Mark 4:1-9; 13-20 – The Parable of the Sower

We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…

MARK 4:1-9; 13-20


As we have noted before, Christ is the master of the teaching story form which is the parable, and his parables have rightly become unforgettable.  And this is exactly as it should be – the parable aims to stick in our memory, to be hard to dislodge.  If it were an annoying piece of music which keeps playing in our minds unbidden we would call it an ‘earworm’ or ‘brainworm’.  Perhaps, then, Christ’s parables are ‘soulworms’ – once heard they have a habit of coming back to us, whole, or in phrases, or in images. 

Without prejudice to the many other parables which we receive through the gospels, one of the most memorable is the one which we now consider – the Parable of the Sower.  Essentially, the best parable should drive home one point and leave the hearer considering this, and frequently Christ’s do just this.  But often many of them are multi-layered, and this may be the parable’s greatest strength – that it speaks to each hearer, in their own circumstance and life, and asks to be applied there.  The parable, then, is a living and breathing word, which, although framed in the language of its time, seeks to communicate gospel truths which speak to us now.

The parable of the sower is, of course, noteworthy for one other reason – Christ himself offers an explanation of its imagery to the Twelve, and therefore to us.  With this in mind, everyone is, to some extent, hesitant about re-interpreting the parable.  Christ gives the word, and he himself breaks it for us, to feed us.  But the parable must still be applied, made concrete in our everyday life, and perhaps used as a measuring stick to see how we are living up to its invitation.  It’s good to remind ourselves that in lectio divina, contrary to what we might think, the text itself, the Word, reads us, and asks how what we are reading challenges us or finds a place in our lives and practice.  This is the only point of departure for a parable like that of the sower.

In the first instance, Mark’s gospel does not tell us that Jesus identifies the sower with himself.  He simply asks that his hearers imagine a sower going out to sow.  So, we have to see just this, and put a face to this one who goes out to sow.  From the beginning we must make a choice – whose face is this?  Who is sowing this seed?  We know from Christ’s explanation that the seed is the word, and we can presume that he means the word that he speaks, the word which proclaims the kingdom, and if we were to use John’s language that would be the Word which came into the world, which took flesh and lived among us, the word which is light and which darkness cannot overcome.  The sower, therefore, is anyone who scatters the seed of the kingdom around them, anyone who brings Jesus to others, by their words and actions.

To be personal, then – I have received the word of the kingdom from others, and, receiving it, I am asked whether it has taken any kind of root in my life.  But not only that – I am also the sower.

This sower of the word is profligate with the seed of the kingdom of God.  He scatters it in a way which appears almost wasteful.  On the balance of what we read, about a quarter of the seed actually produces a harvest!  The rest of it falls all over the place and seems to get lost.  But in this parable, and according to the methods of the time, that’s how seed was sown – the wind caught it as it left the hand and blew it over the ground.  Christ is asking us about our sowing of the seed, our preaching of the word, our proclamation of the kingdom.  And there is another one at work here, with whom we must cooperate – the wind that blows where it will (John 3:8), the Spirit who takes the word and plants it, gives it life and brings forth fruit.

We might consider that all these different terrains where the seed falls are not, in fact, different persons, or different types of persons, but just one person – myself.  And all these various attitudes and dispositions – living on the edge of the path, neither one thing or the other, lukewarm about our faith (do we need to read the hard word that is spoken to the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:16 – “since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth”?), and so inclined to fall down when temptation comes our way; the rocky part of me – not allowing the word to really find a way of rooting into my life; the thorns that grow up and choke my belief; and yes, the good soil, where the word of God does bed in and produces fruit – these are all me, at various times of my life, in various situations, beset with various challenges.

The personal reflection is vital here – because it is always accompanied by the question – if it is my deepest desire to follow Christ, to live the Gospel, to hear the Father’s word to me and will for me, which of these should I choose, and how do I allow it to become the mark of my Gospel living?

