The Parable of the Sower


Mark 4:1-20

Mark devotes much less of his space to summaries of Jesus’ teaching than do Matthew or Luke. Mark is almost entirely narrative with just a saying of the Lord reported here and there. But there are two exceptions to this rule and chapter 4 is the first of them. The other is the Lord’s discourse on the future and the end of history in chapter 13. In our reading this morning you will notice once again Mark’s “sandwich” or “interpolation” technique. The parable of the sower and its explanation are separated by a short statement about the mystery or secret of the kingdom of God. What that suggests, as we will see, is that the center section is the key to understanding the whole.

Text Comment

v.1

To use a boat as a floating pulpit was, as we read in 3:9, something Jesus had done before. You will be interested to know that there is a spot, south of Capernaum, where the shoreline of the lake forms a natural amphitheater. The land slopes gently down to a lovely bay. The bay is actually called the Bay of Parables. Israeli scientists have verified that in that location a human speaker can easily be heard by several thousand people on shore. [Edwards, 126]

v.2

The Gospels record some 60 different parables taught by the Lord. Most of them concern the kingdom of God which he illustrated by episodes from everyday life: fishing and farming, house-keeping, weddings, banquets, etc. This parable likewise is about the kingdom of God as we will learn in v. 11. The announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God was made with great fanfare in 1:14-15. But the kingdom has not been mentioned since. Now, once again, we hear of this kingdom. But what we hear surprises us.

Other teachers of the time used parables, but none quite like Jesus and no other New Testament writer uses a single parable though they were obviously an important part of his method of teaching.

We used to hear in Sunday School that parables were “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” but, though that is true, it hardly does justice to the varied literary devices called parables in the Gospels. Epigrams such as we read in 3:23ff. are called parables also. What is more, parables are meant to puzzle, even to hide as well as to reveal the truth. Parables are intentionally obscure and require interpretation. Their meaning does not lie on the surface for anyone to see but require spiritual insight and, especially, spiritual agreement to be understood rightly.

v.3

The “Listen!” with which the parable begins communicates urgency. There is a message here that you must engage.

The parable’s title is now so securely fixed in English Christian usage that it would be pointless to try to give it another name. But, in fact, the emphasis does not fall on the one who sows the seed in the parable. It isn’t really about the sower. The Germans refer to the parable as the “parable of the four soils” which is somewhat better. [France, 188] Even that isn’t quite right.

v.4

Farming in the rocky terrain and scrub vegetation of Galilee was a hardscrabble affair. [Edwards, 128]

v.6

The point is not that seed falling where the underlying rock was near the surface and so the soil did not have sufficient depth sprang up more quickly than usual. The point is simply the contrast between the initial success and the eventual failure. [France, 191]

v.7

There has been a progression in the case of the first three seeds. The first never took root at all; the second started but died; the third survived but bore no fruit. In the end none is of any value to the farmer. What he is after is grain.

v.8

In the parable as a whole, much of the farmer’s labor is lost. An inauspicious beginning. But at the end there is a bountiful harvest. The sower’s casting of the seed everywhere, with much of the seed being eventually lost, is vindicated by the bumper crop produced at the end by this method. Interestingly, in the previous three instances of sowing, “seed” is found in the singular. Here it is found in the plural [i.e. “other” in the plural], so apparently we are to think of six seeds with three producing no permanent fruit and three producing fruit in varying degrees.

v.9

The parable ends as it began with a summons to “hear.” This refrain occurs a number of times in the Gospels and places upon the hearer the responsibility to discern the parable’s meaning and to apply it to his heart and life.

v.10

Mark has obviously rearranged this material. He now reports what the Lord said to his disciples when they were alone, though at v. 21 he will pick up again the preaching that Jesus was doing that same day from the boat near the lakeshore. As vv. 35 and 36 make clear, Jesus’ teaching recorded from vv. 10 to 20 was given on another day at another time. But Mark has put it here for a reason.

v.11

The “secret” or “mystery” of the kingdom is something that could not be known apart from divine revelation. In this sense the secret is given; it is not something that can be figured out or discovered by human effort. In English usage mystery may suggest something that a clever person can figure out, so the NIV’s secret is perhaps the better translation, though Paul will later use mystery in this same sense.

