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In Mark 4:13 Jesus rebukes his disciples for their failure to understand the parable of the sower: "Don't you understand this parable?"

And then he follows that with a second question: "How then will you understand any parable?"

Is the implication of the second question basically, "This is one of the easiest parables to understand. If you don't get this one, you're not going to understand any of the other ones either."

Or is the implication that understanding this parable is somehow important as a key for unlocking the meaning of Jesus' other parables?

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  • . . . . or is it a question of metanoia : the receiving of another mind ? (+1)
    – Nigel J
    Jan 10, 2020 at 4:39

3 Answers 3

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It's worth noting that Jesus is not necessarily rebuking the disciples. On its own the question "Don't you understand this parable?" is neutral and ambiguous. Maybe Jesus is telling them off; maybe he's feeling disappointment or surprise that they don't understand; or maybe he's just making sure he understands their response. These are all possible underlying reasons for the question. We need to be cautious about reading one or other context into the bare words.

As for the main question, we are not meant to look within this parable for buried clues that explain the other parables. But there is a more natural sense in which this parable is indeed a key to the other parables.

The parable tells the story of a farmer who sows seed, and how the seed germinates in various ways according to the environment. And Jesus interprets this as the word of God which bears fruit in people's lives variously according their human environment.

Now Jesus himself was in the role of the farmer. He was speaking (or sowing) the word of God into people's lives, and this was often done in the form of parables. So here Jesus is in effect telling a parable about what happens when he tells parables. If the audience lacks the spiritual insight for this parable, then for them the word is like the seed that fell on poor ground. But if they understand the story, it shows they are receptive to God's word. We could describe this parable as a litmus test. How we respond to this parable will be reliable indicator of how we will respond to Jesus' other parables.

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It doesn't seem Jesus meant to rebuke his disciples for not understanding the parable of the Sower. Jesus did not expect his disciples to understand all parables after He taught them how to interpret this parable. As many Jews noticed, Jesus taught very differently to the teachers of the law;

22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:22 NIV)

In the olden days the Levi taught the people the Mosaic law, or the Lord sent his prophets to warn the people, either used plain words or signs, rarely used parables. I would think the Jews were not familiar with parables. Jesus told His disciples

11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables (Mark 4:11 NIV)

It implied that in public Jesus taught in parables, but in private Jesus taught his disciples in plain words. It is seen that after Jesus explained the parable of the Sower, He still taught them in plain words, not relying on parables.

33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.

34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (Mark 4:33-34 NIV)

As Jesus explained everything when He was with the disciples alone, He might not expect His disciples were ready for all the truth. Therefore it doesn't matter whether the parable of the Sower is simple or a key to all parables. The key is the Holy Spirit, that Jesus said;

13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:13 NIV)

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  • My edits were only for spelling and grammar. I agree that the question "How then will you understand any parable?" points to A] Jesus explaining B] The Holy Spirit guiding into all truth.
    – C. Stroud
    Aug 17, 2023 at 10:21
  • @C.Stroud - many thanks Aug 17, 2023 at 13:36
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The Parables of Jesus (4:1-34)

There are two times in Mark’s gospel where he steps aside from his narrative and takes up specific topics. Here he takes up the topic of parables. Later on, he’ll take up the topic of the end times. Most of chapter 4 then covers the meaning and importance of parables in Jesus’ teaching and in our own undestanding.

The Sower and the seed (4:1-19)

As chapter 4 begins Jesus is once again by the lake. And once again there are crowds around him. Making use of his surroundings, he gets into a boat and preaches to and teaches the people. He begins with a parable. A farmer goes out and sows (scatters) his seed onto the ground. We don’t know an overwhelming amount about farming in the ancient days. While there was an emphasis on farming in an orderly way, we do not have exacting directions as to what that farming looked like? Did they sow the seed first and then till it under? Did they plow first and then seed the land? In either case, what we see here is quite shocking. And that shows us some key details to look at when we are looking at parables. First of all, what is a parable? A parable is simply “throwing one thing alongside another for the sake of comparing or contrasting.”1 Jesus uses these stories to compare how things get done here on earth in an earthly way and how his work in the church and in heaven gets done. Second, what traits and themes should we look for in parables?

  • Plot Twist: Almost always in parables there is a plot-twist. The character (or more than one) does what we would not expect. Here, right away, the farmer is very careless and reckless with his seed.
  • One Point: Usually (but not always) there is one main point the writer is driving toward.
  • End Point Stress: Often (though not in this parable), we find the point at the end.
  • These details give us a framework that we can use to begin to make sense of parables when we find them.

