Tuesday, March 9, 1999

The Four Soils


Chapter 1

THE FOUR SOILS: Mark 4:3-8

When Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John, saying to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people," (Mk 1:18, 20) "they left their nets and followed him" and "left their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men." They were so entranced with Jesus that their response was immediate. However, most people did not respond the way they had. The disciples were puzzled because to them Jesus' message and his personality were so attractive. Jesus explains using the parable of the four soils (Mk 4:3-8).

The parable is autobiographical. Jesus explains what is happening in his ministry. The focus of the parable is not on the sower or the seed but on the soil. "Hearing is an urgent business. We assume that because initiative is with the speaker a message controls the hearer. But the parts may be reversed: the hearer may control the message. An appeal, even the appeal of Jesus, may be frustrated by unreceptiveness."8

There are different types of hearers. Not everyone responds in the same way. There are those who are like seeds that fall on the path. Because the path has been well trodden, it is impenetrable. The seeds, therefore, lie exposed and the birds come and eat them up. The seeds have no chance to germinate and grow. These hearers are those who have such closed minds that the Gospel seeds cannot penetrate the soil and germinate.

Among Jesus' hearers this represented a good number of the scribes and Pharisees who were certain that they already knew the truth. They listened to Jesus only to accuse and trap him. When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man, some scribes accused him of blaspheming (Mt 9:3). On another occasion they came to Jesus and accused his disciples of breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands in a ceremonially prescribed manner (Mt 15:1). The scribes accused him of casting out demons by the ruler of demons, Beelzebub (Mk 3:22). "The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him" (Lk 6:7). "So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor" (Lk 20:20).

As we look at this group of hearers, the tendency is for us to think that it represents others, not ourselves. But can the seed germinate in the soil of our lives? Does God speak only to Seventh-day Adventists? What does it mean when we refer to ourselves as being "in the Truth" and others as being "out of the Truth?" Are we open to new light and new opportunities for the Lord to lead us? Are we sure that people from other churches or other religions know nothing of real religious significance? Do we dogmatically assert that other Adventists who disagree with us have been "tainted by the world," "lead astray", are "lowering standards," "studying their way out of the church," "duped by secular humanism," or "converted to the theory of evolution?" Do we accuse them of "learning their theology in secular universities" and "throwing out Ellen White and the Sprit of Prophecy?"

We who are represented by this impenetrable soil are like the socialite whose portrait was painted by a Boston artist of whom it was said, "He paints beyond the skin-deep beauty." The woman waited expectantly for her portrait to be completed, expecting a flattering likeness. However, when she uncovered the canvas and saw herself as she really was, she took a knife and cut out the face.

The second group of hearers is represented by shallow soil over rocky ground. The soil is good, but it is too shallow to sustain growth. And while their seeds germinate and sprout rapidly, the young plants soon wither because the soil has no depth. Among Jesus' hearers there were those who were quick to follow but also quick to leave. One writer refers to the Galileans as "highly impressionable and excitable but superficial and unstable."9 More likely those represented by the shallow soil were those who were looking for a Davidic messiah who would be a powerful warrior-king who could defeat the Romans and bring freedom to the Jews. They were excited when Jesus fed five thousand on one occasion and three thousand on another. They were ready to proclaim him king. The People of the Shallow Soil were soon disenchanted, however, when Jesus refused to play the role they had assigned him. They felt betrayed when he was taken prisoner by the Romans, and at the trial they shouted, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" when Pilate asked, "What shall I do then with him who is called the Christ?"

Others were quick to follow because they had not foreseen the consequences of discipleship. When they discovered the cost, they left. One came to Jesus with great enthusiasm. "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." But when Jesus responded, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," he turned away.

Paul had converted the Galatians, but after he left them, and Judaizing teachers arrived, they abandoned Paul's message of righteousness by faith and espoused the doctrine of works righteousness. Paul is dismayed. "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!" (Gal 1:6-9).

Like the Galatians, we Shallow Soil Christians have no staying power. We are easily discouraged, quick to lose interest when the obligations of discipleship take the edge off the emotional high that often accompanies a conversion experience and baptism. When our church membership starts being taken for granted, we stop coming.

The third group is represented by rich soil, but the gospel seedlings have to compete with thorns and weeds and are soon choked out. These seeds produce no harvest. The rich young ruler is representative of this group. The gospel seed had fallen in good soil, but the young plant could not compete with the thorns of wealth and the weeds of riches. Jesus might have had in mind the rich man who neglected the poor and ended up in Hades or the rich farmer with a bumper crop who built huge warehouses to store his harvest who was also neglectful of his responsibilities to those in his community who were less fortunate.

This rich soil choked with weeds seems to me to be a pretty good description of most of us North American and Western European Adventists. The seed that has been sown in the rich soil of our lives has to compete with the distractions of the good life. And when these distractions become our masters, rather than our servants, when they take first place in our lives, they become the thorns and weeds that choke out our Gospel witness. Christ said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness," not "Seek first your position or your occupation or your wealth, and then, if you have time, the Kingdom of God and its righteousness."

