Please read Mark 4:1-34
Imagine you have brought home a rather tricky piece of self-assembly furniture. You dig out the instructions and start leafing through. First you find the diagrams – yes, you think, I can see roughly what’s going on but – hang on, what on earth is that telling me? I’d better find the text that goes with it – where are the words? Hmm, German, French – I can’t really understand that – Danish, Finnish, Lithuanian – this is getting worse – Arabic – can’t even read the script – where’s the English? There’s no English. Suddenly you realise that you can’t follow these instructions at all. You thought the instructions would make it easy, but in fact it’s as if someone is deliberately making it as difficult as possible to understand. You now have a choice. You can try with just the pictures, but they don’t look as if they’ll get you very far; you could just give it up as a bad job; or you could go back and ask for advice, find someone who will actually give you some instructions, explain these mysterious pictures!
When Jesus taught the crowds in parables, he didn’t make it easy. What he gave the people were pictures, but without an explanation. The pictures were intriguing, but they were hard to understand. He put his listeners in the situation where they had to decide what to do with the pictures. They could do nothing, or they could come back and ask what it all meant. But of course, when Jesus spoke, there was more at stake than a TV cabinet or a folding table. These picture stories, these parables, are about whether we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom, or not. They are about joining up with Jesus, belonging to God; or being left outside in the cold. That makes it essential that we understand the instruction book, that we listen very carefully to the story behind the pictures. Or, to put it the way Jesus himself puts it here, that we have ears that can hear.
Jesus has once again left the town; and he is back in one of his favourite haunts – the shore of Lake Galilee (v.1). Once again the huge crowds have gathered. Previously (3:9) we saw that he asked his team to get a boat ready for him to speak from, because the crush was so intense. This time he actually gets into it: they anchor the boat a few yards out and from that vantage point Jesus can address the crowd in peace. It’s as if that tells us, This is the big one. This message is so crucial that it has to be heard properly. The throng edge right down to the water side and Jesus begins to teach them using parables (v.2). ‘Parable’ is a very general word. It can mean anything where some sort of comparison is made (from the Greek para, meaning ‘beside’); often a word picture is drawn and a particular point is made. Some parables contain more detail, others less. In general, we should not expect that everything in a parable has to ‘mean’ something. Most parables intend to make one, single point and they usually contain some incidental details simply to fill in the picture
When the Bible gives us images of what people are like, the commonest picture is of plants. People are plants. Sometimes it is trees, sometimes it is grass and sometimes, as in several of the stories in Mark 4, it’s a crop in a field. A plant doesn’t do much. It’s not in control of its own destiny or of anything else. We like to think that we make our own way through life, shaping our world, making our own decisions. A plant can do none of those things, yet the Bible repeatedly compares us to plants! In these parables, not only are we like plants, we are plants waiting to be harvested. There is an end in view: we are planted here for a purpose; and the world does not meander on for ever, it is heading for a conclusion.
Of all the parables of Jesus, this parable of the sower (vv.3-9, with the explanation that follows) is the best known. Here is a farmer; it’s the time of year for sowing, and out he goes into his field, scattering the seed by hand of course; and we’ll see where it lands. It seems that this farmer is either particularly inaccurate with his aim, or else extremely optimistic. Some of the seeds land on the path (v.4); and that’s no good, nothing can grow there and all he does is feed the birds. Some of them land where the soil is very thin (vv.5-6), there is rock just under the surface and as soon as the hot Mediterranean sun gets to work the little shoots which spring up from these seeds wilt, then wither, then die. Some of them land on a patch that looks more promising, until you see that there are already suspicious little spiky growths emerging from the earth. As soon as the crop gets going, these thorns are going to squeeze them out (v.7). Even if they survive, they won’t produce anything useful.
Only in one area of the field is there any chance of success. There is some good ground, some of the seed falls there, and that produces a crop (v.8). It’s a bumper crop – up to a hundred times what was sown, enough to make up for all the rest. Jesus starts and finishes his story with a command that adds a note of urgency. v.3: ‘Listen!’; and in v.9. This is a parable. Clearly, the point is not to analyse the sowing techniques of Galilean farmers, however indiscriminate they may be. This is not a lecture at an agricultural college! But what is this all about? You may have read and heard this story hundreds of times – but would you have understood what this picture is really about, if someone hadn’t told you? I don’t think I would. And although some of the same ideas are hinted at in the Old Testament, the plain fact is that no-one who was there seems to have got the point. Jesus isn’t giving much away. It seems that most of the crowd are content to think: That was a nice story: I don’t know what it meant, but that reminds me, I must go and see how my runner beans are doing! But look at v.10. At some later point, when they can get him on his own, Jesus’ disciples and a group of others gather round and ask for an explanation. He says to them, gently I think, Come on, if you don’t get this one, how are you going to get any of the others? (v.13). This is the key to all the parables, because this one is not explaining my message, it’s actually about how you hear the message.
