The following is an adapted manuscript of my most recent sermon. The passage for the message was Mark 4:1-20 (below). If you’d like to listen to the sermon you can check it out here
1 Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Recently a friend of mine tried his hand a writing and he published his own book. The novel he wrote centers on the life of a senior in college with one month left before graduation. In one of the more thought-provoking parts of the book, the main character discusses with a college professor what he plans to do when he graduates. The topic of career comes up and the main character explains his issue.
He states that previous generations viewed a career as something people opted into with hopes of lifetime commitment. They wanted to stay at a job that provided security, stability, and a good paycheck for their entire working career. They asked the question, “what is a good career?”
On the other hand, the main character and many of his peers wanted to find a cause to get behind and shape their job (or string of jobs) to support that end. They ask the question, “why should I work?” He argues that previous generations wanted a good what for their career, but his generation wants a good why behind their career.
Regardless of whether or not this is a fair assessment of the working world, my friend touches on something that goes through the minds of every person: “what is my purpose?” “What am I on this earth for?”
I’ve found summer to be pretty slow for myself, in all honesty. As a student in seminary, much of my life revolves around studying and preparing for ministry. During the summer with no classes, I can feel a bit aimless. More than once I’ve asked the question to God, “what am I doing with my life?”
We all want something to spend our time doing, to be working toward something that will produce tremendous value. Often, we find that in our career, our family, our hobbies, our vacations, our social life, or in endless other places. It’s in our nature to look for meaning in this life and meaning for our lives.
What Jesus is getting at in this passage is just that, purpose. What the purpose of men and women is, and how we get at that purpose. What he says through this parable is that for a life of purpose to develop it has to flow out of the heart. To get at this he uses a pretty common analogy: seeds and soil. If the human heart is the soil, that means that its designed to produce something. And he gets at this, there is only one true way to live a life of true purpose.
At this point I know I might have lost some of you. You might be thinking, “Jesus says there’s only one way to live that will produce anything of value? How close minded and rigid! If I don’t live like this holy man, then my life won’t amount to anything?”
What Jesus is saying is not that unless one lives his life, or the life of a Christian, they won’t have any purpose. That’s apparent even in the parable itself. One of the soils is used for a purpose outside of growing the seed, it’s a path, people use it to get somewhere. However, what Jesus is saying is that soil, by its very nature, is supposed to lead to life. It’s not simply meant to produce a merely practical benefit, but an organic one, a living benefit. Soil is meant to produce life, not simply be dirt to be walked on. So too with the human life. You can have purpose outside of the way prescribed here, but it will never produce life, it will never produce something that goes beyond the here and now and it won’t be the true purpose of the human life.
With this in mind, Jesus is saying one thing: the difference between the heart of a life with true purpose and life without it is how well the soil of a person’s heart receives and grows the seed, the Word of God, the Bible. That is what differentiates purposeful lives and lives devoid of it, and that is what separates Christians and non-Christians, their openness and acceptance of the Bible.
With this in mind, I want to look at three things in this passage: 1) The difference of the hearts 2) How to get a good heart 3) What a good heart produces. Let’s jump in.
The Difference of the Hearts
First, the difference of the hearts. This parable is often referred to as the parable of the four soils. Many a teacher has taught that this passage shows us that there are really only four ways that one can respond to the message of the Bible. I don’t think that’s quite right. Jesus doesn’t seem to be giving a detailed list of all the ways a person can react to the message of the Bible. Rather he seems to be explaining that there are many ways that one can reject the message, the seed, but there is only one way to accept and grow the seed.
This makes sense in light of other things Jesus has said, right? Elsewhere he says, that the road away from God to self-destruction, hell, is broad and many are on it. But the way to life only goes through a narrow gate.
Here we get a picture of three reasons why a person might reject the Word, the seed.
The first soil is the path. The seed has no chance to even break the surface before its taken away. Here we see the person who hears what the Bible says and immediately dismisses it as old-fashioned, and out-of-touch with the modern world. “Why listen to a bunch of stories written thousands of years ago! We’re so much more advanced than them. The Bible is full of misogyny, slavery, and God killing people, is it really wise to listen to it?” People with hearts like this soil reject the Word because they’re convinced not to even give it a chance.
In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Lewis tells the tale of a man becoming a Christian. The story is told through the perspective of this demon that’s been charged to keep this man from doing just that. This demon’s strategy for doing so is by subtly whispering into the mind of the man, diverting him from anything spiritual.
When Jesus says that Satan takes away the seed, he’s saying that this very thing is happening to these people. A dark spiritual force is whispering in their minds, diverting their attention from making any sense of the Word, causing them, in part, to reject it.
