Mark 4:3-4, 13-15 (NIV): “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up…”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.”
This is one of only a handful of parables that Jesus clearly explained to His disciples because they asked (Mark 4:10). The things of the Spirit are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14), and Jesus knew before He even told a parable that only those with ears to hear would understand what He was telling them about God’s kingdom.
In this parable, the farmer sowing seed represents the one who sows God’s word. At this stage of the game, that was Jesus. Later, it would include the disciples, and eventually all of Jesus followers as the ripples spread outward. In those days farmers spread seed using a technique called broadcasting, in which he would take a handful of seed and throw it onto the prepared ground in an arc, using his hand to release the seed evenly. He would then grab another handful of seed, repeating the process as he moved over the plot of ground. The benefit of this technique was that it was quick, and was very effective, especially for crops like grains. The disadvantage, especially when working near the edges of the prepared soil, was that some of the seed would be wasted by landing on soil that had not been prepared to receive it.
In this case, the unprepared soil was the hard-packed pathway along the edge of the field. The seed couldn’t penetrate this hard soil, so it just lay on the path until the birds came along and ate it up. A good example of this kind of heart-soil in Jesus’ day was the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law. Many of them were in the crowds to whom Jesus preached each day. A few of them, it must be said, were sincere seekers of the truth. But the majority had hardened hearts. Some were hardened by self-righteousness, closing their eyes to their need for a savior. Some were hardened by jealousy of Jesus, who was amassing followers at an incredible pace, and who could do mighty miracles that they, even with all of their piety, could not. Even when they went to John the Baptist months earlier (cf. John 1:19-27), a man whose specific job was to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the seed of the gospel (Luke 1:76-79), they hardened their hearts in advance, and ended up merely interrogating John to see where he fit into their theology.
Those people with hearts packed hard by suspicion, jealousy, and self-righteousness were in the crowds when Jesus was broadcasting seeds of eternal life through His miracles, His deliverances from demons, and His teachings. But the seeds couldn’t penetrate their hearts, and just lay on the surface until they were swept away by the enemy. These men stood in the presence of the Light of the World, kept their eyes firmly closed, and then shrugged and walked off unconvinced. They listened to the voice of Truth itself with their fingers firmly in their ears, then left, testifying that they had heard nothing special.
The wonderful thing about this illustration is that, while hard-packed soil can’t receive the seed that is thrown on it, that soil can be made receptive if the farmer is willing to work it. It can be broken up with a plow, mulched, moistened, and worked over for a season. Then it, too, can be planted to produce a crop. If any of those with hard hearts had been willing to surrender themselves to God, He could have reworked that barren soil, and made it fertile and good, able to produce a crop for eternal life.
Father, this underscores how important it is for us to work with You in the area of evangelism – not only so that we can see where the good soil is, but also in praying for those we love who have hard-packed hearts, so that Your Spirit can begin to break it up, to moisten it, to loosen it with good mulch, so that they can then receive the seeds of the gospel that we long to plant in them. I know that I had such a heart for a long time, until the prayers of those who loved me broke up the hardness of my heart so that your seed could get in and grow. Thank you for your powerful love! Amen.