teach kids right and wrong, godly values, and lessons for life. Jesus, it turns out, is the Master parable teller.

This Week's Big Idea: What Is a Parable?

Parables are not unique to Jesus. You might remember a famous parable that Nathan told David about a sheep stealer (2 Sam 12:1-14)! In fact, if you have time, have your class read it. The purpose was to establish a clear moral teaching, which David understood and agreed to. Then, when Nathan revealed that David was guilty of the story, David was cut to the heart. And that’s what a parable is: a simile that provides a vision of kingdom life by comparing it to life here and now.

  • It is NOT an allegory. An allegory functions as a kind of one-to-one “code” in which each element represents something else. In a parable, the details could refer to many things, and yet the truth would not change. There may be allegorical elements, but they’re never the main point.

  • A parable is NOT a fable. A fable is a completely fictional story (usually involving a talking animal) whereas a parable is always directly related to real-life. Fables are usually more generic-morality whereas parables are specifically related to God’s value system.

Jesus used parables better than anyone in history. People today (even non-Christians) still resonate with His parables, a testament to how masterful they are. Here is a complete list of Jesus’ parables (if you want to share one with your class to illustrate something you’ve been talking about):

  • New Cloth on an Old Coat (Matthew 9:16, Mark 2:21,Luke 5:36). |

  • New Wine in Old Wineskins (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37). |

  • Lamp on a Stand (Matthew 5:14, Mark 4:21-22, Luke 8:16, Luke 11:33). |

  • Wise and Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27). |

  • Moneylender Forgives Unequal Debts (Luke 7:41-43). |

  • The Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). |

  • The Watchful Servant (Luke 12:35-40, Mark 13:35-37). |

  • The Faithful Servant (Luke 12:42-48, Matthew 24:45-51). |

  • Unfruitful Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9). |

  • The Sower and Four Types of Soil (Matthew 13:3-8, Mark 4:3-8, Luke 8:5-8). |

  • Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30). |

  • A Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29). |

  • A Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19). |

  • Yeast (Matthew 13:33). |

  • Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44). |

  • Valuable Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46). |

  • Fishing Net (Matthew 13:47). |

  • Owner of a House (Matthew 13:52). |

  • Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-13, Luke 15:4-7). |

  • The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18). |

  • Master and His Servant (Luke 17:7-10). |

  • The Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23-34). |

  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). |

  • A Friend in Need (Luke 11:5-8). |

  • Lowest Seat at the Feast (Luke 14:7-14). |

  • Invitation to a Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24). |

  • The Cost of Discipleship (Luke 14:28-33). |

  • The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). |

  • The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11). |

  • The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8). |

  • The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). |

  • Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). |

  • The Persistent Widow and Crooked Judge (Luke 18:2-8). |

  • A Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14). |

  • The Ruler Gives Charge to His Servants (Luke 19:12-27, Matthew 25:14-30 – The Talents). |

  • The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32). |

  • Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-44, Mark 12:1-11, Luke 20:9-18). |

  • Invitation to a Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14). |

  • Signs of the Future from a Fig Tree (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-29, Luke 21:29-31). |

  • The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). |

  • The Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

What made Jesus’ parables so striking is how compact they are. In no more than a few lines, Jesus could create a word picture, draw us into it, establish a truth, and hammer us with it. The amazing thing about these parables is that if a person didn’t want to understand it, he wouldn’t. Only those who trusted Jesus were willing to hear the hard truth behind the interesting story.

Here’s why we don’t treat parables as allegories: we can get into weird trouble quickly. Augustine treated the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory: “the wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he has fallen; the thieves, the devil who strips Adam of his immortality and leads him to sin; the priest and Levite, the Old Testament Law and ministry which was unable to cleanse and save anyone; the good Samaritan who binds the wounds, Christ who forgives sin; oil and wine; hope and stimulus to work, the animal, the incarnation; the inn, the church; and the innkeeper, the apostle Paul.” Huh? So what does that mean for my life today in Christ? Parables have a single meaning related to our life—it might be hidden, but it is there.

Special Note on Allegories

Hopefully you’ve caught this: the way Jesus explains the parable of the sower and of the weeds sure sounds like an allegory! Listen to this: “The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; and the good seed—these are the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels” (13:37-39). That kind of one-to-one correspondence is the very definition of allegory, isn’t it?

Well, kind of. Here’s one important thing to remember: Jesus Himself gives this interpretation. So right there, that knocks out all of the bizarre things people have said about Jesus’ parables since then. Secondly, and more importantly in terms of literary application, the one-to-one is still kind of a one-to-many. In other words, even though the parable has a specific referent, it still applies to everyone who hears it. Consequently, it is a parable with allegorical elements. But that doesn’t mean that all of Jesus’ parables are allegories!

Because it's interesting and beautiful, here is a cove on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where some scholars think Jesus may have told these parables: the “cove of parables”.


Part 1: A Crowd (Matthew 13:1-3)

On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore. Then He told them many things in parables.

This is on the same occasion as last week’s lesson dealing with the confrontation between Jesus and the unbelieving crowd. They’re still here! And they’re still unbelieving . . .

