Sund ay School Lesson
Lesson 7 (KJV)
The Sower and the Seed
Devotional Reading: Psalm 95
Background Scripture: Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4; Luke 8:5–15
Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23
1 The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. 2 And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. 3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
9 Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
18 Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
19 When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
20 But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
21 Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
22 He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
23 But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
He that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.—Matthew 13:23
The Righteous Reign of God
Unit 2: Jesus Envisions the Kingdom
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Summarize the parable of the sower.
2. Describe the fruit to be brought forth.
3. State which soil in Matthew 13:19–21 he or she is most like and suggest a plan for change.
How to Say It
A. Teaching Methods
An internet search of “teaching methods” quickly leaves the researcher buried under an avalanche of claimed methods—100 or more. A struggle to narrow those down to manageable types or categories leads to the foundational distinction between teacher-centered methods and student-centered methods. In teacher-centered methods, the instructors are authority figures who deliver knowledge; this is sometimes described as being a “sage on the stage.” In student-centered methods, teachers function more as facilitators; this is sometimes described as being a “guide on the side.” The distinction seems simple enough. But complexity asserts itself anew when varying levels of technology are considered under each method.
Analyzing the teaching methods of Jesus would seem to be simpler because there is little or no technology factor to consider. Yet there is no consensus regarding the enumeration of His methods. One researcher identifies five teaching methods Jesus used, another says there were seven, while a third researcher identifies no fewer than nine! Even so, prominent in every such listing is teaching via the use of parables. Today’s study considers one of the longest of Jesus’ parables.
B. Lesson Context
A problem we encounter with parables is how to define what a parable is. One definition that many learned in Sunday school is that “a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Another is that “a parable is a narrative of some real or imaginary event in nature or in common life which is adapted to suggest a moral or religious truth.” The lack of consensus here means that there is also no agreement on the exact number of parables recorded in the New Testament. An example is Luke 16:19–31 concerning the rich man and Lazarus. Many students say that this is not a parable since there is no other parable of Jesus in which a character is named.
Are you confused yet? If so, you’re not alone! Jesus’ disciples themselves had a hard time comprehending both the why and what of Jesus’ use of figurative language in general and parables in particular (see Matthew 13:10–15; 15:15; 16:5–12; Luke 8:9; 12:41; John 16:29)—much to the consternation of Jesus himself (Mark 4:13; 7:18).
By the time we get to chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has used figurative language several times (Matthew 5:14–16; 7:1–6; 9:16–17; 12:24–30; see lesson 6). This yields a rather complex picture of Jesus when considered alongside the revealing of His supernatural authority over nature in stilling a storm (8:26) and over spirits (8:28–32). The previous lesson shows that while the people loved Jesus and His teachings, He had made enemies among the Pharisees and other Jewish elites.
Matthew 13 has been called “the parable chapter” because it has the greatest concentration of parables in the book; this chapter witnesses the first of 17 times that the words parable and parables are used in this Gospel account. The chapter begins with Jesus teaching the sower parable. In some ways this is the “paradigm parable”—the one that shows Jesus’ disciples how to understand His parable illustrations correctly, as He intended them to be understood.
I. Teaching by the Shore
A. Setting (v. 1)
1. The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side. The opening sentence is reasonably understood to have Jesus located near the Sea of Galilee. This body of water is the freshwater lake that dominates northern Palestine. The house was likely located in the village of Capernaum, a center for Jesus’ activities at this time in His ministry (Matthew 4:13). When combined with the time indicator the same day, the picture is that of Jesus’ shifting teaching locations so that more would be able to hear (compare the previous location in 12:46–49).
B. Audience (v. 2)
2. And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. A teaching stage was improvised. The water made a natural barrier for crowd control, so a small ship was available to serve as a floating podium. An added benefit was the excellent acoustic properties of the surface of the water. This allowed the whole multitude to hear Jesus’ voice clearly.
