I’ve only had moderate success at gardening in my life. In the past few years when we attempted to garden in the community gardens, it seemed like the birds, bugs, bunnies and blight got far more than what we actually ate. We were able to get sweet potatoes to grow for a couple of years but then the last year we tried it was minimal. The harvests we anticipated from our planting never quite materialized. And yet we tried with the hope of a good harvest.
The people in Jesus’ day lived in an agricultural culture and lived close to the land. They understood planting and harvesting and they completely understood the images that Jesus was using in this parable. But even then, not even the disciples understood what Jesus was really saying. Jesus’ main point in this parable is that the kingdom is coming no matter what the response is to the gospel and that there will be a great harvest! Let’s read Mark 4:1-20.
Again there is a large crowd and Jesus gets into a boat by the Sea of Galilee to teach. At this point, Mark points out that Jesus was teaching using parables. Now this certainly is not the first time Jesus had used parables in Mark’s gospel. Jesus had used figurative speech several times before even if not called parables. Yet the three parables that follow are different from the earlier imagery Jesus used. Jesus now tells stories that illustrate the character of the kingdom of God. There was much more and so Mark says that Jesus taught them “many things.”
I used to think that the farmer was throwing his seed all over the place carelessly. No, the farmer sows his seed intentionally on the path that others have walked on or on the thorns as well because it will be plowed up to receive the seed. The seed that was scattered on the rocky ground was intentional as well for the topsoil barely covers the rocks which remain hidden until the plowing exposes it. This detail of plowing after sowing is important for the correct understanding of the parable because the emphasis is less on the soil than to the act of sowing. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is breaking into every part of the world even as seed is sown on every type of ground. Yes, there is a diversity in how the seed is received and to how the Word is received but the central focus here is on the certain coming of the kingdom of God.
That is seen in the climax of the parable which emphasizes the amazing harvest. The yields in the harvest are interesting to note. The 30 and 60 fold harvest would be a great harvest. The 100-fold would be an unusually fantastic harvest. Thus the emphasis is really on the size and the splendor of the coming harvest. Yet there still is activity prior to the harvest: the sowing of the seed and its growth. God is acting powerfully in these phases as well as in the harvest. In the coming kingdom, God is sowing the word in order to reap a large harvest. Mark now interrupts Jesus’ teaching of the multitude with an interlude so that Jesus can explain the real meaning privately to his disciples in verses 10-12. The disciples asked particularly about the meaning of this parable but evidently they also asked why Jesus didn’t address the crowd in a more direct way.
Now why did Jesus chose to obscure the truth of the kingdom in the parables? Remember the context of the unbelief and opposition to Jesus that we saw previously. Remember that Jesus’ enemies are seeking his destruction and they believe his power is demonic. And so it is against this background that Jesus makes a clear distinction between the disciples and the unbelieving crowds. To those who don’t understand the kingdom of God, all of what Jesus says is just a story, and they won’t understand the secret of what he is really teaching. They can only see a story that is either baffling or a mystery.
That is why Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9 where Isaiah prophesied what the situation would be when Jesus was on earth. This does not mean that those outside of the Twelve won’t ever believe. Instead it means that they are being excluded from the opportunity of being further instructed in the secret of the kingdom as long as they don’t believe. Belief is what is absolutely vital in order to understand the gospel and the kingdom. For example, Einstein’s theories about space and time are well beyond my grasp. Yet I believe he was correct and so I am more disposed to try to understand it. If I thought he was completely wrong and I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t bother trying to understand it and likely would not be able to understand it. Jesus taught in parables but only those whom God led to believe in him would be able to understand the mysteries of the gospel and the kingdom of God.
Jesus asks his disciples if they understand the meaning of this parable. If they don’t understand this, how will they be able to understand the others? When I entered college, I entered the world of prerequisites. In order to prepare for learning medicine, I had to understand cell biology first. If you don’t understand how cells work, you aren’t really going to understand how more complex biological systems work. If the disciples don’t understand this parable, they won’t be able to understand more of Jesus’ parables and teaching. Jesus explains this so that they can understand more fully what God is doing.
