The parable is, in our language at least, so uniformly associated with this name, that it would not readily be recognised under any other designation; but "The four kinds of ground" (viererlei Acker), the title which seems to be in ordinary use among the Germans, is logically more correct, inasmuch as it points directly to the central idea, and expresses the distinctive characteristic.
At this period a great and eager multitude followed the steps of Jesus and hung upon his lips. A certain divine authority, strangely combined with the tenderest human sympathy, marked his discourses sharply off, as entirely different in kind from all that they had been accustomed to hear in the synagogue. Finding that instincts and capacities hitherto dormant in their being were awakened by his word, "the common people heard him gladly." At an earlier hour of the same day on which this parable was spoken, the circle of listeners that encompassed the Teacher had become so broad and dense, that his mother and brothers, who had come from home to speak with him, were obliged to halt on the outskirts of the crowd, and pass their message in from mouth to mouth. In these circumstances, the Preacher's work must have been heavy, and doubtless the worker was weary. Having paused till the press slackened, he privately retired to the margin of the lake, desiring probably to "rest a while;" but no sooner had he taken his seat beside the cool still water, than he was again surrounded by the anxious crowd. At once to escape the pressure and to command the audience better when he should again begin to speak, he stepped into one of the fishing-boats that floated at ease close by the beach, on the margin of that tideless inland sea. From the water's edge, stretching away upward on the natural gallery formed by the sloping bank, the great congregation, with every face fixed in an attitude of eager expectancy, presented to the Preacher's eye the appearance of a ploughed field ready to receive the seed. As he opened his lips, and cast the word of life freely abroad among them, he saw, he felt, the parallel between the sowing of Nature and the sowing of Grace. Into that mould, accordingly, he threw the lesson of saving truth. Grasping the facts and laws of his own material world, and wielding them with steady aim as instruments in the establishment of his spiritual kingdom, in simple yet majestic terms he said, "Behold, a sower went forth to sow."
Whether a sower was actually in sight at that moment in a neighbouring field or not, every man in that rural assemblage must have been familiar with the act, and would instantly recognise the truth of the picture. The sower, with a bag of seed dependent from his shoulder, stalks slowly forth into the prepared field. With measured, equal steps, he marches in a straight line along the furrow. His hand, accustomed to keep time with his advancing footsteps, and to jerk the seed forward with considerable force, in order to secure uniformity of distribution, cannot suddenly stop when he approaches the hard trodden margin of the field. By habit the right hand continues to execute its wonted movement in unison with the sower's steps as he is turning round; and thus a portion of the seed is thrown on the unploughed border of the field and the public path that skirts it. Birds, scared for a moment by the presence of the man, hover in the air till his back is turned on another tack, and then, each eager to be first, come swooping down, and swallow up all the grain that found no soft place where it fell for hiding in. Even if it should happen in any case that no birds were near, the seed that fell on the way side was as surely destroyed in another way: the alternative suggested in Luke's narrative is, that "it is trodden under foot of men."
But while the portion of the seed that fell on the way side was thus certainly destroyed, it does not follow that the rest came to perfection: "Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was up they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away." The stony places are not portions of the field where many separate stones may be seen lying on the surface, but portions which consist of continuous rock underneath, with a thin sprinkling of soft soil over it. Here the young plants burst through the ground sooner than in spots where the seed found a deeper bed: but when the rains of spring have ceased, and the sun of summer has waxed hot, the moisture is quickly exhaled from the shallow stratum of soil, and forthwith the fair promise dies.
But yet another slip there may be "between the cup and the lip:" even from the seed that falls on deep, soft ground, you cannot count with certainty on a rich return in harvest. Although the plants should without obstruction strike their roots deeply into the soft, moist earth, and rear their stalks aloft into the balmy air, they may be rendered barren at last by the simultaneous growth of rivals more imperious and more powerful than themselves. Unless the grain not only grow in deeply broken ground, but grow alone there, it cannot be fruitful: "Some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up and choked it." Besides those plants that are more correctly denominated thorns, we may include under the term here all rank weeds, varying with countries and climates, which infest the soil and hurt the harvest. The green stalks that grow among thorns are neither withered in spring, nor stunted in their summer's growth; they may be found in harvest taller than their fruitful neighbours; but the ear is never filled, never ripened, and the reaper gets nothing in his arms but long slender straw adorned at the top with graceful clusters of empty chaff. The roots of the thorns drank up the sap of the ground, while their branches veiled off the sunlight, and thus the good seed, starved beneath and overshadowed above, although it started fair in spring, produced nothing in the autumn.
As Truth is one and Error manifold, so in regard to the seed sown, the story of failure is long and varied, the story of success is short and simple: "Other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold." The design of the picture is to reveal the various causes which at different times and places render the husbandman's labour abortive and leave his garner empty. This done, there is no need of more. The seed, when none of these things impeded it, prospered as a matter of course, under the ordinary care of man and the ordinary gifts of God.
Three distinct obstructions to the growth and ripening of the seed are enumerated in the parable. The statement is exact, and the order transparent. The natural sequences are strictly and beautifully maintained. The three causes of abortion -- the way side, the stony ground, and the thorns -- follow each other as the spring, the summer, and the autumn. In the first case the seed does not spring at all; in the second it springs, but dies before it grows up; in the third, it grows up, but does not ripen. If it escape the way side, the danger of the stony ground lies before it; if it escape the stony ground, the thorns at a later stage threaten its safety; and it is only when it has successively escaped all three that it becomes fruitful at length.
