Posted by: Thomas Richard | June 22, 2015

Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 1

A question for the reader: What kind of listener are you, when God is speaking to you? What kind of listener do you want to be? Jesus offers us a crucially important teaching on this matter, in (as it is commonly known) “The Parable of the Sower.” I’ll begin with the parable itself, then I’ll suggest some commentary on its meaning, and finally I’ll offer a suggestion of what Jesus may be teaching us concerning how, positively, we can begin to remove obstacles from our hearts, and our hearing, things that can keep us from Him whom we seek.

1. The Parable

Mar 4:1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.
Mar 4:2 And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
Mar 4:3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Mar 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
Mar 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;
Mar 4:6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
Mar 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Mar 4:8 And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Mar 4:9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Mar 4:10 And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.
Mar 4:11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables;
Mar 4:12 so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”
Mar 4:13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
Mar 4:14 The sower sows the word.
Mar 4:15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them.
Mar 4:16 And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;
Mar 4:17 and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
Mar 4:18 And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word,
Mar 4:19 but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

2. Commentary on the Meaning of the Parable

Mar 4:14 The sower sows the word.

Jesus tells us two reasons for the importance of this parable: first, the seed is “the word” – the saving word of God. Jesus is telling us a parable about the holy and saving word of God. And we know, from Paul, that hearing the saving word of God is necessary for belief in Him – for saving faith – as Paul writes in the Book of Romans:

Rom 10:13 For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Rom 10:14 But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?
….
Rom 10:17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.

So, fruitful reception of this saving word, this “seed,” is crucially important to us. How do we come to really believe? How do we come to have saving faith in Jesus? We need to hear Him – we need to hear Jesus. We need to hear His Truth, His Gospel. This parable is therefore a crucially important parable because of what it is about.

The parable is also crucially important for a second reason: it is a “primary” or foundational parable. Jesus asks His disciples in this passage, a piercing question: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mk 4:13) This question deserves to be considered very carefully by anyone who is concerned for the true good of his own soul! Jesus once asked, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25) If we want to understand the saving teachings of Jesus, we need to understand the parable of the sower, this teaching. It is fundamental. To understand His other parables, to learn from Him, to be His disciple, we need to understand this parable in particular. Otherwise, how will we understand the rest?

This parable describes several ways – four – that a person can hear the truth of God. The saving word of God is “sown” on the heart of a person as seed is sown on the ground. The person can hear it unprofitably in several ways, but in only one way he can hear profitably, fruitfully, beautifully. Let us focus on the four ways that Jesus describes:

1) A Listener on “the Path”

Mar 4:3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Mar 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
….
Mar 4:15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them.

“The path” represents, perhaps, a listener of the word who is preoccupied – busy – and not about the things of God. In his heart he is “on a path,” on the road to somewhere else, to some place he has chosen. He is not focused on the words of God, of His new and different life being offered to him: this man’s mind and heart are elsewhere. It is an easy matter for the evil one – like birds easily feeding on seeds lying on the ground – to take the word out of his mind and heart. This person is a busy soul, a distracted soul, inattentive to what is most important for him: his life. The words of God rest only “on the surface” of his heart, not penetrating into it and into him. He has other matters of concern, on his journey.

2) A “Rocky” Heart

Mar 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;
Mar 4:6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
….
Mar 4:16 And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;
Mar 4:17 and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

The “rocky ground” represents a listener very different from one “on his own path”. The “rocky ground” person listens and hears and receives the word into his heart! The saving truth does not remain outside of him, but is taken within. However, this person has a serious impediment to the word: his heart has regions of hardness – like rocks in the ground – and rocks are hard; they are sterile. These rocky areas in the heart are grave problems for the word – and of course for the person listening and hearing. He hears, and quickly receives and believes! But the word cannot be sustained in his heart, it cannot mature and grow and bring forth fruit because of the hardness within. When difficulties come because of the word, he falls away like a root-starved plant withering in the heat of the sun. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”

3) A Heart of Thorns

Mar 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
….
Mar 4:18 And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word,
Mar 4:19 but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

The “thorny ground” represents a still different listener. His heart presents impediments to the word and the life it can bring, in a way different from the path and also from the rocks: thorns are rooted in the heart, and their plants draw sustenance from the ground in competition with the seeds sown by the sower. The thorns “choke” the seeds of the word, and the seeds of the word are thereby starved, and cannot grow to maturity. They are crowded out by thorns, choked by them, starved and retarded in the growth they are intended to produce in the heart.

4) A Heart of “Good Ground”

Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Finally, here, the Lord describes good ground that is worthy of the good seed. This heart is not preoccupied with the path from one place in this world to another. This heart is not obstructed but is cleared of rocks and thorns, and its interior is rich and potent. It can receive the potent word worthily and the result is life: beautiful fruit, abundant fruit that can unfold “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Having found the general meaning of what Jesus was saying, about the different kinds of hearers who were listening to Him, we need to consider what this means for us – for each of us personally. Who am I, in these four categories of listeners? Where do I fit into this parable, personally? And more important, what am I to do in the future – perhaps differently – so as to enable me to be a better listener, a better hearer – a more fruitful “ground” in my own heart for the saving word of God?

3. What Does All This Say To Me?

When God looks into our hearts, what does He see? A human heart is pictured by Jesus in this parable – Jesus who IS God – as having four possibilities, and clearly if this were a multiple-choice test, the best answer would be the fourth one, the good ground. The good ground is a pure heart (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!” – Mt 5:8). We can thank God that He has given us in this parable, a list of spiritual “infirmities of the heart” that can afflict us. The three problematic heart conditions for a human person, in the parable, are:

The “path” condition: the heart is deadened by busyness, immersion in the world, preoccupation with one’s journey here and now, toward things to do and places to go to, that are merely of this passing world. Such a heart does not receive the living word into itself – God’s word stays on the surface, where it is quickly taken away and forgotten. The path needs to be plowed, and watered: the heart needs a new “path” – the path to life, to truth, to God.

The “rocks” condition: because of interior hardness, the heart cannot sustain the new life of God it has received. It this case the word, the seed, is received into the heart – very much unlike the case with the path-person, whose heart does not receive the word at all. The word is received, but the ground is shallow and it does not permit the living word to take deep roots into itself. The word is received, but it is not well-rooted. The rocks must be dealt with – and removed. They keep God’s word and life shallow in us, they keep our faith superficial and weak. They make it impossible for the word of God to endure and remain in us through life’s trials and tribulations! We must consider then the cause, or the source, of these rocks in a human heart, and remove them.

The “thorns” condition: the new life of God has been received into the heart, but it is impeded and obstructed by another, a different, and indeed an opposing old life. Two very different “life-forms” are now planted and are growing in the same field – the same human heart. The living word of God has been received and is growing, but alongside useless and harmful thorns that are growing too. And these two “life-forms” – these two lives – are inherently incompatible with each other. One must overcome the other; we must choose one or the other. The thorns must be dealt with – and removed – because they are choking out the living word of God, and rendering Him fruitless in us! We must consider then the cause, or the source, of these thorns in a human heart; they must be removed: “the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”


This post will be continued in “Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 2.”


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