A Twist on Tradition. The Parable of the Sower – Mark 4:1-9

3 11 2016

This portion of scripture, Mark 4:1-9 is known as “The Parable of the Sower”. We can find very similar accounts of this parable in the other Synoptic Gospels of the Bible in Matthew chapter 13 and Luke chapter 8. There is more discussion and explanation of this parable past verse 9, but this is the portion set before us as we are following the Illustrated Earth curriculum provided by Adam Walker Cleaveland of Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Pastor Sandy chose to use this curriculum as a guide as our children are participating in the entire worship service this summer.

This isn’t my first time preparing a sermon for the entire congregation, however I have gained respect for Sandy’s and other guest preacher’s preparation as it is a challenge to stick within the parameters set by the curriculum rather than veer in a whole other direction.

Listen to the Word of God –

Jesus was beside the lake when he began to teach. So many people surrounded him that he climbed into a boat there on the lake. He sat in the boat while the crowd stayed on the shore. He spoke to them in parables. He said, “Listen to this!”. A farmer went out to scatter seed. 

Some seed fell on the path; and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. Those sprouted immediately. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants; they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among the thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked the seeds, and they produced nothing, either. Other seed fell into good soil and bore fruit. As it grew, the seed produced a lot of fruit – each new place it grew, it produced more than the last!”Jesus said, “Are you listening? Pay attention!”

My first question in studying this scripture was “What is a parable?”.

When it comes to defining parables I poured through a few Bible dictionaries and commentaries and yet the most simple but concise definition I came across is from a book written by the professors of the seminary where I am currently studying. I promise I did not look for a place to plug my studies or Seattle Pacific Seminary at Seattle Pacific University. I can’t help but share an excellent resource with all of you developed by a variety of well-studied and currently engaged theologians and biblical scholars residing right here in Seattle. This group of professors wanted a book that would be helpful to their Theology undergrad student, a primer for their seminary graduate students, and could be used by the lay persons in their own churches and the churches they are asked to teach. I can’t recommend “A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible” enough. If you’re interested, I can help you acquire a hard copy or you can search for a digital version for your Kindle or other e-reader.

OK enough commercial – getting back to the definition of a parable by Dr. Laura Holmes (New Testament Studies professor at SPU):

A statement that compares something – often from nature – to the kingdom of God in order to illustrate what the kingdom is about or to point to who God is.” 

She continues stating:

“Parables are rarely interpreted in a straightforward manner; in fact the point of a parable is to make its hearers think hard about God, Jesus, and discipleship. We are in danger of totally missing the point if we assume that parables are easy to “get”.” (Compact Bible, p 116)

Why did Jesus use Parables?

Jesus used parables as did many rabbinical or Jewish teachers of his time – it wasn’t a new idea and there are a few earlier parables recorded in the Old Testament. No matter how many others use them, Jesus holds the record for the number of parables used in his ministry as it is highly characteristic of his teaching style.

Marcus Borg points out parables are stories where something happens and yet are not factual and are made-up stories. Borg however is quick to point out the fact that parables are made up does not at all discount the important of the point of the stories. He says parables are “meaningful and meaning-filled, truthful and truth-filled. Their truth does not depend on their factuality; rather they are about meaning. They are invitations to see something you might not otherwise see.” Jesus had a most difficult task of explaining to those in his presence his purpose and the fact that he indeed is God and he indeed came to fulfill the prophecy of a messiah come to usher in the Kingdom of God. It was his job to create a visual and an experience to help people understand the importance of who he was, who God was, and who we are as people of God.

Another factor in the importance of Jesus’ parables is remembering that his Aramaic tradition was an oral tradition. They did not yet write down their history and everything was passed on and explained through verbal storytelling. Parables were a colorful and effective means of storytelling to help others remember. Parables made it easy to pass on the word to others.

Bay of Parables

I came across a fun tidbit of information about the likely location of Jesus’ parable of the Sower. It is a place known as the Bay of Parables or Sower’s Cove.

bay-of-parables

  • The Parable of the Sower was likely an acoustics aided parable on the Sea of Galilee.
  • About 1km northeast of Tabgha is a small bay with exceptional acoustic qualities. Here it is believed Jesus taught the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) from a boat moored in the bay.
  • The semicircular bay, at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, is one of the most attractive places along the shoreline. It is called Sower’s Cove or the Bay of the Parables.
  • The slope of the hill forms a natural amphitheater, rather like a Roman theatre. Acoustical research has demonstrated that as many as 7000 people could hear a person speaking from a boat in the bay.
  • Pilgrims who test the acoustics, usually by reading the Gospel account, are amazed at how far the voice carries.
  • This location was also an appropriate setting for the story of the sower and his seeds. There is fertile black earth, rocky ground and plenty of thorns and thistles.

Parables and the Gospel of Mark

Biblical scholars have a variety of definitions and purposes for the author of the Gospel of Mark to include the Parable of the Sower, but most agree on three many purposes for the entirety of the book of Mark. These three main purposes are Christology, the Kingdom of God, and Discipleship.