Next we have the rocky soil. Here the seed actually goes in but nothing of substance comes from it. Why? Well there are rocks in the soil. There are things competing with the seed for space in the soil. It can’t grow deeply because there are too many things in its way. This person has let the Word in but so too everything else! This person sees value in the Word, but not ultimate value. It’s a nice trinket but it’s not their treasure. It’s a good paycheck but not their fortune. These people not only look to God to give them life but also romance, a career, their status, their money, or their family. The seed can only grow to maturity when it’s the primary thing growing in a person’s life, otherwise it’s too weak. That’s why when things get tough for this person their faith is shattered. There was no room to take deep roots so there was no strength when the going got tough.
Lastly, we have the soil with the thorns. Again, the seed goes in and it even looks promising. There are glimpses of growth and possible life. But before any genuine maturity, the plant is choked out by the thorns. This person is similar to the rocky soil with one key difference. For the rocky soil, the issues were on the inside. There were competing things in the soil, in the heart that kept the seed of the Word from growing. The soil with thorns doesn’t have issues inside the soil but outside. This person is the one who “tries on Christianity”.
There’s a ton of benefits to being a Christian, a good community, an established code of ethics, maybe even peace of mind. But when something starts looking better, this person drops their faith, showing it was never truly there to begin with. Christianity can’t simply be a vacation. You have fun and meet some new people but ultimately come home the same as you started. It has to be like your home, a place you’re committed to whether times are good or bad.
These are just three ways we see a person can reject the Word, but how can we avoid this fate? How can we make our hearts the good soil, which is the soil that will actually receive the Word and produce something of value from it, a life of purpose?
How to Get a Good Heart
One of the most interesting things about this passage is that after Jesus finishes telling the parable, his disciples have to come up to him and ask him to explain his words to them. They don’t get it, they need Jesus to explain what the Word of God that Jesus teaches actually means. Think about this for a second. Out of all the people that we see in the Bible, Jesus’s own followers should be the first ones to receive the Word. In fact, history shows that they did receive the Word. The fact that we’re talking about the Word two thousand years later on another continent is proof that the Word came into their hearts and it produced much in their lives.
Yet here we find them, hopelessly unable to understand Jesus’ teaching. So how did they transition from hearts unable to receive the seed to heavy-hitters of ministry that we see later in their lives? Simply put, they went to Jesus. The secret to getting good soil is found in that simple act: going to Jesus. And that does two things for his disciples, it helped them understand and it gave them new hearts.
Take a look for a second at verses 11 and 12. Jesus says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” Notice that one phrase Jesus says, “for those outside”? What he’s saying is that his teachings will not make sense to those outside a relationship with him. In fact, he intentionally makes it hard for people to understand unless they do what the disciples did and come to him in humility. Jesus doesn’t want people growing in knowledge of God without growing in relationship with him, without growing in reliance on him. This is so crucial for us to understand: Christianity makes no sense whatsoever outside of a dynamic relationship with Christ.
Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus saying tough things that leave his listeners stumped. Some marvel and some leave. In one instance he tells a crowd of thousands that he had recently fed from a little boy’s lunch that for them to truly know God, they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. If you’ve been around church at all, you’ll know he’s talking about the Lord’s Supper, Communion. But to them, they had no idea! He doesn’t even try to explain it to them. He simply lets them leave stumped and looking for their next spiritual leader. Only a handful remain with him and stick it out and Jesus doesn’t even explain what he says to them until much later!
Even those who have hearts of good soil (like the disciples ended up with) will find things that Jesus says hard to reconcile. I’m sure someone in the crowd was thinking, “Is Jesus advocating cannibalism? I’m a pretty strict vegan so that won’t fly.” On the surface, it made little sense, but those who stuck it out with Jesus for the long haul eventually had their questions answered.
The teachings of the Bible can often be like a magic eye puzzle. The ones you see in newspapers or in puzzle books. It has a pattern that just looks someone colorized a Rorschach ink blot test or some 2-year old took their favorite stamp to a page over and over again. The thing about these puzzles is that if you look at them quickly, they look like nothing. There’s no beauty or sense to it at all. But, if you give it time, and you look deeply into the pattern, you’ll begin to see a picture pop out at you. That’s the big picture, and the one that was hidden in the pattern.
That’s what many of the teachings of the Bible are like, confusing and disturbing on the surface, beautiful if you look deeply into it. Some things in the Bible everyone loves: honor your parents, don’t kill anyone, don’t steal, etc… Others are harder to make out but beautiful when pondered, when meditated on: eat my flesh, drink my blood, cut off your hand if it causes you to stumble, pick up your cross.
