Week 4: READ: Mark 4:1-20
Jesus taught people to see life through the lens as God intended life to be lived. It is a life lived by faith in God and attentive to others. Jesus taught by his words and actions. One of his most common ways of teaching was using a format called a parable. A parable is a short story used to teach a spiritual or ethical lesson. The gospels record forty-one parables of Jesus, eight of which are found in Mark’s gospel.
One of the most important teachings of Jesus in Mark is the Parable of the Sower. It could more importantly be called, the Parable of the Four Soil Types. There is a strong connection between the call of Jesus’ for his followers to fish for people (1:17) and to sow the Word of God into the lives of others (4:14, 20). This call from Jesus is to you and to me as well!
The setting for this parable is at the Sea of Galilee. Such a large crowd gathered to listen to Jesus that he got into a boat so that they could hear him speak. The original parable (4:3-9) begins and ends with the call to pay attention, to listen. The farmer scatters the seed on the hilly field which has a walking path to access it. Because of the hilly terrain throughout Galilee, the farmer’s fields had rocky ground. Some of the tired and poor soil was infested with thorny patches. The dream of every farmer is fertile, well-draining, good soil. In the end of the parable, the seed scattered on the path, the rocky and the thorny ground does not yield any fruit. However, the good soil gives three different yields: thirty, sixty and a hundredfold yield. Three soils with no yield and three productive yields from the good soil. Do you notice the pattern?
Jesus speaks a profound spiritual truth how God’s Word takes root in the lives of people. He uses a story of agrarian life that would be well known to the people in his audience in Galilee. If Jesus were speaking to crowds of people at Wriggly Field in Chicago today, his story would shift to a more effective urban and suburban message. Jesus came to tell the good news of the kingdom (1:15). This meant effective story telling which connects with people. The growing crowds that gathered to hear Jesus’ message tell you that his preaching and teaching was life changing.
What Jesus did not do was write or sell books, CD’s or teach a message of prosperity – how God want to make you wealthy. He never built a church building nor wrote a constitution for his organization. There were no Robert’s Rules in Jesus organization and yet somehow he managed to get decisions made and trained a number of common lay people to carry his message forward. Jesus launched a movement to grow the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus built this movement around hard working people, many of whom were very poor. He taught his followers to care for others, especially for the sick, widows and the suffering. Jesus responded to the needs of ordinary people who God loves so much that he ran into problems with the establishment and the well organized and highly structured religious community. The problem actually did not originate with Jesus but came from the establishment who felt threatened by him. Jesus did not seek their permission or blessing but rather followed the guidance of the Spirit. Doors opened for Jesus to give compassion to the hurting and neglected. What was Jesus thinking?
The church resembles the church Jesus intended when it rolls up its sleeves and works to help others with acts of compassion. What does this look like? An act of compassion happens when we visit people in jail or prison (Matthew 25:36, are we visiting Jesus in jail?). When we cook meals, mow lawns, and blow snow for our ailing neighbor, we are serving Jesus and as well as serving like Jesus. When we work for what is right and just, listen closely to someone different than ourselves and genuinely seek to understand, whether we recognize it or not, we are in the presence of Jesus. When our black and Latino neighbors are hurting in our community and we stop judging and start praying for them, we are moving in the way of Jesus. For you see, Jesus is all about love and making room for love to find a way to show itself.
Jesus speaks today, as he did originally and says: Listen! This is the same word that ends the parable: Listen! It is a bracket that tells you just how important the words within the brackets are to any who will pay attention and take action on them. Listening is more than reading or hearing words. Listening welcomes the story to touch our mind and heart. It takes hard work to take notice in our culture when we are bombarded with so many messages. Pay attention to what Jesus is saying to your heart.
The Path. So who is Jesus talking about when he speaks about the resistant path? These are the spiritual lives that have hardened to God and/or the church. For example, George left the faith and the church after his eight year old son died followed by his wife two years later, both battled cancer. George’s family returned to the Christian faith and the church when his son was only a few months old and was being treated for brain cancer. This was a huge step for George who had been away from practicing faith since he was ten. George was kicked out of Catholic school for punching the nun who had punished him by locking him in the broom closet. After his wife died, George said: So this is the kind of love God has for me? No way. I am through.
Some people have been hurt by the church. Others, have not fit the mold of how the church thought they ought to live. Still others have felt judged by the Christian message as it has been proclaimed from pulpits, on television, or social media. Women have had a challenging road to find a place in a male dominant church. People of color have been excluded from the white church historically. Gays and lesbians together with transgender individuals feel unwelcome in many churches. The point is, when people feel judged by others, they know they are not welcome. It takes multiple, genuine invitations for anyone, but especially those who have been hurt, to know that they are truly welcome.
