Today’s reading is Mark 4:1-20:
Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
Jesus was not the Messiah whom everyone was looking out for and expecting – at least, he didn’t look and sound the part. To begin with, he was a homeless man who went around preaching that the Kingdom of God had come, but by all accounts, it still seemed like the Roman Empire still had dominion on their land. He was to inaugurate the upgraded religious order that Israel was anticipating, but he mingled not with the religious leaders who were supposed to be doing things right, but with the despised and downtrodden sinners and tax collectors. To make things worse, he gave the bulk of his public teachings not in straightforward commands and revelations, but through parables that we hard to understand and perceive. We have often heard such parables so much in these stories that the meaning seems fairly clear to us – yes, God is the king, the owner of the vineyard, the forgiving father, the sower, and so on – but somehow, the parables were incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience.
The parable of the sower, as narrated in Mark 4:1-8, is a case in point. It tells the story of a sower who went along a road to sow his seeds – so far, so good; people understand sowing seeds! – with some seeds falling on the path, others on rocky ground with shallow soil, some among the thorns, and some on good soil. That’s where the audience must have stopped. Wait, how could some seeds have fallen on the path, and others on rocky ground? Every good farmer worth his or her seeds would know that that’s not how you sow! You find a patch of good soil, you dig up a nice hole, gingerly place a seed or two into the hole, and cover it up to form a nice mound before moving down and repeating in a regular pattern. And then you cultivate the little mounds and pray that the season would be good, that you would get a good harvest. People didn’t go carelessly and foolishly scattering and wasting their seeds like that!
Yet, these parables turned out to be awfully effective means of communicating God’s word, because the surprise felt by the audience emphasized the message of the gospel (once explained to them). Yes, God doesn’t sow his seeds of good news like the human farmers around – he didn’t pick out places he would sow and places he wouldn’t, to reconcile to himself only those who stood a good chance of accepting his gift. Instead, out of the extravagance of his mercy, he came and scattered his redemptive gift everywhere, to all people, even where it would seem like the lack of good soil would make it a poor choice of sowing location. God didn’t sow only in the good soil, he also invested in the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and even the no-soil (the path). Whether the seeds bear fruit, then, would be a matter of the condition of the soil.
The message, then, to all the eager listeners, was this: the word has gone out, and it has been scattered throughout, for all nations. God’s grace is abundant enough for him to extend it everywhere. Would the soil come through and accept the seeds, then, bearing fruit and cultivating what it has received? Or would the recipients of this abundant grace receive it with joy, but then let it get taken away or choked up by troubles and persecution, or wealth and comfort? Let anyone with ears to hear listen, Jesus says. Let any land with soil cultivate the seed that was scattered on it.
Lord, help us to cultivate ourselves, to prune ourselves of weeds and thorns, and to increase our depth of soil, that we might bear bountiful fruit arising from the undeserved grace that you have sown in our lives. Amen.
Shaun Lim ’16, a Molecular and Cellular Biology Concentrator living in Winthrop House, is a staff writer for the Ichthus.