Here it goes. The seed that is sown represents the ‘word’ – the message of Jesus (v.14). It gets sown all over the place, into the lives of all kinds of people. There are people like the path: the message never gets into them at all. Satan, the evil one, makes sure it gets removed before there is any response (v.15). There are people like the thin, rocky soil. You see a response for a while, like a little seedling growing up, but as soon as the going gets tough it’s burnt off (vv.16-17). Then there are others who hear about Jesus and think, This is great! But there’s so much else they want in life: so much to buy, so much to worry about, just like a mass of weeds growing up from the ground and squeezing the life out of them (vv.18-19). But then there are people who hear about Jesus, take the message into their hearts and start to live the life that Jesus gives them (v.20). They do far more than barely surviving; they grow up and flourish and then they have the chance to sow more seeds themselves and spread the word to new places.
So, Jesus says, this is what my parable means. There is the same message, and right now I’m the one spreading it; and there are these four different responses. This is why the parable of the sower comes at this point, as a header, because it explains how the message itself will be received. It explains why people respond to Jesus in so many different ways. We’ve just come from the story of the religious leaders, who hear the message and say Jesus is possessed by the devil (3:22-30); and his family who think he is mad (3:20-21,31-35). But exactly the same message has persuaded and brought together this core group of twelve, plus some others, to be his disciples. Jesus tells them: this is how it will be. Not everyone will accept me. Some it will bounce off; some will seem to respond well but then die away and you’ll never see them again; and then there will be the others, who will believe in me, who do well and ultimately reproduce the message in others too. That is how it will always be.
But why does Jesus use parables at all? Why doesn’t he just say, here, for instance: Look, when I preach, people will react in these four different ways? Why doesn’t he say what he means? Clearly, in spite of what we may have thought, the parable is not to make the message easy to understand. Our instinct, supported perhaps by what we were taught at Sunday School, is to think that the parables are intended as helpful illustrations, just as a preacher today will use illustrations to get his point across. The disciples come to our assistance here because they ask Jesus specifically what the parables are all about (vv.10-12). Some theologians, such as C.H. Dodd, argued that it’s impossible Jesus said this. Either this is Mark’s own interpretation, in conflict with Jesus’ intention, or else someone like Paul must have inserted it later on. Some have said that Jesus could not possibly have intended the parables to be deliberately obscure. One of the most influential books on the subject, Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus, claims that although Jesus did say this, he was not describing the purpose of the parables: Mark has got mixed up. All these people, in fact, support the traditional Sunday School view that Jesus told parables to make things clearer. The fact is, as v.13 proves, that not even the disciples understood the parable of the sower, so if Jesus intended it as a helpful illustration we would have to conclude that he wasn’t very good at it. V.12 is a quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10. The prophet has just had an overwhelming vision of the Lord in the Temple and he is given his commission to bring God’s Word to the people. But the shock in that passage, and the shock here in Mark, is that however faithful the prophet, however clear his message, the people are simply never going to respond. That has an application for anyone who is involved in gospel ministry. You can’t guarantee a response just by having the message right, or by being superbly gifted, or by working yourself to death: none of that creates an authentic response to the gospel.
But back to the parables – we see from these verses that many people will not respond because that is God’s purpose. The parables are told, not to make it easier to understand, but actually to make it harder. The parables draw a line between those who will hear and understand and those who never will. We may not like that interpretation, but it is what Scripture says. It’s what Jesus says. How do we respond to it? On one level, we can say that people who heard the parables and didn’t understand them would still be able to come and ask for more – which, in fact, is what the disciples do here (notice in v.10 that it is not only the Twelve who pursue the meaning). In that case, the parables will serve the purpose of arousing people’s interest and they will be drawn in. But on the other level – and this is the main emphasis here – this is about God’s sovereignty. Over the whole question of who responds and who does not, who accepts and who refuses, stands God’s majestic decision: he calls some people to follow him and others he does not call.
