The Sower (Part 2)

In my last installment, I gave a brief introduction to the parables of Jesus in the gospels, and laid out a framework of “levels of meaning” that I claimed can useful contribute to our reading and understanding the parables. In the second part of this series I will demonstrate what I’m talking about by showing how it applies to the parable of the sower.

I chose to discuss the parable of the sower because it is the “parable of parables” or the “master parable.” In Mark 4:13 Jesus says to his disciples (the Twelve and the others around him), “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?”

Let’s begin at Level 1, where we consider the meaning of the parable itself, in isolation from its narrative context. Strictly speaking, the actual parable of the sower only takes up six verses (3-8). Before that, Mark gives us the narrative setting (1-2), and after the parable itself we have Jesus’ challenge to his audience (9), followed by a shift in scene to Jesus giving private instruction to his disciples (10-32), followed by a return to the crowd setting with a summary statement in 33-34. In the private instruction section, the disciples ask Jesus about the parables (10); Jesus responds by first providing a general principle drawn from Isaiah 6 (11-12), then issues a challenging question (13), provides an interpretation of the sower parable (14-20), and tells two related figures of speech (21-25) and two more parables about growing seeds (26-32).

Most of us are already familiar with Mark’s interpretation, so it is hard to do this, but try to imagine yourself only hearing Jesus tell the actual parable (verses 3-8). What might we think? Here is a story about a farmer going out to sow his seed, who experiences a progressive three-fold failure followed by a three-fold success. Failure or success is linked to the sort of soil the seed falls on, not to the quality of the seed, which is presumably the same in each case. The seed on the path doesn’t even get into the soil; the seed on rocky places gets in but doesn’t take root and so ends up scorched; the seed among thorns grows up nicely but gets choked and fails to bear grain. The successful seed yields a surprising crop – some of it producing thirty, some sixty, and some even a hundred times what was sown.

Without the narrative setting, how might we understand this parable? Taking into consideration socio-economic considerations about peasant life in first-century Palestine, some scholars suggest that this parable, in its original telling, offered sympathy and even revolutionary hope to typical overworked and oppressed farmers who would be familiar with the tragic experience of crop failure. A harvest as abundant as the one described in verse 8 would enable such a farmer to pay off his debts and free himself from his servitude to the landowner under the vassal system. According to Ched Myers (1988), Jesus describes the kingdom of God as envisioning “the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer’s social world” (p. 177). While this brings elements of the parable’s social and cultural setting to bear on its interpretation, showing a way Level 4 can contribute to reading the parable, such an interpretation – however exciting it might be for those inclined toward socialism – might not seem very plausible, at least, not without more explanation.

Without clear interpretive constraints, the parable on its own could mean just about anything anyone wanted it to mean. And to my mind this is the biggest problem with either restricting interpretation to the narrative world of the parable on its own (Level 1) or opening it up too broadly, a danger facing anyone who would use Levels 4-6 on their own and then speculating and allegorizing away. Either way we have no clear guide for reading the parable. But if we read the parable at Level 2, as an integral part of the overall narrative Mark has put together, we quickly get a grip on some firm constraints to work with. In the case of the sower, more so than most of the other parables that appear in the gospels, Mark gives us a lot of help. For one thing, he provides an actual allegorical interpretation (14-20). In light of this, we see that the sower parable is about what happens to the word that is “sown in” people who hear it. Three types of obstacles hinder those who hear from bearing fruit: the birds (Satan) eat up the seed (word) sown along the path; the sun (tribulation and persecution) scorches the shallow-rooted plant in the rocky ground; and the thorns (cares of the world and deceitfulness of wealth) choke the healthy plants that grow up among thorns. But amidst the apparent failure of the word, there is also surprising success – “those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (20).

