Communicating Christ: The Parable of the Sower

by on Jan.20, 2013, under Sermon

Reading: Mark 4:1-20.

We can learn much about sharing our faith from this passage, both from the method Jesus used and also from the content of this parable itself.

The scene is clear. Jesus is out by a lake, and people come out from the surrounding countryside to hear him teach. Perhaps the first thing we can learn from Jesus’ method in this passage is that he didn’t shy away when the opportunity arose to share the gospel. Even when seeking solitude after hearing of the death of his cousin, Jesus is still willing to meet with the crowds who come out to him (Matt 14:13-14). We are told that he had ‘compassion’ upon them, though the Greek word used has to do with the innards and suggests a stronger translation; we might say ‘gut-wrenching’ or ‘heart-rending’ sympathy.

Chances are that we are not followed around by crowds desperate to hear our teaching, as Jesus was. Yet we need to make sure that we do not lose or squander opportunities to share the Gospel. You may be tired, hungry, mourning, busy, in a bad mood etc. But do you have the deep-seated compassion for the lost that Jesus did and does? If so, no matter what your personal circumstances, don’t pass up an opportunity to share the Gospel because you are not feeling up to it, or because it is inconvenient.

Similarly, don’t allow external circumstances to hinder you. Jesus got into a boat and pulled out a little way from the shore so that more people could see him and hear him. Israeli scientists have verified that the location popularly identified with this account, the so-called ‘Bay of Parables’, can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people all at once.1 Once again, we might not ever have need or opportunity to share our faith with thousands of people all at once. But perhaps we can arrange to meet with our friends at a quiet cafe or restaurant instead of a noisy pub or club. Maybe we turn the TV off, or close up our laptop, when engaging in conversation. Consider whether you really need to check the text that just came in on your phone, or if now is actually the best time to be facebooking. What message are you sending about the importance (or otherwise) of the Gospel? Maybe you can give these things a miss for the sake of the Gospel.

Then again, perhaps we do have opportunities to ‘speak’ to hundreds and even thousands at once. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter is an obvious example of how this might happen. Yet, sadly, these media often encourage regular updates with little or no thought, condensed to ‘sound bites’ of 140 characters or less, and so on. Keeping our message short is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be because we have taken the time to distil our message in to its most concise and clearest form, not because that’s all the thinking we have done, and we can’t be bothered doing more. There was a time when putting pen to paper and publishing one’s thoughts was a time-consuming operation, usually involving an editor or publisher collaborating with an author to ensure that what was to be published was appropriate to its audience and purpose; those days are gone. Yet we, as Christians, ought still to ensure that we are thoughtful and careful in what we say and do, for we are ambassadors of Christ.
As Christians, let’s make sure that if we are saying anything, that it is something of substance, something worth saying. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we ought to ensure that our words and thoughts flow from spending time with God, reading and praying through his word. You will only have something worth saying if you are first listening to God.

Let us, like Jesus, give careful attention to both the form and the content of our message.

One of the most challenging aspects of sharing the Christian faith in Australia in the 21st century is apathy. We live in a culture that encourages what it calls ‘tolerance’, and whose catch-cry might well be ‘Let’s agree to disagree.’ Friends and family will often listen in a politely bemused silence as we explain how encountering Jesus has changed our life, how the Gospel means that we need no longer be a slave to sin but can instead come into relationship with God, how God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself… and at the end of it all, their response is limited to, ‘I’m glad that works for you, but what has it got to do with me?’

When we read the pages of the New Testament, however, we quickly realise that this was not a problem Jesus faced. Or, rather, it was a problem that Jesus was a master at overcoming. Already in the 3 chapters of Mark’s Gospel that precede tonight’s passage, responses to Jesus’ message have covered the entire spectrum from eager acceptance, people leaving all they have to follow Jesus, all the way through to accusations of Jesus being demon possessed and a law-breaker. What we don’t read is, ‘They smiled politely, then went about their business’ or, ‘That’s nice’. Jesus continually provoked responses, both positive and negative.
In part, this is a reflection of a change in our society: 21st century Australia is very different to 1st century Judea. But I think it has at least as much to do with the way Jesus went about proclaiming his message. And one of the most distinctive and effective characteristics of his teaching is the way Jesus used parables.

