So what do you make of the sower parable? Is it a challenge to respond the way the good soil did? Don’t be like the hard path, or the shallow ground, or where things crowd out the word?
That’s okay as far as it goes, but it wasn’t what Jesus was saying. When he explained the parable, he didn’t say, “You are the soils, so make sure you’re the good one.” It wasn’t about you. It wasn’t even about the soils, although that was the setting of the story. The parable was about the sower and his sowing.
Why do we say that? The keyword is speirō (sow) — used 9 times. Jesus launches the story, “The sower went out to sow. As he sowed, …” (13:3-4). And Jesus himself calls it “the parable of the sower” (13:18).
So, who is the sower? (Yes, there is a definite article.) We won’t make sense of the parable if we don’t understand who was doing all this sowing. No, you aren’t the sower: Jesus wasn’t telling a parable about you.
The sower is Jesus. He described his ministry as sowing a crop for heaven on earth. That’s a familiar narrative in the Jewish Scriptures.
In the beginning, the heavenly sovereign decreed that that the earth be fruitful: “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” (Genesis 1:11). But his gardeners rebelled and destroyed the harmony of his creation. We struggle against thorns and thistles, managing a harvest only through hard sweat. Instead of being the fruitful place God intended, earth is a place that drains our life from us until we ourselves sink back into the soil (Genesis 3:18-19).
This story of humanity in Genesis is the story of Israel in history too. God called Abraham out of the land of Babel to a blessed land. Israel was God’s planting among the nations. But the land of God’s people was overrun by the wild animals. God’s vineyard was overgrown by the thorns and briers of the surrounding nations (Psalm 80, Isaiah 5).
Was that the end? Was God unable to re-establish the earth under his reign through Israel? God had decreed that the earth be fruitful, but it was completely overgrown. Had God’s creational decree been lost into an unproductive void?
No, says Isaiah. The Creator’s decree has not failed. The word he spoke in the beginning will yet produce fruit:
Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
How? How could God’s word at creation be fruitful in this barren world?
The sower goes out to sow. What he sows is “the word of the kingdom” i.e. God’s decree for the earth as his kingdom (13:19).
But unlike Adam in the beginning, this sower is sowing in a world where it’s difficult to achieve a harvest:
- People hear what he sows, but it doesn’t sink in (13:19).
- People hear what he sows, but it dies when the heat comes (13:20-21).
- People hear what he sows, but it’s choked out by thorns (13:22).
Most of what he does is unproductive. Is there any point in Jesus sowing God’s harvest in this unresponsive world? Absolutely yes! In the natural world, farmers still achieve a harvest. As precarious as their enterprise feels, some seed grows, and it’s enough for a harvest.
Jesus believes he can bring the earth to harvest, to produce the crop intended by God in the beginning. He knows how precarious this is. He’s already in danger from those who want to get rid of him (12:14). In a world of rebellion against God’s commands, it is not only seed that falls to the ground and dies to produce a harvest (John 12:24).
But Jesus won’t be deterred by fears, frustrations, and fruitlessness. The sower goes out to sow. He’s sowing for heaven’s harvest, the restoration of the earth as God’s fruitful realm.
He replants God’s world. He doesn’t try to cultivate the hard path, or topdress the shallow soil, or weed out the thorns. All his energies go into sowing “the word of the kingdom” (11:19), the announcement that God is king and the earth is his realm. He relies on God’s original creative word that the world be fruitful.
This sower replanted God’s earthly realm. In the end, God will have his harvest because the sower went out to sow.
Matthew 13:1-9 (my translation, compare ESV)
1 That same day, Jesus left the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Large crowds assembled around him, so he climbed into a boat and took a seat while all the crowd stood on the shore.
3 He told them many things in parables. “See, the sower went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them. 5 Other seeds fell on stony ground where there wasn’t much soil. It came up quickly through the shallow soil. 6 But when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it couldn’t take root it withered. 7 Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns took over and choked them out. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced a harvest. Some yielded one hundred seeds, some sixty, some thirty. 9 If you have ears, hear it.
What others are saying
Modern commentators often treat the parable as about the soils, not the sower, e.g. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 503:
The title “the parable of the sower” is supplied by v. 18, but while it correctly describes the narrative scene, it does not help in the interpretation of the parable, whose four-part structure focuses attention not on the sower or even on the seed (which is assumed to be the same in each of the four scenes) but on the different types of soil into which it falls.
Ancient commentators took a more christological approach, e.g. Jerome (AD 345 – 419), “Commentary on Matthew 2.13.3” in Matthew 1–13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Manlio Simonetti, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 264:
He who sows the word of God then went out of his house that he might sow among the crowds. This means that the sower who sows is the Son of God the Father, sowing the word among the ordinary people.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 230, 233 (emphasis original):
The parable of the sower … does two closely related things. Using imagery and structure which evoked ‘apocalyptic’ retellings of Israel’s story, the parable tells the story of Israel, particularly the return from exile, with a paradoxical conclusion, and it tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, as the fulfilment of that larger story, with a paradoxical outcome. …
The sowing of seed, resulting in a crop that defies the thorns and briers, is a picture of YHWH’s sowing of his word, and the result is the return from exile and, indeed, the consequent renewal of all creation.
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Update 2022-04-30: Translation added.