Scatter the Word :: Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower”

Van Gogh - The Sower.jpg
Vincent van Gogh, The Sower; oil on canvas; 1888.

After Jesus’ resurrection, there are numerous accounts of Jesus meeting with His disciples. Several of those accounts depict Jesus’ commissioning His disciples to continue the work He began (see Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:19-23; Acts 1:6-8). He invites them to become witnesses of Jesus everywhere they go, making disciples as they proclaim the message about Jesus. Earlier in the Gospel accounts, in Matthew 13, Jesus tells two parables about God’s kingdom rooted in agricultural life. The first is a parable about a sower scattering seed on different types of soil with different results (Matthew 13:1-23), while the second is about a sower who scatters good seed in a good field but whose enemy sows weeds into the field during the night (13:24-30). When asked about this second parable, Jesus begins by saying, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (13:37). Jesus’ work is, in a sense, the work of a sower of seed, scattering good news into the field of the world. So, when the disciples go out, they, too, become sowers of the seed, scattering good news about Jesus. Vincent van Gogh’s beautifully rich painting, The Sower, is one of at least thirty paintings and drawings the artist made on this theme. Drawing upon his Christian roots and influenced by a similar work of Jean-François Millet, van Gogh saw his own artistic endeavors as a form of ministry within the world. Painting this while working alongside Paul Gauguin, van Gogh works out with passionate color his sense of how painting can bring beauty and peace from God into a disoriented and pain-filled world. The sun sinks low behind the sower almost like a halo, suggesting the holiness of a vocation lived out under God. Reflecting on Jesus’ self-description, van Gogh helps us see the holiness of the evangelistic calling of Jesus’ disciples—both then and now—who are sent out on mission, while also seeing the holiness within our vocational calling through which we can subversively join God’s mission in this world. It is both in proclamation and incarnation that Jesus’ disciples sow the seed of the message of Jesus.

The Soils: our hearts in relation to the seed of kingdom of heaven

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:4-8)

The contrast in the soils comes down to something very basic: there is good soil and bad soil. The soil represents the lives of hearers in whom the seed—the message of the kingdom—is sown. The soil is at once our ears as we hear, our minds as we seek understanding, and our hearts as we receive for transformation.

But Jesus goes on to describe three types of bad soil:

  • Soil along the path
  • Rocky soil
  • Thorny soil

The Soil Along the Path

The soil along the path, Jesus describes in this way:

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19)

We should not be surprised that there is an evil one that stands against God and His purposes in the world. Jesus often discussed and encountered this reality as He spoke about the kingdom and walked upon earth. We should not be surprised that not only does the evil one exist, but that he actively works against God’s work in our lives. We should not be surprised that there is more than we see at work in the chaos of our world.

Jesus has again and again encountered those who hear and do not understand. We have also encountered those in our own lives, and have at one time also been those who lack understanding. Jesus reminds us that the evil one is the cause of this work in human lives during Jesus’ time and our own day.

The Rocky Soil

The rocky soil, Jesus describes in this way:

The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Matthew 13:20-21)

This second soil shows the first signs of joy—of receiving the message well—but that response does not last long. After the first tremors of excitement and the first days of passionate pursuit of God, trouble comes and they fall away from the Lord and their joy within Him. Why do they fall away? The problem is twofold.

First, trouble or persecution comes. Again, as with the enemy, we should not be surprised that trouble or persecution comes. Trouble is the common lot of all humanity in a world marked by darkness of sin and evil. You do not need to be a Christian to encounter trouble. We all do.

But Throughout the Scripture, those who stand for God and His ways, those who walk with God and are willing to live for Him, those sorts of people face persecution. From Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Aaron, from Deborah the judge to Jeremiah the weeping prophet, from Ezekiel the visionary to Mary the earthly mother of Jesus. It was Jesus who promised us that we would encounter trouble in this world, even though He had overcome the world. And Peter the early Christian leader wrote to early Christian communities in present-day Turkey: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). If we do not face some form of trouble or persecution we should probably wonder if we are really living meaningfully in and for God’s kingdom. Our lack of persecution may tell us we are of no threat to the evil one as he opposes God.

A second problem that leads those in the rocky soil to fall away is that they do not have roots in the Lord and His instruction. They are rootless. How do we arrive at strong roots with God? Well, at least one way is to ground our lives in God’s instruction; His Word. Psalm 1 tells us that the person

whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
…is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:2-3)

To delight in and meditate upon the instruction of God, the Word of God, means we have given space in our lives to hear it, consider it, chew on it, and let it become central in our minds and hearts. We have sought out knowing God more intellectually and knowing God more relationally. Without this, the message of the kingdom will not last in the soil of our lives.

