Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others.” [Mark 4:13-14 (NLT)]
The Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all repeat Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils. As the farmer sows his seeds, some lands on the packed soil along the footpath. The birds steal the seeds so nothing takes root. Some seeds land on a thin layer of dirt over underlying rock. Although the seeds quickly sprout, without deep roots, they wither and die. Other seeds land among the thistles and thorns. Although they take root, the fast-growing weeds crowd them out. Only the seeds that fall on fertile soil take firm root, grow into maturity, and bear fruit. Rather than teaching Agriculture 101, by comparing those soils to the various ways God’s message is received, Jesus was teaching about evangelism.
The parable’s farmer scattered his seeds without determining beforehand which soil would be most receptive. In the same way, when we sow the seeds of God’s word, there’s no quick way to determine if or when that seed will take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds might lie dormant for years until conditions are optimal for them to take hold. For example, lodgepole pine seeds actually need the intense heat of fire to explode their seed cones before they can germinate. In the same way, the seed of God’s word may lie dormant until a person’s life goes up in flames.
As for the seeds on the footpath and the birds and other animals who might eat them—when they deposit their feces, those seeds may end up in a more receptive environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble. Even if our testimony is rejected, it may inadvertently get passed on to a more receptive person!
As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying. Having seen trees growing out of mountain sides and wildflowers peeking up through sidewalk cracks, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. Just as it’s possible for seeds to grow in adverse conditions, it’s possible that the word of God can soften even the hardest of hearts! As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Beautiful flowers can grow in the midst of weeds!
Even in good soil, some seeds might never germinate. While the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth should have been fertile ground for Him, it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to meet Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of pagan gods, 1,000 prostitutes, temple to Aphrodite, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, didn’t seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a successful church there. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.
While Jesus knew how people would respond to Him, we don’t. None of us can accurately predict if, how, or when the seed of God’s word will be received. In 2005, without knowing if the seeds would germinate, scientists planted thirty-five 2000-year-old date palm tree seeds excavated from Israeli archaeological sites. Even though it took those ancient seeds two millennia to sprout, against all odds, seven of them took root and are now producing fruit!
Rather than trying to analyze the soil or waiting for optimal growing conditions, our job as God’s farmers is to continue sowing good seeds whenever and wherever we can. Eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.
The Parable of the Soils tells us that, regardless of hardened hearts, superficiality, competing pressures, and even failure, the promised harvest is “a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Without a doubt, in spite of setbacks and challenges, God’s Kingdom will prevail, but only if we continue to plant those seeds!
It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]