The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)
by David Gowler
The parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-8) is a brief narrative about farming that could be interpreted in numerous ways. Its agricultural images, however, are standard metaphors in Jewish traditions both for instruction and for God’s interactions with Israel. They also are standard analogies about education (Greek, paideia) in Greco-Roman traditions: sowers (teachers) sow (teach), and their seeds (words) are received by various soils (students). In this context, the Gospel of Mark uses the Sower parable to illustrate differing responses to the message and ministry of Jesus.
What is the relationship of the parable (Mark 4:3-8) to its interpretation (Mark 4:14-20)?
The Hebrew word mashal, often translated in Greek as parabole, designates a variety of literary forms that use figurative language. Parables usually involve some sort of implied analogy, though the parallels between the things being compared are often not explicit.
Parables, by their analogical nature, encourage hearers to imagine new possibilities and even to generate allegorical interpretations as a way to respond to the open-ended interpretative potential of parables. The differences between this parable (Mark 4:3-8) and its allegorical interpretation (Mark 4:14-20) lead most scholars to conclude that the interpretation likely stems from the early church, not from Jesus (compare Gospel of Thomas 9, which lacks the interpretation; but see also 2Esd 8:41-44, which includes an interpretation for its sowing metaphor). The language and perspective of the interpretation, for instance, tend to be distinctive of the post-Easter church. The analogies within the interpretation are also inconsistent. For example, do the seeds symbolize the “word” (Mark 4:14) or “people” (Mark 4:15-20)?
The parable invites further questions, such as why any person dependent on productive crops for survival would sow seed among thorns, on rock, and on a beaten path? Some interpreters posit that the parable portrays an incompetent sower, whereas others argue that it realistically depicts first-century farming practices where sowing can precede plowing.
Some recent scholars suggest that Jesus’ parables can include allegory and argue that both the parable and its interpretation come from the historical Jesus. From this perspective, the message of the parable and its allegorical interpretation are basically equivalent.
All interpretations depend upon the context one chooses. The precise historical context in which Jesus spoke the parable is irrecoverable. The historical Jesus could have used the parable to illustrate various responses to his ministry. It could illustrate, as can the parable of the Mustard Seed, how the kingdom of God is present in Jesus’ seemingly insignificant ministry. Perhaps it even suggests Israel’s remnant returning from exile. Mark’s Gospel understands it as illustrative of not only Jesus’ mission but also of the evangelistic work of his followers: they all “sow” the message of God’s (eschatological) kingdom.
What do the different harvests imply?
The parable as it stands in Mark exemplifies differing responses to Jesus’ teaching. The fates of the seeds ultimately depend upon the places where they are sown, so the parable emphasizes the receptivity of the soil (hearer). The first three seeds fail to produce any harvest, which illustrates three types of failed responses to the message of the kingdom; even initially positive or joyful responses can result in failure (Mark 4:3-7, Mark 14-19).
The seeds that produce three levels of plentiful harvest symbolize those hearers who respond positively to that message and persevere. If the harvest yield of thirty, sixty, and hundredfold is miraculous, the harvest can signify the kingdom of God’s eschatological “harvest” at the end of the world. If it is merely a bountiful harvest (i.e., not miraculous), such as Gen 26:12 (Isaac’s yield was a hundredfold, and he was blessed by God) and other texts (for example, Pliny, Natural History 18.40.141; Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, 8.7.4) suggest, then it can be interpreted primarily as the kingdom of God being present in Jesus’ ministry and the ministries of his disciples (Mark 6:7-13).
As John Chrysostom notes (Homily 46, On Matthew), Jesus often uses nature to illustrate his message, because nature follows a set course: sowers sow, crops appear, and the harvest follows. Agricultural metaphors are not just understandable and vivid for first-century hearers; they also imply that the same inevitability applies to Jesus’ message about the kingdom: although there are examples of failure, the harvest is assured. Mark’s interpretation of the parable argues that Jesus’ message follows a similar pattern of rejection and acceptance. The parable thereby also prepares his followers for the rejection and acceptance of their preaching of the kingdom of God, since his disciples will experience similar failures and successes in their ministries.
The parable as it currently stands in Mark thus functions as a prophetic warning to those who do not listen, understand, and act (the first three seeds), but the primary emphasis seems to be a prophetic proclamation of the (ultimate) success of those who do, who are comparable to the holy seed, or remnant, of Israel implied in Isa 6:9-13. Mark’s reading of the parable further emphasizes the necessity to hear, understand, and respond appropriately to the message of the kingdom of God.
David Gowler, "Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)", n.p. [cited 19 Jan 2018]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/parable-of-the-sower
David B. Gowler is Pierce Chair of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University and Senior Faculty Fellow at the Center for Ethics, Emory University. He is the author of the books Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts (Wipf and Stock, 2008) What Are They Saying About the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000), What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? (Paulist Press, 2007), and James Through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).