With the initial statement, “the sower sows the word,” attention is focused on the proclamation of Jesus’ word containing the secret of the kingdom of God. The word is Jesus’ word as he proclaims the kingdom. God is revealing his plan and his will through the words of Jesus. And Jesus is saying that there will be a diversity of responses to his words. Jesus first calls attention to the negative response to the word. The unfruitful responses to the word reflect a variety of circumstances. Yet Satan’s role here is key for it reflects that Satan is a constant opponent as seen in earlier passages and he will work in a variety of ways.
These things also addressed Mark’s historical situation as he wrote his gospel. In Mark’s day, there was an unwillingness to endure trial and persecution, a desire for physical security in the world and an unwillingness to suffer for the gospel. This is what some are like when confronted with the word of the kingdom.
Jesus also explains the positive response to the word. The coming of God into the world will have the same result as the seed in the story: at the appropriate time there will be an amazing harvest at the end of the age. Whoever understands this parable will understand that salvation has come with Jesus and its coming will happen in glorious fashion!
III. So what are the implications for our witness now in God’s kingdom?
Our task is to focus on planting the seed. Some Christians read this parable and say that we shouldn’t go where we know the gospel may well not be well-received or simply be rejected. They say that it is better to use our resources where we will get a greater return. But Jesus is teaching that we preach the gospel wherever we are, no matter how well it may be received. That is the primary task for us as we live in the kingdom. We scatter the seed and we wait to see what will happen. This makes it very clear that while we share the gospel, it is up to God to provide the growth.
The fact is that we simply don’t know where the good soil is and so we plant everywhere. Some will be hardened soil but we plant there anyway. You may know people who have so many issues and problems in their lives that they can’t think of anything else. They think that if God is real and if God really loved them, they wouldn’t have to deal with such things. Or some will think that belief in God is for weak people or that there is no place for faith in a science driven world. But we plant the good news of Jesus there anyway!
Some will be excited about believing in Jesus at first, but soon the excitement fades. They are glad to have Jesus save their sorry hides but when it comes to hard obedience in the kingdom, that is too much for them and they fade away. But we plant the good news of Jesus there anyway!
Some will be choked out by the concerns of the world, but we plant there anyway. They have jobs to do and money to earn and that is more important than Jesus. Or they have status to maintain in the world and they just don’t have time to be a servant of Jesus Christ in their self-absorbed world. But we plant the good news of Jesus there anyway!
We are to proclaim the word through our actions and our lives wherever we are! We don’t know what the soil will be like but we share the good news anyway. And we pray that God will take our words and actions and produce a harvest. And we can be absolutely certain on one thing: there will be a harvest and it will be far greater than anything we can possibly imagine! Professor Deborah Kapp marvels that people choose to farm because it’s intensely hard work, seven days a week, and lots of farmers struggle to survive. She writes, “Nevertheless, year after year, people plant, grow and harvest crops. Discipleship is a wonderful adventure that invites us to share God's word as a farmer plants her crops: with a clear vision of the world's fickleness, a willingness to fail, hope, resilience, and the deep trust that by God's grace at least some of our work will bear fruit.” And God is providing the harvest as he includes all of us in this amazing task!
It’s important to understand that we are all involved in this planting and harvest. I think it’s easy for us to think of others sharing the gospel with different people. Many think that this is for pastors or missionaries and the like. But we all know the “soils” or the people as I’ve described and we all have the responsibility to share the hope we have with them. You see, we are all involved in this harvest in ways that we don’t realize.
We all have jobs to do in this kingdom enterprise. Through teaching or fellowship or taking care of buildings or praying or encouraging or whatever gift God has given you to do, you are helping to bring in the harvest. Let’s pray that God may use us in whatever way he chooses to bring in the amazing harvest that is coming.