The Four Seeds Story.

Mark 4.1-9, 4.13-20; Matthew 13.1-9, 13.18-23; Luke 5.1-3, 8.4-8, 8.11-15.

Jesus’s first parable is often called “the Parable of the Sower,” which seems odd to me because the story’s not about the person sowing seed. It’s about the seeds and what happens to them. The planter just flung ’em around, as planters did back then. So I call it the Four Seeds Story.

As I said in my parables article, all of Jesus’s parables are about God’s kingdom. So you’d think the Four Seeds Story would be super easy to interpret—especially since Jesus privately gave his students a key to his analogies, and they put it in the bible. But never underestimate the ability of Christians who wanna weasel out of the implications of Jesus’s lessons.

The story starts with Jesus feeling the need to get a little distance from the crowds who swarmed him. Since a number of his students were fishermen, he figured hey, why not use this connection to his advantage?

Mark 4.1 KWL
Again Jesus went out to teach by the Galilee’s sea.
A large crowd gathered round him, so he entered a boat to sit in the sea.
The whole crowd at the sea were on the beach.
 
Matthew 13.1-2 KWL
1 That day, Jesus left the house and was sitting by the Galilee’s sea.
2 Large crowds gathered round him, so he entered a boat to sit in it.
The whole crowd was standing on the beach.
 
Luke 5.1-3 KWL
1 This happened when the crowds pressed on Jesus to listen to God’s word:
He was standing by Lake Kinneret, 2 and saw two boats run aground by the lake.
The fishermen had left them and were cleaning the nets.
3 Jesus entered one of the boats, which was Simon’s.
He asked Simon to put the boat out a little ways from the land.
Sitting in the boat, he taught the crowds.

The sea, or θάλασσα/thálassa, is what Greek-speakers called any large body of water, so those who object, “It’s a lake, not a sea,” is confusing our present-day definition with the ancient one. Lake Kinneret, nowadays called Lake Tiberias, is a fairly large lake. The waves crashing on shore, even on a calm day, make a whole lot of noise. Jesus would’ve had to shout to be heard over them. Still, he must’ve figured going hoarse was preferable to getting crowded.

Between the surf noises and the fact Jesus didn’t explain his analogy, a number of ’em likely didn’t catch what Jesus meant by this parable. Namely that it’s about them.

Mark 4.2-9 KWL
2 Jesus taught them many things in parables.
He told them in this lesson, 3 “Listen. Look, a planter came forth planting.
4 While planting, this happened: One seed fell by the road,
and birds came and devoured it.
5 Another seed fell by rocks where it hadn’t much earth,
quickly sprang up because it had no depth of earth,
6 and once the sun rose it was scorched,
and because it had no root it was dried up.
7 Another seed fell in the thorns,
and the thorns rose up and choked it. It produced no fruit.
8 Another seed fell on good earth and was producing fruit—
rising, growing, bearing 30, 60, and 100 fruits.”
9 Jesus said, “Who has listening ears? Listen!”
 
Matthew 13.3-9 KWL
3 Jesus told them many things in parables, saying,
“Look, a planter came forth for the planting,
4 and during this planting one seed fell by the road,
and the coming birds devoured it.
5 Another seed fell by rocks where it hadn’t much earth
and quickly sprang up because it had no depth of earth.
6 It was scorched by the rising sun,
and because it had no root it was dried up.
7 Another seed fell in the thorns,
and the thorns rose up and choked it.
8 Another seed fell on good earth and was producing fruit—
one 100 fruits, one 60, one 30.
9 Listen, you who have ears!”
 
Luke 8.4-8 KWL
4 With the great crowds with him, traveling to him from the city,
Jesus said by a parable, 5 “At the planting, a planter came out with his seed.
During his planting, one seed fell by the road and was trampled,
and birds of the air devoured it.
6 Another seed fell down in the rocks,
and as it grew it was dried up because it had no moisture.
7 Another seed fell in the middle of thorns,
and the thorns, growing up with it, choked it.
8 Another seed fell on good earth,
and as it grew it produced 100 times the fruit.”
Saying this, Jesus shouted, “Listen, you who have listening ears!”

If you too have listening ears, you’ll realize it’s just as much about you.

