We begin back at the sea, the oasis.
Mark 4:1-9 Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 "Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold." 9 And he said, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"
These images resonate through western society. Jesus in his boat on the shore has been on the wall in almost every Sunday School! We are so familiar with the path where nothing takes root and the shallow soil, that it is hard to know if this is really what people are like, or whether this is simply what the traditions about this parable have taught us to look for.
In the middle of Mark's story of the sower there is a contradiction.
Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."
''The sower sows the word." This is the first explanation Jesus gives for the parable- the sower is tossing the seed out on the ground. In the next sentence there is an immediate change. The sower's seed is not the word. The seed is the response the sower receives; ''These are the ones on the path where the word is sown...."
This is a classic case of different traditions being cut and paste together, once we have eyes to see beyond a naive understanding that Mark is literal descriptive history. Matthew 13 has the same story, but leaves the reference to the seed being the word out. It is a contradiction.
I think there were two traditions, word = seed, and follower of Jesus = seed. Each speaks to us.
In the first tradition a sower sows the word. This is perhaps the news about God's love- it is not specified directly. There will be a harvest, and a very rich harvest at that. It will happen despite the fact that some seed seems to be wasted. Telling the story will bear fruit, perhaps long after the sower is gone.
One commentary suggested this fits with the very early church and the travelling preacher who moves across the country and is never in one place for long. This tradition would not suit later Christians, he said, who had to live in their local community. For them, the second tradition makes sense. Jesus had told them already how some disciples would fall away, like a life choked out by worry, and how some people would not even respond! It made sense of their situation. It makes sense of ours, where we see great fruit, and apparently, lukewarm conviction.
We are told else where, "Judge not, that you be not judged," which is excellent advice. For me the best word in this second tradition is not to measure my neighbour by the story, but to question myself. What are the cares of the world and the lure of wealth doing to my response to God? What seed do I bear?
I have seen the first tradition as an encouragement. Years ago a lad arrived desperate and destitute on our doorstep in Tennant Creek. He had been robbed. He'd managed to ring his sister hundreds of miles away in Darwin. She sent him to us. We fed him, and gave him a place to sleep. I suggested the church, which had padded pews, and an awesome air conditioner. He chose to sleep in the stifling summer heat of the old hall, on the cement, in the dust, along with some strange ne'er-do-wells who were freaky at best. I say to parents and grandparents. ''You've given your child the word. They know some of the language of the church, they know where to go. In their time of need they know God is not someone to fear."
Linking the parable and the two interpretations is "the reason" for parables. This linkage answers two questions for Mark's audience. ''Why do some people just not get it, when it comes to hearing the gospel, and why did Jesus seem to make things more complicated with parables instead of plain ''English?" ...... well, Aramaic?"
You can read that here, on the next page.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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