v.12

We have here what we have so many times in the Bible, a tension laden account of human unbelief: both the consequence of man’s refusal to heed the revelation of God and God’s judgment of the unwilling, confirming the hard-hearted in their unbelief. Parables veil the truth to outsiders just as they reveal it to insiders. God both opens the eyes of the blind and blinds the eyes of those who have proved themselves uninterested and unwilling. [Edwards, 135]

v.13

In other words, the parable of the sower is a core parable and serves to reveal the core facts concerning the kingdom of God.

v.15

There is a peculiar sort of shorthand in the Lord’s parables. You find it here. The seed is explicitly the word; the various types of soil are people. But then the people are said to be the seed. What is meant is clear enough: this group of people is that described in the case of the seed sown along the path.

v.20

You will have noticed how often the word “hear” is found in these verses. But the first three groups hear the word only in a superficial way. This last group, the true disciples, not only hear, but accept, and base their lives upon the word that was sown. Hearing, receiving, and bearing fruit distinguish the true disciple. Everyone hears but the hearing of many is ineffective.

In the course of my life I have heard a number of sermons on the parable of the sower and have preached several myself. I remember that when I was in college the tape of a sermon on the parable by the fine Reformed Baptist preacher of New Jersey, Al Martin, was circulating among the students of Covenant College. Sermons on this parable usually focus on the varying responses to the gospel that are made by those who hear it. They may provide examples of the sort of people and their response to the Gospel that each soil represents. They conclude with solemn admonitions to take the parable to heart and, in particular, to take pains to be sure that you were not one of those hearers described in the case of the first three soils.

Now, for some time in the recent past Gospel scholarship was under the influence of a particular understanding of the parables that held that each had a single point and that all the rest of the short story was local color meant to sharpen that single point and make it more memorable. In other words, we weren’t to try to figure out what sort of people are being described in the various soils in which seed is sown and we weren’t to try to find ourselves among them. The point of the parable was simply that the time for the harvest had come because the kingdom had come and it would be a great harvest.

Modern Gospel scholarship has largely abandoned that outlook and for good reasons that I needn’t enumerate now. One result of returning to a more traditional understanding of the Lord’s parables is that the sort of applications of the parable of the sower that have been made by Christian preachers through the ages are once again seen to be justified. There is meat and matter and meaning in the details of the parable, they are not simply window dressing. People do respond differently to the Gospel and in just the ways described in this parable.

But, taking the four soils seriously, doesn’t yet answer the question that the disciples’ asked: what does the parable mean? It may be that it shows us different responses to the Gospel when it is preached or explained and that it shows us the difference between an almost disciple and a true disciple of Jesus. But is that its main point? What is Jesus getting at primarily?

And here we are helped by Mark’s sandwich technique by which he sticks the Lord’s remark about the secret of the kingdom between the parable itself and its interpretation. The Kingdom of God is a secret, a mystery. It is not understood by many people, even by people who hear about it and see it with their own eyes.

Take yourself back to the day when Jesus first taught this parable sitting in that boat just off the shore. The kingdom of God had come. He said that at the outset of his ministry. In his life and ministry the rule and reign of God had made its appearance in the world. But from that point onward nothing happened as people expected it to happen. Christ wasn’t revealed immediately as a king, he didn’t gather an army, he didn’t go in conquest of Israel’s enemies. What is more, if the coming of the kingdom of God is good news, as every Jew certainly expected it to be – grand news, surpassingly wonderful news – then why was it not eagerly embraced by everyone? Why did the Jewish religious leadership not welcome Jesus gladly and fall at his feet? Why was there all this nagging doubt abroad? Why the outward opposition? Some obviously felt that Jesus was so far from being the messianic king, he wasn’t even a good man. He was demonic, they said. When the Messiah arrived all Israel was to rejoice and welcome him; but that hadn’t happened.

Some, to be sure, marveled at the authority of his teaching and even wept with joy over his miracles of healing, but still wondered what in the world was up. The incarnate Word was not obvious. It wasn’t obvious to these people that this man from Nazareth was no one less than God the Son come now in human nature. If Jesus was the Messiah, if he was the long-awaited king, why did people respond to him – Jewish people, who supposedly were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of this king – why did they respond so differently? We’ve already in the Gospel of Mark witnessed the various responses: indifference, curiosity, or hostility by many but real acceptance only by a few. [Cf. France, 182]

When the parable was first taught by Jesus, this seems to have been the central interest, as Mark makes clear by placing in the middle of his presentation of this parable and its interpretation the Lord’s remark about the secret of the kingdom of God and how it has been revealed or given to some and not to others.

