Mark 04a - The Sower, the Soil and the Seed
THE SOWER, THE SOIL AND THE SEED \\
In His preaching and teaching Jesus made use of parables, that is earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They were designed to test, not the intelligence, but the spiritual responsiveness of His hearers. So they are still relevant today. As long as there is a church of Christ and a congregation of Christians, there will be a use for this parable.
In this passage Mark again paints a very vivid scene. Little imagination is required to visualise it. He shows us that Jesus' popularity was still growing; the gathering was even greater than on former occasions. Other teachers might rejoice when great crowds followed them, not so the Lord; for He knew only too well the mixed motives of the human heart. The failure of people generally to appreciate what the coming of Jesus meant, the plan of the scribes and leaders of the people to destroy Him, the accusation that He had formed an alliance with the devil, show us the climate of unbelief in which Jesus worked. And this climate is still with us today. This parable shows us the reality of the world, but also looks beyond it to the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God.
The crowd is on the land. The setting anticipates the parable and its meaning: by His teaching, Jesus sows the seed of the word on the land, where the crowd is. He uses the parable of the sower as a parable about parables - to explain His rejection by some people and His acceptance by others. Since His interpretation highlights the theme of hearing, it is appropriate that the first word of the parable itself should be listen. This indicates that the parables were intended to provoke thought and were not the transparent illustrations they were sometimes supposed to have been. Jesus made the demand to hear, because the crowd was more interested in His powers of healing than in listening to His message. Listen grabs the attention. The words which follow set the stage. A sower went out to sow.
The sower sows the word. This is the key for the understanding of the whole story, and we need to remember it. It fixes our attention on two objects: the sower and the seed. The first is the Lord Jesus Himself. But it is also anyone who truly proclaims the gospel message. It is as the sower carries out his work that the things happen which are about to be related. The word must be preached before anything can follow. Seed-sowing means preaching a message that needs to be heard. The sower scatters the seed. The word is not aimed at any particular individuals, but is cast before everyone, so that everyone may hear.
The sower sows the seed. The seed is the word, that is both Jesus' specific teaching here, and more generally, the good news about God's Kingdom - the gospel.
To these two - the sower and the seed - can now be added the third: the ground or soil upon which the seed falls is clearly a person's heart - the person himself. Thus the Kingdom of God breaks into the world, even as seed that is sown upon the ground. But it makes all the difference in the world how that seed is received.
Jesus describes four hearts - the unresponsive heart (v15), the impulsive heart (v16-17), the preoccupied heart (v18-19), and the good, responsive, well-prepared heart (v20). This is what people are like when confronted by the word of God. Therefore, the secret contained in the word remains hidden from many of them. But Jesus also tells of a positive response to the word, indicated as receiving and understanding of the word by genuine disciples.
As this man was sowing, it was unavoidable that some of the seed fell along the footpath on which he was walking through the field. Since the place where it fell had not been reached by the plough, and many feet had walked there, the soil was too hard for anything to sink into it, so this seed remained on the surface. The word had lodged in a person's heart, and was starting, like seed, to germinate. But Satan snatches it out by force, before it has time to grow up into the plant.
These are people who hear sermons, but pay no attention to them. They take no interest whatever in the preaching. It seems to them a mere matter of words and names and unintelligible talk. At the end they go away knowing no more than when they came in. The Lord, addressing Ezekiel in 33:32 of his prophecy, gave this description of such people: You are to them like a lovely song, sung with a beautiful voice and played well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but refuse to practise them.
There are thousands of people in this state. Sunday after Sunday they allow the devil to take away the good seed that is sown on the surface of their hearts. Week after week they live on, without faith or fear or knowledge or grace - feeling nothing, caring nothing, taking no more interest than if Christ had never died on the Cross at all. And in this state they often die and are buried and are lost for ever.
!!The rocky ground
The interpretation now turns to those seeds sown upon the rocky ground. Stony ground is better thought of as rock thinly coated with soil. It was that part of the ground where the earth was shallow. Nearness to the warm surface induced rapid growth, but it also led to the shortening of the young plant's life. In this case the withering is due to the very cause that led to rapid growth - the shallowness of the soil that did not permit the plant to develop its roots.
