Jesus informs us that there are four types of heart soils, but that only one is unnatural. These other soils – the soil that is hard, the soil that is shallow and rocky and the soil that is kind to weeds – do not require God’s touch at all. Like the ground that we would find walking through fields, along ocean shores, or in the middle of desserts are the same kinds of ground that we find in Jesus’ parable. They are wild, untamed soils that are hostile to plant life. With the exception of one the soils that Jesus describes, these others soils are natural and common to the earth. They behave exactly as they should in accordance with the surrounding wild terrain.
When a gardener works a patch of ground to plant a garden he first has to work hard to prepare it. He breaks up the hard ground with a heavy blade, pulls up all the weeds, removes the rocks and then takes out anything else that would inhibit the growth of his seeds. Only after a soil is prepared is when a farmer plants and not a moment before. And if the gardener would desire for a patch of ground to return to its natural condition he would simply do nothing. He would merely stop tending the ground to allow for the weeds and the natural elements to slowly overwhelm any ground he worked to prepare.
This is a key theme that is often overlooked in this parable: A gardener first takes a wild ground and tames it. He works a patch of ground that couldn’t naturally tolerate fruit and flowers that are desirable, and then he transforms it into a fertile bed that’s ready to receive whatever he wants to plant within the new soil.
The Holy Spirit is the Master Gardner. He waters hard, dry ground and softens hearts with the Word of God. He meticulously tills the stony ground of stubborn hearts and prepares them to receive the Gospel. And when he plants the Gospel, the well-prepared soil receives the Lord Jesus in the fullness of love and happily obeys his commands. He is also always busy pulling weeds, pulling those idols from our hearts that would otherwise make the Gospel boring and unlovely to us. He does this so that the Gospel will grow unimpeded by the weeds of this world that normally thrive in the soil of our hearts.
If left to themselves, our hearts would see the weeds rise up and choke off the Gospel or they would bake ever harder under the hot, blazing light of Gospel truths. But when the Spirit of God plants the Gospel in a good and well prepared heart, it becomes useful to God and produces a harvest of righteousness for the sake of spreading the Name of Jesus Christ.
We could conclude from this passage that Mark was collecting a few random sayings from Jesus in order to lead us into the Kingdom parables to come. After all, we seem to suddenly shift from an examination of the human heart in the Parable of the Sower to parables about the Kingdom of God. Perhaps, Mark is introducing to us a segue between the individual and the Kingdom? Or maybe he is joining the first parable about the heart soils to the parables about growing wheat and mustard seeds?
But Mark is actually doing both as he has both the individual and the Kingdom in view.
In the Parable of the Sower, the good heart is adding numbers to the Kingdom even as he is being saved. This heart is producing crops of 30 or even a 100 fold. And so here Mark’s transition is subtle and natural. Those who hear the Gospel will share it. They will put the message about the Light of Life on lamp stand for others to see. The once hidden Kingdom of God now demands Kingdom people who will bring it out into the open, and Jesus’ expectation is that all who hear and receive the Gospel will continue bringing it out for those who haven’t heard it or even those who refuse to hear.
The warning to Jesus’ listeners is stark. Be careful how you hear, because the measure you use to judge the hearts, thoughts and intentions of others will not only be measured back to you, but even more. Should you reveal the Gospel, more will be revealed to you. If you love your neighbor, your enemy and brother, more love will given to you. But if you hide the Gospel, the Gospel will be hidden from you. If you judge others, God will judge you far harsher than you have judged. If you hate your brother or sister, even the love you think you have from them will be taken from you.
Jesus is very concise. If you live outside the Kingdom and demand rules and consequences, you will have them. There will be no mercy for anyone who demands God’s Law because the Law shows no mercy to those who break any portion of it. But for those who embrace the Kingdom through faith in Jesus, grace beyond their expectations will be given to them. Even as grace and mercy increase in the joy of living daily in the kindness of the Savior, Christ will continue to pour out more love and mercy for those who love him.
Farmers cannot make crops grow by. They can plow the ground. They can water and fertilize the soil. They can even plant the seeds. But unless the sun shines, diseases stay at bay and the seeds germinate below the ground there is nothing more that the farmer can do once he has prepared the ground, watered and fertilized the soil.
Jesus uses these realities to humble us and remind us who is in control of his Kingdom. It is our responsibility to plant and water, but God makes his Kingdom grow. We plant the seeds of the Gospel. We water it with his Word. We even bring nutrients to the soil through God’s grace in our hearts – such as the love, peace and joy we find through faith in Christ’s cross and his resurrection. But God is the One who germinates the seeds of faith. He is the One who sustains the sunlight for spiritual photosynthesis. He is the One who brings the cool rains of grace to ensure that his plants will withstand the hot summer days. In fact, God is the one who oversees the plant’s entire development, from the first sprout of Spring to the harvest grain of Summer.
According to Jesus, our job is to share Christ’s cross and resurrection. But faith begins and ends with God’s will. God sparks repentance and faith through the Spirit’s penetration of the heart. He then cares for the soul’s development through his Church and by his Word, and when he is ready, he brings a soul home to live with him forever.
