Parable of the Soils

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It is quite common to refer this popular parable as the parable of the sower.  Yet the focus is not on the sower.  Guelich[1] suggests the parable of the seed is a better option.  He notes the seed on the path, stones and thorns are singular (in both Mark and Luke) and then we have a plural seeds on the good ground – at least three of them – so perhaps this is about what happens to the seed.  But the point of the parable is not the seed.  The seed is good and constant.  German scholars popularized the alternative title the parable of the soils – which seems to be a better representation of the parable.  It’s about what sort of soil we are.

Mark 4 is a chapter about hearing

Listen! commands Jesus at the start of the parable and concludes it with the instruction again (Mark 4:9 NET):

Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!

It’s not a one off either the word is largely in the present active tense be continually hearing. 

The Greek word for hear/listen occurs at a higher frequency relative to the word count than any other chapter in the NT.  Next closest is Matt 13 which is Matthew’s parable of the sower and past that it’s not even close – about 5 times more frequent than rest of NT.[2]  13 times in Mark 4 the lemma occurs telling us to hear, to listen.  As Snodgrass notes:

the Hebrew word שׁמע and the Greek word ἀκούειν have a range of at least eight nuances for which these words for hearing are used: literally to hear sound; to understand a language; to understand in the sense of grasping meaning or significance; to recognize; to discern; to pay attention; to agree with, accept, or believe what is said; and to obey.[3]

Snodgrass

Tragically in Mark 3:31-35 Jesus family is outside the group of disciples.  James the half-brother of Jesus was outside, not hearing.  In his letter James doesn’t seem to quote directly from Jesus but the words of his brother are never far from the surface.  James says:

…humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls. 22  But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves

James 1:21-22

Real hearing means living out the message.  Are we listening?  Are we hearing Jesus?

Isaiah 6 is the background to this parable

Central to the plot of Mark 4 is Isa 6:9-10 – a most dismal passage:

He said, “Go and tell these people: ‘Listen continually, but don’t understand! Look continually, but don’t perceive!’ 10 Make the hearts of these people calloused; make their ears deaf and their eyes blind! Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, their hearts might understand and they might repent and be healed.”

Isa 6:9-10 NET

As Snodgrass notes, if God wanted to stop repentance the easiest way would be to just not send a messenger[4].  But this is not what actually happened:

they have not hearkened to my words, saith the Lord, which I sent unto them by my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them; but ye would not hear, saith the Lord

Jer 29:19 (NET)

God spend plenty of time and effort trying to reach His people.  Isaiah spent his life appealing to the nation to turn back to God.  Isa 6:9-10 is hyperbole, almost a sad ironic statement. 

But Isaiah 6 actually contains in it the promise of renewal – the promise of a remnant, a holy seed.  Isa 6:13 says[5] that despite human failure there would be a holy seed, a remnant, people who would respond.  The image in v13 is a blackened stump but in the stump was still life.  Isaiah will go on in Isa 11:1 to describe the life in this old stump:

A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from his roots Isa 11:1 (NET)

God’s purpose will not be frustrated – he will save!  But we need to listen not shut out the words of the prophet:

The parable…creates the situation where having ears to hear is itself one of the marks of the true remnant…only those who hear the word as it is now proclaimed, and hold it fast, will form the remnant that Israel’s God is creating.[6]

NT Wright

Are we going to listen like the disciples?  Are we going to ask Jesus when things don’t make sense to us?  You might feel like walking away.  I don’t get what God is doing.  I don’t see where he is in the trainwreck called my life.  But here you are today despite these concerns, despite our imperfect lives we are here.  Like the disciples who didn’t get it – they came and asked.  And guess what!  Jesus explained it to them.  Because Jesus aims to help those who come to him. 

When I was doing statistics in university we had a mid-term exam.  My friends and I were at the final lecture before the exam and the lecturer told us the test would be worth such and such of our final grade.  He recommended we practice past exams.  He then very specially told us we should search out the mid-term exam paper used last year for practice.  My friends and I took his advice.  We got the past exam papers and did them together.  The last practice paper we did was the prior year midterm.  When we got to the actual test and started we were delighted to find the paper was identical to the prior year!  Some people didn’t go to the lecture.  They missed out.  Other people went and heard the clue but did nothing.  If you listened and acted you had a massive headstart.

We have come to sit at the feet of Jesus.  We are at the uni lecture, we are hearing the clues.  Like the disciples around Jesus privately, Jesus will point us at the right answers.  We then have to turn that hearing into some action.  But understand this.  Jesus – like that lecturer – wants to give us a mighty headstart.  He is not about concealing salvation but helping those who bother to show up and pay attention to him.

Whatever you might think of yourself – by virtue of listening to Jesus – you are on the inside, you are in the group of people around Jesus.

