Mark 4: The Seed and the Soil

“There went out a sower to sow.” In his parable of the sower Jesus gives various active and passive roles: sower, seed, good soil, soil among thorns, stony ground, and waysides. This meditation on Mark 4 considers the seed as the word and the Word Christ, our receptivity to Christ, how he can enter, germinate, grow, and transform us into new creatures.

One of the Church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) was an astonishingly prolific writer. He’s especially known for his Summa Theologiae, which is one of my first go-to theology resources.  His style was analytic and detailed. Each of the “Questions” in the Summa reads like a geometrical proof out of Euclid, each with some assertion, supporting points, counter-assertions, and detracting points, and a conclusion. It was a masterful intellectual achievement. Yet near the end of his life Aquinas had a mystical experience that seemed to lead him away from that stage of life and into another. He was no longer able to write, not out of physical incapacity but because of the greatness of his revelation. He felt his writings, great as they were, couldn’t possibly match the greatness of the revelation he had been given. The direct experience of his revelation transcended the rationality of this most rational of thinkers. That’s a sobering thought, still, I’m inclined to think of this overwhelming experience of his as a reward for all the work that he had done in a previous stage of life. His mystical stage, if we can call it that, only lasted a few months since he died shortly after. But it’s something I think about a lot. The analytical, rational stage of the adult in his younger and middle ages, succeeded by a later super-rational, mystical stage. Something about that seems quite appropriate. I approach religion and scripture in that very analytical, rational way. It’s just more natural for me right now. But I wouldn’t be surprised or at all disappointed if that changed at some point. As satisfying as the intellectual nature of theology is, the infusion of the Spirit is so much greater. I spoke in a previous episode about a life with the Holy Spirit. Those moments of spiritual elevation are invaluable.

On this subject I’d like to share a meditation Mark 4, a chapter in which we read of Jesus’s parable of the sower, a masterful parable. I’d like to focus on two aspects of it: (1) the seed and (2) the soil. When Jesus explained the parable of the sower to his disciples he said that the seed was “the word”; “The sower soweth the word.” (Mark 4:14). For readers familiar with John’s gospel this can have at least a double meaning: (1) the word of the Gospel, the words that people speak to preach the message, and (2) the Word, Logos, is also Christ himself (John 1:1-3).

Another story about Thomas Aquinas. One day while Aquinas was in prayer before the crucifix the voice of Christ called out to him and said, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you receive from me for your labor?” And Aquinas answered, “Lord, nothing except you.”

I love the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, especially this verse:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.”

I thought about this a lot this past Christmas. I tried to put myself in Mary’s state of mind as one who receives and carries the Lord himself within her body. She declared so much with that statement, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). I think it’s powerful – also for men, who probably aren’t used to thinking in this way – to think of being the mother Mary, bearing God in her body. It’s one vivid image of something that the scriptures and the ritual practices of the Church communicate in various ways, the Eucharist for example: that we are to take Christ into ourselves and allow him to transform us into new creatures.

This is how I think about the seeds in Jesus’s parables. The seed is “the word”, the message of the Gospel, as well as “the Word”, Christ himself.

In the parable of the sower, the sower plays the active role. “Behold, there went out a sower to sow” (Mark 4:3). He is the one sowing the seeds. By the time the sower passes by the soil is either ready or it isn’t. The soil is passive but its condition makes all the difference.

“And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:4-9)

Let’s talk first about the active role of the sower. One of the things that strikes me about moments of spiritual revelation is that they don’t happen whenever we want them to. They come as a gift of grace. That’s because they’re not manufactured. And they’re not the product of an individual. Rather, they are special encounters between us and Spirit. The Spirit, as the other person in these encounters, has to decide to participate. The philosopher Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) called this an “I-You” encounter. He contrasted this with the “I-It” experience in which a person can individually and unilaterally perceive and consider objects, ideas, and people in a way that doesn’t require another’s free participation. Basically, how we live most of the time. But our lives are sometimes interrupted by encounters of a different kind. And he says these come by “grace”:

“The You encounters me by grace–it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed. The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once: An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions. The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.” (Martin Buter, I and Thou, 61)

What’s crucial to understand is that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are persons. We can’t manufacture encounters with persons on our own. It requires the full cooperation of the other person. The Holy Ghost needs to act. And that happens when he chooses. But we can act to be receptive and prepare ourselves. We are the soil and we can condition ourselves as soil to receive Christ.

Jesus interpreted the parable for his disciples in this way:

“The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.” (Mark 4:14-20)

A lot here to think about. One part that stands out to me at the moment is the case of the seeds sown among thorns. The thorns are “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things”. These create unfruitful conditions. To be fruitful it is necessary to be set apart from these things. Some Christians throughout history have applied this kind of setting apart in a physical sense, actually taking up a monastic life. But I think what’s most important is to apply this existentially, to be set apart from the world in the way we live and in our way of being. Especially in the things we care about.

Following Christ is not a light matter and Jesus made this clear.

“And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

Wow! Clearly the kind of life Jesus requires is quite different from the way normal people live. In thinking about these verses it makes me reflect on the things I care about and whether they enable or impede my receptivity to the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns about the cares of the world. The Greek for “care” is μέριμνα (mérimna). The corresponding verb is μεριμνάω (merimnao): to be anxious or worried about something. It’s used several times in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought [μὴ μεριμνᾶτε, me merimnate] for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought [μεριμνῶν, merimnon] can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought [μεριμνᾶτε, merimnate] for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete], saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought [μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε, me oun merimnesete] for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought [μεριμνήσει, merimnese] for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:25-34)

Do we need food, drink, and clothing? Yes, Jesus said as much. “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” But he said not to seek after them. And this interesting, he says that seeking after food, drink, or clothing is what the Gentiles do. Gentiles are those who have not entered into the covenant. The Gentile way of life is a completely different way of life, and really the normal way of life. But it’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus said these cares “choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful”.

Jesus explained the good soil represents people who “hear the word, and receive it”. And again, I like to consider the double meaning in which the Word here is also Christ himself. The good soil receives Christ. Christ enters into it, germinates, and grows. Like with Mary, the God-Bearer, the Spirit can enter into us and Christ can abide in us. This reception is also mutual abiding. We abide in Christ and he abides in us. In the Trinity this kind of relation is sometimes called interpenetration and a similar kind of mutual abiding and interpenetration is happening here:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 14:4-5)

I believe this is ultimately what Christian holiness looks like. Understanding, yes. By all means. Learn the doctrine, study the principles, develop a sophisticated philosophical and theological understanding. I think that’s appropriate and good, especially for certain periods of life. But beyond that is this direct receptivity to the Spirit and this planting of Christ into the core of our being to be transformed into new creatures.

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