A location of Capernaum makes it likely that the boat belonged to one of the disciples who had been engaged in commercial fishing (see Matthew 4:18–22). In 1986, the remains of a fishing boat dating from this period were recovered from the mud on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It measured 27 feet in length and over 7 feet in width, making it a substantial vessel. Depictions of this scene that show Jesus sitting in a small rowboat likely underestimate the size of the boat in the text.
C. Method (v. 3a)
3a. And he spake many things unto them in parables.
This general statement implies that what follows is but a smattering of Jesus’ teachings. Considering His ministry of about three years, figuring a few hours per week, the implication is that He spent hundreds of hours in teaching, surely repeating himself many times. The use of parables was a favorite method for this master teacher. Mark goes so far as to say that Jesus did not teach the crowds without using parables (Mark 4:34).
Scholars identify about 50 teachings in the Gospels that could be categorized as parables, although not all are called parables by the authors of the Gospels (see the Lesson Context). Several of them appear (with slight variations) in Matthew, in Mark, and in Luke. The parable of the sower and its interpretation are also found in Mark 4:1–20 and Luke 8:4–15. Variations are to be expected because we can assume Jesus reused His material and adjusted it to the situation. Jesus’ parables were illustrations drawn from rural village life, close to the lives of His crowds.
What Do You Think?
In what ways can telling a story—fictitious or not—communicate the gospel message more clearly?
How can the true story of your own salvation inspire others to follow Jesus?
II. Sowing of Seed
A. On Hardened Soil (vv. 3b–4)
3b. Saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow.
Modern farming has become precise and technical when it comes to getting seeds into the ground. Today, seeds produced solely for planting are available commercially. This was not the case in Jesus’ day. An appropriate amount of grain was set aside at harvest to be used for the next year’s planting. Seeds were a precious commodity, and planting day required preparation. The soil had to be tilled to receive the seeds. After planting day, the soil needed to be moist and warm enough to allow the seeds to germinate and begin to grow. In the few words a sower went forth to sow, Jesus created a word picture that resonated instantly with the agrarian life experiences of His audience. All was ready, and the sower headed out to do his job.
4. And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up.
No matter how experienced the sower, the method of casting the seeds by hand could not be perfect. Some seeds would fall on the way side, the hard-packed soil of the paths in the field. Birds’ (fowls) eating of seeds is always problematic for farmers. But seeds having no cover have little hope of sprouting and growing. They are just bird food.
B. On Shallow Soil (vv. 5–6)
5. Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth. The second word picture is that of soil characterized as lacking depth because it is stony—too many rocks. Fields in the hilly terrain of Galilee could have varying depths of topsoil. Hard bedrock might be but an inch or two under the surface, with none of the deepness the seeds needed to become productive crops. A competent sower would not knowingly spread seeds on this type of soil, but there would be few clues as to the depth of soil based on its surface appearance.
6. And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
In times of little rain, the moisture of the soil recedes from the surface. Deep roots can still tap the water necessary for healthy growth even in times of no rain, but shallow soil can lose almost all its water content. Seeds might germinate and sprout if they fell on wet, rocky ground that was covered by a thin layer of dirt. But lack of rain and a hot sun would cause them to be scorched and wither away.
C. On Thorny Soil (v. 7)
7. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them.
A third type of soil the sower could encounter is dirt having noxious weeds already embedded. Modern farmers treat their fields with genetically specific herbicides that kill most noxious weeds without damaging the crop. But the farmers of Jesus’ day had no such advantage. A bare field could have good topsoil that was full of weed seeds, and the rich dirt would benefit both the weeds and the crop seeds.
There could be several plants to fit the description of having thorns. One possibility is the spiky thistle plants known to this region. When a thistle appears, it must be pulled by the roots or else it will grow back again. Cutting it down is merely a temporary solution. The soil that Jesus envisages might have dormant thistle plants (already rooted) or the seeds of such plants in the soil, ready to germinate. The sower’s wheat or barley seeds must compete with these thorny bushes, and his crop will be choked, producing puny growth and little grain.
