Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake 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!”
They key to hearing this parable is to forget everything you think you know about it. If you’re new to Mark’s story about Jesus, that will be easy. If you’re heard these stories before, it will be a little more challenging. But here’s why it matters.
There are two halves, as we’ll see, to this scene. In the first – the one we just read – Jesus tells a parable. In the second, soon to follow, he explains the parable. And so if you’ve familiar with Mark (or Matthew, who follows Mark closely), the tendency is not to listen all that carefully to the parable because, having read the explanation, we already know what it means: it’s about being good soil, right?
The interesting thing, though, is that the action and focus of the parable itself and the focus of the explanation are markedly different. That’s why biblical scholars for the past century have been pretty convinced that Mark is combing two traditions here: 1) the parable and 2) its explanation. And both deserve our attention.
So a question: what is the dominant emphasis of the parable itself? Or, to put it another way, who is the dominant character? Easy, right? It’s the sower. And what does the sower do? Easy again: sow seeds. Except it’s not just sowing seeds. It’s sowing seeds everywhere – and I mean EVERYWHERE. Not just on good soil, but among the weeds and thorns where the seed is sure to get choked, and in shallow soil where it won’t take root, and even on the road where it doesn’t stand a chance. This is what this sower does – throws seed everywhere.
We live in a culture of relative abundance, so this sower’s heedless sowing might not make much of an impression on us. But Jesus’ first-century hearers would definitely have noticed that this sower isn’t simply generous, but downright irresponsible. Seed was too valuable a resource to scatter with such reckless abandon and no farmer in his right mind would waste seed like that.
Which is, of course, Jesus’ point. God isn’t like any other farmer. God is reckless, wild, heedless, even downright wasteful in showering God’s people with grace, not just saving it for the “good soil” folks but “wasting it” on those living among thorns, the shallow, and the hardened. No wonder Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!” Apparently God’s grace is for everyone. Or, according to this parable, for EVERYONE! Maybe that’s why so many people came out to listen.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us of your all-abundant grace and grant us the ability to see it, believe it, rest in it, draw confidence from it, and share it. In Jesus’ name.