Bible readers often imagine Matthew as the most ‘get-out-there-and-tell-people-about-Jesus’ gospel of the four gospels. Why? For one very good reason. Matthew’s gospel climaxes with the famous Great Commission:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This was the climactic commission for the first apostles, and because Matthew chooses to include it, clearly it is a call to the church too: to the first Christians and to the church throughout the ages. All Christians are called to be part of spreading great news!
What Bible readers—scholars or lay people—often fail to appreciate is that Mark’s gospel contains an even stronger emphasis on this front! When it comes to ‘get-out-there-and-tell-people-about-Jesus,’ Mark, when considered as a whole, is stronger even than Matthew. The difference? Just that the theme is more spread out in Mark, a constant drumbeat. All this happens, by the way, both in Matthew and Mark, by reiterating the emphasis of Isaiah 40-41, how the good news of the kingdom is so good that it must be shouted from the mountains.
Mark adds an extra dimension, an amazing extra element, one developed in Mark 3-4, the theme of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ making everything richer and fuller. Here is the all-important question: who is on the inside (with Jesus) and who is on the outside? And how does all this enhance the theme of evangelism?
This point that develops first in Mark 3, starting with Jesus’s family on the outside of the house wanting to take charge of him because they believe he has gone mad. In a culture where family was everything, Jesus looks around the room and affirms that those in the house, those with him, those on the ‘inside,’ are actually in the right. They are his true mother and sisters and brothers:
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
This immediately ramps up in what comes next. In Mark 4 Jesus tells a parable about a sower going out to sow. In this parable one seed falls on the path and the birds eat it up—we will return to this topic in just a minute. Then another seed falls on shallow soil and when sprouted, scorches. And another seed falls among the thorns and is choked. But then multiple seeds fall on good soil and produce much fruit. The people don’t get this; they don’t understand what this parable means—not even the disciples. They seemingly do not have the ears to hear, unless (that is) they stick around with Jesus long enough for him to explain it to them.
There is a test in all this—note carefully—to see who will take the time to actually listen to Jesus, indicating what it really means to be good soil. Being good soil means having ears to listen to ‘the word,’ the seed, Jesus’s words, even as the parable circles around to explain. You must listen to Jesus. Some people (it seems) don’t want to bother listening any longer. But for those who stick around to be with Jesus, who are on the ‘inside,’ who wait to hear Jesus’s explanation, they get to understand all that he is saying:
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? (Mark 4:10-13)
Isn’t this wonderful! Doesn’t it have amazing application, in ways that we might not immediately see? Sometimes when we hear this parable of the sower, it can feel quite fatalistic. Am I good soil? Am I bad soil? Will I persevere? But the point is not to speak of soil in terms of fatalism, but rather in terms of willingness to stay and listen to Jesus. If only we will stick with Jesus, cling to him, listening to what he says and believing him, then we will be good soil; we will be fruitful!
This then leads us to an extraordinary string of parables, Mark 4:21-34, a string of parables that not only echoes what Jesus has just said but also expands on it, focusing on spread of the kingdom and our role in seeing this happen.
In Matthew, giving the sermon on the mount, Jesus begins with an immediate and pointed challenge to be the salt of the earth, to be a light in the world. In a similar way, Mark 4 picks up many of the same themes:
21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark 4:21-25)
Notice verse 23: “If anyone has ears to hear let him hear.” What happens when someone sticks around and dwells on the ‘inside’ with Jesus; what happens when that person has ears to hear? They become good soil. And what happens then? They themselves produce a crop of more seed, some thirty, some sixty, some one hundred. More seed. This metaphor will be reintroduced by Jesus in just a moment. But for now, his statement about being a light is climaxed with the repeat idea of having ears to hear, tying it together with what preceded. In a new metaphor, now light instead of growth, Jesus is saying here outright that Christians must shine forth (Remember Matthew 5!).
Verses 24-25 challenge us along the same lines, picking up the metaphor of measurement. Here we are reminded (with yet another metaphor!) of degrees of fruitfulness, of measure and how even more will be measured.
All of this provides a return to the sowing metaphor:
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
Note here that the “scattered seed on the ground” is much more random than that in the parable of the sower. This parable almost downplays the man in this parable who sows, making him almost an entirely a passive agent. He is not going out to sow (as the sower did); he just happens to throw seed out. And even though this man might sleep or be made to rise, the seed grows without him, anyway! The whole process is beautiful; there is no indictment in this text. Rather it is like a ballet, all without the man’s help. It is described as the blade coming, then the ear, then the full grain in ears. And then when the grain allows him (not the other way around!), the text literally says, only then does the man send out (in echoes of missionary language) the sickle. There are echoes here, in fact, of the language of Joel 3:13, “Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe.” Joel has in view human agents called by God to bring in the harvest, in that case, a harvest of wicked Israel, which Mark here references in an incredible ironic echo. It is God’s own people who need to be reaped from out of their wickedness, but in this case, they will be reaped not by foreign nations for destruction but by the Lord himself for release!