How do you envision this story?

Jesus tells a story about four seeds with different destinies: One eaten, one scorched, one choked, and one grew. Lots of repetition, to make it stick in one’s head. A little bit of Hebrew poetry—repeating ideas instead of sounds—so people can process the information two ways. And about something most people are familiar with… that is, till the 19th century, when the bulk of the population began to shift from an agrarian culture to an industrial one.


As seen in Sunday school. Pinterest

This was how I was taught the Four Seeds Story in Sunday school. They used “flannelgraphs,” which was a board covered in felt or flannel, displayed to us kids on an easel. Paper dolls glued to a felt backing, or even printed on felt, were put on the board—felt sticks to felt—and the teacher moved ’em around like the dolls they were, and illustrated the story with them. If it was a white guy with a beard and keffiyeh, it was meant to be a bible-times Jew. If it was a white guy with no beard and an Egyptian keffiyeh, it was meant to be a bible-times Egyptian. Yep, even the Africans weren’t black. White people, I tell ya.

So here’s the bible-times Jew with a bag or basket of seeds, flinging them around willy-nilly. What kind of seeds are they? Usually they were depicted as wheat. Thing is, Jesus describes this seed as producing 30, 60, or 100 καρπόν/kaprón, “fruits.” Which is an odd way to depict a stalk of wheat—or its head, its στάχυας/stákhyas. Hence a lot of interpreters borrow the word ἑκατονταπλασίονα/ekatontaplasíona, “hundredfold,” from Luke 8.8 and interpret it in place of the ἑκατόν/ekatón of Mark and Matthew. (The Textus Receptus and KJV obviously did so in Matthew.) One seed produced a hundredfold: One grain of wheat became 100 stalks of wheat.

Which as a kid confused me. I was no expert in plant biology, but even I knew one seed produces one plant. So how d’you get the other 99 stalks? Indirectly, by producing a stalk with 100 kernels in its head? How’s that work?

Doesn’t help that our modern wheat produces about 50 kernels per head. Some of ’em are bred to produce up to 200 kernels. So, 100 grains? Better than average… but not so big a deal. Scientific farming tends to take some of the wonder out of this story. But in Jesus’s day, you might get 15 to 30 kernels per head. Thirty would be above average, 60 would be a fluke, and 100 would be a miracle.

Or, of course, Jesus could be talking about fruit trees. Not grain. I mean, he never overtly says it’s grain. Could be planting cucumbers for all we know.

The reason people presume the Four Seeds Story is about grain, is because some of Jesus’s other teachings involve grain. Like the Wheat and Weeds Story, Mt 13.24-29 or how one sows and another reaps, Jn 4.34-38 or how a grain has to die before it bears fruit. Jn 12.24 Even in your mind, it’s always easier to not diversify your crops.

The other detail is the word “seed.” In English this word can be singular or plural, so we Christians usually assume Jesus meant it in the plural: Four kinds of seeds, not four literal seeds. But nope, four singular seeds are what we see in the Greek text. ’Cause the planter was trying to fling them into rich soil… and if he tossed a handful on the road, or a handful into rocks and thorns, it meant he wasn’t being careful. And if God’s the planter, contrary to what some pop songs might claim, he’s not reckless.

As Jesus taught this lesson from his boat, he most likely looked at the crowds he spoke to, and saw ’em literally standing on the four types of ground these seeds were meant to land. Some on hard-packed dirt roads. Some on rocks. Some trampling thorns. Some on bare but fallow ground. All these people just as receptive—or not—to his lesson. Some not listening, some with no real plans to take home with them, some with every intention but no tenacity, and some who’d let it change their lives.

Jesus’s interpretation.

How do I know this is what Jesus meant? ’Cause Jesus said it’s what he meant. He privately interpreted it for his students later.

