“He spake many things unto them in parables” (Matthew 13:3).
What is a Parable?
Christ’s words were always picturesque. He spoke of camels creeping through the hole in a needle (Matthew 19:24), of people trying to remove specks from another’s eye when a plank was in their own (Matthew 7:5). He referred to a house divided against itself, destined to fall down (Mark 3:25), to tossing children’s bread to dogs (Mark 7:27). Strictly speaking, however, these are not stories. The stories Jesus told fall into a particular category known as parable. A parable is a story taken from a real life situation from which a moral or spiritual truth is drawn. Examples are many: the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), and many others.
Parables differ from fables in that a fable is not a real situation. Parables also differ from allegories, since in an allegory each or nearly every detail has meaning. Parables are merely real-life stories from which one or possibly a few basic truths are drawn.
The Parable of the Sower
If a person were to begin reading the New Testament at Matthew 1:1, he would read quite a while before encountering a parable. But with chapter 13 that suddenly changes—here, seven parables are recorded. The first parable deals with the beginnings or origins of the kingdom of God. It is compared to a farmer sowing seed (Matthew 13:3-9). Not all of Christ’s parables are explained, but this one is (vv. 18-23). The seed is the gospel, and the soil is the human heart. The emphasis is on the various kinds of hearts and how they reject or receive Christ’s message.
The hard heart
The first type of soil represents the hard heart, of which there are many today. It is described as soil along the path (v. 4). Such ground has been trampled down by the many feet that have passed that way over years. Because the soil is hard, the seed that falls there merely lies on the path and does not sink in, and the birds (which Christ compares to the devil or the devil’s workers) soon snatch it away. What is it that makes the human heart hard? There can only be one answer: sin. Sin hardens the heart, and the heart that is hardened sins even more.
The shallow heart
The second type of soil stands for the shallow heart. Jesus described it as soil covering rocky ground. When the seed fell there it sank in, but only to a very shallow depth. It sprang up quickly, but it also faded quickly in the sun’s heat because it had no root. Many people fit this description. They are attracted to the joy and excitement of a church where much is happening. They hear the gospel and seem to fit in. Many even make a profession of faith. But then some difficulty comes and just as suddenly as they once seemed to embrace the faith, they fall away, because they were never really born again.
The strangled heart
The third type of soil stands for the strangled heart. “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” (v. 22). I do not need to point out how many lives are choked by riches today. It was even true in Jesus’ day (see Matthew 19:23, Mark 10:25, Luke 6:24). Riches do not choke a person all at once. It is a gradual process. Slowly, very slowly, they strangle the buddings of spiritual life within. Beware of that if you either have possessions or are on your way to acquiring them. Above all, beware if you are saying, “I’ll think about spiritual things when I’m older.”
The open heart
The last type of soil is the one to which the entire parable has been heading. It is the open heart, the heart that receives the gospel like good soil receives seed. Is your heart an open heart? Are you receptive to God’s truth? Do you allow it to settle down into your life and thinking so that it turns you from sin, directs your faith to Jesus, and produces the Holy Spirit’s fruit? You may say, “I’m afraid not. I wish my heart was like that, but I’m afraid it is hard or shallow or strangled by this world’s goods. What can I do?”
The answer is that you can do nothing, any more than soil can change its nature. But there is one who can—the divine Gardener. He can break up the hard ground, uproot the rocks, and remove the thorns. Jesus said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). In other words, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). They are possible for you. Come to Christ and allow Him to give you a heart that will receive the gospel.
—Condensed from The Parables of Jesus by James Montgomery Boice. Copyright (c) 1983 by the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.