Consequently (and this is pretty normal for Him), Jesus taught in parables. He shortly explains that such is the price of unbelief—not getting a plain, easy truth. This is an otherwise teaching scenario with the teacher sitting, surrounded by standing hearers. (Some interesting ideas about the water: tests indicate that a water surface acts as a natural amplifier by reflecting the volume, but only on a calm day!) But let’s not forget that the crowd is ornery.

Jesus teaches a lot of parables in this setting, the overall tone of which really helps us understand the nature of this crowd:

  • Receiving God’s truth is as much about the hearer as the teacher (13:1-23)

  • There are servants of Satan in the midst of God’s people (13:24-30)

  • Even when unnoticed, the kingdom of God cannot be stopped (13:31-33)

  • People fail to realize the value of the kingdom of God (13:44-46)

Those are all stiff rebukes. (Of course, if you think about it, every parable is a rebuke by definition, but these seem pretty tough.) This is Jesus’ way of hiding the truth in plain “sight”. Really, this point is just about saying that Jesus took every opportunity to teach, no matter the setting or crowd.


Part 2: A Parable (Matthew 13:3-9)

“Consider the sower who went out to sow. As he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times what was sown. Anyone who has ears should listen!”

The focus of your time together, of course, needs to be on the parable itself. And even though the focal passage doesn’t include Jesus’ explanation (in 18-23), it’s understood that we’re expected to use the help that Jesus gives us to teach it. And your leader guide nails it when it says, “The first parable Jesus spoke in Matthew’s Gospel was a parable about parables.” The ultimate point of the parable is that some people will respond to Jesus’ teaching, and some won’t. But before we get there, let’s walk through the parable itself.

I give you asides to introduce you to agriculture (a dominant life theme; maybe like a parable about football today), soil, and crop yield (at the bottom). His hearers would have known exactly what He was talking about. A lot of planting was done by broadcast (they literally threw the seed around). The majority of seed would be sown on the plowed field (which would then be “sown” via a second plowing), but some would be thrown on the edges (next to the path), some would be sown on a part of the field that was shallow (even well-plowed fields were not more than 5” deep), and some would be thrown on a spot where they didn’t control the weeds. All weeding was done by hand, so there was a definite give-and-take on how much weeding they did.

And they problems they had then are the same as we have now. If I don’t cover my seed with a thick layer of dirt, the birds find it pretty quickly! And anything that remains exposed usually burns up (unless it’s in good shade and well-watered). And we all know how weeds can choke out any kind of planting by stealing the resources the seeds need to grow.

So, what does it mean? First, realize that the parable is not about the sower, so don’t worry about who it is (it could be Jesus, the disciples, anyone); it’s about the soil, or the hearers. Second, don’t try to find some kind of “progression” in the types of soils. Again, it’s not a parable about persistence on the part of the sower. Third, it’s not telling us “how” to listen to Jesus—it’s not telling us “how” to be a certain kind of soil. It’s simply saying that different people respond differently. It’s about “that” it happens, not “how” or “why” it happens. Capiche?

So what happens? In one scenario, Satan (or his minions) “interfere” with the listening process. BUT make sure you explain this correctly. It’s not about Satan (the bird)! It’s about the person’s heart that is not willing or prepared to hear the truth, and that gives Satan an easy chance to distract or deceive a hearer. This does NOT mean that the next time someone casts a seed that the same thing will happen . . . In another scenario, a person gives evidence of hearing and believing, but it’s not legit. You know that by their fruit—when the pressure comes, the “fruit” withers. There were many people who followed Jesus in the good times, but disappeared quickly when things got hard. In another scenario, the person never listens to the message “with joy” but is always distracted by worries or wealth. If they listen at all, they are too concerned about what it will cost to take Jesus seriously. Finally, there is the person who hears, listens, understands, and believes. That person produces a crop, which could mean many things: it could be evidence of spiritual growth, it could be leadership in a faith community, or it could be simple evangelism.

Your leader guide gets it right when it says that there are really only two types of soil: good and bad (fruitful and fruitless). It doesn’t matter how you start; it matters how you finish. But don’t overlook one very, very key element to this parable that Jesus leaves unspoken: the rain. He says nothing about rain. That’s beyond the control of the sower, and certainly it has an impact on the seed! I think this calls us back to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, that God sends rain on everybody. Everybody has a chance to hear with understanding. Many people will choose not to take that chance.


Aside: Agriculture in Israel

Agriculture was the dominant industry in ancient times (people have to eat). Even the traders across sea and desert had to make sure foodstuff was a part of their deals. Consequently, Jesus spoke a lot about farming. Israel generally had fertile soil, but it was also extremely rocky. Farmers would have to remove the rocks (which they usually piled up on the border of their field) and then plow the ground deeply to make sure their crops could take root and not be washed away by flash storms or burned out by sudden dry, hot spells.