The disciples, Jesus says, are on the inside. The ‘mystery’ (NIV ‘secret’, v.11) of the Kingdom has been made clear to them. In Scripture, a mystery is not something you solve for yourself; it’s a secret that God has to reveal to you. But those on the outside will never get it. The parables create an opportunity to come and find out more; but for most people, they are a barrier. They are deliberately obscure, like an instruction book that is written in a foreign language. So as we find so often in Scripture, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are placed side by side. God’s choice takes nothing away from our responsibility. Jesus tells the parable to everyone. The opportunity is there for anyone to come and ask him for more. In fact this is what vv.24-25 are about. You are responsible for what you get; but at the same time it is God who decides what you will receive. In our limited human minds we will always find it hard to hold these two together – they are like parallel lines that never seem to meet. But they are both true.
Now what does this story have to say to us today? First, the parable explains why so many people rejected Jesus’ message then and still do today. As the radio comic of bygone years
In the remainder of this section, vv.26-34, Jesus tells two more parables on the ‘people are plants’ theme (vv.26-32); and then Mark neatly closes the section on the parables by telling us that Jesus told many others. Mark has given only a small selection. The translation ‘understand’ (v.33, NIV) is perhaps a bit misleading – the next sentence implies that the crowds still don’t really understand what Jesus is saying. It’s probably better to say that he tells them as much as they can cope with (literally ‘as they were able to hear’): he continues to speak in parables, holding out the opportunity for people to come and find out more, until they will listen no longer. The parables continue to divide the people Jesus is calling to himself from those whose minds are closed to his message. So he tells these parables about God’s Kingdom and then he gives the full explanation to the disciples, his own inner group.
At this point we might wonder, If only the disciples got the explanation, how can we know the true meaning of the parables except in the rare cases where the explanation is actually recorded? How can you be sure, you might ask me, that you aren’t just reading in whatever you like into the story Jesus told? It’s a good question. The answer is that from where we stand now, we can see the big picture much more clearly than those crowds by Lake Galilee. We have the full record of Jesus’ life and death; we have the whole New Testament to give us the big picture of what Jesus came to do; and the themes we see in these parables are part of the story that runs through the whole Bible. These little stories are not the only place where the message is given. So we understand these stories just as we read any little bit of the Bible – in the light of the whole book. That’s why it is so important to read the whole Bible and not just cherry-pick our favourite passages!
Now let’s look at these final parables. Notice one difference from the parable of the sower. Whereas that first parable was about the message of the Kingdom and how it is received, Jesus opens each of these parables by saying explicitly that this is what God’s Kingdom is like. First there is the parable of the growing seed (vv.26-29). This parable, instead of describing different responses to the seed, zeroes in on the crop growing in the good ground and focuses on what goes on there. Once again, someone is out sowing seed and the seed begins to grow (vv.26-27). In a parable we need not worry about every minor detail. The mention of night and day, sleeping and getting up is just for local colour. The point is that time is passing. All through that time, this mysterious process of growth is going on. Of course, there are actions the farmer can take that help the seed to grow. He can water it, he can make sure it is fed with all the nutrients it needs to grow successfully, but he can’t make it grow. The basic miracle of growth is just that – it’s a miracle. A living seed has all that potential within it – it grows ‘all by itself’ (v.28), to the point of producing a crop – the full head of grain. Finally it is ready for harvest (v.29). All this sowing and planting and rooting and growing has been for a purpose; because the harvest is coming.
What is the point of this parable? Actually Jesus has already pointed to that when he explained the parable of the sower. In v.14 we read ‘the farmer sows the word’. This parable is simply about that word – the message of Jesus – taking root and growing in someone’s heart. As someone like you or I receives the message, a new life begins and grows. There is a new start, a new birth, when someone knows Jesus. Then they grow. The growth happens mysteriously; you can’t control it. If you have watched a new Christian grow and develop, you recognise the picture. We can encourage it. We can surround a young Christian with all the help and support we can, just as a gardener will feed and water a growing plant, perhaps support it with a stick; but we can’t make the growth happen. That’s a miracle; and miracles are God’s department. Then, maybe long afterwards, comes the harvest. Grain plants are there for a reason. They are in a farmer’s field; and the farmer is coming back. The parable is about us; and the Lord, like the farmer, is coming back. The only question is, what will he find when he does?
Let’s move on to the second of these parables about the Kingdom – the mustard seed (vv.30-32). Jesus muses to himself: How can I show these people what my Father’s Kingdom is really like? (v.30). He chooses a somewhat different picture this time; instead of a field of grain where each plant stands for a single individual, in this case the one mustard plant stands for the whole Kingdom. A single tiny seed is sown in the ground (v.31). The point here is not about scientific accuracy, so don’t let’s trip over it: seeds do exist which are smaller than mustard seed, but Jewish tradition regarded the mustard seed as proverbially tiny. But see what happens as it grows! In this area, mustard plants can grow up to ten feet high, ‘the largest of all garden plants’ as Jesus says, big enough for birds to perch and hide away in and get out of the heat of the sun (v.32).
