A Note from Wormy:
This is a wonderful lesson set from Carol and the good folks at FUMC Ann Arbor MI! You will notice that it references a number of ideas and lessons previously posted here at Rotation.org. Many of those original posts were deleted during one of our forum renovations. Carol's lesson set preserves and improves on the best of them, as well as, adding some great new lesson content and ideas. Thanks, Carol!
The Parable of the Sower
Overview of all workshops in this Rotation Lesson Set:
Background material (below)
- ART (below): use tactile materials to create a “sower” scene.
- COOKING: interpret the parable of the sower using food. Discuss the meaning of the soils and eat your creation!
- GAMES (below Cooking): a room-sized board game explores being receptive to God’s word.
- PLANTING: examine seeds & soils while learning about the story & plant flowers to be given away.
- NEWSROOM: videotape ads selling products or services that help us learn God's Word; and
- VIDEO (below Newsroom): explore the story while watching scripture come to life in The Visual Bible: Matthew
Note: These workshops were written for 1st through 6th graders though not all grades visit all workshops.
“Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4:9 (NIV)
Rotation Objectives--at the end of the Rotation, kids should be able to:
- Know the first four books in the New Testament – the Gospels.
- Find the story in their Bible (3rd grade and up).
- Learn that Jesus taught using parables – stories with hidden meaning.
- Explore the idea that God plants seeds of understanding in each of us. Like the different soils in the parable, there will be variations in how well we receive God’s word into our hearts.
- Begin to understand ways we can be receptive (and fruitful) to God’s word.
Parables: stories with hidden meaning
Stories have tremendous power; they teach, evoke emotions, and inspire thought. Stories grab the attention and kindle the imagination of the listener. Jesus was a master storyteller. He often taught using a type of story called a parable. A basic definition of a parable is a story with two meanings – one is obvious but the other is somewhat hidden or mysterious. Parables are sometimes referred to as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”
Jesus used everyday objects and common situations in the parables he told. The use of a well-known image helped the listeners understand the less familiar concept that was the hidden portion of the parable. Parables require the listener to think and examine the story and its meaning. Parables allow the hearers to understand the message on different levels to accommodate their different abilities and willingness to accept the message. Jesus often said that the unwilling and those without faith would not understand the deeper meanings of the parables he told. To these people, a parable was simply a story. But for those who listened with willing, open hearts, and faith, the message could be life-transforming! This is true for us today as well. The willingness to hear and the receptiveness of the listener is the focus of this month’s Rotation on the Parable of the Sower.
Farming in the 1st century:
In first-century Palestine, farming was an important occupation. Picture this scene: Small piles of stones were the only boundaries separating the farmers’ fields. Dirt paths provided access to the different fields and were hard-packed and well worn. Farmers sometimes prepared the soil by plowing once before planting, then plowing again to cover the seeds with dirt. But often they only plowed once – after the seed was spread. Sowers carried shoulder bags full of seed and scattered the seed by hand, walking along the length and breadth of their fields throwing fistfuls of seed out across the soil. Everyone in the crowd had farmed in this manner. We aren’t told what type of grain is being sown but it was likely either barley (usually grown in poorer soil) or wheat.
The parable of the sower:
This story is more than just a description of farming practices. It is called the parable of the sower but also could be called the “parable of the soils”. Some of the hand-cast seed fell on the hard-packed dirt path, some fell on the rocky areas that separated the field and some fell near the edge where the weeds were thicker. Finally, some also landed on the “good” soil. In his story, Jesus describes what happens to the seed that fell on each type of soil. As to be expected, three of the soils yield nothing but the good soil yields an extravagant amount. In Palestine, a yield of sevenfold is considered bountiful. Thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold would have been amazing! Jesus ended his parable with this line: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9) Jesus was asking everyone to not just hear, but to understand. What was Jesus’ hidden meaning in this parable?
Even Jesus’ disciples were likely confused about what they had heard. If we look beyond our text to Mark 4:10, we read:
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.
Jesus proceeds (in verses 14-20) to explain the parable. Now it was not common for Jesus to explain his parables. Some scholars believe that the explanation portion of these verses is a latter-day addition. We have chosen to not include these verses in our study with children primarily because it is more interesting (and educationally sound) for students to come up with their own meaning. They are more likely to recall their own discovery and enjoy their newfound interpretation skills.
What does the parable mean?
This parable describes how people accept God’s word in different ways. Jesus explained to his disciples that the seed was the word of God – the message of God’s forgiveness, salvation and great love for us. The various kinds of soil in the story represent the hearts of those who hear the word of God. The four soils represent us
There were four kinds of hearers:
The hard-hearted are represented by the hard-packed soil of the paths in the fields. The seed that landed here quickly was snatched away by birds as it lay on top of the ground. Hard-hearted individuals are those who refuse to listen to the word of God.