Apparently, the farming cycle was this: olives were gathered in aug/sept/oct; grain was sown (usually by broadcast) in oct/nov/dec; vegetables planted in dec/jan/feb; then came a month of weeding; the barley harvest in mar/apr; the wheat harvest in apr/may; grapes in may/jun/jul; other fruits in jul/aug. It was a predictable routine that families carried on from generation to generation on their ancestral lands. Sadly, wealthy Jews eventually ignored laws for property and accumulated larger and larger territory with tenant farmers.

Massive yields were not unheard of. With favorable weather conditions and skillful technique, a farmer could absolutely get 100 bushels of wheat out of 1 bushel of grain sowed. In drier times, they would consider a yield of 60 or 30 equally impressive.


Part 3: A Reason (Matthew 13:10-13)

Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.

I think this all has made the disciples very nervous. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying or doing (or why). In many ways, they’re just as in the dark as the crowds. And Jesus doesn’t soften it for them. “Yep, that’s right.” Jesus will show the mercy of explaining the parable to them in a few verses, but the truth is that there are secrets (“mysteries”) of God’s truth that they can’t figure out on their own—it has to be revealed to them by an agent of God. In this case, the “mystery” is not that Jesus is the Son of God (that will be established by His resurrection); the “mystery” is that the Kingdom of God is coming in a different way that they expected. Everybody knows that there will be a final overthrow of evil and God will establish “heaven on earth.” What they didn’t know is that Jesus came to start this process early, in a secret way that will slowly spread across the earth before that final battle. That’s the secret. That’s why the parables.

So you have lots of great questions to take your class through. Here are some ideas. “Do you ever feel like the Bible is a super mystery that you just don’t understand?” Well, that goes back to the kind of “soil” you are. Do you listen? Are you attentive? Do you pray for wisdom? Are you really trying? Do you let yourself get distracted easily? Let them know that our church is here to help them learn the Bible as best we can. We’re all in this together! (And then let me know what I can do to help . . .) “Do you pay attention to how productive you are as a soil?” First, make sure to encourage everyone that Jesus made it clear that not all “soil” is equally productive, and that’s okay. All of that soil is “good” soil. We all have different situations in life making us able to be more or less productive. But if there’s no evidence of a sustained “crop yield” then that’s a concern. Maybe the seed of God’s Word and Spirit hasn’t really taken root in your life. Let’s “re-sow” the gospel and go through this process again. Finally, are you sowing the seed of God’s Word in other people’s lives? Are you giving other people a chance to hear and learn about the kingdom of God such that they have a chance to respond? They say that people have to hear the gospel 7 times before they really start to struggle through it. Are you sowing?


Closing Thoughts: Soil Qualities in Israel

Israel was once a land flowing with milk and honey. Unlike Egypt, with its flat lands and Nile-driven irrigation, Israel was filled with hills and valleys that depended on the rains. There was lots of good pastureland as well as locations for fruit trees, but farmland was harder to come by. In the highlands (more rain and cooler conditions meant that even in dry times there was always a thick dew), there was very productive limestone-based soil, but it was very susceptible to erosion, meaning farmers would have to build large terraces to hold their fields together. In the valleys, where the lime would ultimately wash down, the soil was stable and deeper but of poor nutritional quality. In lower Galilee, where there was once volcanic activity, there were massive boulders and very poor soil quality.

Consequently, the people who heard Jesus tell this parable would have had intimate awareness of the various types of soil and the impact it would have on crop yield. Depending on how Jesus meant yield (grain per stalk, stalks per seed, or grain per seed), 100-fold could be good or exceptional, but not unreasonable (within the realm of expectation for any normal person).

Crop Yield - A Primer

So . . . Agronomists say that you must have a minimum yield of 3:1 (three grains harvested for every seed sown) if life is going to continue: one for the next planting, one for you, and one for your livestock. Calculations for crop yield have changed in the past centuries and are pretty complex now based on everything people do to increase them. And some of the things we do to increase yield (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers) tend to have difficult-to-quantify negative effects. Soilborne diseases have very negative effects on yields, and they are difficult to eradicate (because the tilling process itself spreads to disease). Water shortage (or inefficient use) also greatly hinders yield. Farmers have learned techniques to replenish the soil as a part of the planting cycle, but diminished soil nutrient quality also drives down yield.

Yield is now generally measured in terms of kg/acre. The World Bank records yields per country per crop and is up-to-date through 2013. These numbers are fascinating. With a staple cereal crop, US average yield is 7340. That sounds good compared with Zimbabwe, 724. Somalia, 964. Nigeria, 1537. Iraq, 2197. Even Israel, 3797. Countries around and better than us include Ireland, 7803. Germany, 7318. New Zealand, 8122. Belgium, 9213. It shouldn’t be surprising that the lowest yields are found in Africa (Haiti and Kazakhstan are the lowest non-African nations on the list) and otherwise in nations that are often considered “third world”. China and India, the most populous countries, produce average yields of 5891 and 2962. NOW, add in the report from the World Food Programme that the highest instances of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Asia, and underdeveloped countries. Hopefully, that tells us that crop yield is a big deal with a big impact on populations.


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