Sometimes, I am out of sync with other people around me. I react differently than others.
Recently, my Bible study group watched the author of the study teach a short segment on video. As I watched and listened, I was distracted by the teacher’s facial expressions. Her emotion seemed contrived to me. Even though I was listening to her, her words did not ring true. As a Bible teacher myself, I think I am particularly prone to being a critic. I realize this. I tried to focus harder on her point.
When the short talk was over, I turned back to the group and was surprised to see everyone else sniffling and ready to discuss how impactful the lesson was. The author’s lesson had really spoken to them.
What had I missed? My friends at the study were a receptive audience. Whereas, I was not.
Jesus’ parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20 is a reflection on what I experienced in that Bible Study. There are different types of people in Jesus’ audience. Even though everyone hears the same words, people react differently. Jesus’s words are meant to sink down inside of us like a seed and spark soul growth, but not everyone responds in the same way or at the same time.
Previously, I looked at the middle of this story, verses 10-11, where Jesus explains the reason that he teaches in parables. Mysteries and puzzles are how we discover and grow a personal connection to God. The parable of the soils reflects on the mystery of why some people grow a mature relationship with God and others stagnate or quit.
What makes the seed grow? The heart it lands on.
Here is Jesus’ explanation of the parable from Mark 4:13-20.
And [Jesus ] says to them, “Do you not comprehend this parable? How will you understand any of the parables? The Sower sows the word.
Now, these are those where the word is sown along the path… When they hear, immediately, Satan comes and takes away the word sown into them.
Likewise, these are those sown upon the rocks… When they hear the word, immediately, they accept it happily. But they do not have root in themselves. They are short-lived. Further, when misfortune and mistreatment come because of the word, immediately they fall away.
And others who hear the word are those sown among the thorns. But the cares of the world and the lure of riches and the desire for other things enter and choke the word. It becomes barren.
And these are those sown upon the good soil… such a one hears the word, welcomes it and bears fruit, 30xs, 60xs, and 100xs.”
This parable is told twice in Mark 4. The first time, Jesus is teaching the crowd from his floating pulpit in the sea. He asks everyone in the huge crowd to watch and listen. The parable is told from the angle of the seed.
The seed is the word. Broadly, this “word” encompasses the truth-ideas Jesus teaches about God and himself. Up to this point in Mark, Jesus’ words point to his own arrival as the coming of the realm, or the kingdom of God.
This word, like a seed, has potential to grow. I have a basketful of seeds in my pantry that can become a gorgeous garden. But until I plant them, they are valuable for their potential only. It is only when the seed meets the soil that the mysterious process of life is unlocked.
Unlike my planting method of placing two seeds per hole in neat rows, the Sower in Jesus’ parable scatters seed liberally and generally everywhere. Everyone has the ability to see and hear what Jesus teaches. Anyone who hears about Jesus, no matter their sex, race, social status, bank account, upbringing, criminal history, mental health, or physical disability, is given a seed, the tiny potential to grow spiritually.
The second time Jesus told this parable, he is in a private setting with his close followers. They asked him to explain the parables he had told.
Even though the Sower scatters the seed liberally and generally everywhere, not everyone develops their tiny potential to connect with God. Some try, then quit when it gets too hard. Some make a show of trying, but in reality, they want other things more. Some lose the desire before they even give it a good go. Some welcome the word and it changes their character from the inside out, bringing spiritual rewards, like joy, peace, self-control, and love.
Why are there so many various reactions to the word of Jesus?
Jesus directs the answer to the soil where the seeds landed. It is the soil, or the heart of an individual, that determines the growth of the seed. A personal connection to God must be puzzled through in the intimate recesses of our own hearts. We cannot see what is happening inside the heart of others, but we can witness the evidence of growth in continued growth, maturity, and fruits of internal character change.
In the two iterations of Jesus’ telling of the parable, there are two slightly different applications. Each application helps us to manage expectations of the growth factor in others and in ourselves.
One Seed in the Right Soil
In the first telling, the takeaway is assurance that a seed will grow in the right environment. We must continue to scatter seed! We tell the good news of Jesus far and wide, in the hopes that the tiny potential of faith will take root in hearts ready to welcome it.
One seed on good soil is all it takes to grow a gorgeous plant that produces 1000xs of seeds. Those who share the word of Jesus with others must not become discouraged by small numbers in ministry. It only takes one seed on good soil.
I recently heard a testimony of a new friend who is in her early twenties. She had a horrible childhood. She was kicked out at age 15, began cutting and struggled with severe depression. One day she to happened to meet another girl at a coffee house, who invited her to hang out for a bit at her church with her. This Christian girl spent the afternoon sharing who Jesus was and how he had given her hope.
My friend heard her story and like the seed that landed on good soil, she welcomed the message. She began to build roots in her relationship with God through Jesus. Her depression began to lift. She could see a way forward. She had hope for her future.
Today, seven years later, she is completing her doctorate to work with troubled teens like her former self. That simple message shared from one girl to another sparked a new life that has grown more seeds to spark more new life.
Don’t get discouraged sharing the good news of Jesus. There is still good soil out there that will welcome the seed!
Working the Soil
In the second telling, the takeaway is more private. As Jesus explains the parable to his close friends, his explanation begs the question, what kind of soil am I? Do I need to work the soil to prepare my own heart to welcome and nourish the word? Jesus invites us to reflect and make alterations as we listen to understand what his words mean in our own life.
Do I pray for protection from the enemy snatching away what I need to hear? Do I need to dig out the rocks that keep my heart from softening? Am I choked with worries? What desires drown out the quiet voice I need to desperately hear? Is my faith growing? What is the fruit my life is bearing?
In my opening illustration, I admitted that I was not a receptive audience to the video I watched with my Bible study group. I was distracted by my own hang-ups and could not focus on the right thing. This parable is a reminder to me that spiritual growth is deeply personal. I must work to be a receptive hearer by puzzling out my own self, the mysteries of God and how to connect better with Jesus.
My heart is like the soil. It is the primary growth factor of how God’s seed will grow.