Mark’s interpretation doesn’t tell us who the sower is or what the fruit refers to, or what makes the difference between those who bear thirty, sixty, and a hundred times what was sown. But the broader context of Mark’s gospel provides some clues. Just as there are three failed responses to the sowing in the parable, in chapters 1-3 we find three groups not responding well to Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom (1:14-15): the Scribes (2:6-7; 3:22), the Pharisees (2:16,24; 3:6), and Jesus’ own family (3:20-21,31-35). In spite of this, we also see successful response in the disciples (1:16-20; 2:14; 3:13-19) and in the increasing numbers of people following Jesus (1:27-28,37,45; 2:1-2,13,15; 3:7-9,20,32; 4:1). The other elements in Mark 4 all support the idea that the sower refers to Jesus and the seed/word to his preaching of the kingdom.

(a) The hearing of Jesus’ word (here spoken in parables) is emphasized throughout the chapter: Jesus introduces the parable, “Listen!” and concludes it with the challenge, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Structurally, the whole section is framed by comments on Jesus teaching/speaking the word to the crowds in parables (1-2, 33-34).

(b) The quotation from Isaiah 6 distinguishes between superficial and genuine hearing. Jesus gives us the impression that his very purpose in using parables is to make sure people “on the outside” don’t understand what he’s talking about, even though they “hear” the word. It almost sounds like a version of double predestination – God chooses to let some hear, turn and be saved, but causes others to harden their hearts and be unable to turn and be forgiven. But as the next point will show, a complete understanding of what Mark is doing in 4:1-34 mitigates against this, even if the actual result of Jesus’ preaching is a kind of polarizing or sifting of his audience.

(c) Jesus uses the lamp image (21-23) to say that what is hidden (namely the mystery of the kingdom in Jesus’ parables) is meant to be disclosed. He repeats, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” The measure saying (24-25) is also introduced with the words, “Consider carefully what you hear,” suggesting that the measuring has to do with applying oneself to Jesus’ words. Both of these sayings have the function of clarifying the earlier quotation from Isaiah – Jesus is not intentionally preventing anyone from being saved. In this context it is relevant to notice that even the disciples, those on the inside, to whom the secret of the kingdom of God has been given (11), don’t understand the parable. In fact a major theme of the rest of Mark’s gospel is the persistent and serious lack of understanding of the disciples, who like everyone else need to have their eyes and ears healed (see for example 8:17-21,29-33).

(d) The two additional parables explain two further aspects of the same process discussed in the sower. The parable of the growing seed (26-29) indicates the inevitable growth and fruit-bearing of the sown seed, which has nothing to do with human effort – in other words, it happens by the power of God. And so the harvest is assured. And the parable of the mustard seed (30-32) depicts the unexpectedly great effect that the growth of this seed will have in the world. The focus here is on the “seed sown on good soil” (20), which, just like Jesus’ ministry, will win out in the end in spite of small beginnings, all sorts of opposition and obstacles, and unlikely odds.

To my mind, reading the parables in their immediate narrative contexts (Level 2), as I have done for the sower above, only makes sense. The fact is that we only have the parables of Jesus embedded in narrative contexts, and when we take these contexts into consideration, the significance of the parables themselves, and of the narrative in which they are set, becomes much clearer. But even at Level 2 we already saw the broader Scriptural and theological context creeping in via Mark’s quotation in verses 11-12, and in some of the interpretive moves I made in points (a)-(d). At Level 3 a lot of new possibilities break in, and the potential for allegorizing breaks open as much as it does at Level 5, given a sufficiently fertile imagination, so much care is needed when working at Level 3.

There is so much more to say about this parable, and about the way the different levels of meaning can contribute to its interpretation, but let me conclude this installment by stating in what sense the sower is the parable of parables. The kingdom of God, which Jesus has come as God’s agent to establish, gets established via the word of God. When the word of God gets sown in us, it powerfully and inevitably produces a great and glorious harvest of righteousness. This happens by the power of God, but it also requires obstacles to be overcome. Many people, even those who hear, will fail to produce the fruit of the kingdom. But many others will hear, accept, and bear fruit, and the harvest will be astounding. When this happens, lives will change and our world will be transformed. The purpose of all the parables is to describe what the kingdom of God is like and/or to stimulate us to think about, come to understand, and then to decide and act in ways that realize this kingdom. The sower is the parable that reveals to us the foundational secret of how this takes place – through the hearing, receiving, and response to the word of God. So “he who has ears to hear, let him hear”!