The nature of the kingdom is so unexpected, so paradoxical, so opposed to human reason that it takes divine revelation for people to be able to grasp it. [France, 197] The coming of the kingdom of God turned out to be nothing like people expected. And, as the months and years of the Lord’s ministry passed, this continued to be the case. Certainly very few were expecting that when the Son of God came into the world, when the Messianic king finally made his appearance, he would be rejected by his own people and executed on a Roman gibbet.

The parable confused the disciples for the very same reason that the reality it was describing confused them. It described a situation utterly unlike what they were expecting. And for the others it was even more so. The message that Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, the gospel, the good news turned out to be a message that some found uncomfortable or threatening or offensive and, for that reason, opposed it while others simply failed to see the point at all. Even those who accepted it, the Lord’s true disciples, would have to be re-educated root and branch, their expectations constantly readjusted, and their understanding of God and of the faith rebuilt from the ground up.

And in this very little has changed from those days. What is the problem with the Christian gospel? We are, after all, promising people eternal life in a world of joy. What is not to like? In Hollywood you can hang out your shingle, charge people ridiculous amounts of money to tell them things that they like to hear, and make a fortune. We Christians are proclaiming a far more serious message, but also far more wonderful, beguiling, fulfilling and we are offering it for free. What is not to like? But many people don’t like it. Others remain wholly indifferent, uninterested. The Devil either picks up the seed before it ever takes root, or people seem to embrace the message only to abandon it shortly thereafter. Others seem to embrace the message, they say they do, but subsequently they live utterly unimpressive lives, indistinguishable from those who reject the message.

Who would have thought this would be the result of God the Son coming into the world as a man and offering forgiveness of sins and eternal life to mankind. Some say ‘ho hum;” others say, “No way!” Others say, “Okay,” but then do absolutely nothing with the message. They are obviously much more interested in other things. Only some who hear really believe and really follow the Lord.

This is a mystery and it is only because you and I are so used to it that we are not always scratching our heads and wondering how God could come into this world and seem to make so little difference; how God could come among men and most men not even notice that he was standing right in front of them; how God himself, the creator of heaven and earth, the redeemer, could come into the world and men hate him and put him to death. Nobody thought this is what would happen!

Nobody thought that the kingdom of God when it came into the world would go the way of the seed and not the way of a mighty host. They were expecting cataclysm, not the prosaic, everyday labor of a farmer. They were expecting a sudden, glorious catastrophe and instead they got a farmer going out to sow his seed. And the mysterious, the secret nature of the kingdom of God is no less obvious today. The sort of responses made to it by men and women, such as Jesus described in his parable, are made still today.

I’m sitting at the Ram down by the water, across the table from a man and listening to him excitedly tell me of all the changes that have come, virtually unbidden, into his life since he found Christ and committed himself to him. He describes his conviction of sins that never bothered him before, the revolution that has occurred in his way of relating to women, his hopes for the future, and on and on. I am basking in the evidence that this man has encountered the living Christ and in the beautiful goodness that entered his life when Jesus came in. That was a happy day. But months later he has disappeared from church, has seemed to lose interest. I have lunch with him again and press him on the point. I even remind him of this parable and warn him not to be found at last one of those who spring up but then withers or who grows up but whose spiritual interest and commitment is choked by the worries of life, the deceitfulness of riches, or the desire for other things. But after that I can’t get him to see me; I lose contact.

How can that be? How can a man who saw the Christ then forget what he saw? My goodness, Judas heard all of Jesus’ sermons, he saw his miracles. Why, he even performed miracles himself in Jesus’ name! How could that man, how is it possible that such a man could turn away and that all of that hearing and seeing be for nothing? And how could theologians who were actually watching Jesus drive out demons and heal the sick nevertheless declare that he was an agent of Satan himself? No one would have expected such responses at the time. When the king came, all Israel was to fall into his train. Or so they thought. But the kingdom did not come that way. It came the way of a seed that was sown in all manner of different soils with all manner of different results, many of them profoundly disappointing.

