The Parable of the Sower
1. And again He began to teach by the sea, and a crowd of many was gathered to Him, so that He stepped into a ship to sit in the sea; and all the crowd was near the sea on the land.
2. And He taught them many things in parables, and said to them in His teaching,
3. Hear: Behold, a sower went out to sow.
4. And it came to pass, as he sowed, it indeed fell along the way, and the birds of the sky came and devoured it.
5. And other fell on a rocky [place], where it had not much earth, and straightway it sprang up, on account of not having depth of earth;
6. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and because of not having root, it withered away.
7. And other fell into thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and yielded not fruit.
8. And other fell into good earth, and gave fruit, coming up and growing, and brought [forth] by thirty, and by sixty, and by a hundred.
9. And He said to them, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10. And when He was alone, they that were about Him with the twelve asked Him the parable.
11. And He said to them, “To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those that are outside, all things are done in parables;
12. That looking they may look, and not see; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest they should be converted and [their] sins should be forgiven them.”
13. And He says to them, “Do you not know this parable? And how will you know all parables?
14. The Sower sows the Word.
15. And these are they along the way, where the Word is sown; and when they have heard, straightway Satan comes and takes away the Word that was sown in their hearts.
16. And these are they likewise that are sown on rocky [places], who, when they have heard the Word, straightway receive it with joy,
17. And do not have root in themselves, but are temporary; afterwards when affliction or persecution arises because of the Word, straightway they are caused to stumble.
18. And these are they that are sown among thorns, such as hear the Word,
19. And the anxieties of this age, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things going in, choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful.
20. And these are they which are sown on good earth, such as hear the Word and receive [it], and bear fruit, some thirty, and some sixty, and some a hundred.”
We come now to the parable of the sower, which begins with the words, “And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea” (Mark 4:1). The opening image of this episode continues the theme of the preceding series. The Lord can only plant His seeds of truth in a good heart, a heart that is willing to receive His words, and do His will.
The picture of Jesus and those who receive His words is a deeply symbolic one. Jesus sitting in a boat on the sea pictures the preaching of divine truth. Ideally, the picture of the people standing “on the land facing the sea” should picture goodness of heart looking to the Lord for divine truth. This is the ideal state of reception, one in which an individual yearns for the truth, not just to satisfy the intellect, but, more importantly, to bring it into one’s life. 1
In reality, however, people are in differing states of reception. Although they may seek to hear Jesus’ words, they do so for different reasons. These differing states of receptivity are now described in the parable of the sower. The parable begins with a sower going out to plant seed. Along the way he scatters seed “by the wayside,” “on stony ground,” “among thorns,” and, finally, “in good ground.” This parable describes different states of reception in human beings. For some people, Jesus’ words will be wasted (seeds that fall by the wayside). In others, His words will bring about an initial excitement, but the early enthusiasm will not be sustained (seeds that fall on stony ground). And then there will be people who would like to do the Lord’s will but get sidetracked by worldly concerns (seeds that fall among thorns). Finally, there will be some people who hear the Lord’s words and do His will (Mark 4:2-9).
Later, when Jesus is alone with His disciples and the others have been close to Him, they ask Him to talk about the parable. “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God,” says Jesus. But to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (Mark 4:11). Here again, as in the preceding episode, we notice the distinction between those who are “inside” (whoever does the will of God) and those who are “outside” (those who are less inclined to do the Lord’s will). It is to these “insiders” that Jesus now opens the meaning of the parable. In fact, it will be the key to the understanding of all other parables. As Jesus puts it, “If you don’t understand this parable, how then will you understand all the parables ?” (Mark 4:13).
His first words of explanation are especially telling: “The sower sows the word.” (Mark 4:14). Jesus is the “sower”; and “the seeds” that He sows are the divine truths that are found in the Word of God. We too have our part to play in this parable. We are the “good ground” — good-hearted people who not only hear the Word but also to do it. As a result, we bear fruit “some thirty fold, some sixty, and some a hundred” (Mark 4:20).
Becoming Sowers of Truth
21. And He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a bushel or under a bed, and not to be put on a lampstand?
22. For there is nothing secret which shall not be manifested; neither was [anything] hidden but that it should come into what is manifest.
23. If anyone have ears to hear, let him hear.”
24. And He said to them, “Look to what you hear. With what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you; and [more] shall be added to you that hear.
25. For whoever has, to him shall be given; and he that has not, from him shall be taken even that which he has.”
26. And He said, “So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth,
27. And should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and rise up, while he is unaware.
28. For of its own accord the earth bears fruit, first a blade, then an ear, then full wheat in the ear.
29. But when the fruit is ripe, straightway he sends in the sickle, because the harvest stands [ready].”
30. And He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we compare it?
31. [It is] as a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is smaller than all the seeds in the earth.
32. And when it is sown, it grows up, and becomes greater than all herbs, and makes great branches, so that the birds of heaven may nest under the shadow of it.”
33. And with many such parables He spoke the Word to them, as they were able to hear.
34. But without a parable spoke He not to them; but He unfolded all things to His disciples [when] by themselves.
On one level, the parable of the sower is about Jesus and the way He plants His seeds of goodness and truth in each of us. On another level, however, each of us, in our own way, is called to be a sower. This is the evangelical call to every person, the call to go forth as a sower, looking for those receptive hearts — the people of “good ground” who will hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit.
This idea — that each of us is called to be a sower of the Word — is contained in the next verse which teaches that new truths must not remain as secrets to be hoarded up. Rather, they should be placed “on a lampstand” so that they might be proclaimed far and wide. As Jesus puts it, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret, but that it should come to light” (Mark 4:21-22). Jesus then adds that these truths should especially be proclaimed to those who have an affection for hearing them: “If anyone has ears to hear,” says Jesus, “let him hear” (Mark 4:23).
