Parables in Mark
- Main text: Mark 4:1-34
- Accompanying text: Psalm 126
What this passage means to us
“As the sower fairly and indiscriminately disperses seed broadly over all his field, so does God offer gifts to all, making no distinction between rich and poor, wise and foolish, lazy or diligent, brave or cowardly… For it is the way of the Lord never to stop sowing the seed, even when he knows beforehand that some of it will not respond. But how can it be reasonable, one asks, to sow among the thorns, or on the rock, or alongside the road? …in the case of free wills and their reasonable instruction, this kind of sowing is praiseworthy. For the rocky soul can in time turn into rich soil. Among souls, the wayside may come no longer to be trampled by all that pass, and may become a fertile field. The thorns may be destroyed and the seed enjoy full growth. For had this not been impossible, this sower would not have sown” .
Jesus does not want us to miss out on what he is preaching, and his command to listen and hear what he is saying is repeated 13 times in this passage. Throughout the gospel accounts, we see that the disciples often do not understand what Jesus is saying, but Jesus encourages us to persevere as the disciples did, to keep grappling with the mysteries of our faith because in the fullness of time “whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open” (Mark 4:22). At the same time, the Word that God has given to us in Jesus Christ is meant to evoke a response from us, to result in growth and fruitfulness. The early Christian theologian Tertullian comments on verse 21 by saying “If you hide your lamp beneath a bushel, you will soon notice that you yourself will be in the dark. You will find others bumping into you. So what can you do to illumine the world? Let your faith produce good works. Be a reflection of God’s light. The good is not preoccupied with darkness. It rejoices in being seen” . Jesus’ teachings were not just meant to be heard (or in our case read), they were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be followed.
One of the challenges in understanding the Kingdom of God is that it does not conform to our expectations and this is one of the reasons why Jesus taught in parables, using examples from everyday life that people could relate to. Jesus’ parables reach out to us in our longing for the Kingdom of God while at the same time helping prepare us to live in his Kingdom. In the last two parables of this passage we see that the Kingdom of God defies expectation – it does not require an army to be victorious and the growth of the Kingdom is provided by God not by man. We live in the time when the seed has been sown, but the growth is just beginning and the fullness of the Kingdom is not yet visible to us. It is important to remember the Kingdom is the seed that is sown and not the result of the sowing. The parable of the mustard seed reminds us while the kingdom may seem small at the present, this small seed will grow into a tree in which all kinds of bird will find shelter (often taken to be a reference to Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21).This is a story not only of growth but also of inclusion. The church, which is the kingdom on earth, is for all kinds of people, and they can find peace and freedom there. You’re included. The seed goes from hiddenness to visibility, for all to see and find refuge therein.
Storyline and Context
In the preceding chapters Mark records how crowds gathered to see Jesus. They had now become so big that he had to address them from a boat on the shoreline. The people were amazed and astounded by his teachings, his miracles and his exorcisms. Yet Jesus’ aim was not impress and he wants more from the crowds than just their amazement. Jesus came to proclaim the good news of God. He came to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” and that now was the time to “repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). But not everyone responded positively to Jesus’ message and Mark’s placement of the parable of the sower in his gospel account is intentional. Already we have seen how not everyone who heard Jesus speak responded positively to his gospel message. There were those who heard the word only to have it fall on stony or thorny ground or snatched away by the birds. Jesus’ parables are not given to us so we can pass judgement on others. Instead the parable of the sower asks us to decide what kind of soil we want to be to the gospel. Mark reinforces this by using the same greek word (gēs) for the shore/land the crowd are standing on in verse 2 that he later uses for ‘soil’ when Jesus is telling the parable in verses 5 and 8.
In context, we can also see that the meaning of parable of the sower is not about predestination as it is sometimes understood. Jesus’ aim is not to inform us that some will be saved and others perish. In the rest of the Gospel of Mark we can see that the apostle Peter seems to fall into all four of the soil categories. In Mark 8:33, Peter hears Jesus tell the disciples that he has to die and Peter rebukes him for talking like that. We are told that Satan’s influence has stopped Peter’s understanding just like the seeds that fall on the path. Later, this time like the seeds that fall in the thorns, Peter gives in to the desires of the flesh and is found sleeping in Jesus’ time of need (Mark 14:37). Following Jesus being arrested, Peter is like the seeds that fall on stony ground, he disowns Jesus at the first sign of opposition (Mark 14:67-68).
The parable of the sower encourages us to choose how we respond to Jesus. To many we are told that Jesus’ words remain a mystery, but “the key element that distinguishes one from the other is that the insider gathers around Jesus as an honest inquirer (Mark 4:10). Disciples are no different from anyone in needing explanations for the parables, but they are different from outsiders in that they choose to come to Jesus for explanations. They also have to puzzle out the parables, but they ask questions sincerely. The decisive difference is that insiders are not indifferent”  If we want to see the small seed become the magnificent tree that Jesus talks about in verse 32 we need to ask God in prayer to soften our hard hearts and grant us the ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us.
- Matthew 13:1-23
- Luke 8:4-18
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Chrysostom quoted from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000). Digital edition.
- quoted from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000). Digital edition.
- David E. Garland, NIV Application Commentary: Mark, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2011). Digital Edition