The Thorny Soil

The thorny soil, Jesus describes in this way:

The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Matthew 13:22)

This third form of the bad soil takes root but is quickly overcome in two ways: the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth.

We all encounter worries in life and we all need to deal with money in life. However, it is that worry and wealth choke out the fruitfulness from the seed that is sown. Jesus has spoken before in the Sermon on the Mount about the reality that we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). He has also called His disciples to live in such a way that they are not worried about what we will eat, drink, or wear.

Instead, He said: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

It is so easy for us to be consumed by our worries.  It is so easy for us to be consumed by the power of wealth and money. But to live consumed by these things, where they own us and guide our way of living, is to let the fruitfulness of the kingdom be choked out of our lives.

The Good Soil

The life that receives the secrets of the kingdom and is fruitful is described by Jesus as something else. He says:

The seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This I the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:23)

The good soil type of life is the one who truly hears and then understands. One Bible commentator reminds us that “this ‘understanding’ is not to be interpreted as a purely intellectual grasp of truth; it is rather the lifestyle commitment which ‘the message of the kingdom of heaven’ demands.”[1] The good soil type of life hears Jesus’ word but is also increasingly transformed by it.

The good soil type of life understands there is an evil one who stands against us and faces into that reality. The good soil type of life knows that trouble is the common lot of humanity in a fallen world and that persecution will come to those who stand for God and His ways in the world. The good soil type of life knows that living consumed by worry is fruitless and that wealth and money at the center of our lives is not the most fruitful way to live. Instead the good soil type of life receives Jesus’s teaching, faces into these challenges, and continues on with transformation in Christ day after day.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 521.

The Seed: receiving the message of the kingdom of heaven

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed.'” (Matthew 13:3)

Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soils begins with the farmer sowing his seed into the soils around. There is a wondrous extravagance, even an open-handed wildness, to the way the farmer sows the seed. Later, when interpreting the parable to His disciples, Jesus says the seed is: “the message of the kingdom” sown in a person’s heart (13:19). Just before that, He describes the seed as “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven [that] has been given to you” (13:11).

What is the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven? What is this message? Well, in very simple terms it is the reality that God has come to us in Jesus of Nazareth. He is God in the flesh, yes, fully God and fully man. He has come to save us from the power over sin, by which we stand guilty before God. He has come to forgive us as the great sacrifice at the Cross. He has come to free us from the power of evil, which keeps us imprisoned and separated from God. He has come to liberate and set us free at the Cross.  He has come to reconcile us back to God, to heal and restore our relationship with the God who has created us. He has come as a great relational reconciler at the Cross.

If you’ve never experienced that forgiveness in Jesus, that freedom in Jesus, that re-connection with God through Jesus, then maybe today should be the day to reach out to God and tell Him you want to experience that. Why not let this be the day you begin a journey with God?

And if you have experienced the power of Jesus’ message being sown into your life, let today be a day you celebrate that great gift. Lift up Jesus in your words and heart today. Worship Him and thank Him. Then, go out and share Jesus with others in both your words and deeds. Friends, this seed of the kingdom of heaven is the greatest gift God has ever given and the greatest gift we could ever know.

As Jesus also says just before His explanation of the parable:

Blessed are your eyes because they see, and you ear because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. (13:16-17)

Let us savor the seed sown into our lives in Jesus Christ. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are now ours in Christ through the Cross and the Resurrection.

The Sower and the Soils

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I continued our series, “Stories of the Kingdom: Parables of Jesus,” by looking at the parable of the sower and the soils in Matthew 13:3-9 and Jesus’ explanation of it in Matthew 13:18-23. This was also our annual Eastbrook Outdoors service.

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed….’”
(Matthew 13:3)

The Seed

  • “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you” (13:11)
  • “The message of the kingdom…sown in his heart” (13:19)

The Soils

  • Basic contrast: good soil and bad soil
  • Types of bad soil:
    • Soil along the path
    • Rocky soil
    • Thorny soil
  • The nature of good soil

Three Perspectives on the Sower

  • God the Father (Jeremiah 31:27-28; Hosea 2:23; Isaiah 55:10-11)
  • Jesus the Son (Matthew 7:24-29; 9:35-38; 11:1; 13:1-3)
  • Disciples of Jesus (Matthew 10:1-5; 28:18-20)

Dig Deeper:

This week dig deeper into Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soils in one or more of the following ways:

  • Journal about this parable, expressing your thoughts about it, what God is teaching you through it, as well as your prayers to God about it.
  • Draw, paint, or ink the story of the sower as a way of reflecting on what Jesus is saying and praying about your own response to the Lord.
  • Try to retell Jesus’ parable and its meaning to someone you know this week, discussing with them what it means for our lives.
  • Watch the Bible Project’s video, “The Parables of Jesus”