(Another sermon on the Parable of the Sower from 1/26/14 can be heard here.)
Other than a few verses here and there, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, we haven’t read much of Jesus’ teaching. Of course we have the general statement in Mark 1:14-15 telling us that the overall theme of his teaching is that the promised time is fulfilled and God’s kingdom has come near. The response we are to have to this is, first, belief in it, and, secondly, repentance to align our lives with this message. We read in a few places that people were amazed at the authority Jesus taught with, and how he was able to capture the attention of great crowds of people. But it’s not until chapter 4 that we get to actually read something Jesus taught. Mark 4 begins with what is called the Parable of the Sower although it may just more accurately be called the Parable of the Soils or even the Parable of the Seed because the emphasis doesn’t lie on the sower but on the nature of the soil as it encounters the seed.
Read Mark 4:1-9.
The last time Jesus gathered at the seaside, he had his disciples ready a boat so he could climb into it if he needed to. Remember that he was concerned he might get hurt as people climbed over each other to try to get to him. This time when he goes to the seaside to teach, he climbs into the boat before he begins. Apparently the crowd has gotten even larger than before. This time, the crowd gathers for the specific purpose of hearing Jesus teach rather than heal and cast out demons, although that is certainly not ruled out. Jesus taught in parables often. Simply defined, a parable is a story that has a different meaning than the obvious one. They are often like allegories, or riddles, but not always. Jesus gives this parable and expects the people to understand what he is talking about. He tells this story that we can all easily picture even in a culture that doesn’t revolve around farming. We can imagine a man walking through a field and casting seed everywhere to plant his field. He throws some all the way to the edges, some in the not-so-good soil, and some everywhere else. Many of the people in the crowd would have understood his parable because this type of teaching wasn’t completely foreign to them. “Sowing” is a concept found more than 50 times in the OT and it is often used figuratively rather than referring literally to farming. These uses included the idea of “reaping what you have sown”, meaning there are repercussions for unjust and ungodly actions. There is also the idea of God bringing blessing and restoration because he has chosen to bring it forth as a seed sprouts after it is sown. Some of the passages say, as God has allowed Israel to reap judgment and exile because of what they have sown, they will reap restoration and blessing because of what God has sown. Here are a few examples:
1) Jeremiah 31:27-28, 31-34 – God says that as he has watched over Israel in their destruction, he will watch over them in their rebuilding. He will sow “man and beast”. In other words, the people will return to the land and their livestock will increase. This is being fruitful and multiplying which is a sign of God’s blessing. But it doesn’t stop with physical blessing, this sowing will result in a new covenant in verse 32, and in verse 33 a new Law: he will restore Israel. This is precisely what Jesus is talking about when he says the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come. He is bringing the heavenly Kingdom to earth which will result in a new Law, and a new People. Verse 34 says they will all know God and Jesus is showing that The Divine King has come close enough to know.
2) Ezekiel 36:8-11 – Here again sowing leads to restoration, but in verse 11 we see that in this time to come, there will be more to it than just rising to the days of Israel’s former glory. When Jesus speaks about time being fulfilled and God’s Kingdom coming, his audience must have remembered passages like this that speak of a restored Glory to Israel.
3) Zechariah 8:11-12 – God says he is going to do something new in verse 11. With that first line, you see that there was an expectation of something more than what had been in the past. There will be peace along with this fruitful blessing in verse 12. The last phrase is a reference to God’s people returning from Exile to experience this new thing and this time of blessing. These are the ideas swirling around in the heads of the Jesus’ audience as he teaches this Parable.
The Jewish people in general have great expectations in mind for God coming to release them from the exile of Roman oppression. They are awaiting God to send his Messiah. But their conceptions of this Messiah are tainted. So Jesus teaching a parable like this would have awakened these ideas in his audience. So, there would have been varied responses; some might have believed, some might have misunderstood. The disciples didn’t understand exactly what Jesus was getting at, so when they get a chance to ask Jesus about it, they do.
Read Mark 4:10-20.
