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. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 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. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 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; 12 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.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 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. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 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. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 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. 20 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.”
The parable of the sower is a common parable in the Gospels - recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels. I think it is so familiar that it looses its edge. The meaning is so assumed that it rarely challenges our assumptions. Sometimes a fresh reading can help to challenge this stagnation.
In a close reading of Mark, the parable of the sower works on multiple levels. It speaks to a very real situation for Jesus’ time and place, and Mark’s own audience. It also alludes to the challenges of following Jesus that Mark will return to in later parts of the story.
Parable (4:3-9) and Interpretation (4:13-20)
Jesus tells that parable and then interprets it in private for his disciples - “This allegorical interpretation exposits the sower as the proclamation of the kingdom, while the hostile soil is representative of three concrete obstacles to the acceptance of the call to discipleship (Myers, 174).”
This interpretation is the common ground for most studies of the parable and the call “be the good soil” is often rendered as the conclusion. But Mark does not leave the story here. The narrative of the Gospel will lead the audience into situations that represent each soil type and will narrate the disciple’s encounter. To Mark the soil types are not just a metaphor, they are very real.
Mark has Jesus ground this parable in the metaphor of “the way,” the discipleship metaphor that has been operative since the beginning of the story. The clue to this connection is written in both verse 4 and verse 15, where the word translated as “path” is actually the Greek work Hodos.
When we engage “the way” as modern day disciples, we too will encounter these obstacles. We will return to this parable when we come across each soil type as the disciples encounter them while “on the way” with Jesus.
Agricultural Practices, Politics, and the Hope for Freedom
The parable also has realistic undertones from the time of Jesus and Mark. Myers describes this parable, and the next two in chapter four, as “folktales of rural Palestine.” He writes that these stories “illustrate vividly the struggle to make a living by drying farming the rocky soil of Galilee (Myers, 176).”
Myers cites Joachim Jeremias’ 1972 book The Parables of Jesus to explain:
Hence, in the parable the sower is depicted as striding over the unploughed stubble, and this enables us to understand why he sows ‘on the path’: he sows intentionally on the path which the villagers have trodden over the stubble, since he intends to plough the seed in when he ploughs up the path. He sows intentionally among the thorns standing withered in the fallow because they, too, will be ploughed up. Nor need it surprise us that some grains should fall upon rocky ground; the underlying limestone, thinly covered with soil, barely shows above the surface until the ploughshare jars against it (Jeremias, 11-12).
This paints a vivid picture of what the parable might depict - the real struggle of the farmers in Jesus’ audience. Since he spent a great deal of time in the rural areas in Palestine, Jesus was probably familiar with the lifestyle of his audience. And the hardships.
The yield of the crop would go to feed the farmers’ family, pay the rent and religious tithes, and be saved as seed for the next year’s crop. Upon this heavy burden for one harvest was the fact that “wealthy landlords always extracted enough of the harvest to ensure that the farmer remained indentured to the land, strangling any prospects he might have to achieve even a modicum of economic security (Myers, 176).”
This was a pretty hopeless situation. And it’s to this hopelessness that the parable’s harvest speaks.
With a surplus harvest - the amazing hundred-fold yield from the good soil of the kingdom - the farmer could not only meet his needs, but have some left over. This leftover income could be saved or used to purchase his own land, thus ending the broken cycle of debt. The harvest of the kingdom brings new life!
“‘The kingdom is like this,’ Jesus says Jesus: it envisions the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer’s social world. Such images strongly suggest that Mark is articulating an ideology of the land, and the revolutionary hopes of those who work it (Myers, 177).”
Here we have the parable re-imagined using what we know of agricultural politics of the time. This interpretation speaks to the new life promised in the kingdom of God and the ministry of Jesus.
As with any parable, the parable of the sower is open to interpretation. We will continue to engage parables along the way with Jesus with the hope that they will spark our imaginations as we follow.