27. The Parable of the Soils, Part 1 (Luke 8:4-10)

Gospel Parallels §90-91
Audio (19:51)

James J. Tissot, 'The Sower' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Sower' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 9.7 x 5.3 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Why do marriage counselors have to re-teach communication skills to husbands and wives? Because they've stopped listening, but assume they know what each other is saying.

We can do the same thing with the Bible. Familiarity invites us to slide easily over something we've read before without really "listening" to it. I invite you to "listen" with new ears to Jesus' familiar Parable of the Sower. I've chosen to call it the "Parable of the Soils," because that's where the lesson lies. We'll be examining it in two parts. In this Lesson 27, we'll look at the physical condition of the soils and the reason for using parables at all. In Lesson 28, we'll look for the spiritual truths the soils represent. But don't get ahead of yourself and read into it time-worn truths. Imagine that this is the first time you've heard it.

"4  While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5  'A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6  Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8  Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.' When he said this, he called out, 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear.' 9  His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10  He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand."'" (Luke 8:4-10, NIV)

Hearers of the Parable (Luke 8:4)

Luke describes the day when thousands heard it from Jesus' own mouth: "While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable" (Luke 8:4)

What had started with teaching in synagogues had completely outgrown any buildings. Large crowds now attended his teachings, many journeying long distances. Luke says "People were coming to Jesus from town after town." The Greek verb is epiporeuomai, "go or journey (to)."229 This was no longer a local phenomenon. More and more distant places had heard about Jesus, and people were drawn to where he was. The motels were full.

It's significant, I think, that Jesus tells the Parable of the Soils at a time when the crowds are increasing dramatically. It says something about how he evaluates the crowd of hearers. For this parable is really about the quality of hearing.

What Is a Parable?

Sometimes we get hung up on parables as a particular religious kind of speech. Not at all. People have been telling stories to make a point for thousands of years. Jesus, however, employed stories extensively in his teaching ministry. In contrast to left-brained, logical "propositional" teaching that systematic theologians thrive on, Jesus conveyed truth through stories remembered long after anything else he may have said. Public speakers use illustrations for much the same purpose: to clarify or illuminate the point they are trying to make.

A previous generation treated parables as complex allegories. In an allegory, every element of a story has a corresponding meaning. John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), for example, is a book-length allegory about a Christian named Pilgrim, who travels from his home city of Destruction to the Celestial City.

Unfortunately, from the time of Origin, Bible teachers also worked overtime to read meanings into Scripture as well. Richard Chenevix Trench in his Parables of Our Lord (1847), for example, takes Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan, and begins to wax eloquent:

"Regarding it in this mystical sense, the traveler will be the personified human Nature, or Adam as the representative and head of our race. He has forsaken Jerusalem, the heavenly City ... and is going down to Jericho, the profane city, the city under a curse...."

Now the traveler falls into the hands of Satan (a robber and murderer) and is stripped of his robe of original righteousness, grievously wounded, etc. This kind of allegorizing was done so often and so seriously that in the twentieth century the pendulum swung the other direction. Historical-critical Bible scholars claimed that Jesus never used allegory.

In fact, the Parable of the Soils is a simple allegory. The seed is one thing, the field another, etc. Jesus' Parable of the Tenants (Luke 20:9-19) is also an allegory.

But most of Jesus' parables are scarcely allegories. They are simple stories told to make a point. The Parable of the Yeast, for example, is not an allegory.

"[The kingdom of God] is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Luke 13:21)

Jesus is using a picture of a woman baking to remind his hearers of the power of yeast to puff up a ball of dough to several times its original size through the unseen agent of yeast, and to compare that kind of growth to the growth of the Kingdom. There is usually a just a single point of comparison between the parable and the truth Jesus seeks to convey. The Parable of the Soils is an exception.

Seed Along the Path (Luke 8:5)

The Parable of the Soils that we are studying today begins, "A farmer went out to sow his seed." No machine planting here -- though in parts of Mesopotamia the plow was sometimes built with a vertical tube through which the seed was dropped.230 The kind of sowing Jesus describes involved taking a handful of seed and scattering it evenly onto the field. Each and every hearer in the crowd that day had sowed seed in this manner. Immediately, they were at home with the story as it unfolded. Israelites were familiar with two grain crops -- barley in the areas of poorer soil, and wheat in the better land. We aren't told which grain this was.