Don’t over or under think the parable

The problem with parables is we can over or under think them.  We want the Goldilocks zone of interpretation – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.  Some things are obvious.  The basic ideas would have been immediately identifiable to Jesus’ audience

The imagery of God as sower and the people of the world as various kinds of soil was standard in Jewish circles[7]

Blomberg

But from there things can get very overthought.  Classically this starts with trying to make every detail have meaning.  People have obsessed over whether the 4 soil types bears a relationship to the percentage of people saved – 25% seems popular[8].  Um no.  Similarly people have drawn lessons from whether the sower would plough before or after – a detail absent the parable.  Some interpreters have strained to make the different levels of fruitfulness relate to different rewards for the righteous[9].  With this level of overthinking we could end up in the most unhelpful of places with the most obscure of points.  Actually what we do in these situations is stop hearing Jesus’ voice and start hearing our own.

Here’s another thing.  Almost all of Jesus’ parables were given to you about yourself.  It is not my position to comment that someone else is shallow, or their brain thorn riddled.  Yes the parable is very relevant to the general response to preaching.  Jesus was kind of using it this way and yes we see a broad application.  Why didn’t people accept the gospel from Jesus or us?  Well because there are different responses of people.  Why don’t they hear?  Because people choose not to but regardless there will always be a holy seed, a remnant.  But a general truth can become an individual disaster.  We are not to decide what soil another person is!

Final danger – taking the parable too narrowly.  ‘What soil type am I?’ can be a terribly unhelpful question.  Jesus did not give you this parable as a once and done tool to judge yourself, to put yourself into a little box with either a tick of congratulations or cross of self-defeat.  He gave us this parable to make us think about our response and to be better.

Point 1 – God wisely gave you the seed

The sower (God) gave you the seed because he saw your potential.  Are you questioning His sowing?  The seed got to you because you have potential.  You have choices, you might go different ways, but God sees your potential.

In Rom 9:20 Paul points to the absurdity of the clay questioning the potter’s skill, purpose and authority.  How absurd for the clay to indignantly pout “Why have you shaped me this way?”.  In the same way we shouldn’t write ourselves off.  How absurd for us to label ourselves the shallow ground and question why God called us, why He trusted us with the gospel!  What a careless throwing of the gospel to put it on us we might think!  Nonsense.  God knew what he was doing when he gave you the gospel seed.  As Paul says to Timothy:

He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began

2 Tim 1:9 (NET)

You having the gospel, the power of God to salvation, you having this holy calling is because of both God’s purpose and grace.  We tend to emphasis the grace and forget about the purpose.  It’s God’s wisdom that gave you the seed. 

God wants to work with you. 

Point 2 Don’t underestimate the power of the seed

Whatever you think of yourself God has given you the gospel.  As Paul says:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes

Rom 1:16 (NET)

Some seed went into less than ideal places in the parable.  But the gospel is powerful – it can make a difference in the most unlikely places.  We’ve all seen those pictures of plants growing out of concrete and on the side of a cliff.  Natural seeds can find a way and we are dealing with something far more powerful than a real grain of wheat.  The gospel can grow in challenging conditions – don’t be thinking that your mind is too inhospitable for God’s power for salvation. 

The gospel, the seed, will produce fruit.  This is the punchline in the parable.  The seed is going everywhere.  It appears to be doing nothing.  Yet the majority of the seeds produce 30, 60 and even 100 times more.  It seems a Galilean farmer would get around 7-11 times return on their seed[10].  Jesus is using numbers which demonstrate divine intervention.  No doubt there is a reference back to Isaac:

he reaped in the same year a hundred times what he had sown, because the Lord blessed him

Gen 26:12

It might look like nothing is happening.  You might not see the roots going into someone’s heart but then suddenly there is transformation because there is a blessing from God and an unexpected increase – beyond normal.  The gospel can and will transform you because of the power that lies within it.  The soil does not know how to make the seed grow, only the seed does.  Let the gospel do it’s thing, God will change you now and ultimately give you the abundance of the kingdom life. 

Trust the power of the seed.

Point 3 we are all the soils in potential

We talked early about the danger of taking this parable as a once and done perscription.  We should hear it as an urgent appeal to respond.  The point is to choose to be the good soil.  The parable teaches is that

the only legitimate response to God’s word is the obedience and perseverance which demonstrate true regeneration[11]

Craig Blomberg

The apostles were great men, definitely good soil people.  But Jesus often criticized them for having a hard heart (eg Mark 6:52, Mark 8:17-18)  They could be blasé about Jesus power and words.  They got too familiar with him and failed to recognize the extraordinary.  They took Jesus for granted sometimes.  They were the pathway, the gospel sometimes bounced right off.

What soil was Peter when he snuck in to observe the trial of Jesus?  Tough questions came his way – are you with Jesus?  Three times he sworn and vowed he wasn’t.  In that moment of crisis was he more like the good soil or the shallow soil with the gospel fruits wilting under pressure?

How often did the disciples argue about who was the greatest?  Isn’t this the thorns of self-promotion and pride threatening the gospel seed?