    In this parable then we find the answer to a question, “what happens when the farmer scatters his seed?” The first three pictures are frustrating and almost agonizing. The seed is snatched by birds, burned by the sun, and choked by the weeds. But the fourth picture is an amazing one. The seed produces a shocking and surprising yield—much more than what can reasonably be expected.

    The parable is done. And we are asking the question, “what does this mean?” But does Jesus answer our question right away? No, instead, we have an interruption. We have a “Markon Sandwich.” Before we have an answer to the question, “what does this parable mean,” Mark has Jesus answer another, more important question first: What is the point of any parable? Jesus quotes Isaiah to let them know that parables have two purposes. First, they reveal. In a memorable, beautiful way, they open up understanding as the Holy Spirit gives the meaning and understanding to the believers who hear them. second, they hide. To those who stubbornly, persistently, and deliberately refuse to understand God’s word, he uses parables to keep them in the dark.

    Then (in verse 13), Jesus asks them the question, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand all parables?’” In a very unique way, Mark lets us know that if you want to understand any parable at all, this is the one you need to understand first. Very quickly Jesus will unveil and explain the parable to his disciples (and to us). But first realize that this is a parable about what happens when the seed is sown. It is a parable about what happens and what it looks like when God’s word is preached, taught, and shared. When God’s word is heard, what happens? And in a limited way, Jesus also answers the question: why does it happen this way? When God’s word is heard it does not behave like we would expect. And we do not see the effect of people hearing God’s word when we would like—or even at all. Our Lutheran confessions reflect this fact in these words:

    [V. Concerning Ministry in the Church]

    So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel, that is to say, in those who hear that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3[:14b]: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”2

    If we do not understand that when we speak God’s word to others the Holy Spirit is going to get his work done on the inside of a person in ways we cannot see, all the rest of the parables are wasted on us. For all of them pierce the veil, letting us go behind through faith and see what God does through his word even when our own eyes cannot see it.

    With this key thought in mind, Jesus then begins to explain the parable. In the first three examples, the verbs are simple past tenses, stating the fact of what happened.3 In the first example the word is heard, but then what happens? Before the word can sink in and take root Satan robs them of the meaning and understanding of the words. At times when a pastor preaches to larger groups, he wonders about this. When there are funerals and weddings how many are there who have never heard the gospel before and need to hear it then. But Satan uses the prettiness of the wedding gown or the melody of the background music to rob people of hearing what they need to hear from God’s word? Or how often does the overwhelming grief of death cause people who need to hear real resurrection comfort to instead turn a deaf ear to those words of strength and consolation? Satan is real. And he is really active to take away God’s word and it’s meaning before it can sink and and faith can start.

    In the second example the people hear God’s word. But what happens? They don’t grow in their faith. Indeed, they rejoice. But when they encounter persecution from the outside of the church or offense inside the church they fall away. There are unique temptations that those new to the faith face. That’s why Paul writes, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands,” (1 Timothy 5:22 NIV11-GKE) Leaders need to sink their souls deep into God’s word so that when the persecutions come from the outside and the offenses come from the inside of the church they can weather the storm. And the same is true for those who are not leaders in the church.

    Notice how as Jesus speaks these parables they have a “from bad to worse pattern.” The meaning is snatched away as people hear it. The faith grows with joy but then is burnt away by persecutions or offenses. But the sad scenarios aren’t finished yet. In the third scenario, even if the seed manages to grow roots, there are still dangers. Jesus tells us that they can grow alongside weeds. And the weeds entangle and overshadow the good plants. And finally the sun they so desperately need is choked from them. Worries and wealth choke people’s desire for church and strength of faith. There are real stresses and real worries that everyone has. And our world around us has no solution to them. And money, while it provides solutions to the problems of food, shelter, and clothing, cannot solve the more important problems: pain, sin, death, abuse, abandonment, and finding purpose, meaning, and hope. But Satan uses wealth and other tools to slowly choke away a peron’s faith.

    These are scenarios and pictures that go from bad to worse. But the fourth and final picture is an amazing one. There are those seeds that reach the ground, sink into the ground, and then grow. So too, the Holy Spirit sees to it that his word gets his work done. We cannot see it. But the Holy Spirit promises it. Whenever God’s word is shared it powerfully works. And it yields a massive and impressive harvest. In the first three examples, the picture is so bleak, you almost don’t even want to go on and read the fourth. But that’s exactly the point. Our Triune God is the one who is in control. He sees to it that God’s word is heard, that there are “ears to hear.” He sees to it that through his word faith is created. He sees to it that the shallow faith sinks itself deep into his word so that his sheep continue to hear their shepherd’s voice all the days of their lives.