In this case, the Lord himself gave both the parable and its explanation; he became his own interpreter. The Master takes us, like little children, by the hand and leads us through all the turnings of his first symbolic lesson, lest in our inexperience we should miss our way. The Son of God not only gave himself as a sacrifice for sin; he also laboured as a patient painstaking teacher of the ignorant: he is the Apostle as well as the High Priest of our profession. His instructions have been recorded by the Spirit in the Scriptures for our use; we may still sit at his feet and listen to his voice. He has taken his seat on the deck of a fishing-boat while the waters of the lake are still, and is discoursing to a congregation of Galileans from the neighbourhood who stand clustering on the shore. Let us join the outskirts of the crowd and hear that heavenly Teacher too.
He speaks in parables: he fixes saving truth in the forms of familiar things, that it may be carried away and kept. We look with lively interest on the scene which these words conjure up before our eyes; but we should look on it reverently: it has not been given to us as a plaything. Gaze gravely, brother, into this parable, for "thou art the man" of whom it speaks: it reveals the way of life and the way of death to thee. If a traveller who possesses an accurate map of his route turn aside from it and perish in a pit, it will not avail him in his extremity to reflect that he carries the correct track in his hand. Alas! a literary admiration of the parable-stories which Jesus told in Galilee will not avail us, if we do not accept himself as our Saviour from sin.
From the Lord's own exposition here and elsewhere recorded, we learn that the seed is the word of God; that the sower is the man who makes it known to his neighbours; and that the ground on which the seed falls is the hearer's heart. The main drift of the parable concerns the ground, and to it accordingly our attention must be chiefly directed. The lesson, however, is drawn, not from the inherent, essential properties of the soil, but from the accidental obstructions to the growth of grain which it may in certain circumstances contain: some notice, therefore, of the seed and the sower in their spiritual signification is not only profitable at this stage, but peremptorily necessary to the full apprehension of the instruction which the parable conveys.
SEED has been created by God and given to man. If it were lost, it would be impossible through human power and skill to procure a new supply: the race would, in that case, perish, unless the Omnipotent should interfere again with his creating power. For spiritual life and food the fallen are equally helpless, and equally dependent on the gift of God. The seed is the word, and the word is contained in the Scriptures. When we drop a verse of the Bible into listening ears, we are sowing the seed of the kingdom.
The seed is the word, but the Word is Christ: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," (John i.) Christ is the living seed, and the Bible is the husk that holds it. The husk that holds the seed is the most precious thing in the world, next after the seed that it holds. The Lord himself precisely defines from this point of view the place and value of the Scriptures, -- "They are they which testify of me" (John v.39). The seed of the kingdom is himself the King. Nor is there any inconsistency in representing Christ as the seed while he was in the first instance also the sower. Most certainly he preached the Saviour, and also was the Saviour whom he preached. The incident in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke iv.16-22) is a remarkably distinct example of Christ being at once the Sower and the Seed. When he had read the lesson of the day, a glorious prophetic gospel from Isaiah, "he closed the book, and gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." As soon as he had taken from the Scriptures the proclamation concerning himself, he laid them aside, and presented himself to the people. The Saviour preached the Saviour, himself the Sower and himself the Seed.
In the beginning of the Gospel, when the chosen band of sowers first went to work upon the ample field of the world, taught of the Spirit, they knew well what seed they ought to carry, and were ever ready to cast it in where they saw an opening. One of them, and he the greatest, formed and expressed a determination to know nothing among the people save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Twice in one chapter (Acts viii.), we learn incidentally, but with great precision, what kind of seed Philip the Evangelist carried always in his vessel, and cast into every furrow as he passed along. When a large congregation assembled in the city of Samaria to hear him, "he preached Christ unto them;" and when, on a subsequent occasion, he was called to deal with an anxious inquirer alone in the desert, "he opened his mouth and began at the same scripture" -- He was led as a lamb to the slaughter -- "and preached unto him Jesus." This is the seed sent down from heaven to be the life of the world.
The SOWERS, although they have become a great company in these latter days, are still, like the reapers, "few" in relation to the vastness of the field. The Lord's message to Ananias of Damascus concerning Saul, immediately after his conversion, graphically defines the office of a minister as a sower of the seed: "He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel" (Acts ix.15). A vessel for holding Christ and dropping that precious seed into human hearts wherever an opening should appear -- this is the true idea of a minister of the Gospel. Nor is the work confined to those who, being trained to it, and freed from other cares, may thereby be capable of conducting it on a larger scale. As every leaf of the forest and every ripple on the lake, which itself receives a sunbeam on its breast, may throw the sunbeam off again, and so spread the light around; in like manner, every one, old or young, who receives Christ into his heart may and will publish with his life and lips that blessed name. In the spirit of the Lord's own precept regarding the harvest, we may all be encouraged to adopt and press the prayer that our Father, the husbandman, would send forth sowers into his field.
We turn now to the GROUND, and the various obstacles which there successively meet the seed and mar its fruitfulness.
I. THE WAY SIDE. -- "When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side." A path beaten smooth by the feet of travellers skirts the edge, or, perhaps, runs by way of short cut through the middle of the field. The seed that falls there, left exposed on the surface, is picked up and devoured by birds. Behold in one picture God's gracious offer, man's self-destroying neglect, and the tempter's coveted opportunity!