  1. Thanks for this post. What I’ve found interesting is how the early Church Fathers seem to do a lot more allegorizing with Scripture than those of us from the Reformed tradition are used to. I agree with your approach toward the parables, but I’m still thinking of whether and when we might consider Level 3+ ways of interpreting Scripture. Calvin however had this concept of multiple fulfillment in which Scripture could fulfill on multiple levels, (immediate historical context, future historical fulfillment for Israel, even more future historical fulfillment for the Church, and perhaps something even more eschatological fulfillment in the Endtimes). I’m wondering if the Parables also serve this multiple fulfillment as well, though I’m sort of cautious about this level of interpretation right now. For example, one can make an argument that the seed in the Parable finds its “fulfillment” in the True “Seed” (Kernel of Wheat) in Christ. This is sort of the Level >2 interpretation that some of the early Church Fathers might have made with a passage like this, though I’m not sure if they specifically made this interpretation with the Seed. Trying to give an example of the allegorizing some of them were doing with the Scriptures.

  2. Hi John, thanks for your comment. You raised alot of points in so few words! I think the idea of multiple fulfillments / applications of OT Scripture emerges right in the NT authors themselves. When we read the gospels we have to admit that there are some pretty creative interpretive moves being made to show how Jesus fulfilled OT Scripture. Matthew 1-2 has some great examples. Besides the famous virgin/maiden issue surrounding Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 (Mt 1:23), Matthew uses Hosea 11:1 to explain Jesus’ family’s sojourn in Egypt, and says that Jer 31:15 is fulfilled in Herod’s slaying of the infants (Mt 2:17-18). Is it likely that this was what Jeremiah was thinking about when he penned these words? And you can find this sort of creative application of OT Scripture all over the NT writings. So it the early church fathers and reformers who saw things this way were actually following in a pretty well-attested tradition.
    As for your suggestion about seeing Christ as the True Seed, I think this actually makes alot of sense if you read the parable “canonically” or at Level 3. What gets sown according to Mark? The word (logos) of God. Then think about Jn 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word (logos)” and Jn 1:14 “And the Word became flesh.” On this interpretation, the Sower (whose identity Mark does not disclose in his interpretation) would be God, who is at work sowing Jesus His Son into the world. And this makes sense in view of broader Christian teaching, since the point of getting Jesus’ words into us is actually to get Jesus Himself into us. John 15:4 says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” and then verse 7 says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you….” In this context I’m always impressed (and a bit disconcerted) by what Jesus says in John 6. After telling His disciples to eat His flesh and drink His blood, He then turns around and says “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (6:63)!
    We can then also put all this together with the way God describes the effect of His word in the world in Isaiah 55:10-11, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
    On a view that sees the Holy Spirit as in some way the “author” of Scripture (alongside or behind the human authorship process), these sorts of connections can really start coming together as we wonder, did the Mind of God have all this in mind when the individual authors of the various writings that make up our canonical Scriptures penned their works? I personally find this really exciting and I love drawing connections like this. But at the same time, I want to make sure to keep some measure of self-control and know when I’m going overboard.

    • GerardoR

      Andy and John,
      I have some trouble seeing the seed as Jesus. I mean, surely we hear lots of language about Jesus being the word, and that we must sow Jesus in our heart. But it is also true that there is a difference between hearing the good news and embracing the source of good news. There seems to be an agreement that God is the sower, but the idea that Jesus is the seed troubles me given the message that birds of prey eat the seed.

      I mean, maybe we are not meant to take it that far, that is fair. But I am nonethless troubled by the implications that Jesus is eaten up by evil through our refusal  to listen to the gospel. It seems more  comforting  (to me atleast) to suggest that Jesus himself is the sower and the seed is the “good news.”  