The Greek word παραβολή is made up of two words that mean ‘alongside’ and ‘throw’.2 The way words are constructed does not always have a bearing on meaning (think of ‘pineapple’ which is neither an apple, nor grows on pines). But in this case it gives us a pretty good approximation, for a parable is where we ‘throw’ something well-known alongside something that is not well-known, with the aim showing how they are the same. Students of English will know that we speak of such things as similes, metaphors, analogies and so on; all of these have their part to play in parables. But parables also contain something more. Once a parable is correctly understood, it demands a response from the hearer. There is generally one character or element of each parable with which Jesus wants his listeners to identify.

For example, when Jesus speaks the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), he ends by asking:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36–37)

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules, it is often the last character mentioned who we are meant to identify with. This helps us to understand, for example, why Jesus adds details about the older son to the story of the Lost Son in Luke 15:28-32. At the start of the chapter, we read:

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1–2)

So Jesus is actually addressing two groups of people: the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to him; and the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) land the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). At the end of the first two parables, the leading character invites friends and neighbours to ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’ (Luke 15:6), and again ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’ (Luke 15:9). The desired response, from both sinners and the self-proclaimed righteous is rejoicing.

But in the third parable, Jesus goes further. The party to celebrate the return of the younger son is started, and all have been invited to rejoice, but the older son rejects that invitation. Even though he is a member of the family, who should have been overjoyed at the return of his brother, he is resentful and rebellious. He refuses to come in, even though the father appeals to him in person. This third parable is as much and perhaps more about the older son as it is about the younger, for truly it was the older son who was ‘lost’ in the end. The intended audience is those Pharisees and teachers of the law who complained that Jesus was welcoming and eating with ‘sinners’. Once they have understood that they are represented by the older son, a response is required: will they continue to refuse their father’s appeals to come in and rejoice (an action very nearly as disgraceful as the actions of the younger son in asking for his inheritance before his father was dead); or will they obey their father?

When we share our faith, when we tell the Gospel, we need to be clear that we are presenting people with a choice between two alternatives. On the one hand, they can act in obedience to God’s will, and rejoice over the things God rejoices over and weep about the things God weeps about. Or they can set themselves against God, pretending sovereignty over their own life and destiny, a path which ultimately leads to destruction. There is no fence on which to sit when it comes to the Gospel; Jesus said, ‘He who is not with me is against me’ (Matt 12:30; Luke 11:23). If we have not clearly shown the required response, by our words and actions, we have not really shared the Gospel.

The question arises: if parables are such an effective method of teaching the Gospel, should we use parables when we share our faith? A large part of the reason parables are effective is because they connect with things that are common in peoples’ daily lives. Even today, Jesus’ parables have great power because even though we do not witness crop farming or fishing and so on as a daily occurrence, most of us have, at some time, planted a seed, or caught a fish. So, I encourage you to know and use Jesus’ parables.

But sometimes, parables that spring from your common experience with the person you are sharing your faith with can be an effective tool for witness. I encourage you to keep your eyes open, and consider how current events, movies, books and so on teach you about the Gospel. Did you go and see The Hobbit together? Take some time to reflect on what it meant for Bilbo to be specially ‘chosen and selected’ to do a job that he had no qualifications or experience for; what mission has God picked you out for? Bilbo set out on a journey, leaving behind the comforts of home, ‘without [even] a pocket-handkerchief'; what comforts will you have to leave behind on your Christian journey? Maybe you went to an art gallery together, and noticed that the masterpieces had frames that complemented them, perhaps wrought with great skill yet not themselves the focal point; is your life a frame that points to the great masterpiece of the Gospel?

