Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and 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 sprung up, and choked them: but other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed unto the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Jesus in His lifetime was deeply involved in evangelism, and few passages are more crucial to an understanding of what He was about than the parable of the sower.
At that point where Jesus began to speak in parables His life had come to that appeared to be a crisis. His ministry, rather than uniting the people, as many had hoped and expected, was causing discord and division on every aside. Dissension was everywhere. Some wanted nothing of what He said from the start. Others followed Him for a while only to turn away, often to become His most bitter enemies. And then there were those who never seemed to be able to decide. But nowhere does the extent of disillusionment become more apparent than in the account recorded by Matthew at the end of chapter 12: “While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without; desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told Him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (vss. 46-50). His own family, which once had urged Him to seek greater exposure (John. 7:2-4), now wanted Him to quit.
In reality it was inevitable, regardless of what others may have thought. When Jesus had first appeared with His mighty works and gracious rhetoric, everyone rallied around, and many thought that this was the man who would unite the nation against Rome; but such was not to be. From the beginning His ministry did not fit that pattern. Already Nicodemus, himself an experienced leader, had appeared to warn Him that He shouldn’t discourage would-be followers as He had (John 2:23-3:3). His Sermon on the Mount, beautifully crafted though it were, could not but offend important people in the land (Matt. 5-7); while taking up friendship with publicans and sinners hardly helped (Matt. 9:9-13). By the time He sent out His disciples it was necessary to warn them of the opposition they would meet wherever they went (Matt. 10:16-28). And then, when He began to disparage such favored gems of Jewry as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:20-24), it was too much. They began to plot His demise (Matt. 12:14).
It was no wonder that at that point His friends concluded He was beside Himself (Mark 3:21); and His family appeared to try to make Him cease.
Jesus, however, rather than speaking with them, went down to the sea, and, pushing off shore in a little ship, He prepared to speak to those who had followed Him. It was then, it has been suggested, that He lifted His eyes and beheld on a nearby hillside a farmer sowing seed. The sight was very ordinary. The man, as many in Israel, had a small plot of land surrounded by a beaten path. He used it for growing grain, and at the moment was carefully working back and forth, scattering seed into its every comer, while a flock of birds circled overhead ready to snatch up every kernel of grain they could. But the man labored on. He was determined that his field should be sown; and Jesus, quick of mind and sensitive as He always was to the crosscurrents of life, saw it as a picture of His own.
He had come into this world, sent by the Father, with a calling. He was, during His lifetime, to preach the Gospel of the kingdom into every corner of that land; and now He was doing just that (Matt. 10:6-23). It was taking the strength of His days, just as it did the farmer’s on the hill.
Persistently that man worked back and forth, intent on covering every part of his little paddock. Some seed, he knew, would never bear. The birds overhead were a testimony to that. So quickly they swooped in to snatch up every grain that hit the path. And, besides, there were portions of his field which, for reasons known only to him, he had thought better than to prepare. Hard rock underlay some, and the roots of thistles and thorns were to be found elsewhere. Seed falling on these places might sprout, but it would never produce fruit. Some would be withered by the sun, and the rest would be choked by the thorns. But the man worked on, determined to sow it all; and the fruit, when and where it came, would justify it all.
This is where Jesus saw Himself; and with His homely little story He laid it out, “Behold, a sower went forth to sow . . .” Many might at first wonder; but few would forget. And countless numbers, in meditating on his picture of words through days and. years and even ages to come, would come to understand the passion of His life, His determination to have His field sown.
That field for Him was Israel; and He was committed to sow it while He yet lived. The Gospel of the kingdom must cover all of Israel before His work on earth was done. The time was short, the years few, and there was much to do. Like the sower on yonder hill, He must pass, back and forth casting His seed everywhere. From this calling He could not turn back. And what He was doing was having its effect, even though this meant that an essential division within His audience was being exposed.
This latter, of course, was exactly what so many did not want. They wanted Him to moderate His rhetoric and say things which would be acceptable to all. But that He could not do. For truth and honesty’s sake, and in submission to His Father’s will, He must set forth the reality of the kingdom as it was, nothing else. It was this that was bringing out the real distinction among men. Some there were who wanted nothing of it and turned from it immediately. They were committed to earthly goals, and cared for nothing else. But there were the others as well. Some saw His mighty works, examined the crowd that followed Him, and decided He was the kind of man with whom they could profitably be identified, without listening to what He said. Shallow people they were, without depth; and under the rigors of godly responsibility soon they fell away. And then there were those who thought they could have it both ways. They wanted to follow Him, but they also wanted to retain the satisfactions of the world as well. For a time they appeared quite committed, but soon the attractions of this world drew them farther and farther away. It is what truth does to man; it brings out the reality of what he is.
But at the same time there were those who were different. This same word of truth which exposed those not prepared found place in those who were. Usually it was not as dramatic; and few seemed to notice or care. But there were those in whom the Spirit had worked; and when the Word came to them it took root. Slowly and surely it always grew, and would in the end produce its fruit, thirty, sixty; and an hundredfold. This He knew; and, regardless of what others might think, in it He found His joy.
And to this day it is the same.
Even as Jesus covered the land of Israel during His brief days, His last words to us were, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you and, lo, I am with you always; even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:19, 20). As our calling it remains with us still. We are His people, His church, built on the foundation He laid (Eph. 2:19, 20); and it is for us to continue His work, spreading the Gospel everywhere: This is true of the church as an institute, sending its missionaries throughout the earth. And it is true for us as individuals, each of whom is given a place and a witness to fulfill.
But be sure, the results for us will be no different from what they were for our Lord. Many to whom we speak will not care. Others will for the moment show interest and even enthusiasm only to turn away. And there will be those who, while professing conviction, will not let go of the world. It is what the truth does; it brings out the hardness of unregenerate hearts.
But there are always the others as well. God has prepared good soil; and no more wonderful experience is there than to be used by God to convert a “sinner from the error of his way,” and to “save a soul from death” (James 5:20). It may come in unpretentious ways, ways few stop to notice; it usually does. But the words of the psalmist remain to the end, Ps. 126:6: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him.”