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The Parable of the Soils: Study #1

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

Does it Really Come Down to What Kind of Hearts We Have?

By Richard Allen – August 7, 2023

Most people who regularly read their Bibles are familiar with the Parable of the Sower. They will immediately notice that I’ve mis-named this parable’s study. To start, I admit there is some intentionality to this. Jesus Himself names this parable in Matthew 13:18, saying: “Hear then the parable of the Sower,” so I must have a good reason to change the title. My reasoning is that while Jesus is rightly putting the focus on Himself as the Sower, there is also a human perspective of the condition of our hearts that “Parable of the Soils” wants us to understand, which will help us as we study. I’m by no means the first to refer to this parable as the Parable of the Soils, other writers have focused on the different Soils as a method of teaching. In fact, everyone usually carves up this parable with the headings: 1). The Hard-Hearted Hearer, 2) The Shallow-Hearted Hearer, 3). The Divided-Hearted Hearer, and 4). The Good-Hearted Hearer.

Since I first started reading and studying this parable 48+ years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the questions that this parable provokes: 1). Why does some of the seed fall on Hard Soil or Rocky Soil or even Thorny Soil? Did the Sower intend to sow his seed on unfertile ground? Was it accidental or just a fact of farming? 2). If the Four Soils are explained to be the condition of Men’s hearts, why are they so different? What made them different? 3). Does salvation come down to “some people having better hearts than others?” If so, then God’s salvation is a meritocracy, where Men and Women are rewarded for having good, receptive and honest hearts (Luke 8:15). This concept doesn’t agree with any of New Testament Scripture. And lastly, 4). Is the Sower completely “passive” in planting, cultivating and tending his crops? If so, this doesn’t sound like any Farmer (Sower) that I know. As we open this wonderful passage, I’m hopeful that we’ll answer all these questions using all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in the process. So, as an introduction to the Parable of the Soils, it’s important for us to recognize its significance among all the Parables that Our Lord Jesus gave during His earthly ministry. Like many other commentators, I believe that: “It’s Foundational to Understanding All Other Parables!” This is exactly what Jesus tells us in Mark’s gospel:

“And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? (Mark 4:13).

What’s so amazing to me is that Jesus gives us “interpretive keys” to understanding His symbols throughout this parable (i.e. the seed = word of the kingdom, the heart = soil, etc.). After delivering this parable in the hearing of the multitudes that followed Him, Jesus’ disciples came to Him privately to inquire: “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables” (Mark 4:10). So, in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable. It’s also important to see that the Apostles’ first question was as profound as Jesus’ answer:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them“ (Matthew 13:10-15).

This is a hard truth to understand, and many run kicking and screaming away from it, but GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER ALL IN SALVATION! There is just no way around it. Other passages of Scripture make the same truth painfully plain: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). And often it appears that God is unmerciful toward those who are puffed up in their self-confidence. Here’s a prayer that Jesus made thanking His Heavenly Father for hiding and revealing: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do’ (Luke 10:21). Just so we aren’t confused, God also can strike down a “wise and learned man,” just like Saul of Tarsus, and humble him before saving him. But the principle stands that God opposes the proud, and lifts up the lowly.

I bring all this to our attention, because the Parable of the Soils will not yield its riches to our understanding if we miss this interpretive framework right at the start. Before Jesus ever explains a word about the different types of soils (hearers), He makes it clear that His goal for using Parables to teach about the Kingdom of God was two-fold: 1). To conceal the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven from the masses, and 2). To reveal these truths to His Children:

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16-17).

As we study the Parable of the Soils and review responses from four types of soil (hearts) to the Word, it will be important to remember: God is Sovereign. Nothing will make any sense without Jesus’ explanation from the divine perspective. Has Christ only been revealed to those “whose eyes and ears are blessed,” even with the gospel openly proclaimed throughout the world for the past 2,000 years? So, why is it “hidden from those to whom it has not been given?” From a purely human perspective, the Gospel has been indiscriminately proclaimed to all people throughout the world, yet only a few have savingly responded, even among those attending church. So, what is it about: “having eyes to see, and ears to hear” that is necessary for salvation? Does this explain Parable of the Soil’s focus on the heart?

A few words about interpretive difficulties. While Jesus does provide an “interpretive key for us,” explaining many of the components involved in the practice of farming, He doesn’t explain everything. So we do need to use caution when interpreting His symbols. But at the same time, Jesus, as we’ll learn, is referencing concepts and verses with which Jewish people would have been familiar. The whole picture of a Sower (farmer) going forth to plant was a common picture with which most in that “agrarian culture” would have been very familiar. Like many treasures of Biblical Truth, we need to be good students of Scripture, “comparing Spiritual things with Spiritual things” (1 Corinthians 2:13), if we hope to understand the truths that Jesus tells us. As mentioned in Mark 4:13, this parable is the “prep-school” for understanding all parables, so we need to be diligent in seeking our Lord’s meaning and intent, while being careful “not to contradict other New Testament truths about grace and salvation.”

I know there are those who rightly understand that the Parable of the Soils is teaching that there are differences between the soils. Three portions of the soil are not receptive to the Word, so it’s easy to understand “human responsibility” and our need to personally respond. But, unless we are ready to say that Salvation comes only to people who have personal integrity, understanding and worth – and not by the Grace of God, we are in a dilemma. People ARE RESPONSIBLE TO HEAR, REPENT AND BELIEVE THE GOSPEL! But the other truth that Scripture teaches side-by-side, is that God is Sovereign over all. As one preacher taught me many years ago, it all comes down to our “anthropology,” that is our “doctrine of man’s condition.” If men are “neutral,” and not “irreparably damaged” by the Fall, then by all means – Salvation is purely a “meritocracy,” and God rewards those who are worthy and seek Him with their whole hearts. But if Man is Fallen: Body, Soul, Mind, Appetites and Volition, then he needs something more than “Do This And You Will Live.” That was the system of the Law, and we all know that it didn’t work.

One final word as an introduction to the Parable of the Soils: Jesus was not describing a farming exercise that was out of the ordinary. Far from it, I think He was narrating an experience that many of His fellow countrymen were quite used to. When a Sower, who is a Farmer, went forth to sow seed, in the process some of the seed dropped or was carried by the wind onto the “hardened cart path.” Farmers in that early day needed these paths to transport their seed to distant acres. These paths were also used to bring in the harvest. Likewise, there were places where a Farmer did not intend to sow seed, but that likewise received the seeds for the same reasons as the hardened cart path, it was blown there by the wind. Seed was far too expensive and precious to sow on unfertile ground. So, this somewhat answers one of our questions at the top. Good Sowers of the Seed (i.e. Farmers), sowed their seed in such a way as to maximize their crop yield. To say anything different is to miss the irony that Jesus is expressing: God is intentionally sowing seed to bring in a “fruitful harvest.” This should help us as we look at the Parable of the Soils!

Soli Deo Gloria!

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