Click here for the reading: Luke 8:4-15.
The difference between hearing and understanding is especially clear in Luke’s gospel, where the crowds are the recipients of Jesus’s story but not its meaning. Parables do not all confuse their hearers; the ones told closer to Jesus’ passion are often all-too-clear for his opponents. But if they do not confuse, they do not clarify themselves. More must be said, and what was told must also be explained. Explanation and clarity are gifts for the disciples that the crowds do not receive.
The working of the kingdom of God is through the word of God. The reign happens through preaching. As the word is spread, the kingdom spreads, and the parable is an explanation of what happens when the gospel is preached. The fact that the gospel is preached, that sowers go out to sow, and that the word spreads throughout the whole creation (as it does in the Acts of the Apostles) requires no explanation whatsoever. Nobody has to be ginned up to go out and spread the gospel. The parable presumes that the man who has seed will sow it.
The parable’s German title of “the parable of the fourfold soil” is illuminating for its meaning. Jesus is not explaining what’s wrong with the word of God since it’s perfect. He is not explaining why the sower sowed so profligately or why the devil opposes mankind’s salvation. All these are givens. The word is perfect, the word is sown everywhere, and the devil hates mankind, the crown of God’s creation and the object of His redeeming love. No, what must be explained is how any growth occurs in a world full of resistance to the word.
Some have the word snatched from their hearts before its growth can begin. They do not guard with patience and goodness what was sown. Some cannot endure testing and fall away at the first sign of hardship on account of the word. Some do not reach their full growth because the cares of this life choke out the wholesome word of life everlasting. The dangers to growth and the dangers to fruition are so many that Jesus’s description of them is elliptical, even indirect. How much of a life’s struggle and how many deceptions are summed up in “they believe for a while” or “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life”? How many lives were lived in just those ways, and how many died in their sins with the word all overgrown with weeds?
Luke 8:8 has no distinction among the growth that Matthew’s rendition of this parable does. Everyone who bears fruit bears it a hundredfold. The focus in Luke’s parable is rather on the nature of good soil, more fully described here than in either Matthew or Mark. Once the word is heard, it must be held fast, never leaving, never being choked or swamped. In the soil of an “honest and good heart,” it grows beyond all expectation from one seed to a hundredfold yield.