The National Catholic Review
We are at "another occasion"; somewhat vaguely Mark joins disparate episodes into his coherent story. Mark introduces us to a situation noted before, where Jesus teaches large crowds, so large that this time he teaches from a boat. But new here is a use of parables, those stories which are fictitious in themselves, but have some point or points that pertain to real life – in this case, to life with God. The validity of a parable rests in its ability to offer the audience a situation which, while fictitious, reflects the audience’s experiences. That is, should Jesus here use a description of sowing which is not recognizably true, according to Jewish experience, he would immediately lose his audience; the audience ’would not know what he was talking about’. In this parable of sowing, the scattering of seed, with the result that seeds fell on different soils, was true to life in first century Israel. Such manner of sowing may seem wasteful to us, but not to them. Thus, it is true that seed falls on soils that will produce little or nothing, and on soil that will produce very well. There are advocates who consider the parable a happy story: despite failures, there is success. And there are advocates who consider the parable a sad story: despite success, there are failures. Mark uses the parable with the latter understanding. Why? First, because, before the explanation of the parable, he introduces the teaching that the unless one has faith in Jesus, one will not understand the parable as it relates to the kingdom of God; only to followers of Jesus, i.e., to those who believe in him (and Mark’s audience of those baptized into Jesus), will parables yield their true meanings. Second, while Mark has indicated in his first three chapters that Jesus has followers, even those who have left all to follow him, he has begun to accentuate an incomprehension and outright hostility to Jesus that will culminate in what Mark knows as the only outcome of the public life of Jesus: crucifixion. One cannot avoid this ending to the Gospel; in a sense the crucifixion hangs sadly, tearfully over the whole Gospel story, and underlines how ’seed has fallen on unprofitable ground’. Third, the explanation of the parable that Jesus gives shows by its particulars a greater concern for the failures of the sowing than of the successes. No doubt the reasons for the failures of sowing reflect reality in the Marcan times, whether this explains failures in missionary work or failures within the believing community. Notable in regard to the latter are mentions of persecution and the lure of riches, themes which Jesus will pursue in later teachings in the Gospel. Probably it is recognition of the degrees of faithful living and dedication to Jesus within Mark’s audience that accounts for the degrees of success in the sowing. ’Parable’ means a ’placing of a first thing beside another’, so that the first will illuminate the meaning of the second. Here, the parable places the action of sowing beside the action of preaching the Kingdom; who is ready to receive the word of preaching? The parable suggests that there is an openness and a closedness, in part already determined to affect response to the sowing. Given this reality, Jesus can rightly say that if you do not understand what it is in you that is about to meet the word of God to accept or reject it, you will believe in any further parables about the Kingdom. In short, without belief in Jesus to oppose ’bad soil’, one will never understand what Jesus reveals about God. John Kilgallen, S.J.