A parable is a figure of speech, an extended metaphor, a story using common actions or circumstances designed to illustrate a spiritual truth, a principle, or a moral lesson. The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole, which means to place beside or side by side for the purpose of comparison. A parable can usually be identified by the use of the word “like.” This was the method of teaching Jesus used most often.
Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8 all record the parable of the Sower, which gives priceless insight into how people receive and respond to God’s Word. In each account, the story is the same: A farmer scattered seeds and some fell by the wayside, and the birds devoured them. Some seeds fell on stony ground where the soil was shallow, and as soon as they sprouted the sun scorched them because they had no roots. Some fell surrounded by thorns and the thorns choked them, but some seeds fell on good soil and were productive, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
The disciples asked Jesus why He was speaking to the people in parables, and its meaning. In each Gospel, Jesus told them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:11) Then He asked them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13) Jesus was not insulting them but challenging them. Jesus had not been teaching in parables prior to this time.
The disciples may have been somewhat perplexed with this teaching method. The Message translates Mark 4:13: “Do you see how this story works? All my stories work this way.” Jesus was challenging them to contemplate His words more deeply. He was training them to be leaders, and leaders need to be in front and ahead of the people they lead. Jesus wanted them to understand human nature, and how people respond to the Word of God, the enemy they are dealing with, and what it really takes to live a productive life for God. Jesus knew that they must grasp the simple truths regarding the kingdom, in order to move on and master more difficult things.
Paraphrasing, the interpretation is this: The sower sows the seed which represents the Word of God. First are people “by the wayside” who don’t understand, and likely don’t have the ability to understand. They are easy prey, so to speak, so the devil, who is Satan and the wicked one, immediately comes and steals the word out of their hearts. The result is that they don’t believe it and therefore do not get saved. The second category is people “on the rock” or on “stony places.” Their first reaction is joy, but they don’t stay in the Word long enough to really learn and become established disciples. This person believes for a while but never develops roots. They don’t solidify their commitment, so as soon as there is temptation, pressure or harassment related to their believing of God’s Word, they immediately quit.
The third group “among the thorns” represents the people that believe God’s Word, but over the course of an indeterminate period of time they are either overwhelmed with the worries and stress of life, or seduced by the riches and pleasures in tnis world, and their lives and destiny are never fulfilled. Finally, there is the fourth group, “the good ground,” the people who hear the Word and understand it. With a good heart, they commit their lives to it, and throughout their lives they are consistently productive.
The Amplified Bible’s translation of Matthew 13:23 may be the most comprehensible. “As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the Word and grasps and comprehends it; he indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundred times as much as was sown, in another sixty times as much, and in another thirty.” What believers do with the Word of God they have received is contingent upon many variables. God shows no partiality, so the explanation for one person being more fruitful than another cannot be that God has given more to one person than the other. There is no sense in analyzing who is more useful or comparing productivity, as all God’s people are precious and valuable to Him. The emphasis should be to be faithful and as productive as possible according to ones own ability.
“Christ does not say that this good ground has no stones in it, or no thorns; but none that could hinder its fruitfulness. All are not alike; we should aim at the highest, to bring forth most fruit.” (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments Commentary)