What Do You Think?
What are the kinds of spiritual “soil” that you experience in your community?
How will you adjust your proclamation of the gospel to account for the challenges of that “soil”?
D. On Fertile Soil (vv. 8–9)
8. But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
All is not lost, though, because some seed is cast into good ground. This is soil that is not hard-packed, not shallow, and not full of weeds. The wheat or barley would grow quickly and produce a great return.
The stated return at harvest would have been amazing to Jesus’ hearers. We estimate that even the best years in Palestine might have yielded a ten-fold harvest, with most years being six- or seven-fold. Jesus projected multiples of the yields of the best years His crowds could remember! This highlights the illustrative nature of the parable. Such a marvelous harvest could only be miraculous, accomplished through the blessing of God.
9. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus closes with what became a signature saying to end a teaching (see Matthew 11:15). We understand it better when we hear it again from the risen Christ in the book of Revelation. There we find the statement, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). Jesus looks for those who have “spiritual ears,” able to discern the spiritual truths He is teaching. In this case it would mean that some of the hearers (those with ears to hear) were not left puzzling over this story about farming. They understood a deeper message, a spiritual message that Jesus wanted them to know.
III. Explaining the Meaning
A. Failure to Understand (vv. 18–19)
18. Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
In the intervening text of Matthew 13:10–17 (not in today’s lesson), the disciples came to Jesus for more information about His parables. They did not understand what His point was, and maybe they did not have the required spiritual hearing. The parable’s meaning was important for them to know, though, so Jesus proceeded to explain the parable of the sower in detail.
19. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
Mark’s version of Jesus’ explanation is more direct than Matthew’s, beginning, “The sower soweth the word” (Mark 4:14). This fits here too, for the main character in the little drama Jesus presented is not intended to be seen as a literal farmer, but as a preacher of the word of the kingdom. No one fits this description better than Jesus himself, for He had come preaching the good news about the kingdom of God (see 1:14–15). His preaching was met with various reactions.
Some hearers were (and are) like the hardened soil, with hearts and minds that do not understand even the basics of what Jesus was (and is) trying to communicate. The result: being like seeds that never even sprout. There can be no faith if there is no understanding. The attack comes not from literal birds, but from the wicked one—Satan himself. It is he who encourages people to dismiss the pleadings and warnings of Jesus as nonsense.
B. Failure to Endure (vv. 20–21)
20. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it.
A second type of soil is the hearer who is initially thrilled by the good news heard in Jesus’ message about the kingdom. That message is understood and creates joy and hope in this person.
21. Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
Despite this joyous reception, though, there are some who do not take this message to heart in a lasting way. They do not have an enduring faith. Jesus had taught that the kingdom must be received in repentance (Matthew 4:17), a change in orientation toward God and away from sin. Some are buoyed by the joy they experience, but they do not have a change in heart. When there is tribulation or persecution, their shallow faith will not survive. They will be like the shallowly rooted plants that cannot endure the scorching sun.
What Do You Think?
How will you offer discipleship to enthusiastic new believers to help their spiritual “roots” grow deeply?
What encouragement will you offer new believers who may face discouragement regarding their spiritual growth?
C. Failure to Overcome (v. 22)
22. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
The third type of reception of Jesus’ message is found among those who do not forsake their worldly desires for service in the kingdom (example: 2 Timothy 4:10). Jesus would later say that to be His disciple, one has to “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Believers cannot have divided loyalties. We cannot serve two masters equally (Matthew 6:24). A person who is still attached to the god of money may give the appearance of being a disciple, but he or she will be an unfruitful disciple. A wheat plant that competes with weeds and thorns for water, soil nutrients, and sunlight will not flourish or produce.
My daughter’s friend Jenny spent much of one summer at our house. The two were inseparable—laughing in my daughter’s room, going on walks to the park, and texting or video-calling friends. As part of the summer’s activities, Jenny went to youth group with my daughter. We began picking her up for church on Sundays, and she expressed interest in knowing Jesus better. We loved Jenny and wanted her to know Jesus too.
