Mark 4:1-20 — The Parable of the Sower as Kingdom Theology

The Gospel of Mark is rightly characterized as an action-oriented telling of the story of Jesus. So, it is important to pay particular attention when the Gospel slows down to focus on the teaching of Jesus as it does in Mark 4.

Mark offers a kind of synopsis of Jesus’s parabolic teaching. The Gospel stresses that Jesus taught in parables and this is significant to the author. The narrator tells us that Jesus taught in “many parables” (4:2, 33)  though only a few are offered.  More importantly, the narrator articulates the rationale for teaching in parables (4:10-12, 34). And it surprises the reader.

The Greek term for parable, like its Hebrew counterpart, has a wide range of meanings. It can refer to a lengthy story or a pity proverb. The basic idea is that one thing is compared to another. Parables are extended or crisp similes.  While the surface point may seem rather obvious, the referent may not be so obvious. A superficial reading of a parable will miss the point as parables intend to subvert the status quo and undermine the privileged positions of the hearers (and this is particularly true of the parables in the Gospel of Luke as illustrated the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan).

Parables, then, hide as much as they reveal, and this is intentional. Jesus explained the parables to his inner circle, but he did not explain them to the crowds (4:34). Something about parables needed explaining and hearing a parable called for spiritual discernment. Jesus begins and ends the Parable of the Sower with Greek word for “hear” (or listen). Parables are puzzles; they demand careful attention.  Only those whose hearts are attune to the work of God are able to truly “hear.”

So, why does Jesus teach in parables? He uses parables to hide the truth of the kingdom from hearts that oppose God and reveal the kingdom to hearts that seek God. His opponents (3:6, 22) may “hear” but they do not listen (that is, they do not understand). They “see” the simile but they do not “perceive” the mystery of the kingdom of God. Their hard hearts obstruct their reception of the kingdom.

Jesus’s explanation identifies the point of his parables. They reveal the “mystery” (secret) of the kingdom of God. They unveil the kingdom for those who have ears to hear. This is a hermeneutical clue for how to read the parables–they tell a secret about the kingdom. They point us to the mystery of the work of God’s reign in the world, and particularly in the ministry of Jesus. Kingdom parables are revelations of the work of Jesus in relation to the kingdom of God. They are another way in which Jesus heralds his basic message:  “The kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15).

His opponents would not hear that. His disciples want to hear it though they struggle to understand. And the crowd….,well, we shall see as we move through the Gospel.

The crowds are present in huge numbers (4:1-2). They are so large and so crowded Jesus that he taught them from a boat in the lake. We might image the hills of the shoreline glistening with people listening to the parables of Jesus, and probably rather confused by the their hiddenness or perhaps self-assured concerning their “obvious” point.

Mark begins with what readers have called the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus apparently thought this was fairly basic as he wondered how his disciples would understand other parables if they could not understand this one (4:13). Insiders (those who are constantly with him)should be able to see the point, especially the Twelve whom he has chosen to herald the same message. Mark’s Gospel, then, starts with a simple parable but one which his closest associates found difficult to understand.

This is rather puzzling to us since we generally find the Parable of the Sower rather straight-forward. It seems obvious–at least after 2000 yeas of Christian reflection. But perhaps this is something we share with the disciples–we see the surface point, but what does it say about the kingdom? Perhaps we need to hesitate a bit ourselves before we are so self-assured of the meaning of the parable, and this is especially true if the parable has been heard superficially for centuries and it is difficult to develop “ears to hear” because of the tradition that obstructs our view.

The parable is about a sower and a harvest (4:3-8).

In Palestine farmers sowed before they plowed (cf. Jubilees 11:11). Consequently, sown seed will fall on all kinds of ground since the ground will be plowed after it is sown. Plowing will reveal limestone rock that lies inches beneath the soil. The crop won’t take root there. Thorns and weeds will grow back in some places more than others. Sowing, however, is generous. The seed is strewn throughout the plot of ground, and the plowing will root the seed in the ground.

The climax of the parable is the harvest. It is a bountiful, unexpected and wondrous harvest. Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and hundredfold yields are beyond the imagination of first century farmers. Yields of five or six were typical in Italy; Nile-irrigated fields in Egypt typically yielded seven. Yields of four or fivefold, howver,  were typical in Palestine; thirtyfold has only been achieved in modern Israel with good weather and improved technology (cf. Robert K. McIver, New Testament Studies [1994] 606-608, as quoted in Allen Black’s commentary on Mark, p. 89). Might we call that “good news”? Might it be “too good to be true”?