The Lord does this with his entire Kingdom. He quietly goes about growing his Kingdom. He patiently and methodically tends to it until it is ready for the final harvest, and he does all this despite the opposition of the devil and the snares of this world.
It’s interesting to look at the different types of mustard seeds that were planted in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Each of them are very small and some of them look very plain. They look nothing like the tree they eventually grows so exponentially large that it reaches some 8 to 12 feet high from the tiny seed of about a millimeter. And the black mustard seed is particularly interesting given the likelihood that Jesus had this seed variety in mind when he was speaking. This seed not only looks ordinary, it looks even less appealing than the other varieties.
Scripture tells us that there was nothing extraordinary about Jesus’ appearance when he came to the earth. Isaiah says that there was nothing about his physical appearance that would have suggested that he was destined to change the world (Isaiah 53:2). He was like an ordinary mustard seed. He grew up in an obscure Galilean town. He grew up with an insignificant family who lived ordinary first-century lives. When he began his ministry, he chose working class fisherman, marginalized religious zealots and even a tax collector to become his trusted disciples. And Jesus associated himself with the poor, the sick, social outcasts and the lowest and most despised people in Israel. By all outward appearances, Jesus showed no promise of changing human history.
Yet Jesus did change history. With his extraordinary teaching, came unprecedented miracles; and with his miracles came the revelation of who he was. Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. He was God in human flesh. He was the King of Kings wrapped in an ordinary package. And his death on the cross carried with it so much lasting significance that our historical calendars are now split because of what he has done for us.
Jesus died as a single mustard seed, but from him rose up a Kingdom that changed the whole world.
From his death came a new people. A people who are not marked by remarkable physical features or because they descend from an extraordinary heritage or lineage. His people are his people because they have been given new hearts. They are souls who have been humbled and changed by the death of their Savior. They are seeds that have come from the very first Seed. They are a transformed people, who have had the Gospel of God planted in their hearts on account of their Savior’s death and resurrection.
Though in the shade of the great tree the birds are allowed to perch, the Kingdom still grows ever larger. The birds hide in the shade because they cannot tolerate the light of truth and they steal seeds in defiance of the one who planted the great tree. They build their nests in its dead branches and they eat the fruit it bears. But the birds cannot bring the great tree down. They cannot stop its growth, and they cannot change the fact that this tree will last forever.
Real faith goes beyond happy thoughts and warm feelings. Thought it’s easy for anyone to say that they believe in Jesus, and it’s even easy for someone to say that they love him enough to die for him, proving such a claim is a different matter entirely. And such proof will never come if we are always sitting comfortably in church or because our life is quiet and “fortune” smiles on us warmly.
This is why trials test us: They prove whether real faith exists. Trails not only develop patience and persistence with our faith, they expose its depth. Trial show us if faith is really there and how deep it goes.
When Jesus awoke and rebuked the storm he wasn’t angry with the storm. The storm was merely behaving as it was supposed to behave. It was churning up waves that were making it difficult for the disciples to cross the lake. It was stirring up the lake that was stirring up the disciple’s fear to test their faith. So when Jesus calmed the storm, he immediately asked his disciples why they were so afraid and why they still had no faith.
As the waves crashed over the boat and the high winds battered its sails, the disciples believed that they were going to drown. Jesus was with them, but they still panicked. The storm was ferocious, but the disciples forgot that the Lord of the Storm was with them, and the disciple’s panic revealed that they did not fully believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Though they had seen him cast out demons and heal a paralyzed man, they didn’t believe he could help them escape the storm.
Windstorms like the furious squall that Mark describes are not unprecedented on the Sea of Galilee. In 1992, a late winter storm produced 10 foot waves that slammed into the town of Tiberias on the lake’s western shore. A 10 foot wave would have certainly been more than a mild concern for even the heartiest first-century Galilean fisherman even though they were used to being on the water in all kinds of weather. Though we don’t know the true height of the waves we do know that the storm’s fury was more than a match for their vessel - a vessel that was likely not constructed to withstand the large waves that crashed over its sides.
Whether or not the storm itself was supernaturally spawned, we do know that Jesus’ response to it was absolutely supernatural. It is one thing to make the fantastic claim that Jesus was just a good meteorologist with an impeccable sense of timing a storms’ break, but it’s another thing entirely when you realize that it wasn’t just the winds that stopped at his command. The waves broke as well. According to the laws of physics, this sudden ceasing of the waves could not have been the result of some natural phenomenon. Winds have been recorded to suddenly die off, though rarely. But waves do not suddenly stop. The wave action should have continued on for several more hours.
The disciples instantly recognized the miracle had taken place and were stunned by it: “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him?” It was obvious to the disciple who he was now, even as the disciples struggled to grasp the idea that this extraordinary rabbi was far more extraordinary than they had first imagined. This was no mere prophet. This was the Godman, who calmed not only a raging sea in northern Israel, but calms the raging heart of sinners and transform them from people of perpetual doubt to everlasting faith – which leads to everlasting life.