Mark 4.13-20 KWL
13 Jesus told them, “You haven’t interpreted this parable?
How will you interpret any of the parables?
14 The planter plants the word.
15 The seed by the road: These people are where the word was planted,
but once they heard, Satan quickly came and took away the word planted in them.
16 The seed planted in the rocks:
These people, when they hear the word, quickly receive it with joy.
17 But they’re flighty: They themselves have no root.
Next time trouble or harassment comes because of the word, they suddenly find it offensive.
18 The other seed planted in the thorns: These people hear the word…
19 but this age’s worries, wealth’s deception, their desires about the rest of life:
Entering in, they choke the word. It becomes fruitless.
20 The seed planted on good earth: These are whoever hear and receive the word.
They produce fruit: One 30, one 60, one 100.”
 
Matthew 13.18-23 KWL
18 “So listen to the parable of the planter.
19 Everyone who hears the kingdom’s word but won’t stand on it:
The evil one comes and takes away what was planted their heart—
this is the seed planted by the road.
20 The seed planted in the rocks:
This is one who heard the word, and quickly received it with joy.
21 But they’re flighty: They themselves have no root.
When trouble or harassment comes because of the word, they suddenly find it offensive.
22 The seed planted in the thorns: This is one who heard the word…
but this age’s worry and wealth’s deception choke the word. It becomes fruitless.
23 The seed planted on good earth: This is one who hears and stands on the word,
who then produces fruit and does it. Some 100, some 60, some 30.”
 
Luke 8.11-15 KWL
11 “The parable is this: The seed is God’s word.
12 Those by the road are those who hear… then the devil comes.
It takes the word away from their hearts, so unbelievers might not be saved.
13 Those in the rocks: When they hear, they receive the word with joy,
but these people have no root.
They believe for a time, and back off from any time of testing.
14 Those who fell in the thorns: They’re listeners, but because of worries, wealth, and life’s pleasures,
those who go that way are choked, and don’t mature.
15 Those on good earth: They’re those with good hearts, who hear the word in goodness.
They hold fast, and produce enduring fruit.”

So let’s unpack.

GOD’S WORD. Evangelists are fond of claiming this word is the gospel. Or it’s Jesus himself, who is the word of God incarnate. Either way this is an evangelism story. Therefore the planter is them, and the story’s kinda about them, and not so much God’s kingdom. And the four seeds are four kinds of audience who either accept Jesus and make more Christians themselves, or don’t, and here’s why.

But Jesus didn’t specify what the word is, and therefore it can be any teaching or doctrine or revelation about God which would encourage good fruit in Christians. It can be the gospel, so there’s nothing wrong with an evangelist using this story to talk about sharing the gospel. But it can also be other things, so there’s everything wrong with insisting it’s only about the gospel.

Frankly there are lots of words which can encourage Christian growth. It’d be nice to see some of that growth, too.

THE SEED BY THE ROAD. First the seed which fell by the road, which the birds ate. Jesus identifies the ground (not the seed; the seed is the word, remember?) as people who aren’t receptive to the word, the good news of God’s kingdom, and the lessons God’s kingdom can teach us.

Some folks (particularly skeptical ones like me) are astonishingly quick to listen to the devil. Heck, sometimes we play devil’s advocate: “Is this teaching really from God? Is this really true? Is this interpretation even practical in the world we live in? Sounds like just another sappy platitude. I’ve heard tons of things like this before; they never did me any good. And look what a yutz this preacher is! How can I take such a person seriously? Betcha if I went home and studied this passage thoroughly, I’d find the interpretation is out-of-context rubbish. Best to ignore it till I can double-check it.” But once we’re home, other things get in the way and we forget to double-check anything.

We scholars particularly have to fight this tendency. Satan does a really good job of appealing to our pride, and talking us into rendering the word void. (I know; some of you insist it’s impossible to render God’s word void. Explain pearls and swine then. When we resist God’s grace, it’s precisely what we’re doing.)

It’s not just scholars though. Any Christian can cop an attitude. We’ve heard it all before; we’ve sat under ten thousand sermons; we have a solid grasp of Christianity; no preacher’s gonna tell us anything new. We figure if anyone’s gonna teach us a thing, it’ll be the Holy Spirit talking to us directly. Not using other Christians, particularly less-knowledgeable morons, like newbies or kids or people who’ve only been Christian for four or five years.

(Or, for those of us who’ve been Christian for decades, someone who’s been Christian for any shorter a length of time than us. “You’ve been Christian for 20 years? I’ve been Christian for 40. I win.”)