Now Jesus observes that some of the seed fell along the path, the narrow strip of hard-trampled dirt along which the farmer and his family walked through the field. Because the soil of the path wasn't broken up, the seed remained on the surface of the ground "and the birds of the air ate it up." You've seen birds out on a new lawn just after seeding, pecking at the grass seed. Birds haven't changed much; they are opportunists.

Seed on Rocky Soil (Luke 8:6)

Next, Jesus notes that some seed fell on rock. This wasn't plain rock, but slabs of limestone in certain parts of the field just under the surface with an inch or two of soil over them. The limestone would hold the warmth of the sun throughout the night, and for a while the new plants would spring up and grow vigorously -- until they ran out of moisture. Since they couldn't get a root down into deep soil, they would quickly wither and die.

Now this makes perfect sense to a California boy like me who grew up in a Mediterranean climate similar to the Holy Land. Rains come in the fall and winter, as much rain as there is, anyway. Late spring and summer see little or no rain. By May, the green hills of spring are turning brown as the grass dries up. If you are from a region where it rains all summer, withering and dying may not be part of your experience. But in Palestine, seeds had to be sown in good soil if they had a hope of making it to maturity.

Remember, you are listening to -- and imagining -- this parable as if you've never heard it before. In your mind's eye you can see the plant growing vigorously, only to wither and die when the rains stop. You see it. But what is Jesus getting at? you wonder. He continues.

Seed among Thorns (Luke 8:7)

"Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants" (Luke 8:7). No farmer purposely scatters seed into thorns. But there may be thorn seed in the soil in certain spots.

Here in Northern California we have the worst, I am sure, of all thorns. It is called Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) from the painful thorn-spikes that protrude in a star-burst to protect the seed. One spring, I went to an area of our property over our newly-installed leach lines, and scattered part of a bag of grass seed, hoping to see grass rather than Star Thistle. Silly boy! The Star Thistle out-grows nearly everything, and thrives in the dry ground of summer. One year, the Star Thistle grew to seven feet high. It's nasty stuff. I would guess that if they had Star Thistle in Palestine, barley or wheat wouldn't have a chance. Sure, you'd see a few stalks in the shadow of the Star Thistle, but it would be out-competed for both moisture and light. No crop here.

Over the crowd where Jesus is speaking you can see the farmers -- and their wives and children -- nodding their heads and smiling. They knew about thorns -- all too well.

Seed on Good Soil (Luke 8:8a)

"Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown" (8:8). A good and maturing field of wheat is a wonder to behold -- "amber waves of grain." In a good year, a field might yield 100 grains of wheat for every grain that was sown -- a hundred-fold. That is the goal. That is the dream in the farmer's hopeful eyes as he sows the wheat. Sure, a few grains may fall on the path, some on the thin soil over a limestone shelf, and some in a thorny area. But most, he hopes, will grow up strong and flourish in the sun, producing an abundant harvest.

That's the parable Jesus tells this day. And then he stops. What does it mean? All over the hillside are hundreds, thousands of eager listeners pondering, thinking. What does it mean? What is he getting at? Good parables can both clarify and confuse. The meaning may not be immediately at the surface, but once figured out, the parable can be recalled and retold to pass the truth onto others.

The Secrets of the Kingdom (Luke 8:8b-10a)

Then Jesus calls out to the crowd, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" They all had ears! They all heard the parable! But Jesus is challenging the hearers to understand what they are hearing, to be discontent until they understand and apply and obey what they have heard. Note very carefully: the Parable of the Soils is all about hearing!

"His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets (mysterion) of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

    "though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand." (Luke 8:9-10)

The disciples can't quite figure it out, so they ask him during a lull in the teaching, "What does that parable mean, Teacher?"

He says, 'The knowledge of the secrets (mysterion) of the kingdom of God has been given to you." The Greek word mysterion, which translates "secrets," refers to "the secret plan of God" which can only be known through revelation by God, not discovered by careful detective work. While parables illustrate truths, some require knowledge of the meaning to understand the parable. Those who are hungry for this knowledge will, as the disciples did, seek it out. The others, who don't have a particular spiritual hunger, will not.

