The No.1 Parable

Please read Matthew 13: 1-23 (18-23 twice) and then pray; Gracious God, open the eyes of my understanding to see your truth, and open my heart to be totally transformed by the coming of your Kingdom; to the glory of your holy name. Amen!

The Lord Jesus taught many parables, some of which have become particularly famous. The parable of the good Samaritan and the parable of the prodigal son immediately come to mind. However, the No 1 Parable in terms of its foundational importance and impact is the parable we are considering today – the parable of the Sower, or as it is sometimes referred to, the parable of the soils. In the synoptics gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) where we encounter Jesus’s parables – this parable comes first and for good reason. Jesus began using parables with this parable. (Matt 13: 1f, Mark 4:1 f and Luke 8:1f)

If we fail to grasp the meaning of this parable and its transformative power, we will not be able to understand Jesus’s other parables. This parable acts as the gateway to all the others, in the same way Psalm 1 is gateway to the Psalms. It is the first and the foundational parable, which is why Jesus presents this parable before any of his others.  In Mark 4: 13, just before Jesus explains the meaning of this parable to his disciples, Jesus asks this significant question to the twelve disciples;

Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?

And crucially, when Jesus asks if the disciples understand, he is not only asking them if they understand the meaning of the parable. Jesus is also asking whether the meaning has become a living reality in the lives of his followers. Do they live in the light of the power and truth of this teaching concerning his kingdom? Has the kingdom come into their lives and ours?

There are a few very important things to note and understand about Jesus’s parables. The first is that all the parables teach us something significant about Jesus’s favourite teaching topic which was the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. Jesus decided he would impart “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” by using parables. (v11) By doing this, Jesus explained that this would further hide or reveal the vital truths concerning his kingdom. To unbelievers, truth would be hidden and hearts would become even harder, eyes remain blind and ears deaf to his message. (13-15). To believing disciples, truths would be revealed and kingdom knowledge would keep on increasing further and further. (12) – Read verses 11-15 again.

Secondly, we must understand what the “kingdom of heaven” actually is – this kingdom which Jesus was so passionate about teaching and introducing? The Kingdom of heaven (or the Kingdom of God) was the reign of God which Jesus declared was now actively present with him and in him. This reign or kingdom of God could become a living reality in human hearts as people received Jesus and his message into their own broken lives. People could enter the Kingdom now (John 3: 3, 5) because it was at hand now, but also the kingdom (God’s reign) could enter them and live within them. On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples;

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God lived within those who believed in him and put their trust in his word. This Kingdom brought radical change to the way people lived as they gladly welcomed and surrendered their lives to Jesus? Does the kingdom of God live in you? Have you entered this kingdom – this present reign of God? This is where eternal life begins according to the Lord Jesus and the N.T.

Thirdly, each parable reveals to us a very important truth or “secret” about the Kingdom of God. The question to ask therefore is this; what is the “key truth” which a particular parable is seeking to convey about God’s Kingdom? And today we must ask, what is the key truth revealed through this No 1 parable – the parable of the Sower?

How would you answer that question?  We are blessed because Jesus interpreted this first parable for us. He explained its meaning to the disciples privately. But what is the key truth which we must grasp and understand? The parable teaches, at its heart, why the message of the kingdom of God enters some lives and becomes fruitful – very fruitful, and why the message of the kingdom does not bear fruit in the lives of others who hear it but do not retain it. The efficacy of God’s word in people’s lives lies at the heart of this parable. This is because the seed which the Sower scatters is “the word” or “the message of the Kingdom” (19) The seed is the good news of the Kingdom. It is the word of God. Why does the “word of God,” this “message of the Kingdom” take root and produce fruit in some lives and not others?

Jesus believes the disciples need to understand this – for they will be spending the rest of their lives scattering the seed among the people of many nations. Why will their preaching be only partially successful? This parable speaks not just of the importance of God’s word for the spreading and growth of the kingdom, but also the receptiveness of the human heart and mind to receive and be transformed by this life-giving kingdom message. This is why the quality of the different kinds of soils is so relevant. This is why some refer to the parable as the parable of the soils.

If the seed is the word of God, the soil is the human heart and mind to which the word comes. So, the parable asks each of us a most vital question. Of these four soils – which are you? We all need to answer that question today. Which soil am I? Which soil best represents my heart, my mind, my life, and my relationship to the word of God?