These hearers at once receive the word with joy. Unfortunately, they are like plants that have no depth of earth, and so have no roots in themselves. They failed to consider that true discipleship implies self-surrender, self-denial, sacrifice, service and suffering. They ignored the fact that it is the way of the cross that leads home. When opposition comes to them as a result of the gospel, they don't stand up under pressure. It is this that induces them to give up what at first they had so enthusiastically embraced.
These are people on whom preaching produces temporary impressions, but no deep, lasting or abiding effect. They take pleasure in hearing sermons in which the truth is faithfully set forth. They can speak with apparent joy and enthusiasm about the sweetness of the gospel. But unhappily there is no stability about their faith. There is no real work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. There are many in every congregation, who are just like this. They are not careless and inattentive hearers; they feel a pleasure in the preaching to which they listen, and therefore flatter themselves that they must have grace in their hearts. Yet they are deceived. There is no real work of conversion in them.
Some fell among thorns. As any gardener will tell you, nothing grows faster than what is not wanted, and each patch of ground has enough room only for a certain amount of healthy plant life. So it is not surprising that the faster growing weeds were soon choking the life out of the grain.
These verses describe people whose hearts resemble soil infested with roots and runners of thorns. Hearts filled with worry about daily concerns, taken up with dreams about riches and the desires for other things. Such hearts thwart any influence for the good that might otherwise result from the preaching of the gospel. They are preoccupied. They have no room for calm and earnest meditation on the word or message of the Lord.
They are people who listen to the preaching of the gospel, and to a certain extent obey it. Their understanding agrees with it. Their judgement approves of it. Their conscience is affected by it. They acknowledge it as right. But there they stop short. Something appears to chain them fast, and they never get beyond a certain point in their religion. And the great secret of this stopped growth is the world. With everything, apparently, that is promising and favourable spiritually, they stand still. They never come up to the full standard of New Testament Christianity. They bring no fruit to perfection. Of all the cases they are the saddest. To go so far and yet no further. To accept so much and yet not give Christ their whole heart. This is indeed sad. Without a change of heart they will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Christ will have all our hearts. If you think you are in this category, then remember James' words in 4:4 of his letter, Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God?
!!The good soil
Lastly the explanation of the parable looks at those who were sown upon the good earth. The seeds sprouted and continually yielded fruit and provided an abundant harvest.
With these people the message of the kingdom falls into good ground, receptive and fertile. They hear because they want to hear. They welcome the message and, instead of keeping it on the surface, allow it right into their hearts and lives. They welcome it deeply, so that persecution because of it cannot knock them off. They welcome it exclusively, so that other concerns do not stifle it. They reflect on what they hear because they have faith in the message. So they reach a measure of true understanding. The understanding that results from this kind of welcome goes beyond the intellectual, to touch conduct, commitment and devotion. They put the message into practice and bear fruit. In them the fruits of the truth will be evident. Sin will be truly hated, Christ will be truly loved, holiness will show itself in all their life. There will be something beautiful that will be plainly visible. The true work of the Holy Spirit cannot be hidden.
What then is the lesson of this parable? It is that the seriousness of the question how the word is received comes from the fact that it is the word of the Kingdom of God that has come near to men in Jesus, and that people's final destiny depends on their response to it. Christ has given the answer in His own interpretation of the story. The seed is the word of God; the soil is human hearts: so that reduced to a general law, the teaching of the parable is that the result of the hearing of the gospel, always and everywhere, depends on the condition of heart of those to whom it is addressed. The character of the hearer determines the effect of the word upon him.
The word is sown. It falls on different sorts of ground. The hard heart, the shallow heart, the overcrowded heart, and the good heart - all are in fact present, whenever the word of God is preached. And this does not merely refer to the initial preaching of the gospel and the initial response of man which we call conversion. The whole of the Christian life is one of continual and progressive response to fresh spiritual revelation. This is the point at which hearers are challenged to take action: we are summoned to ask ourselves what sort of ground we are. It is not a question of soil changing itself, but of people making sure by the way they hear that they are good soil rather than bad. "The responsibility," says Christ, "lies with the hearer."