Mark 4:1-20 (RSV)
Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them, “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell upon thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, “To you have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown on rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation of persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
I am reminded by this passage of how unpredictable and even inscrutable the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible can be. For this text is a surely humbling and even perplexing one. I say that in the first instance because of what it has to say about the challenges of human communication. Its message on that score is realistic, to be sure, but it is still daunting to anyone who is in the business of trying to convey information to people in a manner that will really “take root” in their hearts and minds (as I am) to hear that the efficacy of our efforts are largely out of our control. We can do all we can to make those efforts have the desired effect, but in the end we cannot control where the “seeds” fall. The text also appears to suggest that the odds are distinctly against the seeds falling on fertile ground. That is balanced, admittedly, by the thought that when the seeds do fall on the right ground, they can have a powerful multiplier effect. But that too is out of our hands.
I characterize the passage as inscrutable because of what it appears to suggest about Jesus’ purpose in using parables. The benign view is that he did that to make challenging ideas more accessible to his audience. But this text suggests that, on some occasions at least, his purpose was just the opposite. It was to make the intended meaning more difficult for some people (outsiders, presumably) to grasp. I do not know, honestly, what to make of that, other than to take it as yet another reminder of the complexity of the picture of Jesus the Gospels provide.
Good and gracious God, we rely on the Scriptures you have given us for direction and illumination that is essential to our lives. But we do not always find what we encounter there easy to understand. Help us to see clearly what you mean for us to see. In Christ’s name.
R. Bruce Douglass