Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (excerpt, Lk 8:11-15; full text here)
Most of us have heard so many sermons or lessons on the Parable of the Sower that it is difficult to imagine we could garner any new insights from it—particularly since it is one of the few occasions where we’re actually given the correct interpretation by Jesus himself. Should we not just take what he says and seek to apply it tour lives?
To which I would say absolutely! But the fact is that doing so is not nearly as straightforward as it may seem. In fact, I would even argue that, if we are not careful, an application of the message of this parable to our lives that is either too clear-cut or simplistic runs the risk of undermining the very discipline that it (indeed all parables) is intended to encourage in our lives.
For instance, take a look at the different ways each of the evangelists describes the second type of soil into which the seed falls (emphasis added to each):
Matt 13: 5-6
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 seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil.
And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.
There are, of course, numerous similarities we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing, which one would expect since they all point to the same general interpretation. However, there are also some significant differences, which often get either missed or dismissed as simply redactional quirks of the respective Gospel writer. It is as if, because we know what it means, we don’t take the time to listen to how the parable says what it says, and thus miss how even that can impact our application of its message to our lives.
One of the first differences you might notice is Luke’s description of the soil in question as simply being “rock” rather than the “rocky ground” of the other two. It is a curious detail, particularly in light of the fact that most scholars believe that both Luke and Mathew relied on Mark for quite a lot of their material. Why would Luke diverge from him in this seemingly insignificant detail when Matthew did not? There is no way to know for sure, but the difference in the images is evocative and well worth prayerfully meditating on—not in the sense of one being right and the other being wrong, but in the sense of what each of those images suggests about the condition of the heart it is meant to describe, that is, the extent of hardness each image seems to suggest. Which might be more like your own heart when faced with tribulation? I imagine for all of us there are times when it seems at least semi-permeable to God’s word—a blend of rocks and soil—and others when it is almost completely shut off. Praying into these images can be a powerful experience of allowing the Lord to reveal where those areas might be that we struggle to receive His word in our hearts so that he can begin to bring healing and increased vulnerability.
Another curious difference is found in Matthew’s explicit mention of the sun as the agent that scorches the plant and causes it to wither away. While, to a certain extent, this is implicit in the other two accounts, it is not emphasized. Again, it is well worth meditating on what this detail communicates and how it draws our focus to the harsh realities of the tribulation and testing the image symbolizes—very much like a scorching sun that damages rather than nourishes, as sunlight is meant to do. Similarly it is worth meditating on how the absence of this detail in the other two accounts turns our attention away from the difficulties themselves onto a more concentrated focus on the soil and the explanation given of why the plant withers.
And this is where one of the most curious differences of all between the three becomes most salient and thought-provoking. Whereas Matthew and Mark imply that the reason the plant withers is because it had no depth of soil (with Matthew adding the further detail that it had no root) Luke says simply “because it had no moisture”. According to L.T. Johnson, in this case, Luke is opting for greater precision, as is his tendency. It is not simply the depth of soil that allows for a plant to take root. There must also be water which nourishes it and enables it to grow.
Take a moment to think about the implication of this for our understanding not only of this part, but of the parable as a whole. We all know that underlying the parable is the message that the soil which represents our heart must be healthy in order for the Word of God to take root in our lives and create abundant fruit, but this small detail given by Luke challenges us to consider our own role it making it healthy. It is not sufficient we not have the scorching sun beating down on us—that is that we take away the trials and tribulations we face—nor even that we rid ourselves of the weeds of unnecessary concerns and attachments in this world. We must create space in which the Word of God can not only take root, but also flourish because it is nourished. This is what the application of this parable looks like—not simply steeling ourselves in determined faith against life’s trials and hardships, nor detaching ourselves from worldly concerns, but rather abiding in Christ, the one who is the Word of God incarnate. It is in creating space through worship, study and prayer so that we can not only receive God’s word, but also allow it to take root and be nourished so that it can withstand these external challenges and bear abundant fruit in our lives.
This, of course, is easier said than done. There are lots of reasons why the soil of our hearts might become rocky, that is less amenable to receiving God’s Word in its fullness and allowing it to take root. Sometimes we are afraid of what God might ask or demand of us, or perhaps even what he might take away. Other times past experiences and wounds make it difficult for us to open ourselves up to fully trust what His word reveals to us about his character—that He is good and loves us with an unfailing love. The deep-seated fear is that in surrendering to the word and allowing it to take root in our hearts we will somehow be come diminished or destroyed. But Jesus’ promises here exactly the opposite: the heart that allows his word to take root in it will not be diminished; it will bear abundant fruit. It will come alive.
How might the soil of your own heart be “rocky”, perhaps even impenetrable to the Word of God and his promises in Scripture? And how might he be calling you to deepen and nourish the soil in your heart, in order that his Word, that He, might take root and bear abundant fruit in your life?
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.