So, the parable of the sower suddenly is transformed into a type of examination of life and conscience!  I can look at those times when I still live on the edge of the path, hedging my bets, as it were, content that I can live both ways, the Gospel and those decisions which are more self-centred rather than other or God-centred.  Being lukewarm about faith and practice is something that all of us tend towards, particularly if I can live it comfortably, without its putting me out.

The rocky place is fascinating, principally because St Benedict sees Christ as the Rock, against which we dash all those thoughts and temptations and sins which afflict us.  So, we have a contrast presented to us – rocky ground which allows for virtually no growth, or the Rock on whom I can build everything.  Again, it might be useful to remember that in another parable – of the houses built on sand or rock – we are looking at what gives us stability and security, and that rock is Christ, and the Church.  We shouldn’t forget, however, that the rocky patches in our lives are not entirely dead – Christ is careful to note that these are people who welcome the word preached to them with joy, so, initially at least, there was great desire that the word take root.  But they issue a compelling invitation to us – what do I do when faith is challenged, mocked, persecuted, derided?  Do I mince my words when the company that I keep shows disdain or scant regard for faith or for the Church or her teachings?  And even in the midst of the very damaging truths which have emerged about the attitudes of some within the Church in the past towards children and vulnerable people – do I make that an excuse for my watering down my practice, or even my active membership of the Church?  Our lives hit rocky patches from time to time – in those moments we have to decide what are the principles by which I live, what is the truth that shapes my life?

All of us have felt the strangulations and cut of the thorns.  Christ speaks to us here about hope and trust which accompany the welcome that I give to the word.  After the resurrection, the risen Jesus greets his disciples in the upper room by giving them his peace, and they are filled with joy.  This is the peace that the world cannot give, and the joy which is the mark of the real disciple of Christ.  There can be a temptation to be downhearted from time to time, to give into worry and anxiety, to be disappointed even when it appears our prayers for what we want are not answered.  Those are moments when we have to water the seed which we have received, feed it, give it light and air, reclaim the faith which has become stagnant.

Who doesn’t wait for the last part?  It’s the sign that our lives are lived in harmony with the Father’s will for us.  But it’s challenging, always.  Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest (John 12:24).  Christ, of course, speaks firstly about himself, since, within a few verses in John’s gospel, the Passion narrative will begin.  But we miss the point entirely if we ignore the fact that this addresses us also.  Now we are really talking about the cost of discipleship and the renunciation which is part and parcel of our lives as Christ’s brothers and sisters.  

And now the roles assume a different aspect, and we become the sower.  This is always the question which makes us uncomfortable in our discipleship – how, and indeed, can I sow the seed of the word of God which I have received?  Christ expects us to do this.  St Paul, above all, is our practical witness and goad in this:

“Preaching the Gospel gives me nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion and I should be in trouble if I failed to do it” (I Corinthians 9:16 – this is frequently quoted as “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel”)

“For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night he was betrayed …” (I Corinthians 11:23)

“Proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it” (2 Timothy 4:2) 

We are, then, under an obligation to be liberal in our sowing of the word – wasteful, almost, scattering it everywhere.  More than ever, being Christ-like means being the sower of the word of the kingdom.  This word, more than  ever, is a word which challenges a great deal in our society which abuses the dignity of the person and sidelines God.  In fact, there is rarely one without the other: when we lose a sense of the sacred, we lose a sense of the dignity of the human person.  And, more than ever, it is a word which comforts, consoles, makes whole, gives hope, brings mercy, lifts up, encourages, makes charity real, allows love to persevere, offers faith when trust seems dead.

But only if we have received it, prepared the good soil, nurtured it and allowed the Spirit to bring forth his fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, self-control – as the fruit of the Word’s harvest in my life.

Having come this far, perhaps we realise that the parable of the sower is the parable which most makes our lectio divina real – that the word, sown and received, should take flesh in us and continue to bear fruit around us.

-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-

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