In the winter, Jenny began to drift away from my daughter. There was no falling out, but my daughter felt like Jenny was distracted by other friends. Plus, Jenny’s family started struggling and her parents separated. Even though we reached out to her and tried to help her feel loved and accepted by our family, she eventually stopped coming over altogether. My daughter said, “Mom, she does this sometimes. She gets to know people and then starts feeling like they don’t like her, even when they do. So she pushes them away.”
The challenges of Jenny’s life and her anxiety about relationships seemed to affect her relationship with Jesus. These challenges were like weeds that choked her spiritual growth. How do you deal with the “weeds” that affect your relationship with Jesus? —L. M. W.
D. Fruitful Discipleship (v. 23)
23. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Three things will happen when Jesus’ message falls on those with “ears to hear.” First, the people will listen sincerely and earnestly. They will truly hear the word of salvation. Second, they will understand the basis of the message and the personal consequences for disbelieving it. Third, this understanding and the faith that follows will be demonstrated in these persons bearing fruit. They will be disciples who make other disciples, who do good works as service to Christ and His church. Those who seek to serve with sincere hearts will have astounding results.
What Do You Think?
How can believers focus on the process of bearing spiritual fruit and not get caught up in the amount of spiritual fruit produced?
How do you remove the spiritual “birds,” “stones,” and “thorns” that prevent you from bearing spiritual fruit?
A Fertile Heart
A childhood friend came from an unbelieving home. Not only were her parents nonbelievers, but they filled her home with anger and criticism. Her mother yelled at her, berated her in front of her friends, and treated her with contempt. Her father came home drunk and cussed her out. Her friends knew this was happening, but what could they do? They were children also. Needless to say, my friend suffered from doubt, depression, and anxiety—as a child and as a young adult.
Somewhere along the way, this girl began going to church with another friend. At church she learned about a God who loved her just as she was, whose love did not wax and wane with a volatile moodiness. She learned she had a family of God who cared about her and were there for her when she struggled. And she learned about a loving Jesus, whose death and resurrection brought her the opportunity for new life.
Confronted with the irresistible love of God, she flourished. Not that she didn’t struggle; she did. She faced traumas and many deep wounds, but the seed of the gospel landed on her fertile heart and grew there. She realized her need for Jesus and willingly accepted Him. Is your heart fertile ground for the gospel? If so, who around you needs for you to share it with them? —L. M. W.
A. Four Types of Hearers
A common application for the sower parable is to ask, “What kind of soil are you?” While this question may cut to the heart of being a disciple and give us pause for self-examination, the parable is more about the sower than the soils, about Jesus and other preachers who spread the divine seed of God’s Word. Preachers and teachers who faithfully communicate the gospel will meet many reactions, just as the seed encountered several soils.
We will not always be able to know the hearts and minds of those with whom we share the gospel. Even so, the wise and talented sower spreads the seed widely, ever knowing that some seed will not produce fruit. The wise preacher keeps preaching, and the wise teacher keeps teaching—always looking for opportunities to share the gospel. Faith is sometimes kindled and brought to a blazing fire in unlikely people. The most passionate and bitter enemy of the church may be but a few steps away from the walk of a joyous believer.
God empowers our gospel proclamation. We offer words, but God touches those having “spiritual ears” and draws them to faith. We pray for those with “ears to hear” and faithfully proclaim the gospel to “let them hear.”
What Do You Think?
How will you apply the parable’s example of faithful and generous gospel-sowing in the upcoming week?
What new steps will you take to further sow seeds of the gospel among your unbelieving neighbors and friends?
Lord of the harvest, may we remain faithful to the task of proclaiming the gospel. May we not prejudge potential hearers. Instead, we trust that Your Spirit will work to bring others to faith. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Producing kingdom fruit is not optional.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (p. 1075). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.