Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. 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. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 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. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 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. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
—Mark 4:1-20, NIV
This is the familiar parable of the sower and the seeds. First Jesus tells the parable to the crowd: a sower sows seed on different types of land: some falls along the path and the birds eat it right away. Some falls on rocky places, where it springs up quickly but dies off when the sun comes out because the roots are shallow. Some falls among thorns, which choke the plants as they sprout. But some falls on fertile ground where it produces a good crop.
When Jesus was alone with His disciples, they asked Him to explain the parable. First Jesus says that He told the parable so that the crowd would not understand its meaning! Then, before explaining the meaning of the parable, He scolded the disciples for not understanding it right off.
The farmer sows the Word, and the various outcomes show how different people receive the Word. Some don’t get it at all; Satan snatches away the message before it has any effect. Some receive it with joy, but their commitment is shallow. As soon as persecution or trouble comes, they abandon it. Some receive it as among thorns; the worries and ambitions of life choke it out as it sprouts within them. Finally there are people who are like fertile ground: they hear the Word, accept it, and they bear much fruit.
In this passage, Jesus says that He tells parables so that the people will not understand or be saved!
Today we are puzzled why the crowd would follow Jesus to hear puzzling teachings that they could not understand, or why only the disciples would ask for clarification and then in private. Some of us develop within our minds a picture of Jesus as starry-eyed fellow with curly tresses, who mumbles incomprehensible stories and platitudes as He wanders through the countryside, kissing babies and petting lambs. We even have Sunday-school pictures to aid us in this delusion! But such an image doesn’t stand the light of day—if that were really what Jesus were like, no one would have taken Him seriously. The New Testament would be filled with Pharisees ridiculing Jesus with the first-century equivalent of ‘Ground Control to Jesus—come in, please!’
No, that picture is false. Jesus taught in parables for two reasons.
The first reason is that Jesus is a rabbi, and like all rabbis of those days, He taught in stories and parables. If you would like to know more about this, ask any Jewish scholar about the Mishnah and the Talmud and other Jewish religious literature of the period. The rabbis who told the best stories had the best following. The people followed Jesus because they were entertained by His stories and since they were used to parables (some of which could be very profound) they didn’t expect to be able to understand them right off.
The second reason Jesus taught in parables was because, as He says in this passage, He wanted to disguise the truth. Actually, He was planting a sort of time bomb. The people flocked around Him and listened to His stories. Like good jokes, they were repeated until they had a wider audience than the people who originally heard them from Jesus’ lips. The meaning of the parables was concealed from the people, but the Pharisees often caught on to the implications of His message, which made them fear the political consequences of His ministry. They plotted His demise to preserve the delicate relationship with Rome to avoid the military consequences of what appeared to be a seditious uprising among the people.
Later, after Jesus had been crucified and had risen from the grave, the apostles found fertile soil for their message. The time bomb went off, because the people were already familiar with the parables. All the apostles had to do was explain them, this time with the events of Easter as proof. This is what Jesus meant when He told the disciples that what they heard in secret (that is, the meaning of the parables) would later be shouted from the housetops! At that time the people understood and were saved! By the thousands!
That’s why Pentecost yielded so many converts so quickly. Jesus prepared the masses, and the apostles reaped the harvest.
It was an effective technique.
Now about the parable itself. I am no farmer, but I have spread grass seed in my yard and I have given lectures and preached sermons, so this parable seems pretty obvious once Jesus explains it. My yard is small and complicated, so I can’t use a mechanical spreader. I have to broadcast the seed by hand. Some falls on the sidewalk and, as Jesus says, the birds come and eat it up right away. Some falls in shallow soil—I don’t have any rocky soil, but I do have a lot of tree roots in places. The effect is the same: the grass sprouts up fast but dies off very quickly in a dry spell. Some seed falls among weeds, and the little grass shoots haven’t a chance. But other seed falls on fertile soil, where it grows and spreads to cover the whole area.
When you speak publicly on religious topics, whether in a lecture or a sermon, you notice the same pattern. You can tell how well you are communicating your message by the way the audience reacts. People who do not give you eye contact, who whisper to the people sitting next to them, who thumb through hymnals, who sit the whole time with crossed arms and sour looks, or who frequently check their watches—these people aren’t getting your message. You might as well go out and sow seed on the pavement. With other people, you can see their eyes light up with delight as they comprehend your message. They shake your hand vigorously afterwards, and praise you for your insightful message and talk about how it will change their life. Then a few days later, when you bump into these people on the street, they do not recognize you or recall the words you said, and when you try to help them recapture the magic of that moment, they wave it off in boredom. They are like the seed that falls on shallow ground. Then there are other people whose eyes light up just as brightly during your presentation, but there is a sad undertone to their expression. When they greet you afterwards, they praise your message, but you can tell that something is bothering them. They may even talk wistfully, as if there were some obstacle to accepting your message. Later you find that they are so clouded with trouble that no ray of light can shine in. Like the seed among thorns, they want to accept your message, but they don’t want to let go of the cares and problems in their lives that get in the way.
Then there are the people who accept your message with bright eyes, shake your hand firmly afterwards with a word of thanks, and bolt out the door quickly to put it into practice. Years later, when they bump into you, they instantly recall the event and thank you once again. This happened to me once: a man I did not recognize walked up to me and thanked me for a sermon I had preached in his church a year or two before. He could remember the sermon well enough to explain to me in detail how he had put it into practice and what the benefits were. On another occasion a woman told me that she had attended a Bible lecture I had given about a year before, and had disagreed with me all the way through; but she kept thinking about it. She wanted to tell me that she had completely come over to my viewpoint in the meantime. These are seeds that fell on fertile ground.
What was the purpose of this parable? Basically, Jesus was saying that no matter how good you are at sowing, and no matter how good the seed is, you won’t get a 100% germination rate. So preachers should not be overly grieved when not everyone receives their message, nor should the rest of us be disturbed if our favorite evangelist can’t convert Aunt Minnie, for whom we’ve been praying nigh onto forty years. There’s more to sowing than the sower and the seed, there is the reception that the seed finds when it is planted.
Even this was a time bomb of sorts. After the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost—that is, after all the excitement was over and the apostles had to face the harsh realities of the mission field—they could remember this parable and take heart when they didn’t seem to be getting the proper response.