Martha was incredibly faithful, she trusted Jesus could have saved her brother and was rock solid convinced of the resurrection in John 11:21-24.  Definitely a good soil person.  Yet on another occasion she was distracted and more bothered about serving up food than listening to Jesus.  She wasn’t hearing and was angry in at her sister who was listening.  Sometimes what looks like service is actually weeds in the way. 

We can be all of the soils at different points.  We need to hear the parable and improve the soil of our heart.  We need to hear Jesus and recognize his appeal to think about what kind of soil we are right now and how we improve that soil.

Conclusion – will we hear Jesus today?

I heard a preacher point out that the highlight of a Sunday morning was the reading and everything is at risk of going downhill from there.  So let’s try to unclutter and focus on what Jesus wants you and me to hear.

We need to listen to him.  Not just noise.  But listen with the intent of acting.  Listen to change, to grow.  Not just today.  Everyday. 

You have the seed.  The powerful word of the gospel.  There’s nothing defective there.  God gave it to you in His wisdom.  Because you can be what he wants.

You need to garden your mind. 

If you are bouncing God’s word away from you perhaps you need to get the pick out and loosen the soil.  You might be angry with God.  You might be scared of re-engaging.  But you know you have nothing to fear.  Stop pushing it away.  Stop saying ‘later’ or ‘maybe one day’.  Stop saying no to God.  Hos 10:12 tells us to “Break up the unploughed ground”.  If God’s word is bouncing off us we need to do some work to open up that our hard attitude and be prepared to trust. 

Perhaps you are denying the gospel room to grow.  We can all go through the motions but are you allowing the gospel to touch you deeply?  You have the gospel but perhaps you aren’t allowing it to go too deeply into your mind, into your heart.  This makes us vulnerable to losing our faith in trial, to letting ourselves and our saviour down.  Maybe you need to reengage and make some room for the word of God to reach into you.  How do we enable the gospel to take deeper roots in our heart?  Maybe watch “The Chosen”.  Maybe make some time to think and be open to God through meditation.  It might be reading, music, podcasts, talking to friends, coming along regularly.  I don’t know the best strategy for you, but why not find a way to let the gospel reach a little deeper into your heart this week.

Do you have room for the gospel in your life?  Are the thorns and thistle getting all the food and light you can provide?  Is the gospel priority in your garden?  I know pulling weeds is hard, it’s hard work and they inevitably manage to get you even when you wear leather gloves.  The bigger they are – the longer you leave them – the more they cause trouble.  It’s always been the way.  Adam started tending a garden and because he displaced God’s word with human desires ended up fighting thorns all his life.  I’m sure you need like me need to do some hard gardening.  Are you going to listen to Jesus and do something about it?  What weeds are you going to pull?

Ultimately the fruit God is producing in you is the resurrection, salvation, eternal life.  But for now it looks like:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control

Gal 5:22-23

How are you growing these?  What does that look like this week?

The awesome thing is that God will accomplish his purpose.  Like He said

the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend

Isaiah 55:11

The seed has gone out and it will make a difference – a miraculous difference.  We just need to garden the soil of our minds, to live out the message. 

As we come to remember Jesus, to take the bread and the wine the question we must face is simple.  Will we listen?  Will we hear? 

by Daniel Edgecombe


[1] Guelich, R. A. (1989). Mark 1–8:26 (Vol. 34A, p. 195). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[2] Based on analysis of the lemma in Logos Bible Software search & chart analysing frequency per chapter per 1,000 words

[3] Snodgrass, K. (2004). A Hermeneutics of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4. Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 14, 59.

[4] Snodgrass, K. (2004). A Hermeneutics of Hearing Informed by the Parables with Special Reference to Mark 4. Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 14, 69–71.

[5]  Isa 6:13 is a “obscure passage” Watts, J. D. W. (2005). Isaiah 1–33 (Revised Edition, Vol. 24, p. 103). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.  the Hebrew is difficult and variation is reflected in the extensive (and uncertain) notes in the NET.  However the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QIsaa) support a reading something like found in the NRSV for v10 onwards:  “Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12  until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13  Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump

[6] Wright, N. T. (1996). Jesus and the victory of God (p. 234). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[7] Blomberg, C. (1990). Interpreting the parables (p. 226). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[8] Eg  Hayden, E. (1974). Complete Sermon Outlines (pp. 36–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[9] Collins, A. Y., & Attridge, H. W. (2007). Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (p. 246). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

[10] Based on texts in the Talmud and some other sources like Cicero, and comparison to the yields gained by traditional farming practices today, it seems the normal return for farmers would be around 7-11 times but tall tales of 100 times returns in exotic far off places formed part of popular culture Marcus, J. (2008). Mark 1–8: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 27, pp. 292–293). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.  While 7-11 return was normal in Galilee some claim the Jordan valley farmer would occasionally get 100 times Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Mk 4:8). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.  Apparently in modern agriculture we regularly get 25-30 but can get 100 Garland, D. E. (1996). Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[11] Blomberg, C. (1990). Interpreting the parables (p. 228). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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