Week of December 10, 2017
The Point: Obeying Jesus’ teachings leads to fruitful living.
The Parable of the Seed and the Soils: Mark 4:1-20.
 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.  And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:  “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”  And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,  so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”  And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.  And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy.  And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word,  but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” [ESV]
“Main Idea. The central theme of the parable of the sower is the need to “hear” and respond to the good news of the kingdom of God. The purpose of the parables is both to reveal and to conceal: to those open to the kingdom proclamation, the parables reveal the truth; but for the hard-hearted, the parables blind them further. In this way God accomplishes His sovereign purposes even through the opposition and hard-heartedness of sinful people. [1-2] The episode begins with two themes pervasive throughout Jesus’ Galilean ministry: (1) the priority of teaching and (2) His growing popularity with the crowds. Jesus has made His teaching ministry – the proclamation of the kingdom of God – His highest priority, because, as He affirms, that is why I came out [1:38]. The healings and exorcisms confirm the message by revealing the presence and the power of the kingdom. From a narrative perspective, Jesus’ popularity with the crowds and the awe that He inspires result from the authority of His words and actions. The boat from which Jesus teaches provides crowd control, serving as a natural podium and allowing Him to teach without being jostled. Sitting was a common position for teaching. [3-9] The parable of the sower begins with a call to attention, Listen!, a theme that permeates this teaching section [9,15,16,18,20,23,24]. The present imperative indicates the need for continual spiritual attentiveness. The first seed is sown along the path. The point seems to be that the ground is hard-packed and so the seed is left exposed to hungry birds. The essential message of the parable is that external conditions render the seed either productive or not. The rocky ground is probably a thin layer of topsoil on bedrock. This soil allows the seed to germinate quickly, but the rock prevents it from establishing deep roots. Without such roots it cannot draw sufficient moisture from the ground, and the sun scorches it so that it withers. Thorns appear commonly in Scripture as impediments to good crops or evidence of agricultural neglect. Jeremiah 4:3 speaks metaphorically of the danger of sowing among thorns. There appears to be a natural progression in terms of the point of failure. The first seed is eaten by birds before it can germinate, the second germinates, but withers shortly after it sprouts; the third sprouts and grows but is eventually choked out. The three verbs used to describe the successful growth of the good seed may be intended to contrast with the failed seed: it produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding in contrast to the seed which the birds eat, which withers, and which is choked out by thorns. The statement in verse 9 recalls Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2, where the people of Israel have eyes, but cannot see, and ears, but cannot hear. The meaning could be either (1) anyone who has ears (i.e., everyone) should hear and respond to Jesus’ message; or (2) those given “ears” (i.e., special spiritual insight) by God ought to listen. The latter fits the following context well, where Jesus says the disciples have been given the secrets of the kingdom of God, but that others are blind and deaf to the message [Mark 4:11-12]. Furthermore, in Matthew 13:43 the saying appears in a context of private instruction to the disciples. However, the saying more often occurs in contexts addressed to the crowds [Matt. 11:7,15; Luke 14:25,35, where the crowds are contrasted with the disciples, who receive the parable’s explanation. Furthermore, the saying generally follows rather than precedes parabolic teaching, which in this case is directed to the people in general [4:1]. The best solution is probably the first, that the saying is a general proverb directed to everyone – all who have ears to hear – with the implication that some will not heed the call for spiritual discernment. This also fits the background texts of Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2, where the people have eyes and ears but still fail to respond to the message.
