The Sower (Part 3)

As I hope I made clear in part two of this series, my preferred way of reading the parable of the sower uses Level 2 (the parable in the narrative context of the gospel) liberally and Level 3 (the parable in the context of Scripture as a whole) more cautiously. I acknowledge that there are benefits to reading a parable using Level 1 (in isolation from its narrative context), or Levels 4-6 (in its cultural context, in the context of Christian theology, in the context of truth in general). But on their own, they either fail to give us enough direction on how to interpret the parable (Level 1) or gives us too many possible directions, potentially leading to interpretive paralysis and despair (Levels 4-6). When the parable of the sower is read in its narrative context, the meaning becomes clear, and in turn it clarifies what is going on in Jesus’ ministry as recounted by Mark in his gospel. The kingdom of God is near. It is being established through the sowing of the word by Jesus. In the people who hear, accept and act accordingly (bear fruit), it will grow up and produce fruit magnificently. So we need to consider carefully how we hear.

In part two I did not discuss an important facet of the interpretation of the sower parable: namely, the ambiguity concerning whether it is the word or the people who are sown. If you look carefully at verses 14-20, sometimes the seed that is sown is the word (14-15) and sometimes it is the people (16,18,20). What might be the significance of this? Was Mark just being sloppy?

The explanation for this apparent conundrum lies a bit later on in the Isaiah 6 passage from which Mark quotes. Isaiah reports God’s declaration that in spite of the devastating judgment to come upon the land, “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land” (13). Here, the “holy seed” refers to the people of God. God’s activity in Jesus’ ministry was not only the sowing of the word in people, but the sowing of people in the land. More specifically, in Jesus God was re-sowing Israel, the people of His kingdom. Jesus confidently prophesied that this kingdom would grow like a mustard seed into “tallest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (Mk 4:32).

The kingdom God envisioned for His people has always been a kingdom to be established through the hearing of His word that leads to faith and obedience. To touch on a UBF favourite, before God prefaced his declaration to the Israelites that they would be for Him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation with the clause, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant….” (Ex 19:5). In this context it is also worth noting that what Jesus himself calls the first and greatest commandment, the Shema, also begins (as does the parable of the sower!) with the call to hear: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5). And apparently the word “to hear” in Hebrew also has the meaning, “to obey” so that there is no question of truly hearing God’s word but being disobedient to it. I hear echoes of James at this point: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22,25).

Maybe this is starting to sound dangerously like law- or works-righteousness to you? Well, I would like to say two things about this (which, by the way, links this series back to a short discussion that went on between Joe, Dr. Ben and myself had in the comments on the last part of Joe’s 13-part series). First, even though I believe in justification by faith alone (Ro 1:17; 3:28), I also think we need to uphold James’ point that faith without works is dead (2:17,24), which I think Paul actually agrees with at several points even in the letter to the Romans (1:5; 6:16-18). John 6:29 brings this out neatly: “Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ ” To bring this back to the sower parable, those who truly hear the word are those who also accept it and bear fruit. BUT, I also want to add that the obedience that comes from our faith and is integrally linked to it does not really come from us, and so there is still no room for boasting. In the language of the sower and connected parables in Mark 4, it is the seed sown in us that grows up and bear fruit, causing those who hear to grow up and bear fruit along with it. The seed grows up and bears fruit, and the kingdom of God comes, like this: “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (4:27-28). In other words, a life that bears the fruit of the kingdom is the natural outflow of the work of the word of God sown in us.

The last point I want to make is to draw attention once more to the reversal Mark makes of the apparent insider/outsider distinction based on Isaiah 6:9-10. The disciples, unlike those on the outside, have been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but they themselves do not understand. And they really don’t understand, as Mark makes clear over and over again throughout his gospel. I mentioned what happens in Mark 8 in the last post. We could also cite Mark 6 – the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, but they think it’s a ghost. After Jesus calms the wind and waves, Mark comments, “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52). Take a look also at 7:17-18. “Are you so dull?… Don’t you see..?” “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (8:17-18) “But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (9:32). The disciples repeatedly fail to understand what is happening around them. They argue about who is the greatest instead of seeing the greatness of the kingdom revealed in Jesus who came to serve. They are indignant when they see Mary pour out her perfume on Jesus. They try to resist with violence against the mob that comes to arrest Jesus instead of understanding the way of the cross. They don’t believe the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

