In case you haven’t noticed, Jesus is very busy in the Gospel of Mark. Over the last couple of chapters, Jesus has been constantly on the move — from the city, to the lakeshore, to the grain fields, to the synagogue, to the lake again, to a mountain, to a house, and now back to the lake yet again. Notice that Jesus is no longer teaching in the synagogue. He makes a sharp departure from the orthodox methods of His day. Now, from a gently swaying boat, Jesus teaches His first parable in Mark 4:1-20. As we study the parable of the sower, I want to share the entire passage with you below. Please take time to read the complete excerpt so that we can make some careful observations together.
1 Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. 2 He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:
3 “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. 4 As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. 7 Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” 9 Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant. 11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, 12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
‘When they see what I do,
they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
and be forgiven.’” [*See my side note on this in comments section.]
13 Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? 14 The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. 15 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. 16 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. 18 The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. 20 And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Mark 4:1-20, NLT)
What is your initial reaction to reading this parable? What do you think Jesus’ big point is here? I had always read this passage and thought that Jesus was simply explaining the fact that some people would be real believers of the gospel and others would not. However, as I reflect more closely on this passage, I now believe Jesus is actually setting the stage for a very important development in His ministry. It is not coincidental that the Parable of the Sower is the first (formal) parable in each of the three synoptic Gospel accounts, and the placement of the parable plays a particularly interesting role in the Gospel of Mark. Notice that in the passages leading up to and following this parable, Mark places special emphasis on the almost-universal unbelief of the people, even among Jesus’ own family and followers (see for example verse 13, also 8:17-21). So, with this parable, Jesus is actually assessing the situation at hand and confronting his listeners with a decision that they each must make.
According to Christ’s parable, every individual’s belief or unbelief will come down to one simple factor: Are you actually listening? Notice in our passage that Jesus emphasizes derivatives of the word “listen” or “hear” no less than seven times. Throughout Scripture, these words carry much more weight than our English usage of the terms. To really “hear” what Jesus is saying is not merely to intellectually acknowledge what you have heard, but to carefully consider with a receptive heart, being willing to assimilate it into your very life. It means you’re ready to take action. Notice how the next few verses read (in the NKJV this time):
21 Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. 25 For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:21-25, NKJV)
I like how the New Living Translation further clarifies the last part of that passage:
“Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” (vss. 24-25, NLT)
“Therefore consider carefully how you listen…” is how the NIV puts it. If you’re actually listening to someone, that means you’re not the one doing the talking. It means you’re not running, fighting, striving, resisting, arguing, or trying to get your own word in edgewise. We can’t just halfheartedly hear Jesus’ words with our ears and expect the seeds to stick. Only when we are really listening with open hearts, defenses down, can the words of the Gospel be truly sown in our souls. There, as we allow the Living Word to be planted in the soil of our heart and embedded in the fabric of our being, will the seeds begin to germinate and grow and bring forth a new harvest of fruit in our lives. That’s how we will know what kind of soil we have!
“And with many such parables spoke he the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” (Mark 4:33, AKJV).
…Are you listening?