A Horticultural Hot Mess
My relationship with my lawn is…well…complicated. On one hand, I dream of having a perfect emerald carpet that’s a cross between the golf course like Augusta and the infield at Busch Stadium. Lush. Thick. Green.
But the reality is quite the opposite. My yard is the poster child of what you DON’T want. It’s a crazy combo of crabgrass, clover, and bare spots of clay. You might find a teeny bit of grass fighting for its life in a few spots. Talk about a horticultural hot mess.
Not Bullets and Bombs
That being said, I’m NOT the one who needs to be giving advice about winning the neighborhood yard of the month. But I know just the Guy who is. Jesus of Nazareth. In His biographies, He gives us a detailed description of just what to do when it comes to agriculture and crop production.
But here’s the deal. His tips for getting a massive harvest aren’t really about lawn care or farming at all. They’re actually a picture of how His Dad’s kingdom will come about. Some countries conquer using bullets and bombs. Jesus tells us how God uses seeds and soils to win His victory (Mk 4:1-20).
Let’s set the scene. It’s around 30 AD in the boondocks of northern Israel. Jesus is teaching next to a big lake we call the Sea of Galilee. Crowds are building rapidly to check out the new radical Rabbi/Carpenter from Nazareth. He’s all the rage. He’s gone viral.
And why wouldn’t He be? He actually has the guts to claim that He’s the Christ. That’s New Testament language for Messiah, the long awaited Hero God has promised to send to His people for thousands of years.
But that’s not all. Nobody has EVER heard teaching like this before (Mk 1:22, 27). He also performs jaw-dropping miracles like healing people from sickness, disabilities, and disease (Mk 1:30-31, 34, 40-42; 2:8-12). Jesus even exorcises evil spirits who’ve tortured their victims (Mk 1:23-25, 34).
Rocking Their Boat
In Mark’s bio of Christ, the writer tells us the crowds get so big one day near the lake that the Lord actually preaches from a boat (v1)! The Rock in the boat is about to rock their boat with a message from God.
Jesus’ Favorite Teaching Tool
For the first time in Mark’s story of Jesus, our Savior uses a brand new tool from His teaching tool box. “He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables” (v2). Before the Son of God is done, it will become His favorite way of teaching God’s truth.
So what exactly is a parable anywhoo? The Greek word (Gr. παραβολη/parabole) literally means “to place (Gr. -βολη/-bole) alongside (Gr. παρα-/para-).” Think of it as a figure of speech where you put two ideas next to each another in comparison.
Painting Word Pictures
A parable is a metaphor, an illustration, an analogy, or an allegory. It’s a relatively short story with symbolic meaning to something deeper. In other words, Jesus uses something everybody can understand to help folks figure out something they couldn’t otherwise.
The Lord draws on all sorts of stuff from First Century pop culture to make His points. He uses stories about servants, Samaritans, coins, oil lamps, and agriculture. Lots of agricultural analogies. We’re talking goats, sheep, barns, mustard plants, and vineyards.
Connecting with Pop Culture
If Christ shows up to tomorrow, I’m guessing He’ll use a completely different set of parables. Wouldn’t you love to hear Him comparing the kingdom to stuff like the internet, video games, and smart phones?
It’s a great reminder for teachers to utilize things people know to help them understand the truth of God’s Word. Don’t be afraid to use illustrations, analogies, and metaphors from pop culture…Jesus sure did!
The Real Dirt on the Soils
This time, Christ teaches the crowd what happens when the farmer starts throwing seeds around willy nilly. Birds eat some that land on the path (v4). Some sprout and wither without roots (v5-6). Weeds choke out some (v7). But what does grow delivers a ridiculous harvest (v8).
So this particular story is all about seeds and soils. But here’s the real dirt. The original text never actually uses the word “seeds,” and drops a term describing dirt a single time. Yet we call it the Parable of the Seeds. You can’t make this stuff up.
Spreading It around
A literal translation of the Greek goes a little something like this. “A sower went out to sow” (v3). And here’s the crazy thing. Both “sower” and “sow” are just slightly different forms of the very same word (Gr. σπειρω/speiro).
The word means to scatter (usually speaking of seeds), spread around, throw around, disperse, disseminate, or broadcast. In other words, the spreader went out spread. The thrower went out to throw. The broadcaster went out to broadcast.
Remember, in ancient times they didn’t have high tech tractors and farm implements. They simply plow behind an ox or mule and throw the seed around by hand. It’s certainly not an exact science. More on that in a moment.
Jesus Drops the Mic
At this point, Christ ends His seed spreading story by saying, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand” (v9). Huh? This is Jesus’ way of saying there’s more than meets the eye to this story. There’s a lot more here than seeds and soil. A whole lot more.