The analogy being true to nature is instantly recognised and easily appreciated. There is a condition of heart which corresponds to the smoothness, hardness, and wholeness of a frequented footpath, that skirts or crosses a ploughed field. The spiritual hardness is like the natural in its cause as well as in its character. The place is a thoroughfare; a mixed multitude of this world's affairs tread over it from day to day, and from year to year. It is not fenced like a garden, but exposed like an uncultivated common. That secret of the Lord, "Enter into thy closet," and "shut the door," is unknown; or if known, neglected. The soil, trodden by all comers, is never broken up and softened by a thorough self-searching. A human heart may thus become marvellously callous both to good and evil. The terrors of the Lord and the tender invitations of the Gospel are alike ineffectual. Falling only upon the external senses, they are swept off by the next current; as the solid grain thrown from the sower's hand rattles on the smooth hard road side, and lies on the surface till the fowls carry it away. The parallel between the material and the moral here is more close and visible in the original than it appears in the English version. But our language is capable in this instance, like the Greek, of expressing by one phrase equally the moral and the material failure: "Every one that hears the word of the kingdom and does not take it in" ([Greek: me synientos]). The cause of the failure in both departments is, that the soil, owing to its hardness, does not take the seed into its bosom.
The seed is good: "The word of God is quick and powerful;" -- that is, it "is living, and puts forth energy." Like buried moistened seed it swells and bursts, and forces its way through opposing obstacles. A heart of clay, smoothed and hardened on the surface, may hold it out for a lifetime; but a heart of stone could not keep it down, if it were once admitted, for a single day.
 [Greek: Zon gar ho logos tou Theou, kai energes.] -- HEB. iv.12.
"Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world;" "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink;" "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;" -- these and many such great solid seed-grains rain from heaven upon us in this land: shall we close all the avenues to our hearts and so leave that seed lying on the surface till the enemy carry it away? or shall the groanings which cannot be uttered, the convictions of sin in the conscience, rend at length the seared crust, that the seed may enter and occupy the life for God?
If privileged and professing hearers of the Gospel come short of the kingdom, the fault lies not in the seed -- the fault lies not often or to a great extent even in the sower, although his work may have been feebly and unskilfully done. If the seed is good, and the ground well prepared, a very poor and awkward kind of sowing will suffice. Seed flung in any fashion into the soft ground will grow; whereas, if it fall on the way side, it will bear no fruit, however artfully it may have been spread. My father was a practical and skilful agriculturist. I was wont, when very young, to follow his footsteps into the field, further and oftener than was convenient for him or comfortable for myself. Knowing well how much a child is gratified by being permitted to imitate a man's work, he sometimes hung the seed-bag, with a few handfuls in it, upon my shoulder, and sent me into the field to sow. I contrived in some way to throw the grain away, and it fell among the clods. But the seed that fell from an infant's hands, when it fell in the right place, grew as well and ripened as fully as that which had been scattered by a strong and skilful man. In like manner, in the spiritual department, the skill of the sower, although important in its own place, is, in view of the final result, a subordinate thing. The cardinal points are the seed and the soil. In point of fact, throughout the history of the Church, while the Lord has abundantly honoured his own ordinance of a standing ministry, he has never ceased to show, by granting signal success to feeble instruments, that results in his work are not necessarily proportionate to the number of talents employed.
Nor does the cause of failure, in the last resort, lie in the soil. The man who receives the Gospel only on the hard surface of a careless life, is of the same flesh and blood, endued with the same understanding mind and immortal spirit, with his neighbour who has already become a new creature in Christ. Believers and unbelievers are possessed of the same nature and faculties. As the ground which has been trodden into a footpath is in all its essential qualities the same as that which has been broken small by the plough and harrow, so the human constitution and faculties of one who lives without God in the world are substantially the same as those which belong to the redeemed of the Lord. It was the breaking of the ground which caused the difference between the fruitful field and the barren way side. So those minds and hearts that now bear the fruits of faith were barren till they were broken; and those on which the good seed has often been thrown, only to be thrown away, may yet yield an increase of a hundredfold to their owner, when conviction and repentance shall have rent them open to admit the word of life.
Felix the Roman governor was a specimen of the trodden way side. His heart, worn by the cares of business and the pleasures of sin passing in great volume alternately over it, presented no opening for the entrance of the Gospel. Paul accordingly, when called to preach before him, did not, in the first instance, pour out the simple positive message of mercy: he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; thus plying the seared conscience with the terrors of the Lord, in the hope of breaking thereby the covering crust and preparing a seed bed for the word of life. But the earth, in that case, was as iron, and refused to yield even to an apostle's blow. From the heart of Felix the message of mercy was effectually shut out. The jailer of Philippi was doubtless equally hard in a more vulgar sphere, but his defences were shattered: in that night of visitation his heart was rent as well as his prison, and over the openings, while they were fresh, the skilful sower promptly dropped the vital seed, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." The word entered, and its entrance gave life.
At this point the parable addresses its lesson specifically to those who have lived without God in the world, and who have lived in the main comparatively at ease. They have not a real heart-possessing, life-controlling religion, and they have never been very sorry for the want of it. They have no part in Christ, and no cheering hope for eternity. They are not ready to die; and yet they cannot keep death at bay. They know that they ought to care for their souls, but in point of fact they do not care; they know there is cause to be alarmed, and yet they are not alarmed. They neither grieve for sin nor love the Saviour; yet perhaps a dark cloud-like thought sometimes sweeps across their brightest sky -- We have not yet gone in by the open door of mercy, and while we are delaying it may be suddenly shut.