In sum, this is not a parable any longer emphasizing seed or soil, but instead one emphasizing the passive person, one who is ever-so-important in the process, yet somehow not! The kingdom will grow and reap a crop, if only the man will scatter, seemingly even accidentally.
How often do Christians imagine that it is someone else’s responsibility to be a light in the world? That’s the job of the professionals. But Jesus tells us that all lamps are meant to shine. That simply what lamps do! And the process of being measured indicates the responsibility to then use what was measured out, after which still more will be measured, a process of multiplying fruitfulness.
Where does this end up? Even if you and I do not feel like professional sowers, professional tenders of crops, it doesn’t matter. The parable suggests that we do not have to feel talented or adept, as if we have got it all together, to be used. And the outcome? The harvest will come! The fruit will be yielded just so long as we are just faithful, faithful to hear Jesus’s words, and to then spread it further!
And then the story continues. The Parable of the Mustard Seed. Have you ever felt like you are so small, so pathetic? Have you ever felt like the kingdom of God, Christianity, is so small, so pathetic too? If you think about its beginning, this is absolutely true. It all apparently began with some backwards son-of-a-tradesman, living in some backwards part of the country, preaching to backwards people. It all seems so small when we look at it in hindsight. And this must have felt that way in the beginning too. This passage picks up on this and in quite extraordinary ways:
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mark 4:30-34)
The metaphor of a tree hardly begins in the New Testament. Daniel 4 shows that the metaphor for a great kingdom was a tree, strong and powerful, one that could house birds in its branches and animals in its shade. In Ezekiel 17:23, as God promises the kingdom of Israel to arise anew, Ezekiel uses the picture of new growth and a new tree, again the birds flocking to find refuge in its branches:
23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:23-24)
The point here too, picked up by Jesus in Mark 4:30-34, is that the apparently small tree (the germ of a mustard tree) will yet be made great–by God. The Lord will have raised it up to be the greatest!
Consider how the first readers of Mark might have taken all this, that a kingdom which seems small and pathetic can be made great by the Lord. The Lord is about to take something, a movement absolutely miniscule in their eyes, started by an apparent nobody named Jesus of Nazareth, and make it powerful and fruitful.
We must always remember that it is God who is behind his kingdom work. Just as seed scattered grew up without the man’s help—and it was even quite random how that seed was spread—so it is with the planting of such a small mustard seed. How could something so small and pathetic produce something so big? This is the work of God, and we must never forget it. How many times today does the church think it can make things great! How many times do we think we can force the kingdom to tower above other kingdoms via our own ingenuity? We must never forget that this is God’s kingdom. And it is in individuals being faithful to just sow, to simply let lights shine, that the true kingdom of Jesus will expand.
But let us also return to our bigger theme. The whole story starts with the question of who is on the inside and who is on the outside. This sounds at first like quite divisive language, very exclusivist. We are encouraged to be ‘groupies,’ groupies for Jesus, to stick close to him, to listen to everything he has to say. And what this means for us, in a positive sense for Christians today, is that we need to hear and to learn and to grow by hanging out with God’s people, hearing his word, growing together. If we are only hearing the words of the surrounding culture, then, like the parable of the sower, our faith will be choked by all the concerns of the world; we will be ‘worldly.’ So, it is very important that we are connected together and that we find ourselves in contexts where we can learn and grow.
But notice that beyond this, everything points outwards! Christians are not meant to be ‘groupies’ in that we are isolated and insular. Lights are meant to shine out into dark places. Seeds are meant to blow in the wind, so that they are scattered anywhere and everywhere and sprout up all over the place. And the tree that grows is meant to be a good place for birds to come and shelter. This last metaphor is extremely powerful, if we dare to circle back round to the parable of the sower one more time. In the parable of the sower the birds were those that ate up the seed before it had grown. If there is any echo intended here, the same birds are now benefiting from this kingdom!
Isn’t this how it is meant to be? Isn’t this how it was in Jesus’s own life? He gathered his follows on the inside, but then sent them out, even as he went out and became the friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’ May we who are Christians be challenged by this too, to first be ‘insiders,’ always learning from Jesus, always circling around to be learning and growing. But then second to always turn outward, looking beyond ourselves, turning to the outside world, those who do not know. May we be like light shining forth. May we be like seed that blows in the wind, even randomly in some cases, trusting that God will bring the growth. And may we also be a place where others—even those who were in the first place hostile to us—feel like they can shelter. This is a high calling indeed! But it is a great calling. And as we are most willing, God will do it for his great glory!