The Lord tells His listeners that only those God wants to understand will understand. Only true followers get the privilege of knowing what Jesus means. The Message puts it this way. “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (v9 The Message).
It’s almost like Jesus drops the mic and walks away. You can almost picture the people scratching their heads and wondering what He’s talking about.
What Is He Talking about?
Feeling the same way yourself? You’re not the only one. As a matter of fact, His closest follower really didn’t have a clue what He was talking about. “Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked Him what the parables meant” (v10).
Can’t you just see it? When everybody leaves this lakeside lesson, Jesus’ own posse starts asking each other what He means. I can’t figure it out. What do you think He’s talking about? Why don’t you ask Him? No, why don’t YOU ask Him?!? Nobody wants to admit to Him they don’t understand.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
We don’t know who finally gets up the guts to ask. Maybe it’s Peter since he’s the so-called leader of the Dirty Dozen. Maybe John steps up because he’s alleged to be Jesus’ best friend. Or maybe it’s not one of the Twelve but somebody else.
Don’t miss the mini-lesson within the bigger story. Don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation when you don’t understand. Too many times I don’t want to look like a knucklehead. Too many times my pride gets in the way. Humility is a big part of being teachable and coachable. That means asking questions.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Which brings us to the turning point of the entire passage. Jesus begins His explanation of metaphor. “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders” (v11).
The Lord basically says that He’s hiding the truth of God’s kingdom in plain sight. There’s something about one of His parables that allows some people to see it while others can’t.
Cracking the Code
Sounds kinda like one of those freaky Magic Eye pictures. Remember them? At first glance, they seemed to be images of random blobs and goofy patterns. But some people were able to stare at it long enough and suddenly see a 3D image of a unicorn or a great white shark.
For big chunk of the big crowd, the secret is encrypted despite being right in front of their eyes. What’s the key to cracking Christ’s code? What do His followers have that give them the ability to see the deeper truth of His illustration that the larger audience didn’t?
Trust Unlocks the Truth
Faith. More specifically, faith in Jesus. They may not have Him all figured out (then again, who REALLY does?), but at the deepest level they trusted in Him as their Lord and Savior. They took Him at His word and believe what He says. Trust unlocks the truth.
The rest of the crowd couldn’t understand because they refused to trust Him. They don’t get it because they don’t want to get it. Those who don’t think they have a problem and don’t think they need a Savior can’t wrap their heads around what He’s talking about.
At this point, Jesus dusts off a piece of prophecy from the OT book of Isaiah to explain why He does this. “When they see what I do, they will learn nothing. When they hear what I say, they will not understand. Otherwise, they will turn to Me and be forgiven” (v12).
This is His way of saying He’s using the story of the seeds and soils as a way to test the spiritual responsiveness of the individual hearers. In other words, what’s the condition of their hearts when it comes to God? What sort of soil are they?
The other interesting thing here is that Jesus clearly sees Himself as fulfilling a 700-year-old prophecy which God spoke directly to Isaiah. So much for those who believe He was just an itinerant Jewish teacher who never saw Himself as Messiah.
So Jesus teaches a quick lesson. Call it Parables 101. “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables” (v13). Decoding this illustration will go along way in helping His followers figure out the rest.
He backs up, slows down, and explains each section of the seed story. What a great lesson in learning from the greatest Teacher who’s ever walked the planet. If you have the privilege of teaching, make sure you go back over something when it’s clear the folks you’re serving don’t get it.
You may have a killer lesson plan and use all the techie toys at your fingertips, but if the students don’t understand, you’re wasting everybody’s time. You accomplish the mission when the message is heard, understood, and acknowledged. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everybody’s time.
The Satanic Seed Stealer
Jesus starts His review at the very beginning, explaining exactly what sort of seed we’re talking about back in verse 3. “The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others” (v14). Specifically, this is spreading the Good News of grace by faith in His Son Jesus anywhere and everywhere.
Christ then unpacks verse 4. “The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away” (v15). In other words, some people’s hearts are as hard as a cement sidewalk. That’s when the devil dive bombs and snacks on the unused seeds.
Jesus wants us to know we have a real enemy who’s out to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn 10:10). Some people see a demon under rock. Others make just as big a mistake in thinking Satan is some goofy cartoon character in a red suit with a pitchfork.
He’s very real and very dangerous. John the Apostle says our world is currently “under the control of the evil one” (1Jn 5:19). SPOILER ALERT! I’ve read the end of the book. When it’s all said and done, Jesus and His team crushes the devil and his toadies in the most lopsided victory in history.
