Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said:
“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. 5 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, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’’
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?
The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4.1–20)
The Parable of the Sower, also known as the Parable of the Soils, serves as something of a paradigm parable. In other words, the parable functions as a model for hearing other parables. When the Twelve showed that they did not get the point of parable, Jesus chides, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4.13).
At its simplest, a parable is a story that illustrates. However, what is called a “parable” in the NT can include an extended figure of speech; proverb, or even a short pithy saying. Jesus used parables to draw people into His mission. Parables could also repulse those who could not “hear” what Jesus was saying to them.
In this parable the basic pieces of the story are a farmer, seed, and four types of soils in which only one is suitable for producing fruit. Out of these several points could be made. Since Jesus identifies the seed as the word (4.14), we could see Jesus as stressing the need to sow the seed. Or we could read the parable evangelistically to suggest that we need to target good soils. However, this misses the point that the farmer (presumably representing Jesus or God) still spreads seed on all of the soil types.
However, Jesus gives us clues on how to “listen” to this parable. The first word in v. 3 is “listen!” When he finishes telling the parable, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Between the telling and interpretation of the parable, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6.9 as a warning: “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” Then he asks his disciples if they understand the parable. Notice all words related to “getting it.”
If this is correct, then Jesus calls us to assess how well we “listen.” Some don’t listen well at all—it is as if Satan takes the word away as quickly as we hear it. Other can hear as long as life is easy. Yet others can’t hear the word because worries, wealth, and wants are too loud. However, those who do “get it” are extremely productive.
How well then do you hear?