All of this, of course, is only the case for those who have the heart of good soil. You can meditate on the Bible all you want but without the good soil, your heart will not be affected, your life will not be changed, and no true purpose will come out of your life. The disciples found that by coming to Jesus they could understand his teachings better. But they also found that by coming to him, they could get the good soil they desperately needed to produce a life of purpose.
The Bible is very clear that no one starts out with good soil. All have sinned, it says, all reject the Word in some way or another whether its disregarding it, letting other things compete with it, or not fully committing to it. What mankind needs is a whole new soil and the only way to get that is to do what the disciples did, ask Jesus for it.
So often, pride keeps us from learning anything. We shut our ears to what others say because we are convinced what we believe is true and there’s nothing else someone can tell me that will change my mind. What the disciples did in this situation is they overcame their pride. They humbled themselves and admitted that they didn’t have what was necessary to make out what Jesus was saying. They weren’t able to produce something from the seed, but they knew that Jesus could. And by coming to him, they eventually were able to get the good soil of a receptive heart.
But how? How can Jesus give them the good soil? How can he give them a life that produces something of value? That produces fruit? He can do so because he took their fruitless life and gave them his fruitful one.
Think about the end of the life of Jesus for a moment. What did he have? Nothing. His followers deserted him. His family disowned him. His friend betrayed him to fatten his wallet. He died with nothing to name. Even the clothes off his back were taken from him. In all respects, the death of Christ was the very definition of a fruitless, purposeless life.
And in no way was this warranted. Out of all the people that have ever walked the face of the earth, only one ever lived with a pure heart, a heart that functioned as it should, holding the Word deeply and tightly. By all means, he should have had the most fruitful life! He had every right to claim it. But instead, he decided to take upon himself the fruitless life, the life devoid of purpose and meaning, the life willfully separated from God and all the joys he gives in order to give us the fruitful life of a good heart.
You’ll never see the value of the Word of God until you see the lengths at which he went to allow you to hear it. You can look into the magic eye puzzle all you want, but the big picture won’t appear. Until you see that God in Jesus took hell itself so that you can understand and receive his Word, the seed will never take root in your heart. It may stick around there for a while but it will never grow and fill your heart.
So come to Jesus, humble yourself, give him your infertile heart, he’ll give you his fruit-bearing one
What a Good Heart Produces
Lastly, we come to what comes out of this good soil of a good heart. After humbling ourselves and coming to Jesus to get a good heart, what is produced in our lives?
We’ve talked a lot about fruit for our time we haven’t really thought much about what it means for Jesus to say the good soil produces fruit. Think for a moment about a piece of fruit. Take an apple for instance. What purpose does an apple provide? There’s no real benefit to the soil or the tree if an apple is produced. So why is it made? It’s made to benefit someone else.
The tree doesn’t produce the apple to feed itself, rather its meant to provide something for someone else. The person who has good soil, a good heart, will bear fruit. And what will that fruit be? Anything and everything that benefits others. The apostle Paul sums it up nicely when he says that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Ephesians 5:22-23) The natural result of getting a new heart from Jesus is having that heart start beating for others. The best way to tell if your heart is good and given from Christ is if you continue to get better at treating others with kindness, love, patience, and care.
Another thing to note, besides being all-around delicious and pleasing, apples have another important trait: they’re full of seeds. The ingredients for more life is in the fruit. This means something important for Christians: the word of God is in their good deeds and words. People get a glimpse of how God is through the way Christians interact with them. They are presented with another opportunity to receive the Word and get a new heart.
Does that mean Christians should just be kind to everyone and not mention their faith? Not at all. A seedless fruit serves little good. Rather the fruit becomes the vehicle that the seed enters into others’ lives. The kindness and love shown by Christians make their words concerning Christ easier to hear. It helps them stare a little longer at the magic eye puzzle.
Two last things before we close.
First, if you’re a Christian here today, let me ask you this: do fruit and purpose mark your life? Do others note kindness, love, and generosity in you? Those are the indicators of a growing Christian, someone who has truly taken in the seed of the Word. If not, I’m not going to question whether or not you truly understand Christianity, but I would encourage you to reevaluate how Jesus’ teaching is being applied in your life.
Second, if you would not identify as a Christian or you are questioning your understanding of the faith, do this: examine Jesus for yourself. Study his life. Study the primary documents detailing his life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. See how he treated people. See how he cared and lived for others. Ask him to give you a heart to understand his teachings and see their value.
Friends, do as the disciples did. Come to Jesus to get a new heart. Persevere when the Bible doesn’t make sense, and come to the one who makes your heart overflow with a life caring for others.