Scripture Reading: Mark 4:1-34
Today we’ve moved on from the healing stories we’ve been reading the last couple of weeks. Now we’re looking at what Jesus is beginning to teach those who are following him as disciples, and what he is teaching those who are crowding around him.
Jesus is choosing to teach the crowd through parables. And there are a couple we are looking at today. The main focus of our passage is on the parable of the sower, the one who casts seeds on to various types of ground.
The last few weeks where we’ve focused on the healing ministry of Jesus which has attracted huge crowds, as we have seen. Now Jesus is taking the opportunity to start teaching them.
We skipped from Mark chapter 2 to chapter 4 this week, and what we missed in chapter 3 was more healing stories, and Jesus completing the calling of his 12 disciples. But also in the healing stories in chapter 3 we read of the pharisees beginning to plot to take Jesus out of the picture. They’ve seen enough of his work to perceive him as a threat, and are starting to worry about how this will impact their lives. So the plot begins to find ways to kill him.
When Jesus begins to teach a little more directly in chapter 4, we see he teaches in parables.
Why teach in parables? Parables are an interesting tool in the way Jesus reveals information about himself and the kingdom of God. They aren’t always clear as to their meaning. They use examples we aren’t always familiar with today. Yet somehow they seem effective, even today.
Parables cause us to think a little more. It takes some effort to understand how these stories are showing us a glimpse into a life of faith as we seek to follow Jesus Christ. They can even have different meanings at different times of our lives as we see ourselves in different places of the story.
With that, let’s start to take a look at the first parable Jesus shared with the people around him, the parable of the sower.
Jesus tells of a farmer going out to plant seeds. And he’s throwing seeds out into many different places, as it seems the seeds are landing on all sorts of different landscapes. Some of it rocky, some of it with not a lot of topsoil, some of it well worn paths, and others on good, rich soil.
Of course, not all the seeds take to the place they land. Some are eaten by birds. Others wither and die. And some take to the good soil and grow and produce.
When you look at this parable, you might ask, “What kind of farmer is this?” How many farmers do you know who plant their garden by just walking around throwing seeds randomly, hoping some of them will take to where they land? Doesn’t seem like a efficient method of organizing a garden to me.
Later that day, the disciples begin to probe as to the meaning of the parable. So Jesus tells them, they’ve been given the meaning, they know the secret, but for everyone else, they need to figure out the parables for themselves.
Then he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables…” (verse 11)
Jesus assumes his disciples get it. They’ve been following him around for a while now, and they should be figuring things out. But then in verse 13 Jesus says, “Do you not understand this parable?”
You can almost feel his frustration. These disciples are supposed to be the ones who get it first. They are the ones who are supposed to be in on the secret. And yet, they just can’t figure it out. They understand the parables.
When we look at parables we often look for a few things. We always look for where God is in the story, and we look for ourselves. Good places to start.
Traditionally, with this parable, we usually see God as the one throwing the seeds and we see ourselves as the soil. The seeds are seen as faith.
In this interpretation God is offering faith and understanding to everyone, but not everyone is able to receive it. Some of us may be the well worn path, others may be rocks, places where faithfulness is hard to develop. And in this we all strive to become better soil so that the seeds of faith may take hold.
This is certainly a goal we should be striving for. We should prepare ourselves, our hearts, our homes, our entire lives to be good soil so that we may receive the gift of faith God so freely offers. We should be seeking to remove from our lives the things which make it harder for the seeds to develop. To toss out the rocks, remove the weeds and cultivate the land, to make room for faith to grow in the best environment we can provide.
In this view of the parable, we need to be willing to take on this work. Soil cannot change on its own, it needs help. It needs someone to take on the role of clearing out the stones and weeds, offering fertilizer and mulch to make the soil ready.
We cannot change who we are on our own. We need God to make these changes in us. We take part in the process, but ultimately it’s God who facilitates these changes.
Let’s assume for a moment that most of us here are good soil. Sure there may still be a few weeds and rocks in our life, but for the most part we can manage to take some of these seeds and begin to grow a little garden. We aren’t perfect, but we may just be good enough to get a good start.
If this is the case (and I would say there’s no reason to think we aren’t good enough), what if we look at the parable in a different way. It’s always a good thing when we look at a parable to mix the characters up a little and see what it says with a new “cast”.
