Jesus Christ in the Gospel
The first utterance that is attributed to Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” This was by no means a mistake. In fact, Mark’s account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is primarily concerned with the significance of this good news, and how it should be properly manifested in those who hear it. At the heart of Mark’s understanding of this reception and proper response to the euangelion is the Parable of the Sower. In this paper, I will argue that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower serves to both 1) reveal the good news in a way that is unambiguous to his audience, and 2) expound upon what it means to truly hear and believe in this good news. I will provide evidence for these claims by examining the parable in light of other biblical texts, its historical context, and its theological significance. Before delving into the text of the parable and its apparent message, it is important to first understand the historical context in which Jesus gave this teaching. Most common scholarship around the audience of the Parable of the Sower has concluded that Jesus was in 1st century Palestine, speaking to an advanced agrarian society that was under strict Roman rule. This rule was one where the wealthy took advantage of the poor and laborers (mostly farmhands) and where the elite legitimized their power through ostensible relationships with the Gods. Overall, it was a stratified society in which the dynamics of power between the rich and the poor were greatly reinforced that Jesus is said to have imparted his parable. Furthermore, it is critical to point out that the Book of Mark as a whole is one that was intended to be read by an audience already steeped in then-Christian theology. Not only this, Mark also illustrates Jesus’ parables (except the pearl) as all related to a rural setting. These two points go to show that the author of Mark (which is heavily disputed, probably best to not name an author) was familiar with the listeners of Jesus’ teachings, and conveyed this through symbols that would be recognizable to them in their daily lives and in their faith lives. In all, Mark provides an outline of Jesus’ life in a quite simple and efficient manner, allowing a picture of His ministry to take form through rapid turns of action. In applying this background to the reading of the Parable of the Sower, one will come to see that the historical surroundings of this story fit with its more overarching narrative technique. Next, it is important to do a thorough reading of the Parable of the Sower in order to demonstrate that it serves to both reveal the good news in an unambiguous manner to the subject audience and elaborate on what it truly means to hear and believe this good news. First, as with any narrative, it is first necessary establish setting. This dimension of the diegesis primarily serves to show how the parable communicates the good news in a way that is accessible, clear and unambiguous. The parable begins by explaining that Jesus is in a boat on a lake, speaking to a great crowd: “Again he began teaching beside the sea, and a very large crowd gathered near him. So, he went aboard a boat and sat in it away from the shore, but the whole crowd was next to the sea, along the shore.” What is particularly interesting about this setting for Jesus’ teaching is not that he is by the sea (as can also be seen in Mark 1:16, Mark 2:13), but rather that the crowd around Him is described as “very large.” This differs from the description of other crowds in Mark, which are usually just said to be “large” (3:7–8; 5:21; 6:34; 8:1; 9:14; 12:37). This distinguishing feature of the setting certainly provides a unique and thoughtful place for the following teaching about the word of God; the size of the crowd emphasizes that Christ’s message in this scene will be one that is necessary for all to hear. More important than this, the setting of the parable serves to show that what is being taught is not private, but rather audible to a great many people. This aspect of where the Parable of the Sower takes place lends credence to the idea that Jesus’ message is one that will be defined by universality and accessibility. Another thing that is worth noting about Mark’s framing of the Parable of the Sower is that Jesus was said to have been teaching many things in Parables, but then draws in on the one at hand. This again highlights the coherence and directness of what he is about to say— narrowing the focus from multiple teachings to just one. The beginning of Jesus’ teaching in verse three provides both a basis for understanding the rest of the passage and serves to discuss or expand upon how to properly receive the good news. He says to the crowd: “Listen. Look!” Though many translations of this verse have reduced it to simply “listen”(NABRE, NIT, KJV), it is critically important in understanding why Jesus implores his audience in the way that he does. He tells them to not only receive his words in sound but also through illustration or visual imagination, which perhaps serves to communicate that the truth which is heard or taught can only be fully realized through what can be seen or done. In other words, Jesus is beckoning his audience to allow his teaching to transform their conscious reality— to see the world, or act in the world, in a way that is more in accordance with divine virtue (the Word). This idea of listening to what is said and then adopting that understanding into a mode of being or framework for perceiving the world can also be seen in the book of Exodus, where it is written, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” This sentiment is also evident in later New Testament writings, like in The Epistle of James: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” Obviously, the