Parable of the Sower and Explanation

Mark 4:1-20 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

Why does the same message produce different returns?

Consider the chapter before our text. Mark 3 is chock-full with Jesus-resisters. Pharisees tag-team with Herodians. Evil spirits blab the Messianic secret. Jerusalem’s doctrinal deputies censure Jesus as Satanic.  Judas is introduced as the betrayer. Even Jesus’ own family–including Mary meek and mild– are out to strait-jacket Jesus and put a stop to the madness.

All these folks heard Jesus “preach the word (logon)” (Mark 2:2) Why is it only some, like the twelve just chosen, believe? These others dismiss. Is there something defective with the message? Is there something wrong with the messenger? What’s going on?

These questions of “revelation and response” are in the textual air, as we join Jesus surveying a great crowd on the beach. He knows the crowd presses into him for different reasons and hears him with varied ears. So he sorts them out and lays them bare by–of all things–stories.

Jesus calls the crowd to “Listen!”, and then tells of a farmer who sows seed, and the seed lands on four types of ground. The seed penetrates each ground differently: no penetration, shallow penetration, competing penetration (ie. the seed penetrates to the same depth as competing seeds). And exclusive penetration. It is only the last seed that bears an unimaginable harvest, miraculous “fruit” (karpon).

            Jesus wraps up his parable by, once again, calling people to “hear it.”

Some folks gather around Jesus, wanting to know more. What proceeds some commentators call “The Great Aside.” In a sense, Mark says parables act as a winnowing fork of judgment. In their concealing nature, they reveal and seal hearts: those unresponsive to Jesus and those “given” the great secret– Jesus Himself. In this way, parables embody the great paradoxes of judgment and grace, of hardening and hearing, of God’s choice and our responsibility.  (cf. Isaiah 50:4-5.)

This “Great Aside” cannot be easily laid aside. It’s braided into the parable and illuminates it. The difference between “those” and “you” is Jesus. “Those” may see Him and hear Him, but He and His word do not exclusively penetrate.  “You” (by grace alone) are hearing, perceiving, engaging, receiving deeply what has been given, and then, bearing fruit.

It’s the connection to the “Great Aside” that, for everything else the parable is, makes it also a chilling warning. In the past, I’ve distanced myself from its message by thinking of this as  primarily an evangelism text, ie. how folks respond to first contact with Jesus and His word. But it clearly exposes everyone (like me) in regular contact with Jesus as well. The parable is just as much (if not more!) a pew-diagnostic and why we who hear His word aren’t bearing His fruit.

Here’s how it shakes out (with an attempt at connection to Mark 3 and our church field):   Some folks hear Jesus but their hearts are hard-packed. The seed never penetrates at all.  Mark 3’s obvious example are the Pharisees, scribes and Herodians who hear Jesus because “they were looking for a reason to accuse Him.”  They heard in order to solidify their own position, not  open to Jesus at all.

Sure, these fellows fit the description, but wide is this path. Everyone in our pews that come “just to hear good preaching” while the message itself never penetrates past the Postlude, also are hard packed into this soil.  Consumers of pulpit-craft can study the seed, analyze the seed, take notes about the seed, sing about the seed, even admire the seed, but unless the seed gets sown into one’s life, nothing will come of it. The birds fly off with our opportunity for change. Sunday after Sunday. Ouch.

Other folks hear Jesus and get excited about Him but when trouble comes they bail.  The Mark 3 example may be Judas or even Peter. They both heard the word with joy. But when the heat came, they quickly fell away. (Praise God in John 21 the seed comes again to Peter and Acts 4 bears the fruit.)

We too come under the scrutiny of this soil. How often do we get excited about a word, but when it gets tested with heat, we show our real trust lies elsewhere. We get criticized, and the word about God’s love withers. Our prayer doesn’t get answered, and trust wilts, saying “what’s the use?” This soil wants the blessing, not the Blesser. We are shallowly open to Jesus as long as His word gives what we’re really after–a more comfortable life. Ouch again.

The third soil really stings. Here the word penetrates and deeply, but just as deep as other cares and worries. The word has competition and loses out to the other concerns of our heart. In some ways, Jesus’ family illustrates this from Mark 3. They love Jesus, but they also love the opinion of the world.  Those concerns choked out faith in Him. (Mark 10 shows an example of the deceitfulness of wealth choking the seed in the rich young ruler.)

For many in our pews and pulpits, the word is very real and we genuinely want it to grow. So the seed does get sown down into our life. But our career seems just as real. The cancer and the mortgage and the To Do lists and our reputation too–maybe more real. So we rarely experience actual change or fruit because the sown word of Jesus gets strangled in distraction.

