God’s Word for You
Mark 4:1-8 The Sower - Part 1
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, March 5, 2022
In this chapter, Jesus preaches four parables to show the way God plants and grows his kingdom. Sometimes hearts are unwilling, sometimes the beginnings are insignificant. But those with faith should share it, and by way of a miracle Jesus also reminds us of the almighty power of the one in whom we put our faith.
The Parable of the Sower
4 Another time Jesus began to teach by the sea. Such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the sea. The whole crowd was on the seashore.
Jesus was at the lapping shore of the Sea of Galilee. As the waves moved endlessly toward him, so did the people of the town. There, perhaps with a foot on the sea and another on the land, he stood as the two surging tides moved closer and ever closer. Here was the Creator, whose voice had said, “Let there be!” The world, filled by his will and his desire, is ever drawn to him. But more important than all the water in the oceans and all the rich and fertile soil of all the fields, the people of the town came surging, searching, looking, yearning; they came to listen to him and to learn whatever it was he had to say.
Jesus stepped into a boat. This was not a mere rowboat or bass boat such as we would use for fishing here on the lakes of the Midwest, but a little sailing ship, big enough for at least one single stepped sail, steered by the sheet of the sail and a tiller in the back, and big enough for six or eight men to cast and haul nets to catch tilapia, sardines, and carp.
Jesus sat down. This was not an act of keeping one’s balance, the sort of thing we would think of as a natural posture in our little boats. For us, to sit in a boat is to wisely avoid tipping the boat over and falling in—but this was a ploion (πλοῖον), a little ship, large enough for a small crew. Jesus could have stood there on the gunwale with one hand dramatically grasping the rigging like a pirate king in a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera. But no, Jesus sat down precisely the way that a Rabbi would sit after reading a text before preaching in the synagogue (Luke 4:20). This was a strange pulpit, but fitting for the size of the crowd and the place of the gathering. With a space larger than any cathedral, the preacher found a fitting place to preach.
2 Then he taught them many things in parables.
We will consider the reason Jesus used parables when we look at verses 9-12, and we won’t attempt to uncover the meaning of this particular parable until Jesus himself explains it, especially since there are several errors and pitfalls to be avoided regarding parables that Jesus will help us to see. But we should try to define what a parable is.
Let’s start with what a parable is not. It is not a fable, like those of Aesop, which are excellent ways of teaching lessons about life to children. A fable has no fact as its foundation, yet teaches virtue, laws, and wisdom, especially about possessions, honor, and peace in the land. Luther said, “How could one prepare a finer book on worldly heathen wisdom, than that ordinary, silly children’s book of Aesop? Indeed, because the children learn it and it is so ordinary, people pay little heed to it; and some who have not yet understood a single fable in it think that they are smarter than four doctors” (LW 13:200). In literary terms, a fable remains in the physical world and never extends into the spiritual.
A parable is not a myth, either. A myth presents a hero or a god as if they are factual individuals, yet is obviously a fiction. Myths bring the pagan gods down to mortal men so that men can learn about their own flaws from the flaws, caprices and sins of the gods. This has nothing at all to do with the true God or his parables. In literary terms, a myth blends the deeper meaning with the outward symbol.
A parable is not a proverb, either, although “parable” and “proverb” are both translations of the same Hebrew word, mashal. A proverb is in many ways a condensed parable, and many have pointed out that most proverbs could easily be fleshed out into parables. A proverb has a certain connection with the moral or final couplet of Aesop’s fables, whereby the lesson of the story is reduced to a single truth. The true mashal of the Old Testament is a “dark saying,” so-called because some or all of its meaning remains obscure and unspoken, such as the sayings of 1 Samuel 10:12 and Ezekiel 18:2. While there are no parables, strictly speaking, in John’s Gospel, there are some “figures of speech” (παροιμία) such as John 10:6 and John 16:25,29 that fall into this category. In a proverb, the comparison may be an accident or only an occasional comparison, and the story is not carried out to aid the explanation.
Finally, there is the allegory. An allegory is distinct from a parable although both forms lay two things side-by-side. In an allegory, the meaning doesn’t need to be brought in from the outside. An allegory is simply an extended metaphor, as when Jesus says, “I am the Vine,” or when Paul compares Hagar and Sarah to the people of the old covenant and the new (Galatians 4:22-31). An allegory transfers the properties of the comparison, one to the other.
In a parable, two things are laid side-by-side. A parable is an act from everyday life that applies to the kingdom of God. In a parable, the everyday image moves or acts separately from the kingdom of God (therefore not a fable); the deeper meaning in the parable is only in the kingdom of God and not in the earthly account (therefore not a myth); there is an action carried out (therefore something more than a proverb); and the meaning is hidden from the listener who does not hear the parable with faith (and therefore not an allegory).
As he taught them, he said, 3 “Listen! There was a sower who went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up right away because it did not have deep soil. 6 When the sun rose, it was scorched, and because it did not have much root, it withered. 7 Some seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, so it did not produce fruit. 8 Still other seed fell on good ground and yielded fruit, sprouting and growing and producing a crop: some thirty, some sixty, and some one hundred times as much as was sown.”
The parable itself is so simple that the hearer in Jesus’ day would have have thought nothing of it at all. It would be as if he had said, “A car drives down the street in March, and sometimes it crunches over snow, or slips a little on the ice, or splashes through a puddle, or goes along just fine over the dry pavement.” Everybody Jesus spoke to knew about the ancient practice of sowing seed, but we need to be taught. Seed was sown, not planted. There were no holes carefully thrust into the soil. Seed was thrown by hand onto a small plot of land that was divided from another plot by a narrow path. The soil was often rocky; children did not earn their allowance in the spring by picking stones from their father’s field. Along came the farmer or his child with a bag of seed, and the hand flung the seed with a practiced wave, wave, wave that covered a certain square of the field.
We will see later that we must not make any application about the seed, because this parable is not about the seed, but about the soil.
The circumstances of the soil vary: The path, the rocks, the thorns, all could contribute to hurting the growth of the good seed. Good soil would produce a good crop. Let this be enough for the moment. We will wait patiently for Jesus to explain further, and by doing so we will learn some truths about every parable, and our understanding will grow.
The sower sows; his reckless love
Scatters abroad the goodly seed,
Intent alone that there may be
The wholesome loaves that people need.
Though some be snatched and some be scorched
And some be choked and matted flat,
The sower sows; his heart cries out,
“Oh, what of that, and what of that?”
“Preach You the Word” by Martin Franzmann (1907-1976), vss. 3-4.
Pastor Timothy Smith