The case might be understood well enough by those whom it concerns, if the same amount of attention were bestowed upon it that is ordinarily devoted to other branches of business. See the hard dry road that runs along the edge of a corn field: you are not surprised to find it barren in a harvest day; you know that grain, although sown there, would not grow, and you know the reason. The reason why the Gospel does you no good may be as clearly, as surely seen. Cares, vanities, passions, tread in constant succession over your heart, and harden it, so that the word of Christ, though it sound on the surface, never goes in, and never gets hold. Think not that the saints are by nature of another kind: they were once what you are, and you may yet become what they are, and more. "Break up your fallow ground." Look into your own heart's sin until you begin to grieve over it; look unto Jesus bearing sin until you begin to love him for his love. Tell God frankly in prayer that your heart is hard, and plead for the Holy Spirit to make it tender. The saints already in rest, and disciples in the body still, were once a trodden way side like yourself, as hard and as barren. Place your heart, as they did, without reserve in the Redeemer's hands; bid him take the hardness out and make it new. Invite the Word himself to take up his abode within you; throw the doors widely open that the King of Glory may come in. When Christ shall dwell in your heart by faith, a godly sorrow underneath will soften every faculty of your nature, and over all the surface fruits of righteousness will grow.
II. THE STONY GROUND. -- A human heart, the soil on which the sower casts his seed, is in itself and from the first hard both above and below; but by a little easy culture, such as most people in this land may enjoy, some measure of softness is produced on the surface. Among the affections, when they are warm and newly stirred, the seed speedily springs. Many young hearts, subjected to the religious appliances which abound in our time, take hold of Christ and let him go again. This, on the one hand, as we learn by the result, was never a true conversion; but neither was it, on the other hand, a case of conscious, intentional deceit. It was real, but it was not thorough. Something was given to Christ, but because all was not given the issue was the same as if all had been withheld. In the rich young man the seed sprang hopefully, but it withered soon: he did not lightly part with Christ, but he parted: he was very sorrowful, but he went away.
A Christian parent or pastor, diligent in his main business and fervent in prayer for success, observes at length in some young members of his charge a new tenderness of conscience, an earnest attention to the word, a subdued, reverential spirit, with frequency and fervency in prayer. With mingled hope and fear these symptoms are watched and cherished: the symptoms continue and increase: the converts are added to the Church, and perhaps their experience is narrated as an example. This is not a deception on the part of either teacher or scholar: it is a true outgrowth from the contact of human hearts with the word of life. Man, who looks only on the outward appearance, cannot with certainty determine in whom this promise of spring will be blasted by the summer heat, and in whom it will yield a manifold return to the reaper. When you cast your eye over the corn field soon after the seed has sprung, you may not be able to detect any difference between one portion and another; all may be alike fresh and green. But, if some parts of the field be deep soft soil, and other parts only a thin sprinkling of earth over unbroken rock, there is a decisive difference in secret even now, and the difference will ere long become visible to all. Come back and look upon the same field after it has lain a few days without rain under a scorching sun: you will find that while in some portions the young plants have increased in bulk without losing any of their freshness, in others the green covering has disappeared and left the ground as brown and bare as it was when the sower went forth to sow upon it. Where the earth is soft underneath, and so permits the roots to penetrate its depths, the towering stalks defy the summer's drought; but where the roots are shut out from the heart, the leaves wither on the surface.
If the law of God has never rent the "stony heart" and made it "contrite," that is, bruised it small, you may, by receiving the Gospel on some temporary, superficial softness of nature, obtain your religion more easily and quickly than others who have been more deeply exercised; but you may perhaps not be able to hold it so fast or retain it so long. Testing trials are the method of the divine government, discipline the order of Christ's house. He that endureth to the end shall be saved, but he that falls away in the middle shall not. The fair profession that grows over an unhumbled heart "dureth for a while," but does not endure to the end. When tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, the religion which reached no further than the surface cannot maintain its place there; it withers root and branch. The inward affection, such as it was, and the outward profession together disappear. From him that hath not shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.
In the earlier centuries of the Christian era the profession of faith, when lightly assumed, was frequently and suddenly scorched off the so-called Christian's lips by the pitiless persecution of heathen governments: in subsequent ages, and down even to our own day, Papal fires have burned fiercely in many lands, and before them every faith has faded except that which is of God's own planting, and grows in the secret depths of believing souls. Nationally for several generations we have enjoyed freedom; but let us beware. The divine law, "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution" (2 Tim. iii.12), has not been repealed. Nor is this merely a caveat thrown in to keep our theology correct; it is a present and pressing truth. In every season and in every climate the sun of persecution is hot enough to kill the religion which grows in accidentally softened, natural affections, over a whole and unhumbled heart. Experience incontestably establishes the fact, although it may be difficult for philosophy to explain the reason of it, that slight persecutions have often been as effectual as the heaviest in blasting the deceptive appearance of religion, which, under favouring circumstances, grew for a time in the life of an unrenewed man. In point of fact, a sneer from some leading spirit in a literary society, or a laugh raised by a gay circle of pleasure-seekers in a fashionable drawing-room, or the rude jest of scoffing artisans in a work-shop, may do as much as the fagot and the stake to make a fair but false disciple deny his Lord.
