The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20) by David Gowler

The parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-8) is a brief narrative about farming that could be interpreted in numerous ways. Its agricultural images, however, are standard metaphors in Jewish traditions both for instruction and for God’s interactions with Israel. They also are standard analogies about education (Greek, paideia) in Greco-Roman traditions: sowers (teachers) sow (teach), and their seeds (words) are received by various soils (students). In this context, the Gospel of Mark uses the Sower parable to illustrate differing responses to the message and ministry of Jesus.

What is the relationship of the parable (Mark 4:3-8) to its interpretation (Mark 4:14-20)?

The Hebrew word mashal, often translated in Greek as parabole, designates a variety of literary forms that use figurative language. Parables usually involve some sort of implied analogy, though the parallels between the things being compared are often not explicit.

Parables, by their analogical nature, encourage hearers to imagine new possibilities and even to generate allegorical interpretations as a way to respond to the open-ended interpretative potential of parables. The differences between this parable (Mark 4:3-8) and its allegorical interpretation (Mark 4:14-20) lead most scholars to conclude that the interpretation likely stems from the early church, not from Jesus (compare Gospel of Thomas 9, which lacks the interpretation; but see also 2Esd 8:41-44, which includes an interpretation for its sowing metaphor). The language and perspective of the interpretation, for instance, tend to be distinctive of the post-Easter church. The analogies within the interpretation are also inconsistent. For example, do the seeds symbolize the “word” (Mark 4:14) or “people” (Mark 4:15-20)?

The parable invites further questions, such as why any person dependent on productive crops for survival would sow seed among thorns, on rock, and on a beaten path? Some interpreters posit that the parable portrays an incompetent sower, whereas others argue that it realistically depicts first-century farming practices where sowing can precede plowing.

Some recent scholars suggest that Jesus’ parables can include allegory and argue that both the parable and its interpretation come from the historical Jesus. From this perspective, the message of the parable and its allegorical interpretation are basically equivalent.

All interpretations depend upon the context one chooses. The precise historical context in which Jesus spoke the parable is irrecoverable. The historical Jesus could have used the parable to illustrate various responses to his ministry. It could illustrate, as can the parable of the Mustard Seed, how the kingdom of God is present in Jesus’ seemingly insignificant ministry. Perhaps it even suggests Israel’s remnant returning from exile. Mark’s Gospel understands it as illustrative of not only Jesus’ mission but also of the evangelistic work of his followers: they all “sow” the message of God’s (eschatological) kingdom.

What do the different harvests imply?

The parable as it stands in Mark exemplifies differing responses to Jesus’ teaching. The fates of the seeds ultimately depend upon the places where they are sown, so the parable emphasizes the receptivity of the soil (hearer). The first three seeds fail to produce any harvest, which illustrates three types of failed responses to the message of the kingdom; even initially positive or joyful responses can result in failure (Mark 4:3-7, Mark 14-19).

The seeds that produce three levels of plentiful harvest symbolize those hearers who respond positively to that message and persevere. If the harvest yield of thirty, sixty, and hundredfold is miraculous, the harvest can signify the kingdom of God’s eschatological “harvest” at the end of the world. If it is merely a bountiful harvest (i.e., not miraculous), such as Gen 26:12 (Isaac’s yield was a hundredfold, and he was blessed by God) and other texts (for example, Pliny, Natural History 18.40.141; Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants, 8.7.4) suggest, then it can be interpreted primarily as the kingdom of God being present in Jesus’ ministry and the ministries of his disciples (Mark 6:7-13). 

As John Chrysostom notes (Homily 46, On Matthew), Jesus often uses nature to illustrate his message, because nature follows a set course: sowers sow, crops appear, and the harvest follows. Agricultural metaphors are not just understandable and vivid for first-century hearers; they also imply that the same inevitability applies to Jesus’ message about the kingdom: although there are examples of failure, the harvest is assured. Mark’s interpretation of the parable argues that Jesus’ message follows a similar pattern of rejection and acceptance. The parable thereby also prepares his followers for the rejection and acceptance of their preaching of the kingdom of God, since his disciples will experience similar failures and successes in their ministries.

The parable as it currently stands in Mark thus functions as a prophetic warning to those who do not listen, understand, and act (the first three seeds), but the primary emphasis seems to be a prophetic proclamation of the (ultimate) success of those who do, who are comparable to the holy seed, or remnant, of Israel implied in Isa 6:9-13. Mark’s reading of the parable further emphasizes the necessity to hear, understand, and respond appropriately to the message of the kingdom of God.

David Gowler, "Parable of the Sower ", n.p. [cited 23 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/parable-of-the-sower

Contributors

David B. Gowler

David Gowler
Professor, Oxford College of Emory University

David B. Gowler is Pierce Chair of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University and Senior Faculty Fellow at the Center for Ethics, Emory University. He is the author of the books Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts (Wipf and Stock, 2008) What Are They Saying About the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000), What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? (Paulist Press, 2007), and James Through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

The parable of the Sower can be understood in a variety of ways, but within the Gospel of Mark it illustrates differing responses to the message and ministry of Jesus.

Did you know…?

  • The Sower is one of only three parables in the Gospels that have detailed interpretations attached to them. The other two are the Weeds among the Wheat (Matt 13:24-30, Matt 36-43) and the Net (Matt 13:47-50).
  • The parable is one of only three parables found in all three Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas, along with the Mustard Seed and the Wicked Tenants.
  • The parable of the Sower is the only parable that begins with the command to “Listen,” and the Greek word for hear is used thirteen times in Mark 4:1-33.
  • The sower virtually disappears from the parable after the first part of verse 4, which focuses attention on the reception of the audience—the productivity (or lack thereof) of the seeds that are sown.
  • In Mark, those on the outside who do not understand surprisingly include Jesus’ mother and brothers (Mark 3:31-35).
  • The Greek word for seed does not occur in Mark’s parable or interpretation. In the parable itself, Mark uses singular pronouns for the seeds that are lost and are unproductive (“one”; Mark 4:4-6) but plural pronouns for the seeds that produce a great harvest (Mark 4:8).

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Mark 4:3-8

3“Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did ... View more

A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.

The Christian springtime holiday that celebrates Jesus's resurrection.

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

An apocryphal gospel made up of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and considered to be Gnostic in viewpoint.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Often not the person Jesus but scholarly reconstructions of his life based on textual and archaeological evidence as well as theological beliefs.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

Mark 4:3-8

3“Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did ... View more

Mark 4:14-20

14The sower sows the word.15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown ... View more

2Esd 8:41-44

41“For just as the farmer sows many seeds in the ground and plants a multitude of seedlings, and yet not all that have been sown will come up in due season, and ... View more

Mark 4:14

14The sower sows the word.

Mark 4:15-20

15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.16And these are th ... View more

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Mark 4:3-7

3“Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did ... View more

Mark 14-19).

The Plot to Kill Jesus
1It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to ar ... View more

Gen 26:12

12Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him,

Mark 6:7-13

7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey ... View more

Isa 6:9-13

9And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’10Make the mind of this people dull,
and ... View more

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Matt 13:24-30

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat
24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;25 ... View more

Matt 36-43

Chapter 37Chapter 38Chapter 39Chapter 40Chapter 41Chapter 42Chapter 43

Matt 13:47-50

47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and ... View more

Mark 4:1-33

The Parable of the Sower
1Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, ... View more

Mark 3:31-35

The True Kindred of Jesus
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.32A crowd was sitting around him; and t ... View more

Mark 4:4-6

4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang ... View more

Mark 4:8

8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.