At the same time, Jesus assures His disciples that they are not responsible for other people’s state of receptivity. Their job is merely to plant the seeds. The Lord will look after the rest. This is the message of the next parable in the series which begins with these words: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how” (Mark 4:26, 27).
It is indeed miraculous how tiny seeds can sprout and grow, secretly flourishing beneath the earth’s surface, bursting through the soil, and aspiring upwards into the world where they will perform a wide variety of uses. Even the briefest teaching of truth can have a wondrous effect. Jesus compares this to the growth of a mustard seed “which, when sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds of the earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (Mark 4:31-32).
The disciples, then, and those who are close to Jesus are called to join Him in the work of planting seeds. The main thing is the planting, just as the sower went out to sow. God alone can provide the sunshine, the rain, and the vital force which will cause them to keep growing. When the seeds of divine truth have taken root in the mind, they can grow tall and provide a nesting place for new thoughts. This is where “the birds of the air” (higher thoughts) can settle in and make their nests.
In this way, Jesus spoke to them in parables “and, privately, He explained everything to His disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).
At this point in our study, it is important to reflect on the fundamental theme that is developing in the Gospel According to Mark. In this gospel, Jesus asks, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand?” These words come directly after the parable about sowing seed. In Matthew, however, these same words occur during the Sermon on the Mount, right after Jesus gives the series of ten blessings.
The brief parable about the lampstand is similar in both gospels, but the different placement in each gospel is significant. In Matthew, the lampstand imagery suggests doing good works. That’s because it is followed by the words, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In Mark, however, the lampstand imagery takes on a different meaning. In Mark, the admonition to set one’s lamp on a lampstand, and not hide it under a basket, follows directly after the parable of the sower. And immediately after the lampstand parable, Jesus says that nothing should be hidden or kept secret “except to come to light.” These words strongly suggest the need to share one’s “light” with others, or, in other words to share “the light of truth” and let nothing remain secret. “Let anyone who has ears to hear,” says Jesus, “listen” to what is being said.
The different treatment of the lampstand in the two gospels is significant. In Matthew, the lampstand imagery calls us to a life of good works; in Mark, a more specific good work is described. It is the proclamation of the good news through becoming sowers of heavenly seed. As we shall see, Jesus has been preparing His disciples for this mission.
The First Calming of The Sea
35. And He says to them in that day when it was evening, “Let us pass over to the other side.”
36. And leaving the crowd, they took Him as He was in the ship; and there were also with Him other boats.
37. And there came to pass a great storm of wind; and the waves were rushing into the ship, so that it was already filled.
38. And He was in the stern, sleeping on a pillow; and they awoke Him, and say to Him, “Teacher, carest Thou not that we perish?”
39. And being awakened, He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Be silent, be speechless!” And the wind grew still, and there was a great calm.
40. And He said to them, “Why are you so frightened? How [is it that] you have no faith?”
41. And they feared with a great fear, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that both the wind and the sea obey Him?”
At times people will be inclined to doubt the usefulness of their mission, even experience a temporary loss of faith. All this is represented by the brief phrase which now occurs in the text: “When evening had come.” In sacred scripture, the mention of “evening” suggests an “evening state,” or a time of discouragement. Even though Jesus had commissioned the twelve disciples to proclaim the gospel along with the power to cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15), it is understandable that they might be experiencing doubts. Therefore, in order to bolster their faith in Him, as well as to encourage them in their efforts to carry on, even if He were not physically present, He has a plan. He says, therefore, “Let us cross over to the other side” (Mark 4:35). 2
As the story unfolds, we discover that the disciples are truly in an evening state. They are uncertain, confused, and discouraged. They are in their boat, but Jesus does not appear to be totally present. To them He is “asleep on a pillow” (Mark 4:38). This image pictures times of doubt in our own lives, times when we have misgivings about the presence and power of the Lord in our lives. We may think, How can mere words protect me from negative thoughts and emotions?” “How can a God who seems so distant be intimately present to save me?” “Could it be that God is absent or asleep?” Or, “Could it be that there is no God?” These questions symbolize the various doubts that come to us concerning Jesus and the power of His Word. For some of us, God might seem to be not there at all; for others, God is there, but doesn’t really care. He is asleep on a pillow.
This is a time of spiritual temptation. Our understanding of truth, represented by the little boat, is supposed to transport us safely through the storms of life. However, at times like this, our faith is being lashed furiously by the wind and waves; it feels as though we are sinking as problems pour into our minds, like water filling a boat. Our faith is under assault. At such times, it seems that Jesus is absent or asleep. As it is written, “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a pillow” (Mark 4:37-38). 3
The disciples rush up to Jesus, awaken Him, and say, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Instead of answering them directly, Jesus arises, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39). And immediately “the wind ceased, and it was completely calm” (Mark 4:39). He then turns to the disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:41)
There is indeed peace that can come to us in the midst of any storm. Just when it seems that all hope is lost and that the Lord does not care, He rises up within us with words that calm the wind and the waves: “Peace, be still,” He says. The fears and doubts settle down; and serenity returns. 4
A practical application
Jesus asks the disciples to examine the source of their fear and doubt. “Why are you so fearful?” He says. “How is it that you have no faith?” (Mark 4:40) These are important questions for us to ponder. Whenever we are experiencing fear, or doubting God’s presence, we need to ask ourselves Why? Where do these storms come from, and what can we do to settle them down?