The following is a small excerpt from Michael Spencer’s upcoming book: Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. Michael Spencer’s thoughts on Mark Chapter 4 are edited by Scott Lencke. Check out his excellent blog! If you would like to be contacted when Michael Spencer’s book is available for purchase, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Seed and the Soil
1 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” – NIV
I preached my first sermon at age 15. No one gave me any instructions or guidance. I simply tried to follow the pattern of good preachers that I knew. I soon found that imitation is not exactly flattering – at least when done by a 15 year old, preacher-boy! I did learn that at least half of a good sermon is selecting a good text. (That’s one reason I am a Baptist who likes the lectionary.)
My first text was the parable of the sower. And that sermon was better than many I have preached, since this is mainly a great sermon on its own. It captures the greatness of its preacher – Jesus of Nazareth – and the greatness of the Kingdom message he brought…
… The setting of the parable is agricultural. Many of the rabbinic parables of the day dealt with royal families, relations between kings and subjects and such. Common, “ignorant” people were often overlooked in popular storytelling. It is interesting that Jesus told some parables about kings and “important people,” but most of his parables focused on the life of the poor and the agricultural environment of his audience. There is a lesson here for any communicator. Illustrative material can be found in the common experiences of any person. Those of us who teach and proclaim the Gospel should imitate Jesus by using familiar experiences that relate the Gospel to the lives people actually live. Our communication shouldn’t be a Christian version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
Everyone who heard Jesus would be able to relate to the familiar scene of a sower walking on a path through the field spreading seed. The diverse kinds of soils one might find in a field were well-known to the audience. And, of course, everyone knew the hope that a crop would return many more seeds than were planted. A hundredfold return would have been especially abundant, though not necessarily miraculous. The various fates of a seed was the sort of thing even a child could understand. If it fell on hard soil, the birds would eat it. If it took root in shallow soil, the sun would cause it to demand more moisture than it could reach, and it would wither and die. If it fell among hostile weeds, it could be choked out by the more aggressive plants. But if the seed fell on good soil, a return would be likely, though the size of that return was unknown to the farmer until the harvest. All of this would have been extremely familiar to Jesus’ audience. In fact, this parable lacks the sort of “twist” or “surprise” that is often part of parables – an unusual turn that catches the hearer and creates interest.
But behind the common is the uncommon. In the small we find the big. And in the simple planting of seeds, there is Kingdom truth and spiritual reality. This is, for me, one of the most important lessons of the parable. God’s truth is illustrated, and actually present, in all the common things of life. When we learn to look at life with eyes open for the work and truth of God, we will receive glimpses and revelations of grace and power. Even the most common action can become filled with the presence of God as we see his truth illustrated and alive in all of life. God is so gracious as to make himself known to even the simplest in the “book of life,” i.e., life’s common experiences can become an avenue of truth and teaching when we are alive to what God is saying. Scripture is, of course, our anchor in truth and all truth must conform ultimately to the truth of God in scripture. Still, we should look for God to speak in the ordinary and not just in the extraordinary. Jesus’ use of parables certainly shows us that he saw his Father at work in everything and related all of life to the presence of the Kingdom of God.
When Charles Spurgeon began what is now called Spurgeon’s college, he required his students to take natural sciences and not simply theology and Bible. As he reveals in Lectures To My Students, Spurgeon felt the world of nature was full of illustrative material, and he wanted his students to learn to think in this way. Spurgeon’s method has been long cast aside, as it has now become somehow “spiritual” for some to be ignorant of anything other than “Christian” subjects. The result, in my opinion, is that we increasingly communicate only within our own cultural ghetto and fail to see God present and at work in the wider world. In the end, our communication is hampered, and we sound less and less “real” to the world to which we speak…
I would like us to focus on Michael Spencer’s last few sentences here. Has communicating “only within our own cultural ghetto” been something that you have observed as well? Do we “fail to see God present and at work in the wider world?” Do we “sound less and less real to the world to which we speak?” If this is the case, what implications does this have for our sowing of seed? What factors do you see pulling us towards a ghetto? What can or should we be doing to be more engaged with the world around us?