Young disciples, whose faith and hope are bursting through the ground, should be, not indeed distrustful of the Lord, but jealous of themselves. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Deeper sense of sin, clearer views of the Gospel, warmer love to Christ, -- these are the safeguards against backsliding. Strive and pray for these. Do not keep Christ on the surface; let him possess the centre, and thence direct all the circumference of your life. "Whosoever will save his life," by keeping its central mass all and whole for himself, "shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake," opening and abandoning it to Christ from its circumference to its core, "shall find it." It is then only his own, when he has without reserve absolutely given it away.
It seems to have been after the manner of the seed on stony ground that king Saul's faith grew and withered. It came away quickly at first, and presented a goodly appearance for a while; but the ground, broken and softened on the surface by Samuel's ministry and the call to the kingdom, was rocky underneath, and the rock was never rent. When he was seated on the throne, with the thousands of Israel coming and going at his word, he began to feel the restraints of piety irksome, and to count the rebukes of the aged prophet rude. The sun of prosperity scorched the green growth of religious profession that had suddenly overspread his outward life. Michal, his daughter, better acquainted, probably, with the kingly airs of his later than with the pious confession of his earlier days, seems to have partaken of his inward hardness while she had no share of his superficial piety. Like him, she was ungodly in the depths of her soul; but unlike him, she disdained to wear the outward garb of godliness. When she exerted all the force of her irony in order to make her husband David ashamed of his own zeal in dancing before the Lord, she truly reflected the inner spirit though not the external profession of her father's court. That taunt from the supercilious, curling lip of the royal princess, who had honoured him by consenting to become his wife, was a burning ray of persecution streaming on David's defenceless head. If his religion had been confined to the surface, while the pomp and circumstance of royalty occupied his heart, it would have died out then and there, as the tender sprouting corn, whose roots rest on a rock, dies out under the scorching sun of Galilee. But David's faith was deep, and it ripened rather than withered under the scornful glance of the worldly-minded princess, as corn, growing in good ground, fills better and ripens sooner where the sky is cloudless and the sun is fierce.
That deep-seated stony hardness of heart which defies all the efforts of human cultivators is often broken small by the hand of God. It appears that Lydia, through natural temperament or association with Christians, or both together, had attained some measure of spiritual susceptibility, for she confessed the truth and attended the prayer-meeting by the river side; but the seed of the word which had sprung on the surface of her life had not yet struck its root so deep as to withstand persecution if it should arise. She is described as a woman who sold purple and worshipped God: she had an honest business and a true religion, and were not these enough? No; the next fact of her history was the cardinal point of her life, -- "whose heart the Lord opened that she attended to the things that were spoken of Paul." The seed from that skilful sower's hand went in and took possession, but it entered at an opening made by the power of God. Whether the rock was rent by the dew of the Spirit dropping silently, or by some stroke of Providence falling on her person or her material interests, we know not. If ordinary providential methods were employed, we know not, of the many instruments that lie close to the Ruler's hand, which he was pleased to use in that particular case. Perhaps the child of this honest and religious woman died, and her bosom, bereft of its treasure, rent with aching. Perhaps, on the day that Paul was there, she came to the meeting for the first time in widow's weeds, and the stroke that tore her other self away had left a wide avenue open into her heart. Perhaps, -- for small instruments do great execution when they are wielded by an almighty arm, -- an adverse turn of trade had left the hitherto affluent matron dependent on a neighbour's bounty for daily bread. Were other dealers, less scrupulously honourable than herself, underselling her in the market? Was her foreman unsteady? for, being a woman, she must needs depend much on hired helpers. Or did a living husband grieve her more than a dead one could? By some such instrument, or by another diverse from them all, or without any visible agent, the Lord opened Lydia's heart, and the word of life entered in power. Henceforth she was not her own; Christ dwelt in her heart by faith, and her life was devoted to the Lord her Redeemer. Deep in that broken heart the seed is rooted, and now no temptation, however intense and long-continued, shall be able to blanch its green blade or blast its filling ear. Lord, increase our faith. When trouble comes, whether under the ordinary procedure of God's government or more directly from his hand, whether in the form of bodily suffering or spiritual convictions, possess your soul in patience and wait for the end of the Lord. "No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Heb. xii.11).
III. THE THORNS. -- In the application of the lesson this term must be understood not specifically, but generically. In the natural object it indicates any species of useless weed that occupies the ground and injures the growing crop: in the spiritual application it points to the worldly cares, whether they spring from poverty or wealth, which usurp in a human heart the place due to Christ and his saving truth.
The earthly affections in the heart which render religion unfruitful in the life are enumerated under two heads, -- "The care of this world," and "the deceitfulness of riches;" the term riches includes also, as we may gather from Luke's narrative, the pleasures which riches procure.
Both from our own experience in the world and the specific terms employed by the Lord in the interpretation of the parable, we learn that all classes and all ranks are on this side exposed to danger. This is not a rich man's business, or a poor man's; it is every man's business. The words point to the two extremes of worldly condition, and include all that lies between them. "The care of the world" becomes the snare of those who have little, and "the deceitfulness of riches," the snare of those who have much. Thus the world wars against the soul, alike when it smiles and when it frowns. Rich and poor have in this matter no room and no right to cast stones at each other. Pinching want and luxurious profusion are, indeed, two widely diverse species of thorns; but when favoured by circumstances they are equally rank in their growth and equally effective in destroying the precious seed.
