Read Mark 4:1-20
“Behold a Sower went out to sow…” thus begins one of the more famous parables of Jesus and the only one that is given a full explanation by the man himself. Ironically, this parable is often interpreted by theologians and preachers independently of the explanation Jesus gives when the most complete explanation that we can give someone is read verses 13-20 if you have any questions.
Instead we are given sermons where people are asked “what kind of soil are you?” We get messages about not worrying about those who are yet to believe because they are just not as fertile a soil as you the faithful listener here this Sunday morning. I almost fell back into that trap myself by very nearly writing a blog post where I intended to ask myself and you how our actions and decisions were impacting the soil of other people’s hearts.
Why are we so quick to try and add to or change the meaning Jesus gives this parable? The cynic in me says that some people want to avoid the fact that Jesus flat out mentions Satan in the explanation. While I do think that the notion of Satan is disturbing to a great many “modern-minded” Christians, I suspect that the real reason efforts are made to come up with clever extensions of the parable or outright changes in the meaning is because we want the parable to be about us.
The parable is not about us.
The sower sows the word. The word is the gospel and the gospel is thus: in the person of Jesus, God has initiated the Kingdom of God. If you are still struggling with that being the fundamental truth of the gospel please reread the first three chapters of Mark, or review this blog post.
In this point in Mark, Jesus is sharing this parable to explain to those who believe in him (presumably the disciples) why some folks, like the pharisees, are so unbelieving that they wish to have him eliminated and other folks, like his immediate family, think that he is bonkers. “Bonkers” is a technical term in this instance that theologians use so we don’t have to conjure up a confusing word like egotheistical.
There are a lot of reasons why people fail to believe in Jesus. Some are hard soil and there is no way for the truth to take root before the birds and such eat it. Some are rocky and there is an initial taking hold but the plant doesn’t survive the heat and the wind, like the flowers that I put on my west facing apartment balcony. Others get choked out by the weeds. Finally there are those who are the good soil and the gospel takes root in the heart and grows strong and true and yields fruit.
That’s the meaning plain and simple.
I am not going to try and change that interpretation, but I am going to try and draw a couple of interpretative lessons out of that explanation. Personally, I come from a family of farmers although I admit I know more or less nothing about farming. I only know a little about gardening. When I was a kid I wanted to help my mother plant a garden so she showed me how. We bought some seeds and we created a pretty good sized garden in the land next to our house. It had several rows that we had created with a tiller that mom borrowed for the purpose. By the time we were done it was that classic Norman Rockwell style garden with little posts on the end to mark the rows and the seed packet stapled to them so we could remember whether that row was radishes or corn. What I learned over that weekend was that gardening is hard work.
The first lesson that I would point out to from this sower story is this: the Word is not an annual. This gospel is not a one time yield sort of crop here today and gone tomorrow. You will note that most of the times that Jesus gets all horticultural on us it is about vineyards or trees. The Gospel when it takes root is going to be a perennial plant. This is important because whenever we try to make the parable about us (focusing on the soil rather than the sower /seed) we can become fixated on whether or not we are good soil. If we are good soil, then the yield can become a way for us to qualify ourselves among the other good soil out there i.e. am I yielding 30 times or 60 times? We can either compare ourselves this way to make ourselves feel like we are better Christians or we can get down on ourselves because we aren’t bearing as much fruit as someone else.
Sometimes the vineyard has a bumper crop. Some years are lean. Some years a fruit tree will produce more fruit than you know what to do with and some years there aren’t any fruits at all. When I lived in Corpus there was a grapefruit tree in the backyard that produced far more grapefruit than I could have ever consumed. Truth be told, even one grapefruit is generally more than I want to consume. Right across the fence in the neighbors yard, not even 10 feet away there was a grapefruit tree that was a perennial disappointment. So much so that the neighbor always made sure I knew that he didn’t want me to prune the limbs that stretched over the fence from the superstar tree because he wanted to harvest those grapefruits.
It is like that with Christians. We have seasons when we produce much fruit in our own lives or in the lives of others and there are seasons when the pickings are slim. Both are OK. Both bring glory to the Father because throughout it all we are good soil. Jesus says, “they are the ones that hear the word and accept it” meaning that the good soil are those who have begun to orient themselves around the truth of Jesus Christ. What does that mean? Read Romans 12. Most people think that the gospel is doing all those things, but those things flow out of understanding the truth about Jesus (Romans 1-11) not the other way around.
In short, if you want to be bear more fruit, then double down on your understanding of who Christ is and the fruit will follow.
Why is that? Because the word is being sown haphazardly all the time. I mentioned earlier that when it came time to plant the garden my mother and I prepped the plot of land. We tilled and readied the soil for the seed. Not this sower named Jesus, this guy is chunking that seed all over the place. I once thought that this was really silly and not the most effective way to plant anything but I recently learned that this was common practice in his day. A sower would sow the seed and then go back and till the ground turning over the dirt, rocks, weeds, etc whatever with the seed. They did this for two reasons. One, they didn’t always have the best soil to work with in the first place. Let’s face it, Israel ain’t Kansas. Two, there wasn’t a place down the road to buy potting soil and fertilizer and Weed-B-Gone. You turned over the dirt and everything in it good and bad to have whatever nutrients you could get in the soil for the plant and you hoped that the Lord would bless you with rain and the right combination of stuff to find out where the good soil was and grow you some produce.
And therein lies the second take away from the parable for the believer: you WILL BE tilled.
Far too many Christians think that the after accepting Christ into their hearts life is going to be a long period of perfect. When the tough stuff happens they ask themselves “Why is the Lord doing this to me?” They ask themselves why God is punishing them.
“We rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint because God has poured out His love for us through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:4)
Ignore every preacher you hear (most of them are on TV) that try to sell you this Pollyana notion that the life of the Christian is smooth sailing. Do your best to ignore your well-meaning Christian friends who try to tell you the same. As my good buddy Sam used to say “It is hard to be a Christian”. But when the stuff happens keep in mind that you are being tilled, the Sower is working His soil to make you produce fruit.
I will speak for myself. Too often I have asked myself what does God want me to learn from this experience. Too often I have listened to other people ask me that same question to which I have had very little in the way of answer. What if our question became “God, how do I bear fruit in this moment?” Don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that there is never a lesson or a pruning of the vine where we need to get ourselves aligned with God more closely. What I am saying is that always asking the the first questions is putting the focus on us and our experience, pain, and hurt rather than putting the focus on God and asking how we can grow and bloom.
- Have you found yourself focused more on the soils (you) in the story than on the seed (word)?
- Have you ever judged yourself for the amount of fruit your life is yielding for the Lord?
- Have you asked yourself recently “Why me Lord?”
- How would your walk of faith be different if you asked God to help you bear fruit in times of trial and suffering?
- What can you do to focus more on the word during this season of your life?
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As always this is given freely and if you choose to use it in a bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.