13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word.15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
(Mark 4:13-20 NIV)
Jesus had been teaching the masses on the lakefront. After He was done teaching, those with Jesus (The Twelve and some other close followers) asked Jesus to explain the parables. As we learned yesterday, Jesus first explained that not everyone would understand the parables. The meaning of the parables was not hidden; rather, the hearers had to engage with the storyteller and the story to unpack its treasure.
Jesus begins today’s text with a mild rebuke of those in attendance (v. 13). Remember that Jesus was teaching a parable about parables; the sower and the seed parable was the example that Peter retold and Mark then recorded.
The key learning of these parables is that they teach about the revelation of the kingdom of God. Jesus is telling The Twelve and the others gathered around to pay attention, essentially repeating the command He gave before and after He told the parable to the masses (“Listen!”).
In verse 14, Jesus begins unpacking the parable of the farmer and the seeds by correlating the seeds to the word (the message given by both John the Baptist and Jesus, the message of repentance). The soil, then, represents the hearers of the word. The farmer is anyone who sows (spreads) the word.
In verse 15, the first soil is the path or the road. The soil is hard from the constant traffic; the seed lands on the surface and never penetrates into the soil where it can grow. This soil type represents those people with hardened hearts toward God’s message. They may feel that God is irrelevant, or they might be indifferent toward Him. They may ignorant of the message, or just apathetic toward it. In any case, Satan comes along (as illustrated by the birds) and takes away the seed (the message). The supposition is that the seed would lie dormant on the top of the path, so it is easy prey for the birds.
Verses 16 – 17 describe the rocky soil type. Here, the seed falls on thin soil, where the seed sprouts, but fails to put down roots and receive the moisture it needs to survive. When the summer sun beats down, the plant shrivels and dies.
The people described as “rocky soil” are those who fail to count the cost of following Christ. The hardness of their hearts does not permit God’s word to go beyond the surface – their so-called “faith” is just for show. Jesus explains that the sun that causes them to wither in their faith can be from their stubbornness (unwillingness to yield their life to God) or their unwillingness to endure persecution.
Since Mark was writing to people living in and around Rome, this idea of persecution would cause them to listen more closely. With Nero as emperor, they understood the reality of persecution and having to choose to follow Christ and likely die, or abandoning their faith and live. Jesus was not saying that people would lose their salvation; rather, He was saying that the true nature of their apostasy would be exposed under the pressure of persecution. Jesus was not speaking of temporary abandonment (for example, when Jesus’ disciples fled when Jesus was arrested), but of permanent abandonment when someone renounces their faith and goes in the opposite direction.
Verses 18 – 19 depict the soil with weeds (thorns). Jesus explains that there is growth, but no fruit produced (all green and no grain, all stalk and no seed). The nature of weeds is that they always grow faster and bigger than the crop. Failure to remove the weeds stunts the growth of the crop and prevents the crop from bearing fruit.
Jesus describes the weed-infested soil as those who are constantly striving for more (greed and consumerism, power, fame and public recognition, etc). Jesus puts the emphasis not on the possession of these things, but of the energy and time and attitude toward seeking them. The drive for chasing these things does not come from external pressure (like persecution for the rocky soil), but from within – an internal desire for these things being larger than their desire for God.
The principle of “first things” comes to mind when looking at the people with weed-infested soil (lives). As C.S. Lewis so aptly said, “Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.” Jesus laid out this principle in Matthew 6:33, when He said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The final soil type is the good soil. This represents people who hear the word, agree that it is true, and take action to receive and obey it. The result is growth and fruitfulness and multiplication (30, 60, even 100 times over).
As Jesus spoke these words, it was meant to be an encouragement to His listeners. Jesus would soon send out these followers to sow the seeds of His message. Jesus was being realistic and telling them that not all seed would land on good soil (as illustrated by the path, the rocky soil, and the weed-infested soil). But what seed did land on good soil would yield an amazing harvest. Jesus was encouraging His followers to do their part and sow the seed, and then leave the results (the outcome) up to God.
Also, remember that Jesus used six groups of seed in this parable. The assumption was that the seed was all the same, and the soil type was the difference. Jesus used the three levels of success (fruit) to balance the three levels of failure (path, rocks, weeds) to respond to the Word.
May we examine the soil of our lives; if we find soil like the path, or full of rocks, or overtaken with weeds, may we repent and ask the Lord to clear the hardness of our hearts and make our hearts good “soil” again.
And may we be faithful in sowing the seed of God’s message, knowing that not all hearts will be receptive to His message. May we pray for good soil in the hearts of the hearers and leave the results (the resultant fruit) up to the Lord.