      I am tempted to comment on your point regarding the interpretation of the word “Spirit” in John 6:63 but I wont. I am afraid DavidL might be lurking somewhere just waiting to pounce. He has incredible reformer spidey senses that tingle at the mention of anything related to Catholic church.  
      I say this in good spirits DavidL.  =)    

    • Gerardo, I think this is a good point – any interpretation has to answer to the constraints of the actual parable itself, and as you say a difficulty with seeing Jesus as the seed arises when we try to understand what Satan “taking away the word” from those along the path might refer to.
      Then again, there seems to be a pretty close link between hearing the good news and embracing the source of it, which leads to what seems to me a fruitful ambiguity around the term “word” so that it can refer to Jesus’ teachings or to Jesus Himself, the Word of God. If so, is it too much of a stretch to say that the evil one prevents people from “receiving” Jesus?
      I would personally like very much to hear your take on John 6:63, and how this text gets viewed by Roman Catholics in relation to communion and related subjects, since for me it has always appeared to provide some resistance to taking the utmost literal view of the bread and wine as body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). But I haven’t looked into this very deeply, and so would be interested in knowing what you’re thinking. If you want to avoid spidey senses you could always just send me an email about it.

    • GerardoR

      Hi Andy,
      Then again, there seems to be a pretty close link between hearing the good news and embracing the
      ich leads to what seems to me a fruitful ambiguity around the term “word” so that it can refer to Jesus’ teachings or to Jesus Himself, the Word of God. If so, is it too much of a stretch to say that the evil one prevents people from “receiving” Jesus?
      But again, maybe this is all taking it too far. I am probably overthinking the essential message of the parable that many accept the message but few produce good fruit and endure till the end. How do reformers interpret the good fruit?
      Is it stretch to say that the evil one prevents people from “receiving” Jesus? No, not at all.   I guess I just dont like the prevention part being expressed by eating. =)
      Andy, I would be happy to send you an email. What is your email adress? This is a great article by the way. Very thought provoking. I have been doing lexio devina so this analysis really helps.

  3. GerardoR

    John, I was going to make a similar comment about the Church fathers. I was shocked to read you saying the exact thing that was on my mind. Scary.  

    Yeah, I am amazed by the early Church fathers great use of allegory as well. However, I wonder about the differences between expounding the meaning behind a parable and allegorical interpretations. Because many of the early Church fathers saw great allegories not in the parables of Jesus, but in his life itself.

    Take for example Mark 1:7 “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
    St. Gregory the great interpreted the sandals made from dead animals as representing mankind dead to since. once Christ clothed himself with our nature in the incarnation, the miracle proved  so profound that not even John was able to unfasten or explain this mystery of God-made-man.  

    I find allegory in Jesus ministry quite fascinating as many of the Church fathers saw every little detail in the gospels as meaning something more.  Not that they didnt think the account of Jesus life was real, but that they thought it was revealing more than what was on the words. Lets take another example that is a favorite of mine: the spear through Jesus side. Did this literally happen? The Church Fathers would say, absolutely. But there is a more deeper mystery behind this, namely the birth of the Church from Jesus’ side just as Eve came from the side of Adam.  

    Hence, many of the Church Fathers allegorizing (is that a word?) I think encourages us to look beyond the immediate meaning of many of the events in the gospels. Meaning that is not limited to the present understanding but can try to remind us of events in the past and in the future.  

    Andy, you mentioned the birds of prey that eat up the seed (satans desire to precent the seed from taking root in us). I have often wondered if Jesus was playing off the events in Genesis chapter 15:10-11 when the birds of pray tried to prevent the pact the Lord was making with Abraham (our Father of faith).  

    • I remember reading St. Augustine on allegorizing in connection with Song of Songs (can’t remember what the actual work was called… this was some years back now). His idea was that allegorizing is legitimate so long as elsewhere in Scripture you can find stated plainly whatever truths you reach via the allegorizing. That strikes me as a good limiting principle, and one that obviously didn’t stifle Augustine’s imagination any.
      Regarding the birds of prey link to Gen 15, I think it’s an interesting link, but am not sure how far it can go unless we find some other parallels to the Abraham situation (e.g. connection to hardness of heart, and to some elements of the seed-growth idea). I’m not saying this couldn’t be done, but only that to my mind the more fruitful (interesting/aesthetically pleasing?) meaning-links are the ones that map multiple elements from one setting to another.

