‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
The Parable of the Sower (1)
Perhaps the best place to start in studying the parables of Jesus is with the ‘Parable of the Sower’ in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. It contains a fundamental lesson how to receive all of Jesus’s teaching. In other words, it is a parable about parables.
Jesus is in a boat while crowds are gathered to hear him by on the shore. Here, Mark says, he ’began to teach many things in parables’ (vv. 1-2), so already we know Christ’s teaching method. In the parable itself, it seems clear that the sower is the Lord himself, and the seed is His word. This mirrors the setting, in which Jesus is preaching to the crowd.
The seeds, like the word of God, are cast widely and abundantly. The challenge of the parable is to apply the different types of ground into which the seed is cast to various obstacles which prevent that word from maturing and producing a harvest in our lives. So we might want to think of this instruction as better called the ‘Parable of the Soils’ (vv. 3-9)
There are four types of soil: the treaded, hard-packed path; the rocky, shallow dirt; the ground choked with thorns; and the good earth, deep and moist. Any gardener can easily envision these types. And anyone with a good spiritual imagination can apply them to the types of people we see in our daily lives, or more importantly, to ourselves.
Hard-packed. That’s the type who are so arrogant and opinionated that the sown word is easily snatched away, as crows snatch the easily picked seeds. This applies not only to ‘non-believers’ but to those of us who claim to be solid in our faith, but are really judgmental, or closed to repentance and forgiveness of others. Not solid. Shut-down.
Rocky. A newcomer to the Orthodox Church once asked a priest what it would take for him to join. ‘To begin with,’ the priest said, ‘I would like to see you at the divine liturgy every Sunday for a year.’ This was meant to test whether quick sprouting enthusiasm was truly rooted in a way that shallow roots would not wash away in storms of troubles or be scorched by setbacks.
Thorny. That’s the person who is too busy living to think about how to live. Henry David Thoreau once said ‘As if we could kill time without injuring eternity.’Are we too choked by the cares, distractions and fleeting pleasures of this world to sit quietly with the word?
Good soil. It is this earth, receptive to the seed and able to nurture it to maturity that brings forth a harvest — one in fact even beyond the expectations of the most optimistic gardener. The seed sprouts, increases, bears a harvest 30, 60, a hundredfold. The abundance of the sown word can produce a superabundant harvest in our lives, in repentance, in worship and in good works.
There are still greater depths to this parable for us to fathom in our next reflection.