“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” Matthew 13:3-9
Charles Spurgeon’s take on the parable.
“The preacher of the gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; it is given him by his divine Master. No man could create the smallest grain that ever grew upon the earth, much less the celestial seed of eternal life. The minister goes to his Master in secret, and asks him to teach him his gospel, and thus he fills his basket with the good seed of the kingdom. He then goes forth in his Master’s name and scatters precious truth. If he knew where the best soil was to be found, perhaps he might limit himself to that which had been prepared by the plough of conviction; but not knowing men’s hearts, it is his business to preach the gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on the hardened heart, and another on the mind which is overgrown with the cares and pleasures of the world. He has to leave the seed in the care of the Lord who gave it to him, for he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only accountable for the care and industry with which he does his work. If no single ear should ever make glad the reaper, the sower will be rewarded by His Master if he had planted the right seed with careful hand.” — Charles Spurgeon
For the record, I do not disagree with Charles Spurgeon. He likens the sower (in Jesus’ parable) to a preacher; one who is specifically called to teach the Word of God. I suppose Spurgeon would further liken the preacher’s congregation as the field (the soil) to which he broadly casts God’s celestial seed. I suspect any pastor would acknowledge that within his very flock there are some with harden hearts and others whose minds are preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of the world. As the parable reminds us, the seed that falls in these unfortunate places are devoured by birds, withered by the sun, or choked out by thorns. That leaves me with a few questions for Pastor Spurgeon, and also for those who ‘fully’ embrace that interpretation.
- Is this parable for preachers exclusively or for the church generally?
- Is that the end of the lesson; is that all that Jesus intended us to glean from the parable?
- Is there an additional (and incredibly obvious) message we’re all missing?
As you might surmise from my questions, I believe the parable was intended for the entire Christian audience (pastors included), that there is much more to be gleaned, and that we might be glossing over a critical aspect of Christ’s teaching. What is that critical aspect? In two words: soil preparation.
Can soil prepare itself? Let’s consider the sower (aka, the farmer; husbandman) and his duties. If all he had to do was broadcast seed, I suspect farming would be an easy livelihood, but there is much more to it than merely casting seed. By definition he is a person who cultivates the land. He is a nurturer and a promoter, he fosters growth by preparing and tending the soil. He breaks the hardened earth with the till, thus exposing the rocks for removal while simultaneously plowing the weeds under for nutriment. As he turns over soil, he’s aerating, effectively breathing life-giving air into it. It brings to mind this Genesis passage:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)
I noted He did not broadcast His breath upon the earth (although He certainly could have); He took a portion and formed it for the sole purpose of breathing into it. Arguably (in this) we see the first mention of cultivation in the Bible. In that act, coupled with the lesson of Christ’s parable, I’m seeing a picture of the ‘born again’ experience; that moment when life is poured into a soul by the Word of God, giving new life. Of course this all begs the question, “As sowers of God’s seed, are we also called to be cultivators of His soil? Cain would ask another way, “Lord, am I my brother’s keeper?”
Instead of speculating, it would be better to turn to the Bible to see if there are any good examples of sowers cultivating the ground before actually depositing the seed. Naturally the best example of goodness is Jesus, so let’s see what He has done in this regard.
The Woman at the Well
The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly. John 4:16-18
I don’t see any broadcasting in Christ’s encounter with this woman, at least not initially. What I do see is Jesus breaking up some hardened soil and addressing a mind that has been preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of the world. This cultivating act ultimately leads to Holy Spirit conviction. The Apostle Paul would later say, “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Having received the word (after having been appropriately prepared), the woman leaves the well rightfully proclaiming, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (John 4:29) all because the Messenger took the time and effort to remove some stones, turn under the thorns, and aerate the soil.
The Woman Caught in Adultery
Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. John 8:6-12
Take note that nowhere in this account does Jesus condone the sin of adultery or this woman’s involvement in it. Without using so many words, Jesus effectively gives us what the Apostle Paul would give us in Romans 3:23, that is, “”For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” When it comes to preparing soil for seed (or the soul for God’s word) addressing sin; putting the spade into the earth and exposing sin for what it is and what it does, it arguably the first step. God only knows what Jesus wrote in the soil, but what we do know is that it was very convicting. Perhaps in some way it revealed the second step in the Roman’s Road to salvation, “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). Either way, Jesus is doing a lot of groundwork. At the right time Jesus plants the seed essentially saying to her, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). We also notice that Jesus [the multitasker] was working in the field of many souls this day.
Jesus and His Disciples
Is not everything Jesus said and did before His disciple preparatory? These same men who walked and worked side-by-side with the Messiah had little or no understanding of His earthly mission, let alone the suffering and death He was going to endure, or His glorious resurrection. What we do see in Jesus’ interaction with His disciples is the same love and patience we might witness in a dedicated farmer.
For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. Matthew 13:17
We’re Not Jesus
That’s an incredibly important tenet to remember, but at the same time Jesus is our example. If Jesus takes the time to prepare a soul to receive the Word, should we not do the same? The question now is what does that look like for the disciple of Christ? I believe it begins with being a good listener. As Mark Cahill would say, “Sharing the Gospel message should be a conversation, not a presentation.”
Now that may not be the case for the preacher (in Charles Spurgeon’s analysis), for a preacher’s sermon is a presentation of Bible Scripture; it’s a teaching without class participation, but I’m not a preacher. I’m just a guy saved by grace with a burden on my heart to share God’s grace with others and to do it in the most loving way possible. To me a presentation says, “Here’s some seed for everybody,” but a conversation says, “Tell me about yourself and when we’ve dug around a bit, I have a good word for you.” There is nothing presumptive about that kind of approach, while the broadcasting approach supposes much.
For my money, Ray Comfort does it well. Instead of hopping up on a soapbox and broadcasting seed, he engages folks one-on-one (often in populated environments) and determines where they are in their earth-bound life. It’s not uncommon (for one example) for Ray to discover a person who falsely believes they’re going to Heaven [because] they think they’re good. Comfort is quick to turn over a portion of soil, exposing their true sin-nature by the Ten Commandments, quite often bringing revelation to the person that they are sinners in need of saving. In contrast, if Ray did not take the time to cultivate the soil, I suspect very few would even listen to a broadly cast, Gospel message. Even then what would the result be without cultivation? Would not some seed be eaten by the birds, dried up in the sun, or choked by the thorns? Is not [at least] one lesson from the parable of the sower that this does not have to be the case, but rather with just a smidgen of preparation, the yield could be greater (not for pride’s sake, but for God’s sake)?
I believe it is and for that reason I will take the time to prepare the soil whenever it is possible, and not because I believe I can ‘save’ a person with my efforts, but because I believe it is of godly counsel and good stewardship to do so. I see it as a compassionate and loving way to deliver the Word of God, partly because it demonstrates to the hearer that you care, taking the time to listen and go deeper. It’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing that Christ revealed in His parable of the sower and prescribed in Paul’s letter to Timothy. Reprove, rebuke, exhort with patience (and truth) are the sower’s tools.
Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away * their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 2 Timothy 4:2-4
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