I’m a backyard farmer. Vegetable gardens have been a regular part of my life. Having been raised by parents who grew up in families dependent on backyard gardens for daily food, I know what it takes to produce enough food to see one through until the next harvest. It takes good soil, with good seed that is well tended by an attentive gardener. Without these we can’t expect a crop to grow and produce abundant fruit.
That is exactly what Jesus Christ lays out for us in one of His longest and most important parables. Matthew 13 begins with a large crowd gathered around Him and Him getting into a boat so all those who stood on the shore could hear Him (Matthew 13:2 Matthew 13:2And great multitudes were gathered together to him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.
American King James Version×).
In the first set of parables He spoke, He used an example from their everyday life that teaches crucial truths about one’s calling to the Kingdom of God. He talked to them about a man sowing seed in the field. Let’s notice what He said.
“Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
“But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:3-9 Matthew 13:3-9 3 And he spoke many things to 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 on stony places, where they had not much earth: and immediately 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 hundred times, some sixty times, some thirty times.
9 Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
American King James Version×).
So let’s hear and consider a few points.
Soil conditions affect growth
In the setting of that time a farmer sowing a field was a well-known sight. He walked up and down his freshly tilled land grabbing handfuls of seed grain from a sack slung over his shoulder and throwing it in front of him as he went.
The well-worn paths between towns and farms ran next to the fields. The passing of many feet, hooves and carts compressed the paths into hard-packed dirt unable to receive the seed.
But because the farmer’s field went alongside the path, he would inevitably sow some of the seed on the “wayside.” Seed falling on a well-worn path won’t work into the soil and take root. Birds in those days were as smart as birds are today and knew where to get an easy meal. They would swoop down and quickly fill their bills with seed. This is the seed that “fell by the wayside.”
Jesus continued with His explanation, talking about seed that “fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth.” Those who have visited the Holy Land know that much of it is literally “stony ground.” Although farmers would try to keep their fields free of stones, inevitably some areas remained pocked with rocks. Because of the way the seed was sown, coupled with help from the wind, some seed would inevitably fall in these areas.
Stony ground has soil, but it isn’t good enough for seed to germinate and put down deep roots. The stones block root growth, preventing plants from growing roots large enough to support much fruit. As Christ said, anything that begins to grow in stony soil lacks a deep root system and quickly withers and dies from the heat. It produces no fruit.
Christ continued His lesson, talking about seed that is sown among thorns. Thorns can grow just about anywhere—in poor soil, rocky soil and in good soil. In Jesus’ day people didn’t have sophisticated herbicides. Today we can spray these on the soil and they prevent virtually all weeds. Without thorns or weeds, we can have grain and other crops growing unhindered by the unproductive plants. Nothing is around to compete with and “choke” the life out of the good grain.
The last category He mentioned is the seed that falls on good ground and produces much fruit. The variance Christ mentions can be due to weather—too little or too much rain and temperatures that are too hot or too cool. But because there is good soil, properly fertilized and balanced with the right amount of nutrients, seed can germinate, put down deep roots and produce optimum fruit.
Learn from life
Christ finished this parable and then said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” We are of course to pay close attention to what He’s saying. But not only that. We are to go further and draw out the meanings from life experiences and understand how to apply them. We must do more than just listen—He expects us to learn valuable life lessons.
I can think of a few from the gardening I’ve done through the years.
My father and mother planted a big garden every year. Growing up during the Great Depression, they learned the value of a productive garden. They couldn’t afford to buy everything at a grocery store; most meals came from their garden. During my youth, my dad tended a large plot in our back yard. Every year he spread a load of manure, tilled it into the soil, and broke up the ground so it would be a good bed for the vegetable plants and seeds.
He would come in from work at night and look at the garden. He kept the rows clean and free of weeds. If rain didn’t come, he would water the garden enough to keep things growing. As each summer wore on, we were rewarded with tomatoes, corn and beans. There would be enough to eat and more left over to can and freeze for the winter. Having a can of store-bought beans or corn on our family table was considered by my parents to be something close to a mortal sin!
