Parables are Jesus’ favourite way of teaching. They always begin with something very familiar, but there is always a twist, something out of the ordinary, that is meant to lead the listener into a new and deeper understanding.
The people who heard the parable would have seen farmers sowing many times, and many of them would have worked at sowing seed themselves. The obvious message of the parable is that people are all different, like different kinds of soil, so when the seed of God’s word is sown in them, the results are very different, as we hear in the explanation. Some hardly receive the word at all, losing it before it can take root. Others are enthusiastic at first but have no staying power. Some are so caught up in the cares of this world that the word gets choked off. Then there are those who bear much fruit.
But two things about this story would seem odd to anyone who knows about sowing. The first is that the sower is really careless. Seed is precious, so a sensible farmer would never throw it on the path, on patches of rock, or among thorns: he would make sure he only threw it in the good soil. And the second is that the sort of yield Jesus talks about in the good soil, thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, is beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary farmers.
So Jesus is not just telling us what we already know, that people are different and react differently to God’s word. He’s also telling us that God isn’t like a sensible farmer who plants his seed carefully to get a reasonable return. Instead God scatters the seed everywhere, planting the word in the least likely places, not discriminating between good soil and patches of rock or thorns. God doesn’t limit his gifts to those who deserve them. But God is also fantastically successful: where the seed does take root, it produces more than any ordinary farmer could hope for.
Listen, anyone who has ears!