The shallow-hearted are represented by the rocky soil with a small covering of dirt. The seed quickly grows, but because its roots are shallow, the plants wilt in the sun and do not last. The shallow-hearted may be enthusiastic believers at first, but as they face the challenges of being a Christian – persecution, difficulties in life, or opposition – they find it too difficult and their faith dies out. They do not realize that the Christian life is not an easy life. When hard times, come, the shallow-hearted, without roots, fall away.
The half-hearted are represented by the weed-choked, thorny soil at the edge of the field. Here the seed quickly germinates, but as it grows, the thick weeds choke out the good seed. These individuals are soon preoccupied with the worries and cares of everyday life. This distracts them from true Kingdom living and putting God first. They do not really grow in their faith but remain stunted and less productive than they could be.
The whole-hearted are represented by the good, well-prepared soil. Jesus describes the seed planted here yielding an amazing abundance of crops—much greater than the typical yield expected in this time. The whole-hearted individual will produce fruit and in amazing abundance!
Important messages from this parable:
Jesus wants us to recognize the importance of preparing our hearts just as a good farmer prepares the soil. We must remove the “rocks” and “weeds” and till up the soil of our hearts to soften them. How can we do that? Hearing and acting on God’s word helps us grow as Christians. God freely gives us the “seed,” his word, the message of his love. But we are responsible to receive it and act upon it. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, personal devotions, Bible reading, and study, keeping a journal, tithing, and attending worship will help us grow and thrive and produce an abundance of spiritual fruit. Without these disciplines, our faith will wither and die. Discipleship is a lifelong process of growing and maturing in faith. We don’t become mature Christians without effort on our part. God’s gift of loving mercy and grace is free, but discipleship is costly! Throughout the New Testament, we read that the mark of the Christian life is that “fruit” is produced. Spiritual fruits are actions and attitudes that we show as Christians: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
A Kingdom parable
The Parable of the Sower is the first of the kingdom parables. By telling kingdom parables Jesus described to his listeners the “kingdom of God”. To understand the effect of Jesus’ words we need to recall that the Israelite people had long been awaiting a messiah that would come with a mighty military kingdom! The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was a spiritual kingdom. In stark contrast to what the people expected, Jesus described God at work in history and in believers’ lives with a kingdom that was all about loving and caring for others and obeying God. True kingdom living requires a total commitment to put God first in our lives. This becomes a growing commitment and a process by which we grow ever more like Christ. United Methodists refer to this growth in the discipleship process as "sanctification." It is sometimes called growing in grace or as John Wesley termed it, “going on to perfection.”
- This story is also repeated in Matthew 13:1-9 and Luke 8:4-8.
- Don’t slip too deeply into categorizing – as in, “he is rocky soil.” At any time we all have the potential to be any one of these four soils.
- For some students, this parable can be an affirmation and strengthening of their sense of faith. They will appreciate the things that have helped them be more receptive to God's word. It can help them understand why some follow Jesus and others reject him. It can be an assessment of how better to prepare. What “chokes off” or carries off a person's faith is a good discussion. Be concrete.
- Consider inviting students to rewrite this parable in modern-day terms.
- The sower doesn’t choose only to scatter seed on the good soil. The word of God is for everyone – even for those with unrepentant and hard hearts! Our decision is a response to Jesus and the good news about Him. There will always be varied responses to this good news. The good news of Jesus falls like seed on our human hearts. How will we receive it?
- Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Mark 4". Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1999.
- G.R.E.A.T. Adventure Dream Team at State Street United Methodist Church, Bristol, VA. “Summer Parables – The Sower: Bible Background.” 2004. [Many, many thanks to Jaymie Derden for sharing.]
- MacQueen, Neil. “Parable of the Sower Lesson Set from Writing Forum: Background Notes.” 2001.
- Mays, James L. ed. Harper’s Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
Summary of Lesson Activities:
As a remembrance of the story, create a “sower” scene.
[Neil MacQueen notes: Why we like this project: It is very tactile; allows for individual self-expression of the story; adjust to each grade group; is a good display-able “go home” project that spurs after-the-lesson discussion; it's fun.]
For scripture, objectives, and background - see above.
- Read the scripture for this lesson.
- Read and reflect on the overview material provided for this lesson.
- Gather the materials.
- Bibles (for 3rd grade and up)
- A Child’s Book of Parables
- Non-drying modeling clay: brown, tan, blue, green.
- Flat seeds
- A bag of Spanish moss
- Utensils to work the clay and position elements in the clay
- 4x6 plastic photo sleeves, one for each student
- 4x6 blank white or off-white index cards
- 6x8 photo frames, one for each student
- Labels, Masking tape, Pens
- Wet wipes, Paper towel
- Easel with paper
Lesson Plan: Opening
Greet your students warmly, welcoming them to the Art Workshop. Introduce yourself and any other adults.
Say: Let’s begin our time together with prayer.
Ask for any prayer requests. Ask if anyone would like to lead the group in prayer. Be prepared to say a prayer yourself, working in prayer requests. A suggestion: “Loving God, we are thankful to be here today. We are ready to learn by listening, discussing, and creating art. It is like we have a blank sheet of paper in front of us, ready to fill it with images that will leap out at us, helping us to understand your love. Be with us in our learning. Amen.
