Mark 4: sowers and seeds

An acquaintance who farmed potatoes in upstate New York once said that he had a hard time focusing on what would seem to be the moral of this parable because he was distracted by the way in which the sower sowed. He is profligate with his seed, casting it all over the place, unconcerned about waste, making no effort to increase his yield by sowing only in the best soil. God’s seemingly careless generativity is confounding, and Jesus doesn’t attempt to explain it. Rather, he gives a metaphoric accounting of how different sorts of people respond to the Word of God. This parable can seem deterministic–Salvation derives from the quality of the soil, over which the seed has no control.–unless you assume that the soil is not your environment but your heart.

I wonder what people make of the other agricultural parable in this chapter, verses 26-29. A man scatters seed, does nothing to cultivate it, but it grows and he harvests it. My New Oxford Annotated Bible contains this footnote: “The growth of God’s kingdom in the world is beyond human understanding or control. Yet people may recognize its progress and play a part in it.”

Fair enough. But it sure seems as though this second sower could be a heck of a lot more diligent. What perplexes me about this parable–and about the nature of grace, I guess–is that this man’s diligence is not required. It is easy enough to say that this indicates that God doesn’t need our help. Of course he doesn’t. But to what extent does God want our help? Or, to put it another way, to what extent does our striving indicate commitment to the Gospel, and to what extent does it betray an arrogant belief that we can earn our salvation?

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