What might Mark be trying to convey to his readers by presenting the disciples in this way? Remember that these very disciples are the apostles and leaders of the Church, the heroes of the faith for the early Christians Mark initially wrote for. If even these guys struggled so hard to understand the kingdom, what about us? Are we likely to be doing much better than they did? “Consider carefully what you hear,” Jesus warns us in Mark 4:24. The way I have often heard people deal with Mark 4 is to go through the different obstacles (path, rocks, thorns) and ask what sort of soil we are. In those discussions, hardly anyone thinks he or she is like the hardened path that the word doesn’t even get inside. But I think our hearts are often hardened like the path, hardened by repeated use. We have heard the gospel stories so many times that, just as ground that gets packed down by frequent travelling, we have such fixed ideas about what they mean that we aren’t really open to hear anymore, and the word Jesus is speaking to us now often doesn’t even get in.

I think we have a lot more to learn from blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52) than we would like to admit. (I am mainly talking about myself here, as I continue to realize how much I have to learn and how little I know of God’s kingdom.) Bartimaeus was under no illusions about his blindness. With this in mind he cried out with all his strength, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he simply said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” To this man, Jesus replied, ” ‘Go… your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (52). The attitude we need to have as hearers of the word combines a serious humility: sober judgment about our ignorance, but combined with a vibrant hope in Jesus, who “even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (7:37; see also 7:33-35 and 8:22-26).

God has indeed given us the secret of His kingdom in the person of Jesus. Now it’s up to us to heed His main imperative, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9:7).


  1. Bailey, K.E. Poet and Peasant: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
  2. Capon, R.F. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
  3. Crossan, J.D. “The Parables of Jesus,” in Interpretation, July 2002, pp. 247-259.
  4. Evans, C.A. “On the Isaianic Background of the Sower Parable,” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 47:1985, pp. 464-468.
  5. France, R.T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
  6. Hedrick, C.W. Many Things in Parables: Jesus and his Modern Critics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
  7. Heil, J.P. “Reader-Response and the Narrative Context of the Parables about
  8. Growing Seed in Mark 4:1-34,” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 54:1992, pp. 271-286.
  9. Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.
  10. Snodgrass, K. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
  11. Westermann, C. The Parables of Jesus in the Light of the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990.
  12. Yoder Neufeld, T.R. Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007.


  1. GerardoR

    Hi Andy,
    Your paragraph about works of righteousness is quite interesting. You start by honestly  acknowledging  that the parable seems to support that the idea that we must be sown (have faith) and produce fruit (good works). You then give further evidence from James and Paul. Finally, you say that it seems that those who truly hear the word are those who accept and bear fruit. You consider this and state that obedience (or fruit producing) is also a gift from God. Is this correct? If so, you are essentially describing the Catholic, eastern orthodox (and I think  Anglican) position of salvation. Both faith and works are  necessary  but they are both gifts of God (Grace Alone).  

    The lack of understanding and the swiftness of the gospel is a  reoccurring  pattern in Mark.

    • I guess I’ll start this reply by saying that I consider myself only a budding theologian, and so am very interested in just getting feedback from people who think this stuff is as important as I do on the topics under discussion.
      Beyond that, I would say that the Scriptures I have cited in this post and also in the previous discussion (to which there is a link at the beginning of this post) need to be dealt with if we are serious that Christ rules the church through the Scripture (rather than the works of any particular theologian, even Calvin). The way I’ve put things is my effort to make sense of these Scriptures, and if that has echoes with how other Christian traditions see things, all the better.
      The only worry, I guess, would be that “salvation by faith alone” is being denied. But I don’t think I am denying that. I’m just going along with James a bit (and by the way I don’t see James as doing much more than Jesus does in Matthew’s gospel), and asking, “So you have faith without any works? Cool, what does that look like? Let’s take an example – you see a brother shivering in the cold and you’ve got an extra coat at home, but you say, ‘Hey Buddy, God bless you and keep you warm; hope you don’t freeze!’ and then leave him alone. In other words, your faith in the God of love, the God who laid down his life for us and commanded us to love each other as he loved us, doesn’t move you to do anything about it. What kind of faith do you have then? You believe in that God? Tell me more….”
      I love “salvation by faith alone” because I think that what God really cares about from His children is that they trust in Him and acknowledge that He is everything to them, and all their good gifts and works are only from Him and apart from Him they can do nothing. Works apart from such an attitude would be of very little or even negative value (filthy rags). But if I have faith in this God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, whose will is that we be conformed to the likeness of His Son, and yet don’t strive to do His will, what is the meaning of my assertion that I have faith in Him? If it doesn’t change my life, what is it doing? Isn’t it basically dead?
      For another Scriptural look at these themes, take Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I find it interesting that Paul, right after emphasizing that salvation is by grace, through faith and this is the gift of God, turns around and reminds us that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works! Not that we are saved by these works, but saving faith doesn’t exist without them.
      Am I going to far here? Does this make sense to everyone? I’m not trying to say that what I’m saying is definitive by any stretch, but where else can we go with these Scriptures?

