3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
(Mark 4:3-9 NIV)
In our last passage, Mark opened chapter 4 with a change of venue – Jesus was teaching by Lake Genesseret. The crowds were huge, so Jesus reverted to his previous plan of teaching from a boat just offshore. Mark also told us that Jesus was teaching in parables.
Today’s text is an example of one such parable that Jesus taught. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all cover this event. As we shall see in subsequent verses in a few days, this is not just a parable, a story, but a lesson in understanding parables in general, as well as the parable’s deeper meaning explained to the disciples (and to us).
As Jesus sat in the boat and spoke to the crowd standing on the beach, He likely saw a farmer out sowing seeds in a nearby field. Using the ordinary events of the day, Jesus tells a story to link the everyday to the eternal.
While this parable is often titled “The Parable of the Sower” or something similar, it might be more appropriately titled “The Parable of the Seeds”. Jesus tells of the fate of six groups of seeds, spread across four types of soils.
Notice that Jesus starts and ends His parable with a command to listen (vv. 3 and 9). As we discovered in our last time together, a parable demands that the hearer engages with both the storyteller and the story in understanding the parable’s meaning, determine if the story is relevant, and decide a course of action based on the meaning and relevance.
Just as Jesus told the story of the seeds by soil type, we’ll examine them in the same way:
- The path, or road. This group of seed never has a chance to take root and germinate; the birds come and consume the seed before it even gets into the soil.
- The rocks, or thin soil layer. This group of seed gets into the soil but is not able to put down sufficient roots to draw moisture from the soil and withers under the stress of the summer sun.
- The weed-infested soil. This group of seed makes contact with the soil, puts down sufficient roots to grow, but cannot compete with the weeds which grow up around it. The plants are alive, but stunted in their growth, and do not produce any fruit.
- The good soil. These three groups of seed grow up as healthy plants, have enough moisture, sunlight, and nutrients to grow and produce fruit. Some produce more than others, but all three groups produce multiples of themselves.
And just like that, Jesus’ story, His parable, was done.
A key to understanding this story is the agricultural practices used in Jesus’ day compared to our day. In Jesus’ day, the farmer sowed the seed first, then worked it into the soil. The farmer was not careless in sowing seed onto the hard path, into the thin soil, or among the weeds. The assumption was that all the soil had potential, and the plowing (tilling) of the soil would make for a suitable environment for the seed to grow and produce fruit.
In modern days, the soil is prepared first, then the seed is planted. This may be separate operations, or it may be a single pass through the field that performs the soil preparation and planting operations at the same time.
Another key to understanding this story is to discern the unit of measure described in verse 8. In our modern day, we would likely measure the results of the harvest at an aggregate level, for instance, in bushels of grain harvested per acre of farmland. In Jesus’ parable, the unit of measure is the individual stalk of grain.
If this were wheat, the comparison would be the number of kernels of wheat in the head of the wheat stalk compared to the one kernel used to grow the plant. If the crop was corn, then the measure would be the number of kernels on the ear of corn per stalk (assuming one ear of corn per stalk). If Jesus were selling a certain brand of seed (which He was not), He would have to add the disclaimer that “individual results may vary”.
Notice that Jesus excludes discussion of weather-related factors, such as rainfall, wind, fire, flooding, drought, soil temperature, or any other climate factors. Jesus assumes that weather-related things are the actions of God in the everyday.
So what is the deeper meaning of this story? We’ll let Jesus explain during our next few times together.
May we heed Jesus’ command to listen and hear Him in the commonplace and mundane.
The natural parallels the supernatural all around us.
May we pause to see what’s hidden in plain sight, and hear His whisper-song among the roar of life.