Getting off to a Good Start
Jesus moves from the sidewalk to a thin layer of dirt hiding rocks that He first mentioned back in verse 6. Seeds landing in this area get off to a good start and show early signs of life.
“The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word” (v16-17).
Rainbows, Unicorns, and Skittles
He’s talking about folks who are initially stoked to hear the Gospel. They experience an emotional response and things look promising. But the problem is below the surface. Inches below the surface, there’s nothing but rocks. These seeds never stood a chance.
Our Savior says the rocks are a picture of troubles and trials. There’s no long-lasting growth because of it. Too many people try to tell you the Christian life it’s nothing but rainbows, unicorns, and a lifetime supply of Skittles.
Here’s the deal. Following Jesus is hard. When the going gets tough, these folks get going alright…in the opposite direction!
Getting Choked out
The Lord goes from problems underground to those above. “The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all to quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced” (v18-19).
A closer look at the original language tells us that “crowded out” is actually the Greek verb συμπνιγω/sumpnigo. It means to suffocate, overwhelm and cause to die. Think of MMA fighters like Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar who take out their opponents by choking them out.
The Problem of Prosperity
The thorns are heartier and healthier than the tender seedlings. Despite some early growth, this one was over before it started. These stickers dominate and destroy the delicate new sprouts. Good night. Game over. Drive home safely.
Instead of persecution, Jesus says the problem here is actually prosperity. You can easily translate the phrase “worries of life” as “distractions of this age.” Earthly wealth and success take precedence over eternal riches. The now steals our focus from the forever.
Three bleak scenes. Absolutely zero crop production. The farmer has spread a truckload of seed on people’s hearts and has been shut out to this point.
Before you think there’s no hope, Jesus tells us that some of the seed of the Good News finds thick, rich dirt. “And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (v20).
Here’s something I had never noticed before. It’s pretty obvious that there are three kinds of soils WITHOUT a harvest. What I hadn’t seen was that there are THREE soils WITH A HARVEST! If this is a game of three-on-three, it’s not even close.
One area produces a return of 30:1. Another tract doubles that at 60:1. Then there’s one final field that blows them both away with an outrageous output of 100:1!
If you’re like me, you probably have no idea how good these harvests are. According to John MacArthur, the average harvest in First Century Galilee was 8:1. In a great year, it was 10:1. So the kind of production Jesus is talking here is mind boggling!
God’s Fruity Goodness
What sort of harvest is the Lord talking about? I think we can look at it a couple of ways. First of all, Paul writes to Galatian believers about the kind of fruit the Holy Spirit produces in our lives. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
The more we allow God’s Spirit to change us from the inside-out, the more He produces God’s fruity goodness in our lives. Who couldn’t use a lot more of these?!? For some of us, it’s a massive harvest!
The other way of looking at it is from the perspective of Jesus’ famous last words to His followers. He tells them to make disciples (NOT just converts!) of folks from every demographic group on the planet (Mt 28:19-20).
In other words, He calls each one of us to be a disciple-making disciple. If His process stops with us, then there’s no harvest. We’re to keep passing on God’s grace with the idea that it keeps on going. The Gospel is certainly the gift that keeps on giving!
The usual way of looking at this particular parable is that Jesus is talking about the receptivity of four different kinds of people. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe, just maybe, there’s another way to understand these seeds and soils.
Is it possible that Christ could also be talking about four different times in one person’s life? Or could it be that we have different kinds of soil conditions in different parts of our lives?
For instance, do I have fertile dirt when it comes to serving but lots of rocks when it comes to generosity? Maybe I’m crazy about my small group but never tell anybody about Jesus. Let’s do what we can to have rich soil in every part of our lives.
Start Spreading the News
So what do we do with this parable? How do we apply it to our lives a couple of thousand years later?
Well just like the farmer, the followers of Jesus have the responsibility to spread the Word. Anyone. Everywhere. Don’t worry your pretty little head about where it lands. We just need to understand and explain the message as creatively and effectively as possible. In the words of ‘Ol Blue Eyes, “Start spreading the news.”
It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
We need to remember that our job isn’t to produce the crop. Just to spread the seed. Leave the production to God. We’ll recognize the folks who receive the seed and grow a harvest. It will be obvious. VERY obvious.
Don’t be discouraged when we don’t see immediate results. Just like in agriculture, the process of planting, growing, and harvesting spiritual produce takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. Seed that’s been planted in soil may look unproductive now. That can change quickly when God is involved. Be patient. Expect a harvest. A very BIG harvest!
I’m still not sure there’s much hope for my lawn. In the meantime, why don’t we all start spreading some seeds?