    • GerardoR

      Makes sense Andy. But I hear you doing two things.  
      #1 You are  inadvertently  defending the Catholic/orthodox view of Faith + Works using scripture  
      and then
      #2 Saying you like faith alone and try to defend faith alone using another set of passages

      As you have said before, this struggle can be good. I will leave my opinion out of this because I think this thread is very interesting and I dont want to derail it with another Gerardo vs. David debate. =)  We have had enough of those.

    • Maybe. But is your characterization of what I’m doing the same as saying that:
      (1) We are justified by faith alone
      (2) True faith produces works and is not found without them?
      If it is, then I’m okay with your characterization. In my own mind, I’m not doing anything inconsistent. But the way you worded it, it sounds inconsistent. Do you think (1) and (2) are inconsistent? Should either of Catholics or Protestants think they are inconsistent?

    • GerardoR

      You description is very much in line with traditional reformer theology. DavidL posted a video a while back that  summarizes  that position quite well. By the way you just  characterized  it, you are not being inconsistent at all. Your internal logic is quite clear to me now.  

      Ofcourse, as a non reformer, I look at the parable of the sower as straight forward evidence of a faith + works view so your view is in conflict with my own view.  But that just might be my bias for seeing everything from my own world views’ perspective and trying to reconcile scripture with what I feel  comfortable  with.  

      There is actually an interesting social psychological theory about this called motivated reasoning. It says that we essential find it difficult to retrieve certain memories that go against our particular motivation. Not because we are consciously trying to ignore counter reasoning, but because on an implicit level, our psyche maintains information and memories that are relevant to our motivation in a much higher state of activation which makes it easier for retrieval. And then, things that are easier to retrieve are usually liked better.
      I have actually been accused by liberal catholics of being too orthodox and Loving the Church to the point that it blinds me from seeing the many ways it is wrong.

  2. Meredith Ovenden

    Andy – I haven’t read this yet, but I appreciate the picture of the cat!   Don’t know yet why it’s there :)  

    • The subtitle of this article was “How is your hearing?” and the cat seems to be listening.

    • Meredith Ovenden

      Ohhh a hearing cat.   of course.  

  3. Just want to give a shout-out to our friend Andy and all of Waterloo ubf! I think this series is excellent, but it was published during a time when I was in the middle of intense “battle” against ubf people after raising just a few questions about the ministry. So I’d like to re-read this series and perhaps share some thoughts.

    I think it is worth stating publicly that I would consider Waterloo ubf another example (like Westloop) of how ubf could become a viable ministry again. I know Joshua and I am excited to learn he is taking a 1 year sabbatical, letting Andy’s family become pastor and establishing new leadership paradigms. This is awesome!

    Waterloo report

    And by the way, Waterloo is the only chapter (that I know of) with the guts to link to ubfriends :)

  4. Great of hear of Joshua taking a one year sabbatical, and of Andy taking stewardship of Waterloo UBF. By God’s grace, this may be prayerfully done more and more to truly empower the next generation of leaders, and to allow for indigenous leadership to spawn and multiply.

    Not to promote any controversy, but perhaps a simplified distinction or difference may be spelled out as such:

    Catholic position is Faith + Works = Salvation.

    Protestant position is Faith = Salvation + Works.

    Though I would align and incline toward the Protestant position, I would not think it necessary to “fight” over this just because of the order of where Works is placed in the equation above.

    Also, it is likely true that even though some Protestants claim the Faith alone position, they practically function as though Works must precede salvation.

    Thus, no fighting is necessary, safe to preach Christ crucified with the utmost of joy, awe and gratitude.