[10-20] Private instruction for the disciples is a common theme in Mark [4:34; 7:17-23; 9:28-29,35; 10:10-12,32-34; 12:43-44; 13:3-37]. The phrase those around him with the twelve shows that Mark envisions a larger group of disciples than the Twelve. This was implied already when Jesus chose the Twelve from among a larger band of followers [3:13]. How many were present here Mark does not say, but it is clearly a much smaller group than the masses flocking to see Jesus. The plural parables shows that the disciples have more than the parable of the sower in mind. This may be Mark’s way of saying that Jesus taught much more than he is reporting. Jesus responds to the disciples by first discussing the reason He teaches in parables [11-12] and then by interpreting the parable of the sower [14-20]. The word secret or “mystery” spears in the Gospels only here and in the Synoptic parallels [Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10], but it is common throughout Paul. Its primary sense in the New Testament is not something strange or mysterious, but rather something formerly secret that God has now revealed to His people. In the context of Jesus’ ministry in Mark, the secret to which the disciples are privy is that the power and presence of the kingdom of God are breaking into human history through the words and deeds of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and offer of forgiveness to sinners are all sure signs of the kingdom of God. Here, however, Jesus’ point is not about the nature of the secret but its recipients. While the secret of the kingdom has been given (a divine passive, meaning “God has given”) to the disciples, those outside receive everything in parables. The reference to outsiders alludes back to the Beelzebul controversy and the episode related to Jesus’ family [3:20-35], where Jesus contrasts the religious leaders and His physical relatives – who are standing outside [3:31-32] – with those who do the will of His Father, His true spiritual family [3:34-35]. To support His statement Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10. The so that clause makes this passage one of the most difficult in the New Testament, since Jesus appears to be saying that He teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of His listeners. The most natural sense is to take so that as a purpose clause, in which case Jesus would be saying that His purpose for teaching in parables is to blind the eyes and make deaf the ears of those who are outside. Yet this negative function of the parable must be understood within the narrative contexts of both Isaiah and Mark. In Isaiah 5-6, the context is a judicial and final pronouncement of coming judgment. In the allegory of the vineyard [5:1-7], God is portrayed as the owner who cared for and loved His vineyard (Israel). Because Israel failed to produce fruit (covenant faithfulness), God says He will remove her wall of protection and allow the Assyrians to act as His agents of judgment. Isaiah’s words of warning will now fall on deaf ears, first because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and now because God has pronounced judgment and has determined what He will do. He will use their rejection to accomplish His sovereign purpose. This pattern occurs repeatedly in Scripture. Jesus’ words here in Mark, like Isaiah’s, are a judicial pronouncement of coming judgment that will accomplish God’s sovereign purpose. Understood in this manner, Jesus’ words may be seen as indicating both purpose and result. The judicial pronouncement (teaching in parables to hide the truth) results from the rejection by Israel’s leaders in Mark 3. Its purpose now will be to blind them to the truth so they will inadvertently fulfill God’s plan of redemption in the death of Jesus. The parable should not be assumed to teach a permanent hardening of Israel. It concerns these leaders and this generation who are rejecting Jesus and will suffer the consequences. Having explained why He speaks in parables, Jesus now interprets the parable of the sower for the disciples. There is a mild rebuke in the rhetorical question, Do you not understand this parable? The spiritual dullness of the disciples is an important theme in Mark’s gospel and grows in intensity throughout the narrative [4:40; 6:52; 7:18; 8:17-18; 8:32; 9:19,32]. The tension created by the fact that the disciples are Jesus’ chosen followers, yet still struggle and fail, is important for Mark’s theology of discipleship. Jesus is the only true model of discipleship in the gospel. Those who wish to be His disciples must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Jesus [8:34]. Jesus’ second rhetorical question, that if the disciples do not understand this parable, How then will you understand all the parables helps to explain the special prominence given to the parable of the sower. It concerns receptivity to the message and so is “the parable about parables.” Those who comprehend the message about good soil producing good fruit will be receptive to the “word” sown in the other parables. Jesus interprets the parable with reference to its three elements: the farmer, the seed, and the soil. Though the story is traditionally called the “parable of the sower,” the farmer appears only at the beginning and plays a relatively small role. It is really the parable of the seed and the soils. In the context of Jesus’ ministry, the farmer represents Jesus Himself, who is sowing the seed of the message (the word) – the message of the kingdom of God. Yet by extension it could also refer to His disciples, who will shortly be sent out to preach [6:6-13,30]. Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one is not an allegory per se, but it contains allegorical elements. The meaning of the seed and the soils is more complicated. Jesus identifies the seed as the word , i.e., the message of the kingdom, and in verse 15 the soil appears to be those who receive the message. The first seed does not take root because of the hard-packed soil of the path, representing those who are unresponsive to the message. In the context of Mark’s narrative, we think of the Pharisees and experts in the law, who are hostile to Jesus’ kingdom preaching from the start. Jesus identifies the birds that gobble up the seed with Satan, who snatches away the word before it takes root. In Mark’s narrative, the mention of Satan reminds the reader that Jesus is engaged in a spiritual struggle pitting the kingdom of God against that of Satan, and light against darkness [1:13,23-24,34; 2:22-27]. A second category of hearers responds favorably to the message, but they fall away when trials and persecution come. In the context of Mark’s narrative, we think of the popular masses, which throng to Jesus for healing, exorcism, and free bread, but quickly disappear when Jesus calls for cross-bearing discipleship. The verb fall away means desertion from the faith. Jesus uses the same verb when He predicts that all of His disciples will all fall away from Him at His arrest [14:27-30]. As with the first seed, the failure has two causes: inadequate soil and an external threat. In the first, the soil was hard, preventing the seed from germinating, so the birds devoured it. Here the soil is rocky, resulting in weak or shallow roots, and so the sun withers it. The Greek idiom, they do not have root in themselves means “adequate roots,” that is, enough to draw sufficient moisture from the ground. The implied heat of the sun that withers the plant is interpreted as tribulation or persecution. Tribulation means trials of various kinds while persecution means harassment or mistreatment by one’s enemies. There is an assumption here that trials and persecution will be part of the Christian life – something Jesus teaches elsewhere in Mark and a theme that occurs throughout the New Testament. When such trials come, only deep spiritual roots will prevent failure. The third seed has initial success, but then is choked out. While the second seed succumbed to external attack – trails and persecution – this third falls victim to the distractions of the world. Cares refers to the stressful concerns and anxiety that life’s challenges can bring [2 Cor. 11:28; 1 Peter 5:7]. The cares of the world carries the sense of this present evil age that is passing away. Wealth is deceitful because it provides the illusion of security but has no eternal value. Money can be a means to accomplish great good, but love of it can also be a root of all kinds of evils [1 Tim. 6:10], producing greed, envy, and selfishness. In the context of Mark’s gospel, we think of the rich young man, who deeply desires eternal life but cannot bring himself to leave his riches and follow Jesus [Mark 10:17-27]. The desires for other things is a catchall description for anything that draws one away from God’s priorities. While all the seeds “hear” the word, only this fourth group accepts the message and produces a crop. There is no emphasis in the parable on the difference in yield (30, 60, 100), but rather in the contrast between the seeds that were successful and those that failed. Luke speaks of the reason for their responsiveness: they had an honest and good heart [Luke 8:15]. Mark simply states that they responded positively to the message. In the context of Mark’s gospel, this means they repented and believed the good news of the kingdom of God [Mark 1:15]. The nature of the fruit is not specified, though continued allegiance to Jesus and participation in His mission would surely be intended. Jesus’ disciples will soon bear fruit as Jesus sends them out to preach the good news, heal the sick, and drive out demons [6:12].
Theology in Application. Hearing and Heeding the Message of the Kingdom. The pervasive theme throughout the parable of the sower is the need not only to hear the message of the kingdom, but to respond to it with faith and so produce fruit. Jesus punctuates the parables with the refrain, He who has ears to hear, let him hear [4:9,23]. The religious leaders heard Jesus’ message, but they rejected it, blaspheming the Holy Spirit by accusing Him of complicity with Satan [3:22-29]. They are unfruitful, like the barren fig tree that Jesus will symbolically curse in the last week of His ministry [11:12-14, 19-26]. Many interpreters have noted the relationship between two key parables at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, the parable of the sower [4:1-20] and the parable of the wicked tenant farmers [12:1-12]. Both use agricultural metaphors to portray the unfruitfulness of Israel’s leaders and their rejection of Jesus. The parable of the sower immediately follows the accusation by the religious leaders that Jesus is in league with Satan. Jesus responds by accusing them of blasphemy against the Spirit and then teaches in parables designed to blind them to the truth [4:11-12]. The parable of the wicked tenant farmers comes in the last week of Jesus’ ministry and also allegorically depicts the unfruitfulness of these leaders. Ironically, its purpose is just the opposite. While the parables previously blinded them, here they clearly recognize that Jesus is speaking the parable against them and so seek to arrest Him [12:12]. In this way they inadvertently (and ironically) carry forward God’s purpose and plan for the suffering of the Messiah [cf. Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:28].