It’s a very short, simple parable. The basic point is the contrast between the tiny seed and the fully-grown shrub. Each of those birds that comes to perch in the branches weighs thousands of times more than the original seed. This Kingdom, whatever else it may be, is something that starts out tiny and ends up enormous; but it all takes time. That is the aspect that Jesus’ original hearers would not have appreciated. The Jews of Israel in Jesus’ time had very clear ideas about the Kingdom of God, but their ideas were quite different. If they had expected their Messiah to tell parables at all (which is unlikely), they would have expected him to compare the Kingdom to a hurricane which sweeps in suddenly and flattens everything in its path; or else to an invading army that sweeps through the land in no time at all, destroying all resistance and ending with the King enthroned. That is what they expected God to do! Holy war would be unleashed, the Day of the Lord would come at once and God’s enemies would immediately be subjugated. The story would end with God’s chosen King reigning over the world from Jerusalem and the Jews in their proper place as top nation. So they certainly weren’t at home with this picture of slow, almost invisible growth. The idea that when God’s Kingdom arrived it would grow within an evil world, that the harvest would be long delayed, that God’s people would still need a lot of patience – that was totally unexpected. This, I am convinced, is why Jesus spends so much time teaching them through the parables about the Kingdom, using these images of peaceful, quiet, steady growth. As all these parables show, the Kingdom does end up in triumph, in a successful harvest; but it doesn’t all happen in a matter of minutes.
The beginning of the Kingdom was indeed like a single seed, tiny, apparently insignificant. It begins with Jesus, appearing by Lake Galilee, preaching to the crowds and beginning to gather around him a nucleus of followers. It continues as he sets his face to go up to the capital in Jerusalem, where he faces his death. At that point it seems even to his followers that this tiny plant, this new Kingdom has been finished off before it has even begun. But a couple of days later Jesus has risen from death. A few weeks after that he returns to his Father God’s side in heaven, but the plant continues to grow. Now at last his followers realise that Jesus’ death is actually the key to it all. Only after Jesus himself has left the earthly scene, and the Holy Spirit has been given, does the Kingdom really start to grow. Within days it is sending out shoots in all directions. In a few years it has branched out beyond Israel into the whole region and then far beyond. It’s the Kingdom that goes on growing, even today.
Jesus spoke of the birds coming to perch in the branches. It’s possible that they are no more than one of those incidental details, included simply to illustrate the size of the mustard bush. But I think there’s more to it than that. This parable alludes to Daniel 4, where the great king Nebuchadnezzar is compared to a huge tree that provides shelter for all the birds of the air (Daniel 4:20-22). In that story the birds seem to represent the nations that were incorporated into Nebuchadnezzar’s empire. So here in the parable of Jesus, it’s likely that these birds represent people from all the nations of the earth who will be drawn into the Kingdom of God.
Even today, God is growing his Kingdom, Jesus is growing his Church, from among every nation on earth. You can go anywhere in the world and meet people who are part of this Kingdom, people who love and follow the Lord Jesus. But the time for growth is limited, because the harvest is coming (v.29). Have you seen what a wheat field looks like when the harvesters have finished with it? There is nothing left. Everything living has gone. The world we know is coming to an end. Sooner or later, we don’t know: but it will happen. The Bible often uses the picture of a harvest to make this point. It’s there in the Old Testament – see Joel 3:12-13, for example. The Bible looks ahead to the day when God will bring an end, and the peoples of the earth will be gathered up as when a farmer takes in the harvest. This parable gives a positive picture: a field of ripe grain, all safely gathered in. It’s a positive picture because it’s a picture of the Kingdom, of people who are rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ. But the Bible gives us other pictures too; and they don’t make such cheerful reading. For people who are outside Christ, people who don’t know him, there is a harvest too, but a harvest of judgement and condemnation. Revelation 14:14-20 gives a vision of a double harvest. There’s the happy picture of the grain in the field being gathered in, God’s people being brought home at last to him. But coupled with that is the haunting picture of people being gathered in for judgement, thrown into the winepress of God’s wrath, crushed by God’s anger against the evil things they have done. The harvest is coming; and the only way to be ready is to be in Christ, to be part of his great, worldwide Kingdom that is growing to fill the whole earth.