In two distinct aspects thorns, growing in a field of wheat, reflect as a mirror the kind of spiritual injury which the cares and pleasures of the world inflict when they are admitted into the heart: they exhaust the soil by their roots, and overshadow the corn with their branches.
1. Thorns and thistles occupying the field suck in the sap which should go to nourish the good seed, and leave it a living skeleton. The capability of the ground is limited. The agriculturist scatters as much seed in the field as it is capable of sustaining and bringing to maturity. When weeds of rank growth spring up, their roots greedily and masterfully drain the soil of its fatness for their own supply; and as there is not enough both for them and the grain stalks, the weakest goes to the wall. The lawful, useful, but feeble grain is deprived of its sustenance by the more robust intruder. Under the ground as well as on its surface, might crushes right. Robbers fatten on the spoil of loyal citizens, and loyal citizens are left to starve. Moreover, the weeds are indigenous in the soil: this is proved by the simple fact of their presence, for certainly they were not sown there by the husbandman's hand. The grain, on the other hand, is not native; it must be brought to the spot and sown; it must be cherished and protected as a stranger. The two occupants of the ground, consequently, are not on equal terms; it is not a fair fight. The thorns are at home; the wheat is an exotic. The thorns are robust and can hold their own; the wheat is delicate and needs a protector. The weeds accordingly grow with luxuriance, while the wheat stalks in the neighbourhood, cheated of their sustenance under ground, become tall, empty, barren straws.
2. Thorns and thistles, favoured as indigenous plants by the suitableness of soil and climate, outgrow the grain both in breadth and height. The outspread leaves and branches of the weeds constitute a thick screen between the ears of corn and the sunshine. Under that blighting shadow, although the stalks may grow tall and the husks develop themselves in their own exquisite natural forms, no solid seed is formed or ripened. On the spot which the thorns usurped, the reaper gathers only straw and chaff.
How vivid on both its sides is the picture, and how truthfully it represents the case! The faculties of the human heart and mind are limited, like the productive powers of the ground. Neither the understanding nor the affections are endowed with an indefinite capacity of reception. The soil, even where it is rich and deep, may be soon exhausted, especially where the more gross and greedy weeds have taken up their abode. You are convinced of sin and begin to cry for pardon; you plead the Redeemer's sacrifice and righteousness; you grieve over your own backsliding, and come anew to the blood of sprinkling; the twin emotions, confession and prayer, struggle together in your breast, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." Thus far, it is well. The field has been broken; the seed has been covered in the ground; the covered seed has sprung; the sprung seed has grown apace and now seems near maturity. The evil spirit that seeks to spoil this fair promise seldom comes in the form of speculative unbelief. When you begin to fall away, you do not begin by abjuring your religion, or denying the Lord. You do not pull the grown but unripe corn up by the roots and cast it over the hedge: the harvest is marred in a more secret and silent way. The kingdom of the wicked one, cunningly in this matter imitating the kingdom of God, "cometh not with observation." Weeds spring up among the wheat. At first they are small and scarcely perceptible; the inexperienced, apprehending no danger, are put off their guard. The first leaves which these bitter roots put forth are generally smooth, tender, and apparently harmless, giving to the inexperienced eye no indication of their rough and ravenous nature. But these thorns, if they are not watched, curbed, and killed, may yet cause the loss of the soul.
If you are poor, anxieties about work and wages, clothes and food, wife and children, become the thorn plants, harmless in appearance at first, which in the end may choke the seed of grace in your heart. If you are rich, the pleasure which wealth may purchase, or love of the wealth itself, may become the bitter root, which in its maturity may overpower all spiritual life within you, and leave only chaff, to be driven away in the great day of the Lord. Watch and pray: these cares and pleasures present themselves at first in humble and submissive guise; it is by their gradual growth that they are enabled to inflict a deadly injury. Their roots, if not checked, silently drain all the sap of your soul, and the kingdom of God within you, although never formally abjured, is permitted to sink into decay. Your time, your memory, your imagination, your affections, your thoughts, late and early, -- all that constitutes your life, instead of being devoted first to the kingdom of God and his righteousness, are usurped and absorbed by the things that perish in the using. When you betake yourself to the word, to prayer, to communion, your heart, already searched, drained, scourged by the greedy roots of rank earthly lusts, is a sapless, impoverished, shrivelled thing, where faith in God and loving obedience to his law can no longer grow. Thus perish many bright promises; and high above the ruin, living and abiding for ever stands the word of Christ a witness against all who have been undone by neglecting it, "No man can serve two masters."
Worldly cares nursed by indulgence into a dangerous strength are further like thorns growing in a corn field, in that they interpose a veil between the face of Jesus and the opening, trustful look of a longing soul. It is the want of free, habitual exposure to the Sun of righteousness that prevents the ripening of grace in Christians. Unless we turn our eye often upward, and expose the struggling, springing seed of faith to the beams of the Redeemer's love, there will be no steady growth of grace, and no ultimate fruit of righteousness. It is thus that insinuating, overspreading, domineering cares quench both hope and holiness: they hinder the simple, tender, confiding look unto Jesus which is necessary to the increase or maintenance of spiritual life. The love of Christ freely streaming down from heaven through the Scriptures and by the ministry of the Spirit, when freely admitted into an open, willing heart, by degrees turns fear into hope, doubt into faith, and the feeble struggle of a child into the strong man's glorious victory; as unimpeded sunlight converts the minute mustard seed into a towering tree, and the tender sprouts of spring into the golden treasures of harvest. A thickly woven web of cares and pleasures interposed between the soul and the Saviour is a chief cause of failure in "God's husbandry."
