Flashback Episode — Jesus’ Greatest Parable: Mark 4:1-20

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Moving forward in our journey through the gospel of Mark, we come to what might be Jesus’ most significant parable. While Jesus spoke many significant parables, it appears from how He emphasized this one over all His others that Jesus believed this parable to be the most universal and most foundational parable He shared. Jesus also emphasizes how understanding this parable is crucial for understanding all His other parables.

Without any further delay, let’s jump into this parable and into our passage for this episode. Our passage is found in Mark’s gospel, chapter 4, and we will read from the New Living Translation. Starting in verse 1, Mark tells us that:

Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:

“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

Let me pause reading here because I want to point out something. Over the years, I have heard many different explanations for this parable and a surprising number of applications for Jesus’ four-category distinction here.

However, of all the parables Jesus shared, this is the parable where we should speculate the least. This is because I believe this is the only parable included in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that has consistently been included with its explanation. It would seem that the gospel writers wanted us to know this parable and specifically to know Jesus’ own explanation. I believe this might be one reason Mark has pulled this parable into being the first parable His gospel includes. The only other parable-like thing Jesus shared prior to this comes near the end of the previous chapter, when Jesus was challenged about being aligned with Satan. We focused on this a couple episodes ago.

However, while that illustration is given the description of being a parable, that teaching is responding to a challenge rather than teaching truth in a fresh way. These two events point us to two of the ways Jesus used parables. One was to push back at the religious leaders’ challenges, and the other was to teach truth.

When the disciples ask Jesus about this, we discover some amazing things. Continuing reading in verse 10:

10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant.

11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, 12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:

‘When they see what I do,
    they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
    they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
    and be forgiven.’”

13 Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? 14 The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. 15 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. 16 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. 18 The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. 20 And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

In this broader passage, we have an explanation for why Jesus spoke in parables and we have the explanation on the parable of the four types of soil. This passage teaches us that Jesus used parables because He wanted to confuse those who did not have the Holy Spirit, while teaching, challenging, and encouraging those who were aligned with God. This passage also emphasizes the truth that understanding how people accept and apply God’s Word is important for us to know.

I have read this parable more times than I can remember, but while reading it this time, I am struck with the idea that this parable is not a parable about belief in God’s Word. Prior to this reading, I think I always subtly assumed this parable was about believing and accepting God’s Word, but that is only a tiny sliver of the emphasis.

Instead, this parable is a parable about internalizing and applying God’s Word. When we look at Jesus’ descriptions of all the soil types, we discover that every one of these types of soil is categorized by how it interacts with the seed in a tangible way. In the same way, Jesus’ explanation emphasizes how we apply God’s Word and His message in our lives.

The footpath that seed lands on includes those who hear God’s Word and His message, but who simply reject it because it doesn’t make sense or because they simply don’t care. Satan steals the significance of God’s message away or he twists God’s truth into sounding undesirable. We could describe people represented by the footpath as closed-minded, because God’s message is unable to take root in their minds and they reject it before even thinking about applying it.

The rocky soil includes those who hear and accept the message with joy, which is great, but they don’t let the message take root or impact their lives. This represents people who accept Jesus, but who live their lives like they did before and don’t let God’s truth affect their hearts, their attitudes, and especially their actions. The people represented by the rocky soil seem to accept this message, but they are too fearful or scared of what applying God’s truth will do in their lives that they give up on it because God’s truth and His message isn’t easy or comfortable to apply.

The thorny soil includes those who hear and accept God’s Word and message with joy, and they begin applying it in their lives. However, as God’s message is countercultural, these people let other things crowd out applying God’s message. Those included in the thorny soil might say outwardly that they follow, accept, and apply God’s truth, but when we look at how they apply their time and their lives, we see case after case of focus placed on anything and everything but doing God’s will or applying God’s Word in tangible ways.

However, the least descriptive of the soil types is the seed that falls on good soil. Jesus’ explanation tells us that those who are represented by the good soil are people who hear and accept God’s Word, and this results in them applying God’s truth and producing a harvest significantly greater than what was planted.

Also in this explanation is the idea that those in the first three soil types are alone, while those in the good soil are together. This emphasizes how important community is for our continued spiritual growth. While our personal lives and our personal roots are important, it is also important that we are a part of a community. Only with a community of people can we produce a harvest much greater than we can alone.

Jesus emphasizes this as one of His most important parables and I hope you can see why. In this parable, we discover many things, including our mission, which is spreading God’s Word like the farmer, the importance of our lives and our actions, represented by the types of soil, and the emphasis on being a part of a community to help us grow. Being alone never results in lasting growth or a productive harvest.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, intentionally seek God first in your life and be sure to apply God’s Word and His message in your heart, in your actions, and in your attitude. If you have been trying to grow spiritually on your own, consider this parable a challenge to seek out a community you can grow with.

Also, keep praying and studying the Bible for yourself. While listening to others and being a part of a community are important, never let your relationships with other or the ideas of others impact your personal relationship with God and your personal prayer and study of His Word. We need a strong personal foundation and a strong supportive community to grow spiritually mature and confident in God’s truth.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or let Satan steal you away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year in Mark – Episode 9: Of all the parables Jesus shared, one parable stands out as significant because this parable is the only one included in three of the four gospels that also is always included with Jesus’ own explanation for what it means. Jesus emphasized the importance of this parable, and understanding this parable is incredibly important for us too.

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