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A parable takes something familiar, weaves in an element of surprise, and leaves you wondering, "What was that all about?"
Jesus got into a boat; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea. Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them,
"Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured it. Some fell on stony ground where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered. Some seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."
And Jesus said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"
Mark 4:1-9 NKJV, condensed
Seeds Flung Far and Wide
It's story time and Jesus picked the perfect setting, a natural amphitheatre. His stage was a boat, and many people gathered on the surrounding hillside to hear him. We are about to learn many things, right along with that crowd. So listen up! Jesus' first story was about a farmer planting his crop. You could also say it is about his seed, or the various soils upon which the seed landed.
A farmer sowing seed was a common sight. Everyone in the crowd could relate to it. American farmers make rows and place the seeds right where the crop is supposed to grow. Is that what Jesus' character did? No, that farmer scattered the seed; not a precise process as we shall see. It sounds like he was tossing his seed to the winds.
As the story goes, some seed fell on a footpath. We've all seen hard-packed paths where there are no pavements. We call them shortcuts. If enough people walk on them, it becomes packed in, beaten down, very hard ground. Some of that farmer's seed reached such ground. As you would expect, those seeds did not take root, and birds came and ate them.
Undaunted, the farmer kept scattering his seed and some landed among the rocks. Oh, dear! He's wasting his good seed on a pile of rocks. Rocky ground is shallow; there's not enough soil to maintain moisture. The seeds sprouted but when the hot sun came up, the little plants wilted. Did the farmer get discouraged and quit? No.
The story moves quickly and other seed landed among the thorns. Maybe it was a breezy day and the wind carried the seeds into the weed patch. I wonder if the audience was smiling by now, thinking, "Where will that farmer go next?" The tiny seeds in the prickly thorn patch never had a chance. Still he didn't give up.
Finally, the farmer did get seed planted where most of us would think seed belongs--on the cropland where the soil is rich and productive. The farmer flung out his seed all over that fertile acreage. And you know what? Some of those seeds yielded a good 30 times what was sown, some gave even better at 60 times. Still others went beyond all expectations with a return of 100 times the amount of seed sown!
At the end of his parable, Jesus looked out over that crowd of people and said, "Whoever has ears, listen up. Use them to hear what I just said."
Were you paying attention to the story? What did you hear? If you scratch your head and wonder why any of this is important, you are not alone. Jesus' disciples asked him to explain it to them and that comes in the next passage.
In the meantime, here's what I love about this parable. I hear Jesus telling us something about our loving heavenly Father. This is God's story--spreading grace to everyone, and no one is excluded. God is like that farmer who didn't get discouraged, but faithfully continued to spread the seed. He never gives up on any of us! Our hopeful God scatters seed upon us whether we ask for it or not, whether we know it or not.
With stories such as this one, Jesus heralded the kingdom of heaven with its gospel of repentance and change. In Jesus' world, things don't have to stay the way they are. Lives can be redeemed and transformed. Hard ground can turn around and become loose, workable loam. Rocks can be removed and thorns uprooted. If you have ears to hear, pay attention. This is good news. When you are hard, callous or bitter, you don't have to remain that way unless you want to. Shallow ground can become deep, fertile soil. Lives that are full of weeds and old baggage, can be set free. That's what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
There's also a horizontal dimension to this parable. Grace is given to us to be shared and multiplied. God looks for something in return. Freely you have received; freely give. That's also good news because it becomes our purpose in life. The same patient and faithful love which we receive from God, we are expected to extend to others. Grace is to be used as a basis for relationships and all of our interactions with others. The seeds of God's loving kindness are supposed to bear fruit--some 30, some 60, and others even 100 times what was sown! Wow! Could it possibly be that God expects that much from the likes of you and me!
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What is a favorite story which you repeat frequently?
Most people like to hear stories. Why is that? What makes the telling of stories an effective way to preach and teach?
Would you say this parable of the sower is easy to understand or perplexing? If you say easy, explain what the parable means. If you say perplexing, what question/questions do you have about it?
Is it OK for people to interpret Jesus' parables in many different ways? Or is there only one way to understand each parable?
How is God like this farmer? Or how is God not like this farmer?
What did Jesus mean when he told people to listen? What does he want us to hear? Are we hearing it?When you hear a parent tell their child to listen up, what does the parent expect the child to do?
Did Jesus include a surprise in this parable? What is the most surprising part of the story to you?
How does it make you feel to be told that God has high hopes for you?
Why is the hymn, "Amazing Grace", so universally popular? Name one thing which is amazing about God's grace.
Do you ever see yourself as the sower who gives and gives and gets nothing in return? Describe what that is like? How would that image help us understand what it's like to be God?
Thirty, sixty and a hundred-fold. What do these numbers mean within the context of this story? Where are you on that scale? What is one specific way in which you produce a yield?