Reading: Mark 4:1-20
The first 3 chapters of Mark were about Jesus traveling and doing miracles and slowly losing favor with those in power. Chapter 4 is fairly unique in Mark — it is a group of parables: The sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, the growing seed, and the Mustard Seed. Mark chooses very few examples of Jesus’ teaching; so why does Peter want to to tell people about the Sower and the lamp?
The parable of the Sower; or, it might be better for me to call it the parable of the soils is unique not only because it is one of the few teachings of Jesus to be part of Mark, but also because it is one of the few teachings that Jesus interpreted for his Disciples — the interpretation Jesus gives is:
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. 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. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 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. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 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. 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.” — Mark 4:13-20 NRSV
I think of Peter telling this story, and I see one clear thing: We are the soil — Peter was the soil and he was well aware of what kind of soil that he was. Peter was very much rocky soil — he was often the first of the disciples to proclaim his faith, and he withered so quickly. Peter was the one to step out of the boat, take a few steps on the water in faith, and to doubt and fall in. Peter was the one who said he would follow Jesus to his death, and yet on the night of the Crucifixion denied Christ.
Even after this, Peter was the first to call for the church to accept Gentile coverts to Christianity, yet when he was in Antioch he fails to practice what he preached because when those who felt that one must convert to Judaism before Christianity came to Antioch, and when these people refused to eat with Gentile Christians — Peter also stopped eating with the Gentile Christians. Even as a Christian leader, Peter had these rocky soil moments where he failed to live up to his beliefs due to the presence of opposition.
Peter saw the other soil types too. As Peter told this story year after year, he must have thought about all the people he knew, and all the people that Jesus talked with and worked with. Peter was able to see people who reacted in these ways, just as clearly as he could reflect on his own reaction.
Peter saw the scribes and the Pharisees, some of whom sat at Jesus’ feet and asked questions, yet they were like the hard soil of a well worn path. These people fell back to what they knew, and could not receive what came from beyond themselves. Perhaps it was because they listened to answer back, to debate and to be clever. Whatever reason their soil was hard, he seeds sat, and were eaten — they heard, but nothing sank in.
When I think of the seeds that fell into the thorny ground, those who are choked out by weeds makes me think of Judas. Judas was choked out by his greed; this is something that was hinted several times before he sold Jesus. Later in scripture we see that others also grow in this thorny ground — entire churches sometimes seem to be harmed by thees weeds.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve got all these kinds of soil in me. There are times when I, like the Pharisee listen to answer instead of listening to hear. There are times when I’m excited, and then too afraid, and there are times when I have more than one thing in my mind, and there are weeds. There is something about this parable that feels right.
What do we do with this though? There are some who would suggest that Jesus tells us this, because we are supposed to become good soil. There are others who tell us that we spread the seed anyways — but, neither of these makes sense to me — we are soil.
One thing I can say is that good soil does not appear all by itself; the farmer changes soil. Good soil left to itself will become weedy soil. Every garden needs weeded. If the soil is shallow and rocky, the rocks can be broken up and removed. Farmers and gardeners have been improving the land that they have even before the time of Jesus. The gardener we have is one who does miracles.
Think of the Apostle Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament — he was a Pharisee, and somebody who’s heart was completely hardened to the message of the gospel. Somehow, Jesus changed his soil so something could sprout and grow well. Peter might have been rocky, and he might have denied Christ — but his courage grew. Peter kept preaching, even when the authorities attempted to silence him. Peter grew enough in faith that he did follow Jesus to a cross — tradition tells us that Peter died on a cross in Rome when Nero was persecuting the Christians. God changed Peter’s soil.
The seed is scattered, and if the gardener does nothing, our soil is going to be rocky, or weedy, or just too hard for the seed to take root. I’m not going to tell you to weed yourself, or pull out your rocks — because I’m aware that there are things that we cannot change simply by wishing things were different. The dirt is as it is — but, I do believe that we have a gardener that can and will work our soil with a goal to make it the good soil that produces a crop.