And even among his true followers there is a result that is surprisingly far from uniform. Some bear a thirty fold crop, some sixty, and some a hundred. What is more, the measure of the harvest is not known, of course, until the reaping is done. Some Christians are powerful recommendations of the gospel. Others much less so. I remember Sheldon Vanauken’s remark to the effect that he found, when considering the gospel seriously for the first time in his life, that Christians were at once the best and the worst recommendations for faith in Jesus Christ. Have we not all been amazed more than a few times in our lives that the church of the Lord Jesus is not better, more faithful, more attractive than it is? And, for all that, who can say what fruit any particular Christian is bearing? Some of the high-fliers in the church appear less impressive when their work is weighed in the balance and many ordinary Christian folk who have been unspectacularly faithful begin to look better and better when all is said and done. In truth, it is impossible to tell how much fruit has been borne until the harvest. It is all so mysterious. Why in the world is the kingdom of God like this?

There certainly isn’t going to be any of this secret or mystery when Jesus comes again! All will be plain for everyone to see. He will come with his mighty host; he will conquer all his and our enemies and lay them in the dust before his feet. He will vindicate his people and take them with him into the life to come. No one will need an interpreter to figure out what is happening then!

But that is precisely what everyone thought would be the case when the Messiah first arrived. And it was their confusion on this point that made the parable opaque to most of Jesus’ hearers. They were utterly unprepared for this part of the kingdom’s history, for the Messiah’s hiddenness, his suffering, his death and for the long stretch of the years during which the gospel would make its slow progress through the world like a farmer sowing his seed and producing such uneven results. Even after the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, strange as it must have seemed to them at the time, even after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the gospel went the way of the seed. Many more did not believe than believed. So commonplace was the defection of some who once received the word with joy that several books of the New Testament were written to address this problem and encourage the church in the face of it. So virulent was the opposition to the message of Christ and his kingdom that many of the disciples who first heard Jesus teach the parable of the sower lost their lives in the work of sowing that seed. Who would have thought that such would be the result of the Son of God appearing in the world?

Throughout the Gospel we encounter the difficulty people had crediting Jesus as the Messiah and his coming as the coming of the kingdom of God precisely because he did not fulfill their expectations. His coming was not the immediate triumph for the righteous – or those whom they thought righteous – and the immediate catastrophe for the wicked that they expected it to be.

And still today the gospel suffers primarily from its failure to meet the expectations of the people who hear it. Why don’t people believe this wonderful message? For precisely the same reasons they did not believe it when Jesus preached it himself and authenticated it with his miracles. He didn’t meet their expectations. He didn’t say what they expected him to say and do what they expected him to do. Oh, they loved the healings, to be sure. But they wanted much more than that and he didn’t seem interested in giving it to them. They wanted a king who would lead them in triumph over their enemies, not a king who would die for their sins. They wanted prosperity; he offered them forgiveness of sins.

This is the secret, the mystery that we have been taught, that we have been given to understand. The kingdom of God, the gospel, salvation itself goes the way of the seed. It disappoints us in the case of many people. It is ignored or overlooked, it is ridiculed and spoken against, it is embraced by large numbers who embrace it only superficially. This was and has always been its fate in this world.

But it is also heard and accepted by many and in them it bears a wonderful harvest and, at the end of time, the harvest it has borne will be seen to be very great indeed! How important it is for us to know this so that we will not be discouraged or dismayed by what appears to be the gospel’s failure in many places and at many times. How important that we should understand that this is as it must be: the various soils, the various results, and, nevertheless, the great harvest in so many lives.

It is easy not to believe the gospel and easy not to believe in Jesus Christ. Vast multitudes do not believe. They are offended by its requirement that they acknowledge their guilt before God and that they forsake their self-sufficiency. They are unwilling to surrender the lordship of their lives to Christ Jesus. Their hearts are unfit to receive the gospel because they remain so proud. They comfort themselves with the fact that there are vast multitudes of others who do not believe either. What is more, they don’t see the fruit. They aren’t that impressed with Christians. They don’t think we prove that the gospel is true. But that is proof of nothing but that God has not yet revealed to them the secret of the kingdom of God. Until he does all remains a mystery to them. But for us, all is precisely unfolding as our savior said it would and the harvest beckons.

The Lord gives us an interpretation of the parable of the sower but he doesn’t piece out the implications of that interpretation. That is left for us to do. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. By all means test yourself by the parable. Put yourself to the test of the four soils.

But for all of us there this great encouragement in this parable. We face the same temptations, the same worries, the same fears, the same opposition, the same discouragements, the same questions as believers always have. We face the same obstacles within and without that have withered and destroyed the commitment of those who for a time we took to be Christians. But keep on. Keep on. Do not throw away your confidence for it will be richly rewarded. Do not become weary in well-doing, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.