An illustration from my own experience may help here. When I was about 14 years of age, I was blessed to be introduced into the life of a very lively local Church where the word of God was preached faithfully by its Minister. He scattered the seed with care, love, passion, sincerity, faithfulness, and integrity. I owe that Minister a great debt of gratitude as do many others! There were about 50 other teenagers in that Church at that time, who all, like me, heard the word of God as it was being scattered week by week, Sunday by Sunday. The intriguing question is this? Why did about 75-80% of those teenagers who attended Church with me not remain in the Church and go on to live fruitful Kingdom lives? It is this parable that gives us the clear answer to that kind of question?

Some left the Church because the word they heard was quickly snatched away by the devil who we know to be the enemy of the word of God and the kingdom of God. The word hit the ground of their heart, but it was hard ground, and it was snatched away extremely quickly. Others fell away from the Church and the possibilities of the Kingdom of God because their reception of the word was basically superficial even though there appeared initially to be real joy and emotion in their hearts. When some of those teenagers realised that the Kingdom of God and following Jesus faithfully would involve real sacrifice, hardship and even persecution – they threw in the towel. To use the words of Jesus they decided that the “narrow way which leads to life” was not for them after all. (Matthew 7: 13-14) The broad way (which tragically leads to destruction) seemed more appealing and more people were travelling on it – so they assumed it must be right?

Others fell away because of either the general worries, pressures, and cares of life or because of the enticing draw and pull of worldliness and money. The Kingdom was choked out of their life by these powerful and subtle weeds and thorns. Some realised that what Jesus said was true concerning the fact that you cannot serve God and money. And so, they chose money and materialism over Jesus and the kingdom. Others were beguiled by western worldliness along with all its excessive consumerism, materialism, individualism, and wide options for so-called “sexual liberation.” Like Demas, who had been a companion of the apostle Paul, “they deserted the gospel way because of their love for the world.” (2 Timothy 4:10) The world, the flesh and the devil have always been and remain the true enemies to the progress of the Kingdom of God in the lives of individuals – individuals who hear the word – but then fail “to retain it in their hearts.” (Luke 8:15)

Then there were those teenagers, and by the grace of God, I happen to be one of them, who heard the word, held onto it for dear life, retained it, and welcomed and encouraged it to work within them saving grace, living hope and the power and righteousness of God’s kingdom. And those who stayed on “the narrow way” and committed themselves to “building their lives on rock, not sand,” (Matthew 7:24-25) those who picked up their cross to follow the Lord Jesus, (Matthew 16:24) have by the grace and power of God – produced a crop – of varying size – for the kingdom of heaven.

I did grow up in a remarkable Church at a remarkable time with a remarkable Minister. At least 8 young people went on the train for Christian ministry, including myself. One went on to be a children’s worker, another heads-up a national Christian organisation. He is their CEO. Others pursued different but valuable and significant careers in the secular sphere, but served on Church leadership teams using their many gifts to win people for Christ and his kingdom, and to serve in the wider mission of the Church. If you were to add together the number of human lives which have been blessed by the joint ministry and efforts of these faithful young people who are now all about my age, thousands upon thousands of lives have indeed been eternally blessed and nourished. This has all blossomed from one Church on a Council estate in Bradford, and I am only referring today to one generation of its fruitful ministry.

The No 1 parable ends with these words;

But the one who receives the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:23)

This is how the kingdom grows and the word spreads through which God is glorified. Where the seed is successful, the crop is truly significant – hence the multiplication principle at the heart of the Kingdom of God. This is also known as “the mustard seed principle” and God’s Spirit powerfully leads the kingdom’s activity and substantial progress taking place throughout the world. Jesus said to his disciples;

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go bear fruit – fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)

Do you love the word of God – the seed that grows the Kingdom? What is the evidence for that in the life you have lived and are presently living? Are you bearing the fruit of the Kingdom of heaven? Which soil represents your heart, mind, and aspirations? Face the parable honestly. Are you good soil for the word of the living God to settle into and produce fruit? If not, you cannot go past parable No 1 and really enjoy and produce the fruit of the Kingdom. Eyes must be opened to see God’s truth, ears unstopped, hearts melted and transformed so that the Kingdom may come in and dominate the landscape of your life. Only God’s Spirit can do this regenerative work. Come Holy Spirit! Come Word of God!

And now unto God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – be all glory, praise, and honour. Amen!

(Revd Peter J Clarkson 16.7.23)