February 28, 2021

Understanding the Parable of the Sower

Early in his ministry, Jesus stood in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and gave his first major parable, the Parable of the Sower. This powerful parable teaches us the importance of being prepared to receive the word and to be fruitful to the Lord.

The setting of the story is quite remarkable. Jesus had just left Capernaum, located north of the Sea of Galilee. As he began teaching, a large group of people gathered on the shore. Because of the growing crowd, Jesus climbed into a boat and began to teach so everyone would be able to hear. Though we don’t know the exact location, the traditional site is called the Cove of the Sower and has been identified because of the naturally created acoustics. Still to this day, if one stands on the edge of the shore, one’s voice can be carried to great distances.

Cove of the Sower by Ferrell Jenkins

In this parable, Jesus describes a sower who casts his seeds, which fall in four main areas. The first seeds fell on the path, where they were trampled on and eaten by birds. Next, some seeds fell on rocky ground where they could not grow roots deep into the soil and thus whithered in the hot sun. Other seeds fell among thorns which eventually choked out the young tender plants. Finally, some of the seeds were planted in fertile, moist soil, where they could take root and produce a crop.

To the Savior’s audience at the time, this parable of a sower planting seeds would have been a familiar story. Most of his listeners would have personally planted and harvested crops for their entire life. However, for a modern audience, the parable at times can be difficult to understand. Planting and harvesting techniques have changed significantly over the past two thousand years, which can lead to misinterpretations. With this in mind, let’s get our hands a little dirty so to speak and learn about ancient farming.

The four types of soil

Many farmers in ancient Israel did not own their own land. Rather, they would receive an annual stewardship of a plot assigned to them by the local leadership. Each individual farmer would mark their plot of land, not with a fence as is common today, but rather by some sort of a landmarker, such as a tree, a pile of rocks, or other notable feature. Without fencing, little paths would be used so farmers could access their pieces of land. This is likely what Jesus refers to as the first type of soil where the seeds fall on the paths and are eaten by the birds. Jesus tells us that this represents those who hear the word, but because they don’t understand, the evil one takes away the seeds that had been planted in their heart.

After the previous crops were harvested, the fields were then burned. This put the ash and other minerals back into the soil. Animals would then be allowed to roam the land rummaging for food leaving behind manure and thus fertilizing the soil. In such an arid climate, the hot sun would bake the ground and manure leaving behind hard, cracked soil.

While Israel is dry throughout much of the year, with almost no rain from May to October, when it does rain, it pours. In fact, Jerusalem receives about the same amount of rain as London, but in less than half (40%) the number of days. This rain falls predominantly during two seasons known as the “former” or “early” rains and the “latter” rains. The early rains begin in November and December, softening the soil so that seeds can be planted and the land can be tilled. The “latter rains” come in March and early April nourishing the planted crops, with the harvest of barley coming at Passover around March or April, and the harvest of wheat at the Feast of Weeks in May or June.

Unlike modern farming when crops are watered using ditches, flood irrigation, or sprinklers, anciently most farmers in Israel practiced what is known as dry farming, with rain as the only source of moisture. This means that it was crucial to plant crops during the rainy season. It also meant that to preserve as much water as possible in the soil, rocks were often left on the ground providing both shade and places where the water could pool. This is very different from early American and European farming where rocks were removed from the fields and used to build the fences around the property. This would likely be what Jesus was referring to for the second type of soil, the rocky ground. It represents those who initially receive the word with joy, but because they have no root, when times of trouble come, their joy proves to be short-lived and they fall away.

The Sower by O.A. Stemler

Once the soil was softened by rain, the farmer first cast the seeds on the ground. Next, animals were used to pull a plow to till the land and mix the seeds into the soil. Because the seeds are sown before the land is plowed, they might fall upon thorny ground, or where weeds and thistles grow. These unwelcome plants choke out the growing seeds by taking the light and water. The thorny ground represents those who hear the word but let the cares of the world and the deceit of wealth choke out the word, and thus never become fruitful.

And finally we learn of the seeds that fall in moist, fertile soil. The good soil represents those who hear and embrace the word. It is they who can produce a crop which yields many more seeds than used to sow, yielding as much as 30, 60, or even 100 times the original number of seeds planted. 

This powerful parable, as one can imagine, can have multiple meanings or interpretations. The sower can represent God or those authorized to act on his behalf. The seed, Jesus tells us, is the word. This could be the gospel of Jesus Christ or even the Savior himself for he tells us “I am the Word” (see John 1:1). 

As we read the Parable of the Sower, we might ask, where do the words of Christ fall in our lives? Do they fall on trampled paths, rocky soil, thorny ground, or good soil? In Ephesians we are encouraged to let the word of Christ take root in the fertile ground of our hearts. “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may … know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17,19).

For those of us who have Jesus Christ deeply rooted in our hearts, what are we doing with it? Are we seeking to multiply the Savior’s love by sharing it with others? Are we constantly working and tending the soil of our hearts so that the planted seeds can continue to flourish? As we find joy in studying the words of Christ, we will find strength to withstand the thorns, rocks, birds, and even the harsh rays of the sun beating down upon us. As we do so, the refreshing living waters that comes from the Savior will provide the life-giving nourishment we need to grow and flourish.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

The information about ancient agriculture is based on the book Everyday Life in the Holy Land by James Neil.

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