The fourth type of soil was good soil that brought forth grain, growing up and increasing, yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. This soil represented Jesus' followers who remained faithful even after his crucifixion, who bore the fruits of His spirit

Mission work in foreign non-Christian countries is difficult and often unrewarding. Paul was the pioneer missionary in this respect, but he had the advantage of working with many Gentiles who had already been instructed in the Old Testament. When Adoniram Judson went to Burma in 1813, there were no Burmese Christians at all.10 The work went very slowly.

One day Maung Shway-gnong, a middle aged teacher and scholar of considerable distinction in Rangoon who had disciples of his own, came to the place where Judson was teaching. He seemed to show real interest but was very cautious. He would absent himself from the mission for long periods of time. One day he spent hours raising hair-splitting objections, all of which Adoniram answered fully. Then Maung Shway-gnog admitted that he did not believe what he was saying but was only testing Judson. He said he believed in God, in His son Jesus, and in the atonement.

Judson was skeptical.

"Do you believe all that is contained in the book of St. Matthew that I have given you? In particular, do you believe that the Son of God died on a cross?"

"Ah, you have caught me now," the old teacher admitted with some chagrin. "I believe that He suffered death. But I cannot admit He suffered the shameful death of the cross."

"Therefore you are not a disciple of Christ. A true disciple inquires not whether a fact is agreeable to his own reason, but whether it is in the book. His pride has yielded to the Divine testimony. Teacher, your pride is still unbroken. Break down your pride, and yield to the word of God."

"As you utter those words I see my error. I have been trusting in my own reason, not in the word of God. I now believe the crucifixion of Christ, because it is contained in Scripture. I think I shall not be lost even though I should die suddenly."


"Because I love Jesus Christ."

"Do you really love Him?"

"No one that really knows him can help loving him." And then he departed.11

At their next meeting Maung repeated his belief in God, in Jesus Christ, in the atonement, and then said.

"Perhaps you may not remember that during one of my last visits you told me that I was trusting in my own understanding rather than the divine word. From that time I have seen my error, and endeavored to renounce it. You explained to me also the evil of worshiping at pagodas, though I told you that my heart did not partake in the worship. Since you left Rangoon I have not lifted up my folded hands before a pagoda. It is true, I sometimes follow the crowd on days of worship in order to avoid persecution, but I walk up one side of the pagoda and walk down the other. Now you say that I am not a disciple. What lack I yet?"

"Teacher, you may be a disciple of Christ in heart, but you are not a full disciple. You have not faith and resolution enough to keep all the commands of Christ, particularly, that which requires you to be baptized, though in the face of persecution and death. Consider the words of Jesus just before he returned to heaven: 'He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.'"

To this Maung Shway-gnong made no reply. He sat in silence for some time. He knew that his baptism, because of his prominence and position, would guarantee his persecution, torture, and death.12

Later he returned indicating his desire to be baptized. Judson asked him when he wanted to be baptized.

"At any time you will please to give it. Now--this moment, if you please."

"Do you wish to receive baptism in public or in private?"

"I will receive it at any time, and in any circumstances that you please to direct." That night Judson baptized him. The seed that was sown fell in good soil, but it took a long while before it germinated, sprouted, grew, and bore fruit.13

As we look at the parable of the four soils, we need to keep in mind that its lesson is drawn from the natural world, and "The soil of life is not in every regard like the soil of nature. Some soils in nature are never cultivable: arctic icefields and the sands of the Painted Desert yield no bread; but human soil is never completely bereft of promise. The soil of nature cannot change its climate; but human soil can help create its own weather."14

Ko Tha Byu belonged to a wild jungle nation who lived in the mountains of lower Burma. He had been a "wicked and ungovernable boy" who had left home at the age of fifteen, became a robber, and was involved in at least thirty murders. One day Shway-bay, a Christian convert and an assistant pastor. came across Ko Tha Byu when he was up for sale as a slave for debt he owed. Shway-bay bought him to be his servant. But Ko had an uncontrollable temper and Shway-bay was happy to hand him over to Adoniram Judson for the price of the debt.

Judson worked with him and slowly made an impression. Ko Tha Byu learned to read the Burmese Testament. His life changed, and in time he became a Christian. He focused his energies on evangelizing his own people and became the father of Karen Christianity.15 In the human arena, a person may be as hard as a well-trodden path, but he or she is not predestined to remain that way.

Let us remember that no matter what kind of soil we are, God's grace and power can transform even the impenetrable soil of a hard, well-trodden path into good soil that welcomes the seeds of the gospel and bears fruit thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.

8 George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1928), p. 41. I owe much to the valuable insights of Buttrick.

9 W.O.E. Oesterley, The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London: SPCK, 1936), p. 45.

10 I am indebted for the following material to Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1956).

11 Ibid., pp. 240-241.

12 Ibid., p. 257.

13 Ibid., p. 266.

14 Buttrick, p. 48.

15 Ibid., pp. 385-386.

No comments: