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Is It Waste Or Wonder?


Mark 4:1-9; 13-25

1] I have seen the Douglas Fir trees in the coastal region of British Columbia. The Douglas Firs are magnificent: their height, their circumference, their mass, their age (400 years old, in some cases.) To behold the Douglas Firs is to find oneself awed at their splendour, their resilience, their immensity.

As often as I see this arboreal magnificence it never occurs to me exclaim, “What a waste! Think of how few trees grew up compared to all the fir cones that fell to the forest floor.” Upon seeing the Douglas Firs you would never say, “What’s so very impressive? Ninety-nine per cent of the cones that fell upon the ground rotted away without remainder.” Anyone who spoke like this we’d regard as deficient on several fronts.


2] In the parable of the sower and the seed, a parable about a huge amount of seed sown and little seed that comes to anything, we have an incident from the earthly life and ministry of Jesus himself. This gospel incident occurred around 30 A.D. when Jesus was moving around Palestine. Mark wrote his gospel about 68 A.D., almost 40 years later. Plainly Mark thought the gospel incident to be something the Christians in Rome needed to hear in 68. Indeed they did. For by 68 emperor Nero was on the rampage. Whether sane or not, Nero was certainly savage. He persecuted Christians relentlessly, covering some in pitch and setting them on fire, feeding others to wild animals, and crucifying others still. The Christian community in Rome wasn’t large; every day it seemed to be getting smaller. Its leaders were saying to each other, “We’ve spent 40 years sowing the seed of the gospel. So little seems to have come of it, since the church remains numerically small.” Then church leaders asked themselves another question, a haunting question: “Since sowing the seed of the gospel engenders faith in Jesus Christ, and since faith in Christ entails public confession of Christ, and since public confession brings on savage persecution, is it right for us to go on sowing the seed of gospel? Should we be inviting people to their execution?”

Mark knew that the answer to their question was to be found in the earthly utterances of Jesus, which utterances had circulated orally for 40 years. Mark knew it was time to commit these earthly utterances of Jesus to writing so that Christians would always have them. And so Mark wrote his 16-chapter gospel, containing the parable of the sower (together with the explanation of the parable.) Mark knew that Christ’s word 40 years earlier would inform and sustain and direct his fellow-Christians in Rome now.


3] Actually the parable of the sower (as we’ve been taught to call it) is really a parable about soil. It’s a parable about different kinds of soil.

The first kind of soil is a footpath whose earth passers-by have trampled down rock-hard. The seed never even penetrates this kind of soil. The seed sits on the surface, but only for a minute before the birds eat it up. The birds? For those slow to understand (people like us) Jesus explains, “Satan immediately takes away the word that’s been sown on these hardened people.” So far as the gospel is concerned, these people are simply inert.

The second kind of soil is rocky ground. The situation of the people likened to rocky ground is more complex. In fact there are three phases to their response when they hear the gospel.

Phase 1 The seed of the gospel germinates in them. As it germinates and takes root new life appears and these people rejoice. The gospel brings peace and freedom. Their new-found peace and freedom exhilarate them. Joy!

Phase 2 Their endurance is but momentary. They thought they saw signs of stability and endurance in themselves, but the signs they thought they saw are deceptive.

Phase 3 Defeat overtakes them. They are defeated at the onset of hardship. To be sure, the seed of the gospel germinated in them; it even took root; life appeared; but it didn’t last. Hardship snuffed it out. Hardship exposed their shallow root system as so very shallow as not to be able to sustain them.

The third kind of soil is a brier patch. The seed of the gospel germinates in these people too, bringing them to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Their faith is genuine. It develops and appears full of promise. While it appears full of promise, however, it never matures in that distractions, many different distractions, find it withering from neglect. What are the deadly distractions? Jesus mentions “the cares of the world, the delight in riches, and the desire for other things.”

We must be sure to understand that the cares of the world are just that: cares. They aren’t trifles; they aren’t trivia; they aren’t toys. They are legitimate cares: earning a living, raising children, caring for aged parents, finding accommodation, coping with illness. Our Lord never pretends these cares aren’t legitimate. Even so, he says and we should note, if they distract us they are spiritually lethal. The cares are legitimate; the distraction which they occasion isn’t. Then we mustn’t allow cares to distract us.