Fruit comes as we hear and heed the Word, over all other words clamoring in our life.

Mark can’t underscore this point enough. Thirteen times in the larger textual unit (see Textual Point), Mark highlights hearing. (Nine times in our text!) The first word of the parable is “Listen!” The last word is “let them hear.” The unit’s close, verse 33, says literally “he spoke the word to them, as they were able to listen.” The center of the unit, vs 23-24, repeats three times the call to listen, for (implied) “the more you hear, the more you will hear.”

It could be said the first word of all Scripture is to “Listen!” (cf Rom. 10:17.) God is a speaking God. But the Hebrew understanding of listen (verb “shama”) is more than just more mental activity, more than just passive acceptance of sounds through our ears. Instead “shama” carries the old servant’s motto “to hear is to obey.” 

For Biblical writers, hearing means heeding. When Jesus says twice in Mark 4 “he who has ears to hear, let him hear,” he is calling for more than mental reception, he’s calling for active heeding, for penetration leading to transformation. To truly hear, we must, as Jesus’ own brother James puts it, “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” (Js 1:12)

Do you see how Jesus stretches the metaphor of the soil as he calls on the soil to “hear” (vs 9) and to “take heed what you hear” (vs 24)? Behind these words are echoes of Jeremiah, “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise (cut open and set apart) your hearts (Jer 4:3-4).” (From inside the parable, we could say it’s as if the soil asks the Sower to dig out his stones, pull up his thorns and plow the path to make him fruit-ready.  Seems to me “Confession and Assurance time” in many church services is an opportunity to do Jeremiah 4. Confession acknowledges the soil of our heart must be prepared–hard, shallow and thorny ground exposed– so the Word may penetrate.  And yet, full germination only is realized when that word is acted on, in the classic “trust and obey” matrix. Then fruit results.

In the end, the joyful wonder of the parable surpasses the stinging warning, for we see the triumph of the Sower and His word. What He can accomplish in a yielded, undivided heart! The crop is so miraculous, so bountiful, that it overwhelms all other consideration and continues the harvest of covenant blessings (cf Gen. 26:12.)  

Textual Points

One of the biggest questions in preaching this passage is where to put the emphasis. On the sower? The seed? Or the soils? The actual telling of the parable (1-9) focuses on the sowing and the results. But Jesus’ interpretation of the parable (14-20) zeros in on the soils and what caused the seed to fail or bear fruit. The preacher can go either way.

The whole helps us make decisions within the parts. This text functions as just one piece of a classic Markan sandwich technique. Mark’s full unit, his “whole sandwich,” actually runs from verses 1-34. Our “sower/seed” parable is paired with two more “sower/seed parables” (vs 26-32). The second set of seed stories resonate with similar points to the first–the sower at work, the triumph of the weak seed.  So where’s the beef? What is the important middle the sower/seed frame helps us understand? The middle is verses 21-25 with its pictures of “revelation and response” –the Lamp and the measure.

Taken as a whole, we’re faced with an exegetical Dagwood Sandwich–a sandwich (vs 1-20) within a sandwich (vs 1-34). While it all hangs together, the preacher is hard-pressed to take an adequate bite. Most congregations wouldn’t have the stomach for it.

However, it is larger unit’s emphasis on reception and “listening” that makes this preacher underscore the seed and the soil. That and the fact a beautiful sermon commentary has already been written on the alternate choice–focusing on the Sower and his profligate grace. Be sure to also check out Scott Hoezee’s commentary on the Matthew 13 parallel passage. So great!

Illustration Ideas

1) Three fellas went deer-hunting—a doctor, a lawyer and a preacher. Each shot the same big buck at exactly the same time. A heated debate follows about whose shot actually killed the deer.

A game officer comes by, takes a look at the buck and confidently announces he knows whose shot. “It was the preacher who got the buck!” “What? How do you know?!” The other two demand.  The officer says, “Easy. The bullet went in one ear and out the other.”

Is the Word received to pass 20 minutes on a Sunday or to check off our “devotions checklist” but the message itself falls derelict and dead? Does it go in one ear and out the other?

2)  Like the cloud in Exodus separating the people of Israel from the armies of Egypt, bringing “darkness on one side and light to the other” (Ex 14:20), parables also bring light- belief- for some, and obscurity- a seal of unbelief -to others. The difference is the relationship to Jesus, the mystery of God’s kingdom. (Adapted from James Edward’s commentary on Mark, pg 138.)

Lora A. Copley is blessed to be a wife, a mother to four children and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She serves as a director for Areopagus Campus Ministry, a ministry of the CRC classes of Iowa at Iowa State University.


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