Mark 4:1-25: Tilling the Heart

Isn't it amazing how people have such varied reactions to a single event, whether it's a sporting event or a political speech? Tell us about a time you disagreed with a friend about a movie you'd just seen together.

We witnessed various responses to Christ's message in chapter 3:
1. Pharisees listen with sinister motives.
2. Jesus' family is embarrassed.
3. Crowds are thrill-seeking.
4. Disciples leave all to follow Him.

So why does Jesus now tell a story of four soils? (Jesus was explaining that the reason for such varied responses to His message was the varying receptivity of people's hearts. His message is not lacking in power to produce fruit, but requires human response.)

Let's read verses 1-20.

Who is the farmer? (Jesus)

What is the seed? (The word or message that Jesus had been giving: "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news." [1:15])

Make a visual summary (yes, a drawing! Have a volunteer do it if you'd like.) of the story accompanied by discussion which covers the following descriptions of the four soils:
1. Path – birds steal (Satan), no germination, no life.
2. Rocky – sun scorches (trouble, persecution), brief joy, shallow, no root, good but short-lived intentions.
3. Thorny – thorns choke (worries, wealth, desires), alive but fruitless, trying to ride the fence.
4. Good – fruitful.

If you've accepted the message, your soil was receptive at your conversion. How about now?
Is the soil of your heart still soft for God's word?
Is it producing fruit in your life or is there a snag in the growth process?

What soil are you tempted to revert back to?

  1. Do you let Satan keep you from soaking in God's Word?
  2. Do you only experience joy and growth in good times?
  3. Do you let worldly things seduce your heart?

According to the passage, how are we to respond to the word in order to be fruitful? ("Hear" is repeated nine times in verses 1-25. Mark also mentions "perceiving", "understanding", "listen", "turn", and "accept" as proper responses. So the verbs involve both hearing AND acting on the Word.)

Summary: As we hear and obey God's Word, truth becomes virtue in our lives. But those whose hearts are hard, shallow or distracted don't gain any lasting benefit from hearing truth. So let's make every effort to make the soil of our hearts receptive to God's Word. As St. Augustine writes: "Work diligently the soil while you may. Break up your fallow with the plough. Cast away the stones from your field, and dig out the thorns. Be unwilling to have a 'hard heart', such as makes the Word of God of no effect. Be unwilling to have a 'thin layer of soil', in which the root of divine love can find no depth in which to enter. Be unwilling to 'choke the good seed' by the cares and lusts of this life, when it is being scattered for your good." [Oden 57]

What varying degrees of fruitfulness did the seeds in good soil produce? (30, 60, 100 times what was sown. Think about how fruitful your Christian life has been and how fruitful you want the remainder of it to be.)

[Facilitator's note: If you're short on time, cover the following section quickly or save it for next week.]

Let's read verses 10-12 and 21-25, where Jesus explains His use of parables.

At first glance, verses 11-12 seem to say that Jesus is keeping the truth from people by telling hard to understand stories. Is He really? (Yes and no. He's not trying to exclude the whole crowd, but is only weeding out those whose lack of interest is betrayed by their refusal to really "hear" and try to understand. Their response reveals that their hearts are like the hardened path which does not let the Word of God penetrate. So they bring judgment on themselves for their unbelief, as 2 Thessalonians 2:10 says: "They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." The parables are not meant to obscure the truth, but rather to nurture a hunger for their meaning so that those who truly "hear" will seek God, who alone can speak truth to their hearts. Revelation is not obvious to all, but according to verses 11 and 25, it is "given" by God – to those who are receptive to the Word.)

What does Jesus say about hiding truth in verses 21-23? (Hiding a lamp – referring to Himself or at least His message – would be silly. It's very purpose is to spread light around.)

Let's reread verses 24-25.
What is Jesus saying about hearing His message?
(The more you hear and absorb, the more will be spoken to you. The more you reflect on Christ's parables, the more you get out of them. Those who barely listen will understand little. Jesus seeks to cultivate a hunger for truth by telling stories that take a little work to fully grasp. He doesn't spoon-feed them truth, but in verse 10, He gives more of an explanation to those who demonstrate their hunger by sticking around to ask for clarification.)

How can we apply these verses to our lives? (Be attentive to what He is teaching us in His Word, so that He will enable us to know Him more and more. It's exciting that we can influence the amount of understanding God will give us by listening and hungrily absorbing what He is teaching us now. Our prayer should be: "Open the valve wide, Lord!")

Let's pray now that God will give us insight into His Word and the desire to be as fruitful as we can be. Let's also ask him to remove the rocks and thorns from the soil of our hearts.