Ever since I was old enough to reflect on the Christian life and challenges to it, I’ve been inspired by people whose challenges didn’t find them distracted but who fended off the illegitimate distraction of cares that were legitimate in themselves. These people, inspiring me repeatedly for 50 years, stand out for me like beacons, lighthouses, even icons. One such person was my maternal grandfather. During the depression my grandfather worked in the factory of the Ford Motor Company in Windsor. Factory workers in those days were paid a pittance. My grandfather had to support a wife and four teenaged children. He was out of work for five months in 1930 and six months in 1931. Throughout this period his family walked to church every Sunday, and every Sunday my grandfather placed his offering in the offering plate. My mother tells me their neighbours in the working class neighbourhood where they lived thought my grandfather crazy because he went to church to praise God in the midst of the “Great Depression”, while fellow church-members thought him crazy because he contributed his offering when he had no work. Jesus says the cares of the world are genuine cares; the distraction that they can occasion, however, is without excuse.

There are distractions in addition to the cares of the world, says Jesus. These other distractions are the delight in riches and the desire for other things. There’s nothing legitimate about them. They pander to and foster what’s basest in us: envy, greed, craving for social superiority. Of themselves, the delight in riches and the desire for other things are nothing but frivolousness and foolishness and frippery. These distractions are shallow, as shallow as cares are profound. Still, whether profound or shallow, distractions are distractions. They cause to wither that developing faith which to date has given every indication of flourishing. Distractions appear to be insignificant. But in matters of the Spirit, says Jesus, distractions are as deadly as Satan’s most frontal assault.

The fourth kind of soil is fertile soil, uncluttered, receptive. The seed that is sown here germinates, takes root, develops, matures; all with the result that astonishing fruitfulness appears. The yield is mind-boggling. Jesus speaks of the yield as 30 times greater than the quantity of seed sown, 60 times greater, even 100! We shouldn’t overpress the arithmetical analogy; our Lord means us to understand that the yield is so munificent as to be incalculable. Only 25% of the seed ever matures (without overpressing the arithmetic)? But the 25% that does mature yields a fruitfulness that no one can add up.


4] By 68 A.D. Christians in Rome were lamenting to each other, “So much sowing, and so few results.” Whereupon Mark brought forward and wrote up a word from the earthly ministry of Jesus 40 years earlier: “Keep on sowing; one day the yield will be and be seen to be astonishing.”

There’s more to be said. In the teaching that immediately follows the parable of the sower Jesus says, “No one who possesses a lamp puts it under a basket or hides it under abed. Anyone who possesses a lamp holds it up so that the light which has enlightened him may enlighten others in turn.” We who are disciples are never to deliberate with ourselves as to whether we should bother holding up the light or whether there’s any point to it. Our only task is to hold up the light that has enlightened us and leave the rest to God.

In the teaching that follows the teaching that follows the parable of the sower; that is, in the final teaching concerning the incident, Jesus says to the disciples, “Unless you relay the good news of the kingdom, you yourselves will lose what’s been given you. So be sure to pass it on. Your own vision and hearing grow only as you hold up the light and declare the truth. So just be sure that you keep on sowing seed.”


5] No one who looks at a new-born baby; no one sharing the joy of the parents in their long-awaited child; no such person says dejectedly, “Think of all the other spermatozoa wasted.” No one says this. No one standing among the Douglas Firs says, “Think of all the fir cones wasted.” Jesus says, “Yes, I’m aware that relatively little seed thrives and bears fruit; but the fruit that appears is of such magnitude and magnificence that to behold it is to think of nothing else.” Our Lord tells us that our only responsibility is to keep sowing the seed of the gospel, keep holding up the light that has possessed us, keep keeping on, never doubting that one day a yield will arise that will leave us adoring him who does all things well.

The young people whom we are about to confirm in the faith of the holy catholic church have been nurtured in Sunday School and home, as well as more recently, intensively in our confirmation class. (No one has ever accused me of lacking intensity.) With our Lord’s parable in mind we aren’t going to speculate about the degree of fruitfulness in them or lament the unfruitfulness of so many who have gone before them. We are going to anticipate, from some of them at least, yields of 30 times seed sown, or 60 times, even 100.


                                                          Victor Shepherd
May 1999