The path has been created by the decisions of the Church, for example the divide that grew during the Reformation and the Renaissance. Science was denounced by the church when people like Galileo and Copernicus made new discoveries about our universe. It challenged the teaching of the Church. Rather than listening, it was easier for the Church to reject and denounce new thinking. It shocks me to read that more than 50% of Americans still think that evolution is not true. Jesus never intended that we ignore the mind that God gave us. If God is God then science will not disprove it. Science helps us better understand and improve the life God has given us to live. We must heal the divide between faith and science.
Only God can till the path, if the people whose hearts are hardened to faith are ever to come to believe. Our role is to show God’s love and not condemn or judge. We are to pray and not lose heart. Love wins in the end.
Rocky Ground. The key to overcoming shallow soil is to move in worship from the bleachers as an audience to the floor as participants. When our attitude in worship moves from “entertain me” to “I am here to worship God,” we become participants. The church was sent to make disciples actively participating in the work and ministry of God. An hour of worship cannot sustain nor grow the life of a follower. Imagine a parent trying to raise a child for one hour a week? Or, what could a teacher teach if they only had a student in class for one hour weekly? Worship is our time to celebrate God in song and prayer, the sacrament and the preaching of the Word. It is a time to give our devotion and our lives back to God.
These Bible studies are a serious commitment to growing deeper in Christ with each other. They are designed to challenge our thinking, our faith and our actions. We hope to hear the message of love and the call to serve God as we serve and give witness to our neighbors. The rocks in our lives are all of the distractions that keep us from going deeper into the presence of God. It takes time for a farmer to remove the rocks from the field each spring to make for a better harvest. This is back-breaking hard labor. Ignore the rocks and know for certain that they will not go away. Seek to remove distractions so that you can hear the word with others, and you will see spurts of new growth in your life of faith.
Thistles. These are problems and challenges that erupt in our lives. There are circumstances and changes in our lives that can steal our joy and rob our faith because of questions unanswered and feelings that disturb us. What do I mean? It could be a job that is lost due to downsizing, a poor economy, a business that cuts cost by hiring younger workers. It could be a failed marriage, an unexpected illness, the death of child, or an accident that leaves a loved one paralyzed. The list goes on and on. Some think to themselves: If God cared or if God existed, this would never happen. Or, God did not answer my prayer. The next thought might be: I am out of here, in relation to faith in God and participation in a church community.
The reality is the less you are connected in a church and/or live your faith, the more likely it is that thistles can crowd out and kill your faith. This is what happens in the farmer’s field. The seeds the farmer plants are all equally able to sprout, grow, and produce a harvest. What is different for each planted seed is the quality of the soil. If the soil is good and healthy, it will grow with sufficient fertility, water and sunlight. It is harder for seeds to sprout and grow in rocky soil. Remove the rocks, fertilize, water and a good yield can be harvested. Thistles need to be rooted out. Let them grow and they will kill the plant.
The goal is good and productive soil that produces other believers because of our service and witness. The good soil exercises its faith muscles. Like Jesus said, good soil knows the value of listening and applying the Word of God. It produces of itself, 30, 60 and 100 fold followers of Jesus just like themselves, as they disciple others. This is a simple, powerful and challenging message to the church of Jesus Christ. Let all who have ears to hear, listen! (v. 9).
My dad farmed his whole life in Minnesota. He worked the land his grandfather pioneered in the early 1860’s. While dad enjoyed most every aspect of farming, he was especially fond of planting season. He loved opening up the ground after the snow had melted and preparing it for seeding. After planting was finished each spring, dad would pray, asking God’s blessings on the growing season.
Like many farm kids in his generation, my dad and his siblings walked a couple of miles to country school each day. He had one particular teacher who he credited with sowing a love for God’s Word in his life. She taught the class a prayer to use before reading Scripture and it went like this: Divine Instructor, gracious Lord, be Thou forever near; teach us to love Thy sacred Word and view our Savior there. Amen.
My mom and dad sowed a love for reading Scripture in my life at a very early age. There were very few evenings before going to bed that we did not first gather as a family for devotions. We always started with the prayer my dad had learned as a kid. I did not always enjoy devotional time because it meant coming in early from playing outside. At other times I was tired and just wanted to go to bed. While I do not recall any particular devotion we read, this prayer and a love for the Word took root in my life. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
- What are your earliest memories, reaction and response to God’s Word?
- The funny thing about the response of the four soils to the Word is that we may have been any one of these different soils at other times in our life. Is there a time where you resisted the Word like the path; or responded quickly and when life got hard your interest in Scripture withered; or the busyness of life or other interests like wealth choked out your passion for the Word?
- Let anyone with ears, listen or pay attention. How or when do you listen best? When you are listening best, what do you hear?
- How do you sow the Word in other people? Or, what would it look like if you were sowing the Word in another person? Who are you going to share the love of Jesus with this week?