My yard will never be the envy of the neighborhood. It’s not for lack of trying—it’s just that whatever it takes to make it all green isn’t a possibility for me. The grass will always be better on some other side.
Part of this is due to my lack of skill. But part of it is due to the differences of soil throughout the yard. My dog paved a trail from one side of the fence to the other. My kids piled rocks in one corner. Weeds blew in from the neighbor’s yard. However, in some blessed areas, the soil is just right. (I think there’s a parable buried out there somewhere. . .)
Parables serve as a kind of filter for the world. Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:1-20 shows that in every crowd there are different responses to the Word of God. Some people are really interested in Jesus, some are pretending to be, and some aren’t at all. And the parables sort them out.
The parable of the sower poses a simple—but disturbing—question: Which kind of soil is your heart made of? Jesus presents four soil samples for his audience’s examination.
THE HARD AND DRY HEART
The hard and dry heart is the scariest of all. Mark 4:15 says, “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.”
This heart is scariest because it is adamantly closed to Jesus. It’s uninterested in hearing him and therefore unable to hear him. It’s closed off to receiving from the Spirit of God, like the natural man Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 2:14.
What happens to this kind of heart? Before it sinks in, Satan snatches up the word. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in his famed The Screwtape Letters. In one letter, Screwtape says to his protege, Wormwood, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
In context, Screwtape is talking about prayer. The enemy cannot allow unhindered prayer. One prayer can do him in! So Peter tells us to “be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan is always there, mouth open, ready to take the seed away.
He has a million methods, distraction being perhaps his favorite. It’s just so easy to appeal to our flesh. In the moment, your bed tends to feel better than the Bible. Engaging in the conversation on social media seems more interesting than praying. Often self-justification feels better than repentance. You are prone to enjoy consuming Netflix after a long day rather than nightly meditation on God’s word. Distraction abounds.
For the hard and dry heart, the picking is easy, and the birds’ lunch is free.
THE SHALLOW AND ROCKY HEART
The shallow and rocky heart is like the Twitter follower who sees Jesus trending and jumps on the bandwagon. It loves him for his miracles but leaves him for his exclusive claims.
In fact, the parable says, “These are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 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” (Mark 4:16-17). The heart associated with this soil doesn’t stick with him because it simply isn’t open enough.
This part of the parable represents a heart that claims belief but doesn’t endure, proving it doesn’t truly believe. It’s merely interested in the latest thing and springing upon it. When following Jesus gets uncomfortable, inconvenient, discouraging, risky, the person unfollows. He or she didn’t sign up for hardship.
The shallow and rocky heart treats Jesus not as the savior he truly is, but as spiritual pixie dust. Treating Jesus as a guru to give life tips, as the genius bar to fix broken toys, as spiritual co-pilot to bless the not-so-bad life leads to easy-believism that springs up fast yet lacks any real depth. With a shallow heart, Jesus is treated as only positive and encouraging—who never steps on toes, never calls anyone to commitment, never asks another to deny themselves and take up the cross to follow him.
With this heart, things are good for a while but because God’s word is never adequately considered, never chewed on it, never truly thought through, it’s shallow like so many spring gardens in the hot sun, and it dies. When things get tough, the shallow and rocky heart leaves him for something else. When Jesus is treated in mere pragmatic terms, as soon as he no longer “works,” someone else is sought. For the rocky, shallow hearts tried Jesus and found he’s just alright, but not alright enough.
THE CROWDED AND ANXIOUS HEART
“Others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 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” (Mark 4:18-19).
The crowded and anxious heart has too many things at the same level of importance. Trying to uphold social status, comfort and security, and personal desires alongside the magnificence of God. The heart of anxiety worries about things out of its control because it’s let so many things control it. This heart has too many competing loves inside, and as Shakespeare said, “These lovers seek a place to fight.”
Ray Ortlund illustrates this reality with a profound image of our heart as a boardroom:
Big table. Leather chairs. Coffee. Bottled water. Whiteboard. A committee sits around the table. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, the childhood memories self, and others. The committee is arguing and debating and voting. Constantly agitated. Divided. Upset. Rarely can the committee within come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision.
One way we might falsely “accept Jesus” is just to invite him onto our committee. Give Jesus a seat at the table. Give him a vote, too. Let him make his case, and then the rest of us will decide for or against. But, if this is how we accept Jesus, then he is just one influence among others, easily offset by the other voices, which yell and demand and threaten.
This heart needs Jesus to come in and fire all the board members. All of them! And, in his grace, in their place we can receive freedom. What is required of us is openness to him, to receive what he so freely gives. But it means total openness. It means nothing is held back. No hidden corners. For the anxious heart set free, there are no locked doors.
THE SOFT AND OPEN HEART
Lastly, there is the good soil. This is the heart of Jesus’ disciples. The soil accepts his word. It represents the heart bent on following him when it’s hard. It sticks with him when it doesn’t understand. It draws near. It leans in. This heart wants Jesus.
The Scripture says, “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” (Mark 4:20).
The soft and open heart is the heart of every Christian. It is the heart that has accepted Christ and listened to his word. For the soft, open heart Jesus yields much fruit.
THE POWER OF THE SEED
The parable of the sower serves as a lens for life. These soils help us diagnose the kind of heart in us. But to understand how the good soil becomes ours in Christ, we need the rest of the story. Parables are great for running diagnostics, but they can’t provide the cure. Only Jesus can.
Interestingly, the only gospel account that doesn’t include this parable is John’s. But the truth it proclaims is very present. As Jesus makes a turn toward Jerusalem and, ultimately, the cross, he tells his disciples about his upcoming death by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Again, there is a seed on fruit-bearing soil.
What is Jesus saying? He’s explaining the power of the gospel is in his death. The power of the gospel is the seed planted in the ground. Jesus is not only the sower, he’s God’s seed, too (cf. Gen 3:15 NASB). And the fruit we need grows out of his grave.
It’s a surprising truth, really. A seed doesn’t seem sufficient for the plan of God. A little seed is so weak you can crush it. What Satan thought he did to Jesus on the cross was crush the seed. But not one of his bones was broken. In his death, Jesus wasn’t a smashed seed; he was a planted seed. He fell into the earth and died, and three days later, the seed grew. His power was released.
When you see that, something happens deep inside. Your heart of stone cracks open to Jesus! And once he’s inside, his word grows and grows. Even if my yard will never be consistently green—your life can! For now, there is a power filling your life. This nutrition flowing throughout your life is the power of the seed, the power of the word of God, and the power to produce grace-filled fruit that manifests out of your heart.
“What Does it Mean to Accept Jesus?” The Gospel Coalition blog, March 1, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/ray-ortlund/what-does-it-mean-to-accept-jesus/
David McLemore is an elder at Refuge Church in Franklin, Tennessee and a staff writer with GCD. He also works for a large healthcare corporation where he manages an application development department. He is married to Sarah, and they have three sons. Read more of David’s writing on his blog, Things of the Sort.