But we had all this because they knew the importance of “good ground.” They knew not to let the soil get hard-packed. Nor did they let weeds and thorns grow up between the healthy vegetable plants. They knew that thorns can thrive just about anywhere. They can grow in poor soil and good. They resist drought and blossom when it rains. Thorns don’t care if it’s hot or cold.
In my parents’ later years before they died, they could no longer plant and work the garden. I once visited our home and walked out to the garden plot. What I saw wasn’t pretty. Weeds, thorns, crabgrass and thistles abounded. It was an overgrown mess. When even good ground isn’t properly tended, left to itself everything else moves in. Nothing useful can grow until it is cleared out.
My own garden plots
Through the years I’ve worked several garden plots. Two in particular stand out.
One was full of rocks. I worked many hours one spring to clear out the rocks. The more I dug, it seemed the more came to the surface. I came to a point where I had to get seed in the ground or I would miss the growing season. So I went ahead and planted in stony ground. I was surprised when the plants grew, and I began to hope they would grow well enough to produce fruit.
As the weeks went on, the growth slowly came. But one day the growth stopped. The summer got hot, and most of the plants began to wither. Some eventually put on some buds and then some little fruit. But I don’t recall getting more than a few quarts of beans. No corn grew on the sickly stalks, and I didn’t get enough potatoes to fill a small sack. The lesson here? A seed can begin to grow in stony ground, but it won’t amount to much, and in the heat of the season it will fade and die out.
And yes, I’ve even seen my sown seed eaten away by the birds. If you don’t plant deep enough and cover the seed with soil, the birds are smart enough to peck around and dig it out. Even other animals like raccoons or squirrels will dig up plants and seed as it germinates and eat it, ending any hope of a good crop.
My longest use of a particular garden was 22 years. Year after year it produced vegetables. I learned the lessons from my dad and kept it fertilized. I kept the weeds down and hoed between the plants. I laid down mulch to keep moisture in during the hot weeks of summer. It was a small enough plot that I didn’t need a mechanized tiller, so at planting time all I had to do was turn over the soil with a spade. It easily broke apart, and with a little raking it was ready for planting. I spent many enjoyable hours in that garden, and it was a delight to go out each evening and see how much the plants had grown.
This garden became a therapeutic tool through many episodes of my life. It gave me many illustrations for sermons and other messages. I could draw on other statements from Jesus that centered on the fruit of the land for spiritual lessons. Through the years I learned why Jesus looked to the land to draw some of His deepest and most profound teaching.
Vital lessons for all of us
Among Christ’s parables about the land, this one about the sower and the seed stands out as the most insightful in its depth of teaching about how the seed of the gospel of the Kingdom is sown and works in the field of life. No other parable shows us how the devil, the allure of the world and the cares of life conspire to root from our lives the eternal truths of the Kingdom of God. Our modern world is full of distractions—the rocks, thorns and birds that conspire to prevent God’s Word and His calling from taking root and bearing fruit. In that knowledge is vital understanding for us all.
As a minister of the gospel, I’ve witnessed this parable at work in the lives of countless numbers of people. The lessons from this story are at work today, as the “seed” of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God are being sown via this magazine, the Beyond Today television program and our other efforts.
Right now you are holding a “bag of seed” in your hand as you read these words. The word of the Kingdom of God is being sown in your life. The question to examine from the parable is, what quality of “soil” is your life? Is it full of stones? Has it been packed down hard by the journey of life? Can Satan easily snatch the valuable and precious truth of God from your life?
Building spiritual success, confidence and eternal hope into your life depends on how you respond to these questions. The seeds of the gospel of God and His eternal Kingdom are spread before you to make good use of them!
In the next issue we’ll look at Christ’s interpretation of this parable and what it can mean for your part in the Kingdom of God. Don’t miss it!