Nor is the harvest safe although the thorny shade that overhangs it be not completely impervious and constant. Fitful glances of sunshine now and then will not bring the fruit to maturity. Stand beneath the branches of a forest tree on a day that is at once bright and breezy: you may observe on the ground at your feet a curious network of flickering light trembling and dancing about in perpetual motion. The sunbeams that penetrate at intervals through openings among the agitated branches are barren though beautiful. The grass that gets no other light grows slim and pithless, bearing no seed-knot on its slender top. Sunlight admitted now and then through apertures in the leafy awning is not sufficient for the processes of nature; the grain field must get its bosom opened without impediment permanently to the sun. It is thus that snatches of spiritual exercise do not avail to promote the growth, or even to preserve the life of grace in a heart that in the main is habitually overshadowed by a crowd of overgrown imperious worldly cares. Evening and morning you may open the Bible and bend the knee, but the tender plant of righteousness in your heart is not effectually revived by these brief and fitful glances. Before the drooping leaves have had time to feel the genial warmth, another cloud has closed the orifice and left them again in the chill damp shade. Even the Lord's day, as a gap left open between earth and heaven, is not by any means so wide as it seems; for the memory of the past week's business and pleasure stretches over on the one side, until it meet, or almost meet, the anticipation of the next week's business and pleasure, so that even on the Sabbath the world still overshadows the soul of its votary. Shut out, except at short and uncertain intervals, from the Light of Life, he passes through the summer of his probation with a well-proportioned but empty form of godliness; and the Lord, when he comes at the close to gather the wheat into his garner, finds on that portion of the field only the rustling chaff of a hollow profession, instead of the fruit unto holiness that grows on living souls.
Some lessons suggest themselves in connection with this portion of the parable, and claim a brief notice at our hand.
1. As the thorns are indigenous and spring of their own accord, while the good seed must be sown and cherished; so, vain thoughts, lodged in our hearts from the dawn of our being, have the advantage of first possession, and get the start of their competitors in the race for supremacy. Lurking unobserved between the folds of nature's faculties, before the understanding is developed, they come away early and grow rapidly, and obtain a firm footing before the saving truth, the seed of the kingdom, has burst the kernel and broken through the ground. Crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts; begin that work early, and persevere in that work to the end.
2. As long as the weeds live they grow. Every moment, until they are cast out of the field, they spread themselves more widely over its surface and drain away more of its nutritive juice. Delay is dangerous. If it be painful to pull out the root of bitterness from your heart to-day, it will be more painful to-morrow. Take for example the love of money: we know well that though money is a useful servant it is a hard master; be assured if it get and keep the mastery of a soul, its little finger in the end will be thicker than its loins were at the beginning. Avarice chastises its slave in middle life with whips; but if he abide its slave, it will chastise him when he is old with scorpions.
3. The thorn is a prickly thing; it tears the husbandman's flesh, as well as destroys the fruit of his field. In like manner the care of the world and the deceitfulness of riches lacerate the man who permits them to grow rank in his heart. The vain man is continually meeting with slights, or suspecting that his neighbours are about to offer them. The miser is always losing money, or trembling lest he should lose it in the next transaction. The world itself knows, and in its proverbs confesses, that around the most coveted pleasures are set sharp thorns, which wound the hand that tries to pluck the rose.
4. It was where the seed and the thorns grew together that the mischief was done. If the grain is permitted to occupy alone the heart of the field, the thorns that grow outside and around it may constitute a hedge of defence, not only harmless but useful. There is a place for cares, and for riches too, -- a place in which they help and do not hinder the kingdom of God. Kept in its own sphere, the lawful business of life becomes a protecting fence round the tender plant of grace in a Christian's heart. Permit not the thorns to occupy the position which is due to the good seed. Not as rivals within the field, but as guards around it, earthly affairs are innocent and safe. "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."
5. When the husbandman perceives a huge prickly weed in the midst of his field robbing and overshadowing the corn, he sends his servant to cast out the intruder. In such a case, a bare spot is left where the thistle grew; but at this stage experiences diverge and travel on different lines towards opposite results. In some cases the blank is soon made up again, and the corn waves level like a lake over all the field, so that none could tell where the thistle stood: in others, the blank caused by the removal of a rank weed remains a blank throughout the summer, presenting to the reapers in harvest only a spot of bare ground. Why do opposite effects proceed from similar operations? Time was the turning point. In the one case the weed was torn out at an early period of the summer; in the other case it was torn out too late.