Reading further in Mark chapter 4 we will see Jesus explain this parable further – the seed is the word, the ground – or soil – is the recipient of the word – when the birds snatch up the seed, this is Satan snatching away understanding before it can begin to take root; the rocky soil doesn’t allow for depth in growth – this is a joyful recipient but the joy is short lived when they are tested with trials and temptations, as there is no soil for the plant to take root; the thorny ground is one who receives the word but their potential growth is choked by the longing for wealth, greed, and selfish motives; the good soil is the recipient who hears the word, takes it in, and grows and produces good things from doing so. This is a very brief synopsis and leaves the disciples and ourselves wondering which are we, and how might we be good soil, and do we even want to be good soil, is it worth it? It is apparent that this parable already covers the gospel writer’s main topics – Christology (the kingship and authority of Jesus), the Kingdom of God (who is and is not in it), and Discipleship (what it looks like to be a follower of Christ).

Some of you who grew up in a Christian household or congregation might have had a similar experience with this parable as a child. I remember having this parable taught and explained to me in a manner that left me anxious wondering if my heart or my life was good soil and worried about whether or not I was producing good fruit for God. Was I studying what I understood to be God’s Word – the Bible – deeply enough to make sure my faith was strongly rooted and anchored in Jesus. I think for some maybe the anxiety is necessary to get a start in faith, and some need a reminder to stay rooted in Christ. But as I read this scripture now, having studied not only the Bible, but some history and theology and reading further work from Laura Homes, Marcus Borg, and John Edwards on this passage – there is something intriguing about a possible difference in what I was taught and what perhaps the author of the book of Mark intended to communicate to the recipients of the Gospel. I have been struggling with how to communicate this idea to you all wanting to have it all wrapped up in a nice neat package. I admit I do not have that nice neat package but several thoughts and ideas to share that maybe we can continue to ponder together. After all, this is a parable and it isn’t supposed to be easy for me to “get”, right?

You see, Mark was written after Jesus walked and lived on the earth – approximately 70 CE for a second generation of Christians. These Christians were not only Jewish but also Gentile (meaning, not Jewish) they probably already knew about the life of Jesus – his teachings, his miracles, his call to discipleship. They knew that he was the Messiah – God come in the flesh to save them from oppression. They knew that Jesus died on the cross, they knew that Jesus resurrected from the grave and came back to life, they knew that he ascended into Heaven. They knew the stories, but they didn’t experience this first hand in real-life. They were believers because they were told the story, believed the story, and accepted the call to live a life worshiping God and following in the footsteps of Jesus – just the same and you and I.

The book of Mark was one of the earliest written narratives of Jesus’ life. Most Christians did not read and write, only a few select people in society were trained to do this so they took this short narrative explaining the purpose of the life of Jesus to groups of people and read it out loud in a few short hours – like a reader’s theater and the first people groups it was read to were Christians who either were living just at the start of the Jewish/Roman war or just at the end. They were persecuted for their beliefs and it was risky to participate in Jesus’ call to care for the poor, the hungry, the beat-down. This was not the call of the Roman or Jewish leaders, it was a life-threatening move to follow Jesus. In their fear, they were becoming discouraged and hopeless wondering if it was worth it to keep following Jesus. The Gospel of Mark is a book of encouragement reminding them that actually, it is worth it, because they aren’t alone in doing this work – God has already done the work.

Realizing that these people already accepted the word and realizing they were paralyzed with fear causes me to wonder what if this parable of the sower is not a mandate to worry about whether or not they have control over the state of their hearts and souls? What if it is a reminder that in the midst of chaos and uncertain times God is in control. What if it is not about worrying if Christians will do the work, but it is about reassuring Christians God has already sown the seeds and done the work and will continue to do so? What if this parable is reminding future generations of Christians that God the sower already sent Jesus the seed into the world to create a ripple effect of love, peace, and justice that continues to grow despite the difficulties.

Future generations of Christians do not need to worry about whether or not their risks to love others will produce good fruit or benefit the future because we know when it is an act rooted in following Christ it most definitely will grow love in or bring healing to others. It may not immediately yield a huge amount of results but it will gradually grow greater – one sown seed at a time. The Christians who first heard the parable of the sower from the Gospel of Mark needed to be reminded that Christ had already conquered death and continues to live and they need not be afraid to take the risk of worshiping God and following Jesus because the hard part was already done and the benefits far outweighed the risks.

Perhaps we as Christians today need to hear this encouragement as well – you know the stories, you know the call – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and Love your neighbor as yourself”. We live in a different time and our risks to our lives may not cause physical death, but we fear loss of pride, friends, family, work, and self-identity. Some of us may still need to hear this parable as if they were with the crowd and the disciples hearing it for the first time and learning how to listen to and what it means to follow Christ.

Some of us may need to hear it as a 2nd Generation Christian hearing the Gospel of Mark – What if you accept that you already are good soil instead of wondering what kind of soil you are? What if you continue to let Jesus take root in your life and follow him, take the risk rather than being paralyzed in fear – take the risk of loving others and working towards justice, working towards whole and right relationships, and allowing God’s love and goodness take root and grow abundantly in your lives and throughout the world.

When you listen to the words of Jesus what do you hear him calling you to in your faith and life? What might God want to grow through you?

Wise Jesus, Thank you for seeds that grow and for the fruit they bring. We want the goodness of our lives to grow too – teach us how to nurture it. Amen.

Sources:

Wall, Robert W., and David R. Nienhuis. A Compact Guide to the Whole Bible: Learning to Read Scripture’s Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.
Borg, Marcus J. Conversations with Scripture: the Gospel of Mark. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 2009.
Sweat, Laura C. Theological Role of Paradox in the Gospel of Mark. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
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One response

3 11 2016
heathercim

Sorry – we’ll miss church again this Sunday. Benjamin has his game at 10:15 this Sunday and again next Sunday.

Liked by 1 person

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