Verses 10-12 show again a division between those inside and those outside the Kingdom of God. Jesus says these parables show the distinction between those on the inside and the outside. What causes the outsiders to remain outside is what Jesus describes in these verses. He quotes Isaiah 6:9 here which helps us to understand the meaning of what he is saying about these people. The reason they are outside is because they do not believe, the response Jesus says must happen for those who hear the Gospel. This is a case where the disobedient responses of sinful people do not thwart the plan of God. God’s plan will move forward in spite of man’s rejection, and also because of man’s rejection of God’s will.
Jesus goes on to describe the reasons why people reject God in his explanation of the parable. Verse 14 tells us who the sower is. I have heard this parable explained by putting us in the seat of the sower, but it is God who sows the seed, not us. The seed is the Gospel that Jesus has been preaching – The time is fulfilled and God’s kingdom has come.
Verse 15 shows the first place the seed is sown: along the path. When the sower casts his seed, some of it lands close to the path. The response of some to this Gospel that Jesus preaches is that they quickly reject it. They see it, they hear it, but the respond by rejecting. The work of the devil is involved with these people’s response. This is the first type of soil. It doesn’t have anything in it to sustain growth.
Verses 16-17 show the second place seed is sown: on rocky ground. There is a superficial response to the Gospel. It is recognized that it is Good News so the initial response is joyful. These are the spectators, the people who think spiritual things are important as long as you don’t go overboard. But when difficulties come in life, which they always do, they don’t have enough depth to their understanding of the Gospel to endure life’s difficulties. Eventually and inevitably, following Jesus will cost something. They leave the Gospel in favor of living more comfortably, or more easily. When they recognize that continuing in the Gospel will cause them to have to sacrifice something, they refuse it and reject it in favor of their own path. This is the second type of soil. It allows a plant to begin, but it does not mature.
Verses 18-19 show the third place seed is sown: amongst thorns. A few years ago, I got some manure to put in my garden to help it to become soil that yields better vegetables. At first, my squash, beans, and cucumbers began to grown and they looked good. But, I noticed all around small green sprouts. The sprouts grew quickly and eventually, overtook the other vegetables and caused them to wither and they produced very little. I tried to pull the weeds, but when I did I pulled up the vegetable plants too, so eventually I just let them be and the vegetable all died off. The soil was corrupted by the weeds. This verse says the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things are like weeds that choke out an otherwise thriving plant. I’ve known people who were so passionate about the things of God, but when they realized they could not have everything this world offers and everything God offers together, they decided to forsake the Gospel. It’s not so difficult to be religious when it’s acceptable or when it can actually benefit your standard of living, but when that changes, many people leave it. This is the third type of soil, a plant can grow fully, but it is overcome with weeds which render the plant useless.
These three types of soil illustrate a theme that can be seen throughout the New Testament. Those who reject the Gospel fall prey to a threefold deception – the devil, the flesh, the world. The devil is active to prevent the Gospel from taking root. Our own sinfulness causes us to desire anything except the Gospel. And our world offers so many things that seem more attractive than the Gospel. This is why there are comparatively few people who come to believe it.
But Jesus tells of a fourth type of soil in Verse 20. As the sower walks through the field scattering seed everywhere, some of it lands on the path, some of it in rocky soil, some of it where it is overcome by weeds, but some of it lands where it can take root, grow, and bear fruit. The point of verse 20 is not how much yield this seed brings forth, the point is that it brings forth more grain or fruit. Jesus says, some will respond properly through belief and repentance and it will result in new life.
I think it is helpful for us in applying this Scripture to consider who we are in the passage. As important as it is to spread the word of the Gospel, we are not the sower, God is. We are also not the seed, this is the Gospel. We are the soil. We are those who respond to God and his Gospel, his Good News.
So the question for us is, “What kind of dirt am I?”
The point of this passage isn’t about how much “fruit” you produce, but it’s about our response. There are lots of ways we might respond, but ultimately we either reject the Gospel, or we believe and repent.
What will your response be?