Mark chapter four.
What we typically call the parable of the sower might better be called the parables of the soil types. I say parables (plural) because Jesus uses the plural to talk about the discourse (Mark 4:2). And I say soil types because the analogies aren’t as much about the sower as they are about the different kinds of earth. Mark four is really about how gardens work.
The sower sows the word, but the emphasis in the parables is on how different ears receive it. For hardened soil, the word is taken away by Satan even before it gets to the heart. For rocky soil, there is a quick and warm response, but it doesn’t take root, so soon it falls away. For thorny soil, the word penetrates but is eventually choked out by money and pleasure.
Only one of four types of soil receives the word and produces fruit: the good soil. This soil, we learn later in Mark four, produces fruit automatically (4:28)—even the sower doesn’t understand how. And from a tiny seed, good soil can produce the largest of plants (4:32).
These parables reflect a fairly pessimistic view of the Kingdom’s reach. Three-fourths of the ears that hear the word are going to fail.
Indeed, one can trace this pessimistic outcome through the Gospel of Mark itself. There we see all four responses to the word demonstrated in the earthly preaching of Jesus.
Early on, the Pharisees hear the word, but immediately Satan takes it away from them, and they plot to kill Jesus (3:6). The disciples receive the word and follow Jesus, but when hardships and trials come, they fall away (1:18; 14:27, 72). Indeed, it is fascinating that Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter just before telling these parables (3:16). Peter means Rocky—and nobody personifies rocky soil in Mark better than Peter. The rich man and even Herod are friendly to the word, but each allows wealth and pleasure to choke it out (10:17ff. and 6:14ff.).
In Mark’s Gospel, only a few hear the word and then produce fruit. These are those who, like the demoniac freed from his oppression, can’t seem to stop proclaiming to others what God has done for them (5:19-20).
Several years back I was in India touring with Gospel for Asia, one of the largest mission organizations in the world. GFA has had problems in recent years, but what I saw in India was a testimony to how much the Gospel can change ordinary lives.
I spent time in village churches, hospitals, children’s homes, lepers’ colonies, and a variety of charitable agencies. I was struck by how quickly the Gospel spreads among the Indian people. K. P. Yohannan, president of GFA, reports that as many as 15 churches are started every single day in India by the mission efforts of GFA and its daughter denomination, The Believers’ Church. I saw evidence of this explosive reception of the Gospel when I was there: widows, children, the rich and poor, lepers, urban dwellers and villagers alike. I saw them by the hundreds worshiping Christ with amazing joy.
In short, I saw the power of the word to produce entire fields of fruit. The soil there is so very fertile that a simple drop of the word is all it takes. From mustard seed to the largest bush, as Jesus promised.
Which leads me back home.
Here in the States, I try to be a disciple-maker as Jesus calls me to be. But I don’t experience the fertile soil that I saw in India. I regularly encounter either the beaten earth or the rocky soil. I can get almost anyone to have a quick conversation with me about Jesus, but many will never let the word pass on to the heart. They dismiss it before they ever hear it. Others engage in the conversation and respond—it’s really not that hard to get Americans to be baptized. But they fall away quickly thereafter. I am saddened by the number of people I’ve baptized, whom I’ve never seen again.
But maybe the greatest soil-disease in America is our love of pleasure. Americans are consumed with pleasure—especially sex, but every other kind of pleasure as well. Our love of entertainment, gratification, amusement, and, above all, sensual pleasure chokes out any room for the spiritual, the eternal, the transcendent, or the God-like. Indeed, our love of pleasure is at the root of our undoing as a nation. Love of pleasure compromises our virtues. It diminishes the discipline necessary for public life to work. It honors all the wrong things, which, in turn, dishonors all the right things. It distracts us from real spirituality. And, most troubling, it destroys our families, and thereby starts a ticking bomb on the collapse of our culture. America may have started out as a nation of disciplined Puritans, but it has ended up as a nation of short-sighted hedonists. As Will Durant once remarked, a nation is born stoic, but it dies epicurean.
It would be discouraging had Jesus not predicted it all.
Nevertheless, in spite of the pessimism in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus continued to sow the word. And He did this, even though in the Gospel of Mark, everyone including God seems to have abandoned Him by the end (“My God, my God!” 15:34). He must have known that, even with the odds seemingly against Him, there is power in the Word of God. The power to turn lives. The power to flip civilizations. The power to save humanity.
So just when you could safely assume that there is no good soil, rising from the ashes, the Christian church explodes on the world’s stage. Three thousand baptized … then five thousand … more and more men and women … with the number increasing rapidly … and a large number of priests … many people … and so on (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 9:42; and so on). Indeed, the very soil that fell away at the crucifixion eventually produced a crop so substantial that it turned the world upside down. And who preached the opening sermon but Rocky himself, now rehabilitated and openly declaring Jesus to be Lord and Christ (Acts 2:14-36).
And so, against the odds, we make disciples. After all, who are we but mere sowers? It is God who makes things grow.
That’s how gardens work.