Following Jesus no matter the cost? A look at the Parable of the Sower. Justice #11

Following Jesus no matter the cost? A look at the Parable of the Sower. Justice #11 March 16, 2021

 

Are you willing to follow Christ even if it means ______________?

Hopefully, we would all say “yes” here.

But what if, like the rich young ruler, Jesus said, “go, sell your possessions and give them to the poor” (Matt 19:21)?

I wonder if I would balk and come up with a reason why I wouldn’t do it: like, “I mean that I would do it if God were asking me, but I really don’t think that this is the voice of God here.”

To some extent, we are all grieved by the realities of global poverty and suffering.

We all shriek when confronted with the injustices of sex trafficking.

We weep when we see the innocent who are impacted by brutal and senseless wars.

But why don’t we act with greater passion?

I suspect that it is in part because we have woven narratives that account for the injustices and our non-action.

“If they would make better decisions, then perhaps they would not be in this situation.”

“I really feel bad for the people in __________ (fill in the name of the oppressed and/or country here), but they elected their poor leaders and now they have to live with the consequences.”[1]

“I would contribute (or contribute more) to help alleviate the suffering of the poor but in the end, as Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us, so there is nothing we can really do.” (see my post, “The poor you will always have”)

“Those who are advocating for women’s rights are liberal feminists who don’t believe in the Bible as the Word of God.”

“I would give more but we all know that taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor doesn’t actually change things.[2]

“Reparations for those who have been wronged are not acceptable because two wrongs don’t make a right.

“I feel bad for the poor, but I am not sure why I should have to give up some of my hard-earned money?”

Are our narratives at odds with the Gospel of Christ?

This brings us to an important question: Is it possible that we have come to accept a variety of narratives to account for our present situation—which is typically one of varying levels of comfort—and, yet, these narratives are, at least to some degree, at odds with following Jesus?

Why is this? And how could this be?

I believe that an examination of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20) will unearth indications in Jesus’ teaching that provide tremendous insights into the issues at hand.

I have been teaching NT studies for the better part of 30 years and I am convinced that the Parable of the Sower provides one of the most important keys (if not “the” most important key) to understanding Jesus, His teaching, and the question of justice and why so many of us fail to act as we should.

Parable of the Sower

In reading the Gospel of Mark we are struck by the fact that although Mark states, “He did not speak to them without a parable” (Mark 4:34), the second Gospel has only two parables (Sower 4:1-20; Vine-growers 12:1-9). Since the Parable of the Vine-growers doesn’t occur until after Jesus has reached Jerusalem, the Parable of the Sower is actually the only parable in Mark that is placed within the context of Jesus’ public ministry (cp Mark chs 1-10).[3]

NB: It is true that Mark 4:1-32 includes two other parables (The Parable of the Seed, 4:26-29; and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, 4:30-32). But these parables are more likely to be viewed as expansions on the Parable of the Sower. That is, in the context of Mark 4, they do not stand independently but serve primarily to add clarity to the Parable of the Sower.

This suggests that the Parable of the Sower serves as the paradigmatic parable for Mark. In other words, Mark seems to be saying, “Jesus always taught them by means of parables and this parable is the best example of what Jesus was saying.”

That this accounts for why Mark fails to record any other parables is supported by a close look at what Jesus Himself declares in the midst of this parable. When the disciples come to Him to get clarity on the meaning of the parable, Jesus responds, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13).[4] It seems as though Jesus was suggesting that understanding the Parable of the Sower was essential for understanding His parables.

 

Importance of the Parable of the Sower to the question of Justice

The importance of the Parable of the Sower in relationship to the kingdom and its significance in the Gospel of Mark cannot be brought out in the confines of a blog post.

I would, however, like to highlight one key feature. I believe that one of the objectives that Mark had in telling this parable was to provide an explanation as to why so many people were following Jesus throughout His ministry and why so few remained at the end.

Mark is clear: Jesus had thousands of followers during his ministry. In fact, several times the crowds are so great they seem to be hindering Jesus. There were so many gathering to see Jesus that the door was blocked and the paralytic had to be let down through a hole in the roof (Mark 2:1-13). Later the crowds were so great that “they could not even eat a meal” (Mark 3:20). Mark records Jesus feeding 5,000 on one occasion (Mark 6:33-44) and 4,000 on another He (Mark 8:1-10).[5]

When we reach the end of the Gospel of Mark, however, there are only a few women and a couple of His disciples.

This raises the question: Why did so many desert Him?

I believe that the Parable of the Sower provides insights here.

According to the parable, some of the seed that was sown fell among the stones (Mark 4:5-6, 16-17). Jesus explains to His disciples that the seed that fell among the stone represents those who “hear the word” and “immediately receive it with joy” (Mark 4:16). The word, however, does not remain with them because,

“when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17).

This group, in other words, represents those who were willing to follow Jesus for a time but when they realized that following Him entailed suffering and persecution, “they fall away.” That persecution and suffering is part and parcel of what it means to follow Jesus, Mark makes explicit in 8:34: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”

Other seed, says Jesus, fell among the thorns (Mark 4:7, 18-19). This seed represents those who “heard the word” (Mark 4:18),

but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful (Mark 4:19).

The seed that fell among the thorns, in other words, also appears to hear the word, but once they realize that following Jesus means they must surrender their desire for wealth, power, and comfort they fall away.

Only the seed sown among the “good soil” remains and bears fruit (Mark 4:8, 20). Now it is critical to recognize that the good soil bore fruit not because it didn’t have stones or thorns but despite them.

In other words, the good soil recognizes that following Jesus means a life of cross-bearing and potentially suffering and that they may well be asked to sell all they have and follow Him. And, yet, they chose to follow Him anyway!

This brings us back to where we began this post. Could it be that we have woven narratives whereby we might agree to follow Jesus and still retain our thirst for wealth and comforts as well as the desire to escape persecution and suffering?

The Jesus found in many American churches doesn’t seem to demand us to sell everything in order to follow Him.

And the Jesus we preach in many of our churches surely won’t bring much persecution or suffering.

It looks like we may have crafted a Jesus and a Christianity in which we try to have our Jesus and our comforts too.

 

[1] I am not making this one up. I have heard people use this line!

[2] Did you know that this is not actually true? See: the recent article in the Atlantic:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/stocktons-basic-income-experiment-pays-off/618174/?fbclid=IwAR0sSyxd5Ug-6CYb8GN9M08i6hOrnp1YFbcWQXX123dKXO0tDgschrqegxk.

[3] I recognize that saying the “public teaching ministry of Jesus” is a bit inaccurate. The gospels simply did not write with chronology in mind. The structure of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) cannot be so simply delineated along the lines of Jesus’ “public” and “private” ministries. Nonetheless, we might say, “as Mark has told his story, Mark only relates one parable in the public ministry of Jesus.

[4] Note that the NET and the NIV translates Mark 4:13 as “How will you understand any parable?”

[5] Mark 6:44 says there were 5,000 “men.” It is not clear if Mark is using the masculine plural to denote “people,” or if he was only counting the men and that the number of people fed could have been more than 10,000 when one adds the women and children.


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