I’m not saying you should spend your entire life trying to come up with different ways of explaining and illustrating the Gospel at the expense of enjoying them. But do keep your eyes open and set aside some time to think and pray about what you observe and how it relates to your Christian walk and faith. Once again, time for thought and prayer is important here, for parables made up on the spot are rarely effective; properly thought and prayed through, however, they can be very powerful indeed.
Let us turn now to the content of Jesus’ parable found in Mark 4. I chose to look first at the parables about the Good Samaritan and the Lost Son, because they are well-known and generally well understood. But things were not always clear-cut with Jesus’ parables, and I think that the parable that he tells in Mark 4 illustrates this well. He speaks of a farmer sowing seed. Depending on the nature of the soil in which the seed falls, there are different outcomes: some soils result in no crop, some in a crop that grows quickly but does not last until the harvest, and other soils result in a good crop.

This is all well and good, but it is difficult to see what the original audience would have made of it, lacking the explanation Jesus gives in the latter part of the passage. Certainly they would have understood the imagery; some scholars suggest that Jesus’ teaching on this topic may even have been prompted by seeing a farmer in a nearby field that day! But what was the point? What response was being called for from them? Who or what were they supposed to identify with in the story? The farmer? The seed? One of the soils?

Fortunately we don’t have to guess what Jesus meant in this instance, for Jesus himself explains it to his disciples. The seed is the word, and the soils represent different kinds of people. Some people either reject the Gospel or fall away from it from lack of grounding in the faith or being starved out by the cares of the world. But others accept that word and grow up healthy and strong, producing a crop up to a hundred times what was sown.

But we have seen that parables, properly understood, demand a response; what response is Jesus calling for in this instance? Like with the Good Samaritan and the Lost (elder) Son, I believe that the emphasis is on the last item mentioned, the soil that bore fruit that multiplied the original seed ‘thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times’. Most farmers in days before genetically modified crops, pesticides and so on, would have considered a thirtyfold increase on what was sown to be a good crop, for the average yield was about tenfold throughout most of Palestine.3 Sixtyfold would have been a very good crop, whilst a hundredfold increase would only have been a possibility in the most fertile area in the region, the Jordan Valley, and rare even there. The response required by this parable, then, is that those who accept the word (the ‘good’ soil) should allow it to grow in them and produce fruit. And, whilst I wouldn’t want to push the imagery too far, it is at least worth remembering that crop produced is of the same kind as the word originally sown; crop farmers save some of this year’s crop as seed for next year’s harvest. Thus, if the seed is the word of God, so too should be the crop that is harvested.

Is this the case in your life? Have you accepted the word of God? If so, is it growing in you? When God harvests the crop that is your life, is it his own word that he finds growing there? Can he use you to sow into other soils, other lives, other people? Take some time this week to have a look at your life, and seriously ask yourself whether it is the Gospel that flourishes there.

So, in summary, let me encourage you to seize every opportunity to share the Gospel. Spend plenty of time with God, reading his word and praying, otherwise you will not have anything worthwhile to say. Be clear that there is no fence to sit on when it comes to the Gospel. Know and use Jesus’ parables, and keep your eyes open for modern-day parables, as these can be an effective way of inviting response. And examine your own life to see if the seed planted there – the word of God! – is bearing fruit of the same kind that can be sown into the lives of others.

I want to close with one final encouragement. In his explanation, Jesus identifies the seed, the soils, the thorns and so on; but he never identifies the farmer. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt who is intended, for it is Jesus himself who spreads the word of God. As you share your faith with those around you, remember that it is God who plants the word in peoples’ hearts. Don’t be disheartened if there is a negative response; Jesus himself encountered criticism, jealousy, accusations of demon-possession and, ultimately, died at the hands of those who rejected his words, those of the stony soil. Don’t be surprised or discouraged when friends who have professed themselves Christians walk away from Christ, because of hard times or the lures of the world; though incredibly sad, Jesus told us that these things will happen. Instead, remember that where the sower sows his seed – where God himself plants the Gospel – there will ultimately be a bumper crop.

The sower knows his work!


Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Accordance electronic ed, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.


  1. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Accordance electronic ed., Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 126.
  2. Ibid., 127.
  3. Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 144.

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