Christianity is not a "mystery religion" such as those popular in the Greco-Roman world in the first three centuries of the Christian era.231 Christianity is based on revelation, but is not designed for only a select few. It is good news for all: "[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

"... so that, though seeing, they may not see" (Luke 8:10b)

Jesus continues, "I speak in parables, so that (Greek hina), 'though seeing, they may not see....'" (Luke 8:10b). The Greek conjunction hina can be used "in final sense to denote purpose, aim, or goal, 'in order that, that,'" though sometimes it is weakened into result, when the result is considered probable but not actual.232 In other words, Jesus speaks in parables "in order that" spiritually obtuse people won't understand what he is saying. Perhaps this is a way of applying his directive "Do not cast your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6).

Before Jesus explains the parable (which we'll study the next Lesson in verses 11-15), he utters a difficult saying. He says, essentially, that not everyone who hears his parables will understand, and then quotes Isaiah's commission from God.

Isaiah has just seen a vision of God on his throne, with the angels shouting "Holy." He is aware of his own sinfulness and is cleansed by a coal from God's altar. Then he hears a voice: "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" Isaiah answers, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8). What follows is God's commission to Isaiah:

"He said, 'Go and tell this people:
Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed." (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Isaiah's task is to preach God's word as a faithful witness, knowing that his preaching will have the effect of hardening the hearts of those who have set their hearts against God.

Gospel-Hardened Hearts

Let me illustrate. Twentieth century evangelist Billy Graham was powerfully used by God to preach the Gospel in the US and abroad. Millions heard his message in person and on television, and hundreds of thousands responded by committing their lives to Christ. But what about those who hear and do not say "Yes" to God? Every time they reject the Gospel, their heart becomes that much harder, more calloused. Some people have come to the point that they will deliberately change the channel when they see Billy Graham on TV. They do not want to hear him. It was not always so, but his preaching has hardened their hearts.

This isn't Billy Graham's fault. This is the normal effect when the gospel is preached to fallen mankind. Some will seek the light, but the majority will not. When Jesus himself preaches the gospel it has the same effect:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

At first, the religious leaders of Jesus' day heard him with curiosity. But after a while, they listened to him only to trick him, trip him up, and find charges against him to have him arrested. Jesus' preaching hardened people's hearts.

The Meaning of the Parable of the Soils

As we see in 8:11-15, the very meaning of this parable is that all hearers will not hear with the same result. Jesus told us a parable about hearing, and then uses this very parable as an example of why he speaks in parables and how people's hearts are hardened.233

We'll explore the meaning of the parable in much greater detail in Lesson 28. But it is already obvious to Jesus that his teaching is met with both enthusiasm as well as disdain. Now he must help his disciples understand the same, difficult truth.


Father, how blessed we are to have been given ears that have been willing and eager to hear and apply your words. It was not always so. We do not take your mercy for granted. Help us to always seek you in our hearts, and never become calloused or hard of hearing. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (Luke 8:8b)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

Please refrain from applying the insights of Luke 8:11-15 to this week's questions. Next week will come soon enough.

  1. Why do you think Jesus called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear?" What was he getting at?
  2. How could people listen to Jesus, but not really understand what he was saying?
  3. In what way does Jesus' teaching harden people's hearts?
  4. Is there any way that we can assist those with hardened hearts? If so, what can we do?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[228] See my story "Lord, You Can Use My Boat," The Joyful Heart, October 3, 1997. joyfulheart.com/jesus/useboat.htm

[229] Epiporeuomai, BAGD 298.

[230] Madeleline S. and J. Lane Miller, Harper's Encyclopedia of Bible Life (Third Revised Edition; Harper & Row, 1978), p. 177.

[231] K. Prümm, "Mystery Religions, Greco-Oriental," New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, 1967) 10:153-164. The author notes that the mystery religions nearly always used the plural, "mysteries," and were fertility cults, where the main element of secrecy was often the sexual element of the cult.

[232] Hina, BAGD 378.

[233] Marshall, Luke, p. 323, makes this point, where few other commentators seem to understand the relationship of Jesus explanation of the reason for parables with the Parable of the Soils itself.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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