Jesus is describing his own ministry. He has come as a herald of the kingdom of God–preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick and calling people to faith and repentance. He is sowing the seeds of the kingdom of God. And there will be an abundant harvest. The kingdom of God will explode in bounty; the kingdom ministry of Jesus will bear fruit.  The parable is an assurance that though Jesus has experienced opposition (hard hearts, thorns and weeds, etc.) the kingdom of God will take root, grow and yield an unexpected harvest.

Is the harvest eschatological (the end times) or is it present? It appears primarily eschatological (as in Mark 4:29) but that does not exclude proleptic inbreakings in the present. Nevertheless, the assurance here is that though opposition grows and the crowds dissipate, the kingdom of God will bear fruit in the end. Consequently, the disciples should not be discouraged. Their sowing will have its effect; it is not in vain.

But the parable is also about hearers.

When Jesus retells the parable for his disciples, he emphasizes the hearers (4:14-20). There is something in that message that his disciples need to understand. Jesus uses the refrain “when they hear” or those “who hear the word.” The emphasis is not on the sowing but the hearing, but why the shift? Since the interpretation of the parable follows Jesus’ explanation of why he speaks in parables, it appears that the emphasis on “hearing” is a further illumination of the rationale and why some do not “hear” the parables nor understand the mystery of the kingdom embedded in them. Jesus acknowledges the growing opposition to his message and he also acknowledges that the “crowds” themselves exhibit superficial rather than rooted faith.

Some do not hear because Satan takes the word from their hearts. Some hear but the seed cannot take root because of the rocky ground. Some hear but the growth is choked by weeds.

Jesus recognizes that Satan actively opposes his kingdom message and steals the word from the hearts of some. Jesus recognizes that some hearers are uncommitted and therefore cannot endure when opposition mounts and persecution arises. Jesus recognizes that some hearers are subtly turned from the kingdom message because their security rests more in their wealth and comforts than in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ popularity, like the crowds, are fleeting. The kingdom of God is not found in mass miracle movements. The bounty of the kingdom lies elsewhere.

Yet the message of the kingdom is powerful; it is good news. It takes root in the hearts of some hearers and bears unimagined fruit.

The sower sows the seed; Jesus heralds the good news of the kingdom of God.  The soil receives the seed; the power of the kingdom explodes into the lives of people and breaks into the world in wondrous ways.

The Parable of the Sower identifies the power and struggle of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus heralds and people listen; Jesus announces the coming of the kingdom and people respond. Sometimes they oppose Jesus; sometimes they receive him with joy until it threatens their status in the community; sometimes they follow Jesus until it gets uncomfortable or threatens their wealth. But sometimes the kingdom changes lives, and the bounty, wonder and joy of the harvest is more than anyone ever dreamed.

The Twelve will sow the seed of the kingdom in the story of Mark. And we sow the same seed. We encounter the same opposition and hearers. We experience the same disappointments and frustrations that Jesus did. Yet, we also claim the same promise; we–by the promise of God–expect a bountiful harvest. We sow the seed and God will give the increase. We may not see it now but the eschatological harvest will come.

5 Responses to “Mark 4:1-20 — The Parable of the Sower as Kingdom Theology”

  1.   Danny Yencich Says:

    I’m enjoying your Mark posts. They are great companion pieces to my own coursework in a Mark Exegesis class I’m currently taking!

  2.   Thrainn Kristjansson Says:

    Dear John Mark Hicks,
    How shall we protect our God given seed from Satan?
    Why does God permit Satan to steel his seed from believer’s?
    What kind of praying do you recommend?
    Thank you and God bless you!

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      We sow the seed, pray for those who receive it, and nurture its growth. God permits Satan to steal seed just as he permits humans to sin. I don’t know “why” God does this, but I am confident that Satan can only steal the seed if the heart cooperates with Satan rather than with God. If we are seeking God, God’s seed is still within us.

  3.   Val Says:

    “We may not see it now but the eschatological harvest will come.” Wow, ‘eschatological harvest’ NOW THAT IS THE KEY !!

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