The Necessity of Bearing Fruit. The need to “bear fruit” for God and the dangerous consequences of barrenness are common themes in the Old Testament and Judaism. Most significantly, barrenness appears in Isaiah’s song of the vineyard [Isa. 5:1-7], which Jesus allegorically adapts in the parable of the wicked tenant farmers [12:1-12]. As noted above, this Markan parable has important parallels with the present one and serves as an important climax in Mark’s narrative. It is also significant that in the present passage [4:12] Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, which is closely related to Isaiah’s song of the vineyard. In both cases it is Israel’s unfruitfulness that will bring spiritual blindness, leading to judgment. In Romans 9-11 Paul uses another agricultural metaphor to describe Israel’s rejection of the gospel. Apostate Israel is described as branches broken off of an olive tree, to which wild branches (the Gentiles) are grafted in [11:17-21]. God sovereignly accomplishes His purpose despite the rejection of many in Israel.
Hearing the Parable Today. Though Jesus told this parable with special reference to the rejection of His message by Israel’s leaders, it has great significance for today. The same message that Jesus proclaimed – the coming of the kingdom of God and the need to repent and believe – is the message His church proclaims today, and people respond to it in a variety of ways. For some it never gets through and is snatched away by Satan’s lies – such as there is no God, or that personal pleasure, fame, or wealth is the ultimate goal of life, or that success comes through personal effort and self-reliance. For others, the message sounds good and is welcomed with joy, but it never penetrates beyond a superficial level of faith. It is based on emotionalism or is inherited from family, but it has no roots of its own. For these, church is a nice social club to meet and develop friendships. The essence of Christianity is being a good person and helping others, or supporting patriotic American values or a conservative social agenda. The idea of radical commitment to the kingdom and its mission remains an alien concept. Still others hear the message and are even assimilated into the community of faith, but the distractions of the world – its worries and wealth – mean that faith never results in transformation. But others respond to the message and persevere until they bear fruit. Bearing fruit could mean bringing others to Christ, but it is much broader than this. It is a life change that results in transformation until we share God’s values for the world and develop the mind of Christ [Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 4:16-17]. Sometimes the question is raised as to which, if any, of the first three seeds and soils are in fact “saved.” But this question misses the point of the parable. All three are unfruitful and so all three have failed. In Jesus’ ministry there are two kinds of people, those who accept the kingdom and those who reject it. The three failed seeds represent the latter. True faith produces fruit [Eph. 2:8-10; Phil. 2:12-13; James 2:14-26].” (pp. 189-190). [Strauss, pp. 177-190].
Questions for Discussion:
- Why did Jesus teach in parables [11-12]? What is the meaning of Jesus’ statements in verses 9 and 12? What is the secret of the kingdom of God? In what sense is it a secret? Who are those outside? Why do the “outsiders” not understand the secret? What causes them to see but not perceive and to hear but not understand?
- What is Jesus teaching in this parable? What is its pervasive theme? Who is the sower? What is the seed? What does the different types of soil represent? What distinguishes the “good” soil from the others? (Note the three verbs in verse 20 used to describe the good soil).
- Strauss writes that this parable “has great significance for today.” What significance does he see? What do the different soils represent today? What does it mean to “bear fruit?” Note that bearing fruit is the true test of genuine faith that correctly hears and responds to Jesus’ message of the kingdom.
The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.
Mark, Robert Stein, ECNT, Baker.
Mark, Mark Strauss, Zondervan.