Dig into the lesson
Say: In our Bible story for today Jesus is teaching a crowd of people. He tells a story we call the parable of the sower.
- First of all, what is a “sower”? (someone who plants seeds)
- What is a parable?
Say: A parable is a story that teaches a special lesson. Often a parable will seem to have two meanings; one is obvious and the other is hidden. The parable of the sower seems to be about farming or sowing seeds but there is also a hidden meaning to this parable.
Ask: Why do you suppose Jesus would want to tell a story that had a hidden meaning? [Share what you have learned from the overview material.]
Say: We know this is an important story because at the end Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.”
Ask: If you said that to your friends: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear...” how would they react?
Do you suppose they would pay attention to you?
Say: Jesus was telling a story that was important. But because it was a parable with hidden meaning, the people needed to listen carefully and think about what the story meant. Let’s hear the story. See if you can figure out the hidden meaning.
For 3rd grade and up:
Ask: Where is the Bible would we read about Jesus?
Distribute Bibles. Have everyone find Mark 4:1-9. If this is a week early in the Rotation, read the scripture together. Show the pictures on pages 21 and 23 in A Child’s Book of Parables.
If this is a week towards the end of the Rotation, ask the students if they can tell you the story. Have them check their Bibles for accuracy.
For 1st and 2nd graders:
Ask: If we want to read something that Jesus said, where would we find it—in the Old Testament or the New Testament of the Bible? (new)Say: We find our story in the New Testament of the Bible, in the Gospel of Mark.
Read pages 20-22 in "A Child’s Book of Parables", showing the pictures as you read. On page 22, stop where the post-it note indicates. Add the words: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
For all students:
Ask: Does this sound like the way farming is done today?
Do: Talk about farming practices in Jesus’ time. [Share what you have learned from the overview material.]
- What were the different soils that were mentioned in the story?
- What happened to the seed that fell on each type of soil?
Do: As each “soil” is mentioned, write it on the easel paper: path, rocky, thorny (or weedy), good soil. As you write each soil type, use the clay to make a quick “picture” of each soil next to its “name”.
Say: The parable of the sower seems to be about farming—a sower is sowing seed.
Ask: What about the hidden meaning? (accept all replies)
Introduce the art materials
Say: Today we are going to use a unique way to create a picture of our Bible story.
Do: Show them the supplies. Have them write their name on a piece of masking tape. Put this on the back of the frame. Set the frames aside and give each student a 4x6 blank white index card.
Do: Pass our smocks (as the clay can stain clothing).
Do: Show them how to smear the colored modeling clay on their index card to create a “sower scene” using different colors for sky, soils, etc. Encourage them to clearly show through the use of clay colors, shapes, and textures, the various soils. Add weeds and seeds as desired. Smearing on clay will give the picture depth but don’t smear too thick as the picture then won’t fit in the frame!
Discussion: (while the students are working)
Say: Jesus often taught using parables.
Ask: Do you recall any other parables from the Bible?
Say: The parable of the sower is about a farmer sowing seeds but remember that parables have a hidden meaning.
Ask: What hidden meaning do you find in this parable?
Say: Picture in your mind a sower spreading the message of God’s love. Think of the seed in this parable as God’s word, the message of God’s love for us.
Ask: Who do you suppose the sower is? (accept: God or Jesus or us)
Say: God’s love is being spread to people; the four soils represent different ways we receive and respond to God’s word.
Refer to the easel paper and ask about what sort of situation might be going on in people's lives that makes them like…
- A hard path?
- Rocky soil?
- Thorn (weed-choked) soil?
- Good soil?
Ask: Does God’s message take root in these soils?
Ask: Do you suppose that everyone who heard Jesus tell this parable understood the hidden lesson it was meant to teach?
Have students share their creations briefly telling about their sower scenes. Allow them to create a label for their creation, They may write whatever is meaningful to them or just “The Parable of the Sower”
Say: God loves you and wants you to have a relationship with God, to have you be a part of God’s family. This week, work on improving your soil!
If time: Have each student describe a special place they can hang or position their work to remind them about being open to God's word each day.
MacQueen, Neil. “Parable of the Sower Lesson Set from Writing Forum: Art Lesson.” 2001.
Moroney, Trace. A Child’s Book of Parables. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2003.
Supply note: “Picture frames” were created in the following manner: Purchase (at Michael’s) 12 x 12 inch embossed card stock. Cut into 6 x 8-inch pieces and cut out the center leaving a one-inch border. (Rotary cutter works well.) Purchase a cheap (99 cent) photo album that contains 4 x 6 sleeves. Cut the sleeves out of the album. Put each finished sower scene into a plastic sleeve and tape to the back side of a “frame”.
A Lesson Set written by Carol Hulbert from First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI
Copyright 2005 First United Methodist Church, Ann Arbor, MI.
Permission to copy materials granted for non-commercial use provided credit is given and all cited references remain with this material