We have often seen a soul placed in imminent danger by the overgrowth of cares or pleasures that threatened by their rankness to choke the seed of the word; and we have afterwards seen that soul delivered from the danger, by a stroke of God's providence that plucked out the weeds in time. Many of the saved both in earth and in heaven now praise the Lord, because he tore the idols from their hearts and spared not for their crying. The love of Christ that had been planted in their youth, and had, though hard pressed, still kept hold, soon spread again and occupied all the empty space, whence the fortune, or fame, or living treasures dearer still, had been plucked. When he came to himself, that disciple, afflicted sore but comforted again, clearly saw and gladly sang the mercy and judgment joined together that had cleared the room for Christ in his heart. But examples of an opposite experience, here and there one, stand on the edge of life's crowded highway, ghastly as the pillar of salt on the plain of Sodom, burning into the soul of the passenger the warning word, "Be in time." An old man has, by the hand of the Lord in providence, been stripped of all his treasures. These treasures, whether they were in themselves the noblest or the meanest, -- for when a man made in the likeness of God abandons himself to the worship of an idol, it matters little whether the idol be made of fine gold or of dull clay, -- these treasures possessed and filled his heart. Round them his understanding and affections had closely clasped, so that his whole nature had taken the mould of the object which it grasped. In this attitude the man grew old: the faculties of his mind became hard and rigid like the members of his body. The bosom, no longer pliable to open by gentle pressure, was rudely rent, and its portion in one lump wrenched away. A deep, broad, dark chasm, like the valley of the shadow of death, was left: and the chasm remained dark and empty to the end; for neither the affections of the old man's soul nor the joints of the old man's frame would fold round another portion now. Ah! the cares and pleasures that drove Christ from the heart may be cast out too late for letting Christ come in again to occupy the empty room. "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation." "To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts."
IV. THE GOOD GROUND. -- Guided by the Great Teacher's own interpretation, we have travelled through the series of successive obstacles which hinder the growth and mar the fruitfulness of God's word in the hearts of men, -- travelled through, weeping as we went. At the close of this sad but instructive journey, a beauteous sight bursts into view: it is a field of ripe grain on a sunny harvest day. The ground was ploughed, and the seed sank beneath it from the sower's hand in spring; the earth was soft and sapful to a sufficient depth, and the roots of the springing corn found ample room to range in; the soil was clean, and its fatness, not shared by usurping weeds, went all to the nourishment of the sown seed: therefore in the balmy air and under the beaming sun it is ripe to-day, and ready to fill the reaper's bosom. It is a refreshing, satisfying sight; but, fair though it be, we shall not now linger long to gaze upon it. By the parable the Master meant mainly to teach us what things are adverse to his kingdom. Having learned this lesson from his lips, we go away grateful for his pungent, deeply-traced, and memorable warnings, without pausing to examine minutely the glad prospect to which our thorny path has led. The traveller who has come safely through many dangers by flood and field, narrates at large, with burning lips and throbbing heart, the varied toils of the journey; but his home, -- he does not describe, he enjoys it.
 It is not intimated by the parable that our Father the Husbandman finds any of the good ground in us: the ground, like the tree in another analogical lesson of the Lord, is not good until it is made good. It is beyond the scope of this parable to explain how the ground is rendered soft and kept free from thorns. The Teacher was content in this lesson to tell us what the good ground produces; we must discover elsewhere in the Scriptures whence its goodness is derived. "...The similitude from nature is no longer applicable to the mystery of the kingdom of heaven; as a parable, it has already reached its limits, when the truth goes beyond the similitude. There is a miraculous seed superior indeed to all natural seed, so powerful that by its growth it can and will choke all thorns. Nay more, it can also break through the rock in striking its root down into the earth, and can make that to be again a field of God which was a way for the feet of the prince of this world." -- Stier in loc.
Among the many incidental and collateral applications of which this parable is susceptible, one of the most interesting and instructive is -- That every man has within himself the elements of all the four kinds of ground. The conception is thus presented by Fred. Arndt: "At the outset, the word of God finds all in the first unreceptive condition; we go away without experiencing its power, and remain in a state of nature, unconverted. Next, the word begins to take effect upon us, and we are awakened. Oh now the word of the Lord burns with a holy glow in our hearts! We give ourselves over with our whole souls in those first days of love. We have found heaven; we have seen it opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man. But this condition does not endure. The fightings begin from within and from without, and the flame is quenched. The heart becomes cold and empty. The life of faith becomes silent and slow in its course. We become languid in watching and prayer; the love of the world and its sinful pleasures awakes again; and before we are aware, we are trying to serve both God and the world. Then the war bursts out: this moment God is above us, the next beneath us, and we get no rest until we have renounced the world, and surrendered our heart and life to God wholly, and to God alone. Thus we pass, in the faith-school of the Holy Spirit, through all the four classes, deceiving ourselves and being deceived, until at last, after many a bitter experience, we strike upon the narrow way, and through the strait gate." -- Die Gleichniss-reden. Jes. Chr.
While all the ground that was broken, deep, and clean in spring and summer, bears fruit in harvest, some portions produce a larger return than others. The picture in this feature is true to nature; and the fact in the spiritual sphere also corresponds. There are diversities in the Spirit's operation; diversities in natural gifts bestowed on men at first; diversities in the amount of energy exerted by believers as fellow-workers with God in their own sanctification; and diversities, accordingly, in the fruitfulness which results in the life of Christians. While all believers are safe in Christ, each should covet the best gifts. No true disciple will be contented with a thirtyfold increase of faith, and patience, and humility, and love, and usefulness in his heart and life for the Lord, if through prayer and watching -- if by denying ungodliness and worldly lusts -- if by sternly crucifying the flesh and trustfully walking with God, he may rise from thirty to sixty, and from sixty to an hundredfold in that holy obedience which grows on living faith.