    • We still must be careful, first and foremost to understand the author’s intent instead of simply allowing our imaginations to run wild. A bible teacher from the mid 20th century named M.R. DeHaan was infamous for this practice. He said the the tent pegs for the tabernacle were really representative of Christ and his passion  for the following reasons: 1) They were half in the ground and half out of the ground representing Christ’s death and resurrection. 2) They were made of non-rusting metal representing the eternality of our salvation. 3) They were “pierced” through the tabernacle “skin” just like nails pierced Jesus. and on and on.

      I have a big problem with this kind of interpretation because by that same kind of imagination hermenutic  I could come up with a hundred other “meanings” for what the tent pegs might  represent. For instance, I could say that they represent Christ being tethered to the earth, or maybe they represent Christ’s glory because they are shiny, or maybe they represent the sharpness of the Word because they are pointy!

      No, personally, I think the tent pegs were for making sure the tabernacle did not blow away in the wind and thats all. And while Christ does say that the whole  Bible testifies about him, I  dont think that is an invitation to  eisegete into the text  

    • GerardoR

      Hi David,
      I am not saying I agree nor disagree with a particular interpretation or method of interpretation. I am saying that I think it is very interesting all the allegory that went behind much of the way the Church fathers interpreted the scripture. Heck I am surprised the Church fathers even read the bible to begin with *wink*
      I do however, like certain allegories they saw into particular passages like the spear in Jesus side. There has always been a profound mystery surrounding that event to me. But your right, this kind of allegorizing can be tricky and hard to know with certitude if it is true. Well put.

    • Hi David, I think I’m pretty much on board with you about this. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a tent peg is just a tent peg. I also think that there is room for allegorizing, and that to some extent Scripture itself leads us to do this. For instance, Jesus’ body is the temple (John 2:21). All the old testament sacrifices point to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, so that for example a lamb can become a figure for Jesus. The rock with the water coming out of it in the wilderness is also Jesus (1 Cor 10:4). So while I think there need to be constraints (and have been trying to make some initial efforts at suggesting some), I wouldn’t want to just quash imaginative allegorizing either. After all, Jesus Himself taught in parables! What’s up with that? Why didn’t He just say what He wanted to say straight up?

    • Yeah, I also had one sort-of-famous  Old Testament  prof at seminary (Ben W was in that class with me)  who made the argument that unless the NT explicitly quotes or references an OT prophesy, the OT prophesy was only meant for the people who were contemporaries of the prophet. I disagreed with him on that, and so I asked in class, “isnt it possible for prophesies to have two fulfillments? An immediate one and a future one?” He said “No way. A prophesy only has one fulfillment.” He then went on to say that the son who is to be born in Isaiah 7 can only mean Mahar Shalal Hash Baz and not Jesus! To me, that is too limiting of a hermenutic! Not to mention it actually was a virgin in the NT  who bore Christ who is indeed God with us! I certainly understand that historical context is crucially important, but we also must see the whole counsel of God as pointing to Christ because Christ says it does!

    • GerardoR

      Was this prof Christian? Scripture certantly seems to have a very cyclical pattern. I think revelations is an excellent example of this. It deals with events that have passed, events that were passing and events that will pass. In fact, many people see the Mass as fulfilling the events in revelations (present view) and yet, they still hold that revelations refers to things that happen in the past, and things that are to come. This cyclical pattern actually makes a lot of sense when we consider that God see’s all time as now. To him, the future and past are now.

    • That professor would certainly claim to be a Christian, and I have no reason to doubt his claim, but his way of reading the Bible was very minimalist, I even asked him if he believed that Isaiah 53 was pointing to Jesus and he reluctantly said yes, but not like we think it does…he said that “fulfillment” of a prophesy means something closer to “overflowing”. In other words, he said, yes, Jesus was born of a virgin, but that was not a fulfillment of Isaiah 7, Mahar Shalal Hash Baz was a fulfillment of Isaish 7, Jesus was a kind of “overflowing” of the prophesy about Hash Baz. I personally think that his view is actually the opposite of a good interpretation, Jesus is the Fulfillment and Hash Baz was perhaps more incidental, even though Hash Baz was contemporary

  4. Darren Gruett

    I agree that it is the “parable of parables.” Often times when I start a new Bible study group I begin with this vital, foundational story.