Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Mark 4:1–20

Mark 4:1–20 (ESV): The Parable of the Sower, and The Purpose of Parables


In this passage Jesus tells a large crowd the parable of the sower (verses 1–9 (ESV)), finishing appropriately enough with the sentence, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Later on, when he is alone with the twelve Apostles and some others, they ask him to explain the parable to them. His answer is fascinating:

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
  and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”

(verses 11–13 (ESV))
He then goes on to explain the entire parable to them.

The SowerOne who is sowing—or spreading—the Word
The PathRepresents people who hear the Word, but before it can take root it is snatched away by Satan
Rocky GroundRepresents people who hear the Word and joyfully recieve it, only to fall away when “tribulation or persecution” come (verse 17 (ESV)) because they have no “root”
Thorny Ground (sown among thorns)Represents people who hear the Word but it bears no fruit in them because it is choked out by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (verse 19 (ESV))
Good SoilRepresents those who hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit


Why did Jesus speak in parables so often? Is it because we find stories easier to remember than simple facts? Is it because He wanted us to remember the lessons He gave in the parables, and doing so in stories was a good way for our memories to work? That may indeed be part of the answer, but it’s not what He told His followers in this passage. He told them that He spoke in parables, “so that they may … see but not perceive, and … hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” So… why did Jesus use parables? Quite the opposite of what I said above, He is saying here that He used parables so that the crowds listening to him would not perceive, and not understand. He wasn’t attempting to make things more clear, He was attempting to make things less clear! At least, that was the case for the majority; for His disciples He approached things differently and explained the parables, because to them had been given “the secret of the kingdom of God” (verse 11 (ESV)).

This isn’t how we think. We’d expect Jesus to be as clear as possible to His listeners, explaining things fully and in intricate detail, so that as many as possible would understand and come to Him for forgiveness. But that’s not His approach. He only does that with His disciples—and that’s the key. Jesus already knows who are His and who are not; He can specifically explain things properly to His disciples and not do so with others because He knows which are which. Whether His disciples understand or not—and we see very often in the Gospels that they did not—Jesus knew who was who. He knew which seed had been planted in good soil, even if it wasn’t yet bearing fruit.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this story: Jesus speaks about planting metaphorical seed, which grows (or should grow) to produce metaphorical fruit. But what is that fruit? I think a lot of Christians take this to mean further Christians—that is, when I come to believe my fruit is that I spread the Word to others who will become Christians, and their fruit is that they will in turn spread it to still others, who will believe, and so on. I think we feel that way because Jesus ends the metaphor by talking about producing quantities of fruit; thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. It makes us think that those fruit are additional converts—I become a Christian, and I spread the word, and thirty or sixty or a hundred others become Christians too. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here at all. The seed is the Word of God—the Gospel—whereas the fruit is belief. Or, if you will, the fruit is the Holy Spirit. Or, if you will, the fruit is Godly living.

You may very well spread the Word to others. In fact you should. They may very well come to Christ, as we hope they will… but they may not. There have been well known Christian missionaries who spent their lives in the mission fields with only a few converts, far short of the thirty- or sixty- or hundredfold yield that Jesus talks about here. And I’d dare say that there are those who have come to Christ through preaching from false preachers and charlatans. Spreading the Word is only one aspect of the fruit which is produced. What are some other aspects? Well, the list given in Galatians 5:22 (ESV) is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.” That’s what is produced when the seed takes root in “good soil.” Don’t be confused by Jesus talking about a large yield; that just means that the Christian should be very loving, should be full of joy, should be full of peace, should be very patient, should be very kind, should be very good, should be entirely faithful, should be very gentle, and should have the utmost self control.

In that light, do you think you’re producing thirtyfold? Sixty? A hundred? Sometimes it feels like I’m lucky if I’m bearing any fruit at all…

If you want to push this metaphor to the limit, think of it this way:
  • The seed, as mentioned, is the Word of God
  • What does the seed produce? A plant. This is the new you that came into being when you become a Christian—the spiritual person that is born when you are born again.
  • A plant produces more than one piece of fruit in its lifetime. (Or it should.) It produces fruit regularly, every season, as the Christian should be constantly producing fruit.
    • Don’t push the metaphor too far and think that there are specific “seasons” in which to produce fruit—this plant should be producing fruit at all times.
  • The fruit that is produced nourishes others, as our lives should nourish and help others when we let the Holy Spirit do His work.
  • One thing that comes out of fruit is additional seeds, which can be planted to produce additional plants. But those seeds have the same DNA as the original seeds—when we give the Gospel, we don’t invent a new one, we give the same Gospel that we received.
    • Sometimes that happens purely organically. A piece of fruit falls from a tree, ends up at a particular spot, and over time the seeds from that fruit just take root and start to grow. Do you know anyone who’s become a Christian simply through the Christian example of believers they knew?
    • Fruit doesn’t always grow on its own this way, however. In many—most?—instances someone has to purposely take the seeds from a piece of fruit and plant them, and water them, and fertilize them. I think this is how most Christians become believers: Someone makes a point of explaining the Gospel to them, and tries to make things clear (because, unlike Jesus, we don’t know who is going to believe and who isn’t—so we always aim high, and hope that our listeners will), and does their best to nurture the growing of that seed, hoping against hope that it has taken root in good soil.

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