    Indeed, when we begin to understand this parable, the others begin to fall in place. For this is how God gets his work done. There are some business aspects of having a church (maintaining a church and church budget, paying bills and staff). But the church is not a business. The church gets work done in a shockingly different way than a business does. We preach, but don’t sell God’s word. We encourage people to give money to their church in a first-fruits, regular, proportionate, joyful way. But we do not bill our members as if they were clients at a fitness club. We strive to be faithful, but rely on the Lord to produce the results of our toil. All of this flows from a proper understanding of this parable.

    How do you present God’s word? (4:21-23)

    In the brief section that follows the parable, Jesus answers a key question we might ask: Why spend so much time and energy hiding God’s word? You light a lamp not to hide it, but instead to lift it up so that it can give light to everyone in the room. The same is true with the parables. Jesus hides his meaning in these parables. And yes, that meaning is hidden. But it was not hidden so that it would stay hidden. It is hidden so that it would be revealed and remembered.

    How Should We Treat God’s Word? (4:24-25)’

    Mark then applies the fact that God’s word hidden in parables is meant to be revealed. Set aside time in your life and in your heart to hear them. Ponder them, think about them, and study them. The two proverbs then are a warning and invitation. The Jewish statement about measuring we would probably say, “You get out of it what you put into it.” And the second proverb is an encouragement to grow in God’s word. What we have will not be taken from us. Instead, as we grow in God’s word it will grow in us and will apply to many other parts of our life. But if we treat the study of God’s word like we treat vaccine shots—good for us when we’re tiny, but easily set aside and forgotten after that—then what we think we have will be taken away from us. Every faithful pastor has a story to tell about a member who was baptized and maybe even confirmed when then later on drifts away from worship and away from studying God’s word at home and at church. And when then the pastor follows up after years of neglect and asks the very basic, foundational questions that children attending Sunday School class would be able to answer, that member is not able to. How frightening it is that that person thinks he or she is so close to the Lord, but in fact is drifting far away. These words are a sobering warning that if we are not growing in our faith, we are slowly dying—even if we cannot see the decay. The encouragement, however, is that our time in God’s word is not wasted. There are many times we hear a sermon or read a part of God’s word and later, sometimes much later something happens in our lives that cause us to remember what we learned earlier. There is nothing wrong with walking through a topical sermon series or bible study that addresses a past issue in our lives. But the great joy that Mark brings up here is that, just as good as applying God’s word to present or past events, studying God’s word by walking through a book of the bible is good in that it is proactive, not reactive. So when you come to a bible study class or read God’s word at home, or hear a sermon that didn’t quite fit where you are in your life, don’t get discouraged. Just wait. There will be a time when you will be glad you carved out time for those words.

    What happens when you hear? (4:26-34)

    In two similitudes (brief parables) Jesus tells us what happens when God’s word is heard.

    God’s kingdom grows invisibly (4:26-29)

    In this parable there is a farmer. He goes about his work. He throws down his seed. Whether he sleeps or gets up; whether it is day or night, it grows. And he doesn’t know how it grows. All by itself it does its work by itself. And then, at the end of the year, when the time is ripe, he harvests the crop.

    When pastors preach and teach (and when we share God’s word privately), the Holy Spirit does his work of creating faith secretly and invisibly. God’s word all by itself does this work. We do not do this work. Though we may be able to take away from the word’s effectiveness by our mishandling of the word, we cannot add to its effectiveness. The Holy Spirit does what he wants with his word when it is shared. And without our observation, without our knowledge, without our permission, the Holy Spirit gets his work of creating and preserving faith done.

    Our role is to faithfully teach and preach God’s word. He is the one who causes it to grow and flourish. At the end, on Judgment Day, the harvest will come. And what is hidden will become known.

    God’s kingdom grows visibly (4:30:-34)

    God’s kingdom grows invisibly. But in this next brief parable we see how God’s kingdom also grows visibly. Though the mustard seed is very small, when it grows, it grows so large that the birds of the air can nest in its branches. You can see it with your own eyes. The same is true with the church. Yes, the Holy Spirit is doing his cherished hidden work in our hidden souls. But there are effects of that work that we can see. People gather together around God’s word in congregations. They worship, study, and pray together. They encourage each other. They train future pastors and send out missionaries together. And all of this can be seen with our own eyes.

    In the closing thoughts Mark repeats the fact that Jesus taught with parables. And these parables were often confusing. But they were hidden so that they could be revealed. And when they were alone Jesus explained them.


    1 “ⲉⲛⲡⲁⲣⲁⲃⲟⲗⲁⲓⲥ” (Mark 4:2 GNT-ALEX)

    2 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 41.

    3 Aorist tense.

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