beginning of Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the Sower closely parallels these— it calls attention to the necessity of both hearing and responding to the Word the of God through greater engagement with one’s visual imagination. As we will see, this sentiment of being mentally transformed through storytelling is foundational in understanding all of the parables, but this particular parable is the substructure for that methodology—we are called to both “listen” to and “look” at the good news in order to properly receive it. Jesus begins the narrative of his parable by describing a scene that would be unambiguous to his audience: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” The metaphor of sowing would have been recognizable to readers of the Old Testament, as the Book of Jeremiah employs similar imagery, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast”(31:27). This opening scene would also be familiar to Jesus’ audience in that many of them probably made their living off of farming (in Galilean agriculture, seeds were sown by hand, using every available space, and then later plowed deeper into the topsoil) . The parable continues by describing that the sower scatters seed along a path, rocky places, among thorns, and on good soil. As expected, some of the seeds that are sown do not reach their potential: the seeds on the path are snatched up by birds, the seeds in rocky places are rootless, thus unsustainable for growth; the seeds among the thorns are choked after they grow up. All three of these images (birds, rootlessness, thorns) would once again have been recognizable imagery to an audience familiar to the Old Testament, which again serves to prove that Jesus’ revelation of the word in this parable is meant to be clear and accessible— perhaps having the ability to transform those who hear it. The parable continues, telling of those seeds which would sustain: “still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’” This section is quite relevant in that it demonstrates how the parable serves to reveal the good news unambiguously and expands upon what it truly means to hear that good news—as it has the power to cognitively transform his audience. First, the former; the ideas of growth, fruitfulness, and abundance are common across the Jewish texts, and would be relatable metaphors for how his audience viewed the world (Hos 2:21–22; Joel 2:22; Amos 9:13). Most basely, Eden is depicted as a place teeming with life: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” Those familiar with the Jewish texts would have accepted these metaphors without batting an eye at their significance—again going to show that Christ’s message is purposefully in line with the conventional theology of his audience. Second, the latter; perhaps the crux of this teaching is Jesus’ ending request: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” This closing is glaringly reminiscent to a famous command in the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Great Shema— “Hear, O Israel” , in which “hear” is understood as deeper than mere auditory response, but rather a response of the soul to transform and live in the Word. Christ speaks in this same tongue—emphasizing not only the importance of having ones ears open to the word but also the importance for one to be willing to let this process transform how they encounter themselves, others, and the world around them. After the parable story, Jesus is said to be alone with the twelve in a more private teaching session. It is in this last half of Mark’s passage that Christ affirms what he has been saying all along: that parables are meant to be plumbed deeper than just a mere overview of their plot—that in truly reflecting on the story and its underlying truths, using both a focused ear and an imaginative eye, one can come to a better understanding of God and his Kingdom, and thus act in a way that resembles Jesus. The disciples are said to be “ask[ing] him about the parables. He says to them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” In the transition from a large group of people to a small group of curious disciples, a mesmerizing event has taken place. The 12 disciples have taken Jesus’ advice— they not only listened to the parable but also allowed it to reshape their reality—making it so they were followers of the truth, trying desperately to understand it and adhere to it. Jesus confirms this, saying that, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” He distinguishes those who did not let the word transform them as, “ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” Yet again Christ emphasizes that hearing is not sufficient for being able to fully realize the truth. Thus: through the gathering of many, the teaching of a parable, and the subsequent reactions to that parable (most not engaged, a few in search of truth) Jesus recreates the story he tells— he sows the Word, many listeners do not allow it to transform them, but those who do are the ones who grow fruit and prosper, who know “the secret of the Kingdom of God.” In this way, the Parable of the Sower greatly expounds upon what it means to truly receive the good news, and furthermore concludes that by successfully accepting it, we will come to a greater knowledge of the Kingdom of God. Conclusively, the Parable of the Sower serves to communicate the good news of Christ Jesus in a way that is unambiguous to the target audience. This is evidenced by Jesus’ (or Mark’s) use of imagery common in Jewish literature, as well as agrarian imagery that would be recognizable to the everyday person of first century Palestine. Moreover, the parable expands upon what it means to truly receive this good news, and does this primarily through its dualistic nature of teaching to the great crowd and then to the disciples.