The parable of the sower is well-known to those of us who have been around church for a while. I can remember multiple instances in youth group, churches, and my theological education when this parable was preached or taught. As a listener in those settings, I was encouraged to spread the seed of the gospel as far and wide and indiscriminately as possible. Inevitably, some people would reject it. But it might just land on good soil and produce a nearly miraculous outcome—even one hundred fold!
We sometimes forget that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record a different version of this parable. I want to focus on Luke’s version, found with its explanation and commentary in Luke 8:4–21. Luke’s emphasis in the parable of the sower is not missionary work, but rather the ability of Jesus’ hearers to receive and obey his teachings. I certainly do not want to diminish the need for believers to spread the gospel. By all means, do so. And it should be stated that the author of Luke and Acts is not against evangelism—he wrote the Book of Acts! But when it comes to this parable, instead of looking outward at the world, Luke challenges believers to turn their gaze inward, to be introspective, to examine themselves in order to determine if their hearts are disposed to receiving and obeying Jesus’ teaching.
Of course, there are varied responses even among those who hear Jesus’ teaching. Some are hardened toward it, like the soil of the path. Luke writes that the devil actually intervenes and takes away the word that is sown in them. This is truly the most unfortunate outcome. Others are like shallow soil covering rocks. They are able to receive Jesus’ teaching, and even receive it joyfully. But what little has sprung up withers and dies under the heat of difficulties that arise in their lives. Still others are receptive to the word and it grows up for a while. Eventually, however, their concerns over the cares of life, pleasures, and riches choke out what has grown.
The challenge of this parable is to consider whether my heart is one of those first three types of soil. If I determine that I am like one of these three soils, I must change. I must become good soil that is not only receptive to Jesus’ teaching, but actually obeys it (8:16–18). Only then can I be incorporated in to the family of Jesus (8:19–21).
In the words of Jesus, I need to pay attention to how I listen. Luke’s gospel places a premium on rightly hearing the teachings of Jesus. We see characters throughout the narrative of Luke illustrating the point of this parable. Herod the ruler heard about Jesus, and eventually heard from Jesus, but responded poorly (9:7–9; 23:6–12). In one instance, a group of Pharisees hear Jesus but respond with ridicule instead of obedience (16:1–18). On the contrary, other characters respond well to hearing Jesus’ teaching. Tax collectors and sinners—those who are being brought into Jesus’ circle of followers—come to listen to his teaching (15:1–32; 5:27–32; 7:24–35). Jesus blesses those who hear the word of God and obey it (11:27–28). For disciples, the ability to rightly hear Jesus depends on the disposition of our hearts. Am I disposed to reject Jesus’ teaching? Am I disposed to show resiliency in the face of testing? Am I disposed to prioritize Jesus’ teaching over the concerns of my life? Am I disposed to obey what I’ve heard so as to produce fruit?
Luke’s record of this parable challenges us to ask these hard questions. Our responses to them will be telling.
Let anyone with ears to hear, listen…and listen well by obeying what Jesus has said.