Jesus draws from commonplace agricultural conventions to illustrate his kingdom principles, as one might expect from a teacher sensitive to rural Galilean hearers. Whereas the later rabbinic parables often focus on such settings as royal courts (compare 22:2; see comment on Mt 18:23), Jesus most often told stories about agriculture and the daily life of his common hearers (as in 20:1).
Other ancient writers employed the seed image; perhaps most significantly, 4 Ezra declares that just as not all the seeds a farmer sows survive or put down roots, so not all people will persevere to eternal life (4 Ezra 8:41). But whereas the harvest would be completed in the end time (Mt 13:39; 3:12; 21:34; compare 9:37-38), Jesus portrays the present as a time of sowing to prepare for that harvest.
The sower must sow widely to ensure a good harvest. It made more sense, in a field like the one in Jesus' parable, to plow up the ground before sowing; this was a frequent practice in ancient Israel (Is 28:24-25; Jer 4:3; compare Hos 10:11-12; K. White 1964). Later literature, however, repeatedly speaks of plowing after sowing (although some plowed both before and after sowing); farmers who knew their fields apparently felt comfortable sowing first, then plowing the seed into the ground (Jub. 11:11; Jeremias 1972:11 and 1966b; see especially P. Payne 1978:128-29, contending that both practices occurred). Because we cannot know the conditions of given hearers' hearts before we preach, Jesus uses the second analogy of sowing before plowing; we must sow as widely as possible and let God bring forth the appropriate fruit (compare the agricultural counsel in Eccl 11:6).
Not all ground will yield good fruit. The path probably represents one of the footpaths running through or around the field (A. Bruce 1979:195). Some of the grain accidentally fell on or beside it, exposing the seed there to hungry birds (compare Jub. 11:11). The sower's field in this parable also includes some land where the soil is shallow over rock. Palestine includes much land like this; though seed springs up quickly on such soil, which holds its warmth, the seed readily dies because it cannot put down roots (Argyle 1963:101).
The fruitful soil yields enough to make up for the useless soil. Italy and Sicily averaged fivefold or sixfold return on grain sown; irrigated fields in Egypt averaged around a sevenfold yield for wheat (N. Lewis 1983:121-22). The average Palestinian harvest may have yielded seven and a half to ten times the seed sown. Thus harvests yielding thirty to a hundred times the seed invested are extraordinarily abundant (Gen 26:12; Jub. 24:15; Sib. Or. 3.264-65), and one rarely exceeded one hundredfold (P. Payne 1980:183-84). The fruit from the good soil more than makes up for any seed wasted on the bad soil.