Hard ground; hard-hearted people. Christians who don’t wanna hear anything new, or pagans who don’t wanna hear the gospel. It doesn’t really take a lot for the devil to convince us to dismiss it. It’s as easy to pluck off the ground as birdseed.

THE SEED IN THE ROCKS. Next come the superficial Christians. Though they hear the word, it doesn’t get very far in their lives. When push comes to shove, they don’t fall back on the word. They try anything else.

Don’t be too hard on them. These people have tiny faith. They don’t trust God as much as they oughta—or even as much as they imagine they do. They talk a lot about following Jesus anywhere, Mk 14.31 but once Jesus takes ’em someplace scary, they’ll fold just as easily as Simon Peter in the priest’s courtyard. Mk 14.66-72

But in some cases, a superficial faith is all they want. They want an easy-to-believe, easy-to-follow religion. One which can be summarized in bumper stickers and motivational posters. One where they post bible verses on their Facebook wall, but don’t always know what these verses mean… and once some politician has outraged ’em, it’s clear they don’t actually live by them. Religion’s just something they approve of, and support, but not necessarily do. Same as any Christianist.

In real life, God’s kingdom is always a challenge. One that’s often too much for your average superficial Christian. It’s why, 9 times out of 10, most of the pushback I receive comes from fellow Christians: I dared to critique their Christian-sounding platitudes with, “Actually, the scriptures say…” or “That’s not what that verse means.” I dared to express a view which, while consistent with the gospel, goes way beyond their political comfort zones, and dares to love the hard-to-love, reach out to strangers, help the needy, or do what’s hard. I get too radical for ’em.

Jesus points out these folks initially receive God’s word with joy. Meaning these aren’t the superficial Christians who balk when they don’t like the word: “Sounds too difficult; God’s word should be easy and light, Mt 11.30 so I wonder if that’s not really from Satan.” If that’s how they respond, this isn’t actually their category. Go back to the seed by the road.

No; these folks do embrace the word. But life’s what makes them stumble. They wanna follow Jesus, but they struggle to apply his teachings. Or they encounter pagans who tell ’em, “You seriously believe that?”—and they fold. They feel stupid and ashamed. That’s what σκανδαλίζονται/skandalídzontai “they take offense” Mk 4.17 means. They believe in Jesus… but won’t stand up for him and his teachings in the face of peer pressure. Or any pressure. Their own children can make ’em capitulate.

THE SEED IN THE THORNS. Okay, these people you can be hard on. For them, Jesus takes a back seat to everything else in our culture. And if anything takes precedence over Christ, that’d be idolatry.

These folks don’t always know they’re idolaters. They’ve often explained away their idolatry as some form of Christianity. They’ve accommodated all the concerns and worries of the age we live in, ’cause they wanna be “relevant,” or they claim they’re watching for signs of the times. They’ve embraced the prosperity gospel, or they’re trying to be “good stewards of God’s resources” who somehow aren’t remotely as generous as God. Their pleasures make ’em adapt Christianity into whatever form they like best.

Too many of us have the attitude, “If I follow Jesus, he’ll let me keep all my idols, and bless me with new ones!” We expect Jesus to make us financially comfortable. Or magically fix our kids. Or let us into heaven despite the fact we never obey him. We aren’t interested in following Jesus for his own sake. We’re in it for the perqs.

Unless such people see a perq in what God has to tell them, we’re not interested. Haven’t the time. We’re busy. The weeds have choked us out.

THE SEED IN GOOD EARTH. Of course we should all aspire to be good soil. Implying we shouldn’t be the other things. We gotta avoid unhealthy skepticism, superficiality, and prioritizing anything above God. We must be receptive, deep, and God-centered. The result is a fruitful, productive life.

Evangelists try to turn this entire passage into a mandate for us to share the gospel with others. And don’t get me wrong; we should share the gospel with others. But this parable isn’t a promise that when we do so, this is the sort of fruit we bear. It’s not actually our fruit anyway. It’s the word’s fruit. It’s God’s.

It’s fruitful because God grows it. It’s just he needs fertile ground to work with. If we’re receptive, we produce fruit. Some of us more than others, but still.

Well, when we have hearing ears.