What if, instead of God being the gardner, we become the gardner? What if we are the ones who have the seeds of faith to offer?
How does this change the parable?
If we are the ones walking around throwing the seeds, how does this change the way the story unfolds?
I think it offers us a new challenge. It shows us we have something to offer through our own faith and understanding of God and how it’s revealed in Jesus Christ. It means that we are here this morning to fill our bags with seeds of faith so that when we leave, we are heading out into the fields to spread those seeds.
Yes, sure, not all the seeds are going to take hold and grow where they land. Some are going to land in the parking lot. Some will land on the sidewalk. Some will land among bushes and thorns. But some of them will land on fertile soil, and they will grow and eventually produce fruit, then they will produce more seeds to be spread.
Looking at the parable this way challenges us to spread some seeds. And it means we aren’t choosing where to spread those seeds. It means to spread them wherever we are. Let the seeds fall where the will, even if it looks rocky or barren. We might be surprised!
And if we go back to our passage from our reading, we see this could very well be the case. In verse 14, when Jesus begins to explain the parable, he says, “The sower sows the word.” Notice he doesn’t say, “the sower is God.” Or he doesn’t say, “I am the sower.” He says the sower is the one who sows the word. Sure we can put God or Jesus into this role, but we can most certainly put ourselves in there as well. We can share the seeds of faith freely as we walk through our life.
So where is God in this parable if we are the ones sowing the seeds?
Let’s skip ahead to verses 26-29 where Jesus says,
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
We are the planter of the seeds who then wait for them to grow into a harvest so we can bring the fruits and vegetables in. God is the one who takes those seeds and makes them grow. God is the one who prepares the harvest. He is the one who created those seeds we spread. He is the one who takes them when they land and begins to germinate them and make them grow. He is the one who brings forth the fruit on their vines. He is the one who prepares the harvest.
He just needs someone to spread the seeds around.
In this parable we can be both the gardner and the soil, depending on where we are in our journey. We can be the ones who spread seeds of faith, a very important job. But we might also be the soil, receiving the seeds of faith and waiting on God to help us develop these seeds into a harvest. And there’s no reason we can’t be both at the same time.
We are blessed by God in many ways. We come here every week and I hope we’re catching some seeds of faith. I hope that we are gathering enough to become sowers of new seeds in our community, our homes, our work, in all of our lives.
I hope that we’re producing so many seeds that we are just dropping them wherever we go, just falling off of us as we go about our daily routine.
Seeds are meant to be planted. It’s the only way to grow a new harvest.
Now we might be thinking we don’t have any seeds to share. Or maybe that our seeds aren’t good enough.
Well Jesus shared another parable with us this morning.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
Seeds can surprise us. The mustard seed is a tiny little thing, yet it grows into a tree which provides shelter for birds. It gives them protection and a home.
Apple trees, oak trees, the giant redwood forests on the west coast… all of these began as little seeds, growing far greater than we could imagine if all we had in our hand was the seed.
But in the right environment, these seeds grow into great things, no matter how small they are.
We have seeds to share. I have no doubt about this at all.
Jesus has given us a faith, he has brought us closer to God, and he is showing us this faith is something worth sharing.
We share because we want others to grow in this understanding as well. We want them to share in the life-giving relationship we have with our Father in heaven through a relationship with Jesus Christ, His Son.
Going back to verse 14, Jesus said, “The sower sows the word.”
Then we read that these efforts to plant seeds brings back a harvest, cultivated by God Himself.
When we put God’s Word out there, it will do something. It never comes back empty, no matter how feeble our attempts may be.
God’s Word is life! His Word has power!
And it’s to be shared.
We are the sowers in the parable, even if at times we feel like the worn path of the rocky landscape. If we do feel this way, then let’s work towards being good soil, fertile ground, so the seeds can take hold in us, to grow and to flourish, so one day we too will have seeds to share.
It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
We receive it. We learn. We grow. We share it with others, and then the process begins in them.
All the way through it, God is caring for us as we grow and spread our seeds in others.
So whether we are sowers or soil. God is working. God is bringing life through the sharing of His Word.
May we be the sowers, sharing the seeds of faith formed in us, with those around us, no matter how barren the soil may appear.
God may just surprise us. In fact, I’m sure he will.