Parables – The Sower: Mark 4:2-9

 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”  Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Mark 4: 3-9 (NIV)

16th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

This is probably one of the best known parables used by Jesus. Alongside Mark’s Gospel, it appears in Matthew and Luke in virtually identical form. It’s unusual for various reasons, not least because uniquely, at the request of the disciples, Jesus himself offers an explanation of the parable.  We have already seen Jesus use parables when speaking to the Teachers of the Law (see ‘The unforgivable sin‘ based on Mark 3:22-29). Our record of this parable is rather longer, and it demonstrates some really important aspects of parables.

Spontaneity in the telling:  The parables of Jesus are told in a fresh, spontaneous way. He uses familiar images, drawn from real life, to draw out an important point about the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, every person in that crowd knew exactly how farms worked in 1st Century Palestine. The image of the seed being sown in a particular way was accessible to everybody. People knew what a really good crop would look like (ten fold return) and what a super crop would look like (sixty of a hundred fold). One could almost imagine that there was a farmer sowing seed within sight at the moment Jesus was speaking. We see Jesus using exactly that spontaneous use of images at the temple, when he points out a poor widow putting her small offering into the plate (Luke 21:1-4).

The very essence of the parables is that they were spontaneous, of the moment and unrehearsed. Jesus just looks around seeking a point of contact with the crowd. (i)

I was walking this morning, close to where I am staying in Paphos, and noticed a field of barley which I had passed several times in recent days. Whilst the modern farming methods here in Cyprus are very different from those which were familiar to this crowd, there in front of me was the solid path,  the rough stony ground, the weeds, and beyond, the good soil of the field. The accessibility and spontaneity of these images provide an extraordinary, timeless quality.

Barley field, Paphos, March 2024

That was the essence of Jesus’ teaching. He did not bewilder people by starting with things that were strange and obstruse and involved; he started with the simplest things that even a child could understand.'(ii)

The Apostle Paul makes a similar point, saying that we can learn something about God by simply looking around ourselves.

20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. Romans 1:20, NIV

Spontaneity in the hearing: Those of us who have spent rather a long time around Church might reflect on the number of sermons we have heard on the subject of this and other parables. Too often they are treated as allegorical stories, where meaning has to be found for each character, action and every word. I don’t think that’s how we were supposed to approach parables. Jesus spoke with a wonderful directness. His words were either heard and understood immediately by his hearers, or they were not. The crowd took no notes away with them to review later.  When given, Christ’s parables were not intended to be subjected to detailed study and interpretation.

The point is that these images simply don’t need detailed explanation for those who hear them. They provide a simple, accessible and worldly point of reference, which enables the hearer to spontaneously catch a glimpse of something of God’s Kingdom. Today, as when Jesus first spoke the parables, some people catch it. Others don’t.

“Whoever has ears to hear” He says, “let them hear.”

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) Wm Barclay, Mark for Everyone, (Kindle Edition, Loc 1981) Mark 4:3-9,
(ii) Wm Barclay, ibid.




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