This is the only parable that is peculiar to Mark. The subjects contained in the fourth chapter of Mark are obviously the same, in the main, as those which occupy the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. The parable of the sower occurs in both at the beginning; and at several other parts they coincide. The parable of the seed growing secretly holds in Mark the place that the parable of the leaven holds in Matthew. We might, therefore, expect a close analogy between these two parables: and accordingly we find in point of fact that they exhibit the same characteristics of the kingdom, and convey the same lessons to its subjects.
When a man has cast the seed into prepared ground at the proper season, he thenceforth leaves it to itself. He sleeps by night, and attends to other affairs by day, often looking to it indeed, and oftener thinking of it, but never touching it till harvest. By its own vitality it grows secretly, gradually until it arrives at maturity. Man interferes only at the beginning and at the end; in spring he sows, and in autumn he reaps, but throughout the interval between these extremes he lets it alone. The point on which the parable concentrates our regard is, that the growth of the plant, from the time of sowing to the time of reaping, proceeds according to its own laws, and in virtue of its own inherent power, neither visible to the owner's eye nor dependent on his hand.
In the interpretation of the parable certain great leading points must first be determined, and then all the rest will be safe and easy.
There are two such points, one at the beginning and one at the end, which are in themselves uncertain; and one in the middle which, being itself determined by circumstances, serves to determine the other two. The question at the beginning is, Who is the sower? And the question at the end, What is the reaping? The point in the centre already fixed, on which the two extremities depend, is the growth of the seed without the aid, and even beyond the cognisance, of the sower.
Look first to the question which meets an inquirer at the outset, Who is the sower? Obviously it has two sides and two only; the sower represents either the Lord himself, or the human ministry that he employs from age to age. Both representations are in themselves true and scriptural; it is by means of other features less ambiguous that we shall be able to determine whether of the two is adopted in this parable. Try first the supposition that the sower is the Lord himself; of him, in that case, it is immediately said that he sleeps, and rises night and day, and that the seed meanwhile springs up, he knows not how. This representation is palpably incongruous with the attributes and character of the Lord. The things that are hidden from us, both in the natural and spiritual growth, are open in his sight. Expressly it is said of Jesus, "he knew what was in man;" and we learn, from many circumstances in the evangelic history, that he knew the thoughts alike of plotting enemies and of fainting friends. The suggestion made by some that this part of the parable may be understood to represent the Lord's ascension into heaven, after having sown the word in his own ministry, does not satisfy the demands of the case. We cannot, without doing extreme violence to the analogy, find a sense in which the divine Redeemer does not help and does not know the growth of his own grace in believing hearts. The germination and increase of vegetation without the intervention of the sower and beyond his ken, represent a helplessness and an ignorance so definite and complete, that we cannot, on any rule of sober interpretation, apply it to the omniscient and omnipotent Redeemer.
The impossibility of accepting the first suggestion throws us necessarily back on the only other supposition that remains; -- the sower in the parable must represent the earthen vessel to which the ministry of the Gospel has been entrusted, -- the human agent employed in the work of the Lord. This will, of course, accord perfectly with the representation in the heart of the parable that he who sows the seed neither helps the growth nor understands its secrets; but does it accord also with the representation, in the end of the parable, that he who in spring sowed the seed, thrusts in his sickle and reaps the ripened harvest? Some, assuming that the reaping means the closing of all accounts in the great day, conclude that to represent the sowing as the ministry of men is incongruous with the reaping, which must, as they suppose, be the work of the Lord at his second coming. In this way they become involved between two impossibilities. If the Lord himself is represented as the sower the representation is inconsistent with the middle of the parable, in which it is declared that he neither aids nor understands the growth of the grain; if, on the other hand, men are represented as the sowers, the representation is inconsistent with the end of the parable, in which it is declared that they thrust in the sickle at the close of the dispensation and reap the harvest of the world.
 Dr. Trench takes for granted, without a word of proof, or any evidence that he has even considered the question, that the reaping is the consummation of all things, the exclusive prerogative of the Lord.
Now in order to escape from this double difficulty it is not necessary to put to the rack either the words or the thoughts of the parable. The path out of the difficulty is broad and straight; it is the path into it that is crooked and narrow.
The question which demands solution here, and which, when solved, will solve all the rest, is, What is meant by thrusting in the sickle and reaping the ripened grain when the harvest has come? Apart from this parable two distinct significations may be attributed to the analogy, both alike true in fact, and both alike adopted in the Scriptures. In some cases the harvest and the reaping point to the end of the world and the awards of the judgment; expressly in the Lord's own interpretation of the parable of the tares, it is said, "The harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels" (Matt. xiii.39). But in other cases the reaping of the ripened grain is employed to represent that success in the winning of souls which human ministers of the word may obtain and enjoy. Such is its meaning in Ps. cxxvi.6, "He that goeth forth and reapeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." In the same sense it is employed by the Lord (John iv.35, 36), "Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already unto harvest. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together." The same idea is expressed in terms, if possible, still more articulate, in Matt. ix.37, 38. "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers unto his harvest."
 Bengel's suggestion is ingenious and interesting, but contributes nothing towards the solution. "Sermo concisus. Mittet falce preditos, nam [Greek: apostellesthai] est viventis cujuspiam." He would understand the phrase "he putteth in the sickle" as a curt form of expression, intended to intimate that he sends out reapers with sickles to reap the grain; fortifying his opinion by the remark that the term "putteth in," ([Greek: apostellei], "sends out,") refers to a living person, and not an inanimate instrument. Countenance for this view might be found in Matt. ix.37 where [Greek: ekbalein] equivalent to [Greek: apostellesthai] is employed to indicate the sending forth of reapers. On the other hand, however, the passage, Rev. xiv.15, 16, goes decidedly against it; for there both [Greek: pemmtein] and [Greek: ballein], "thrust in" (the sickle) are certainly applied to the instrument itself, and not to the men who wield it.
But while the symbol taken from the reaping of ripened grain represents alternately in Scripture, these two distinct though analogous conceptions, it is the latter and not the former which this parable adopts and employs. The reapers are the human ministers of the word, and the reaping is their successful ingathering in conversion here, not the admission of the redeemed into glory at the end of the world.
No other conclusion is compatible, either with the scope of the lesson or the facts of the case. The sower in this story neither helps the seed to grow nor understands how the growth proceeds. The parable is spoken in order to show that, while men are employed at first to preach the word and at last to gather the fruits in the conversion of their brethren, they can neither perform the converting work nor trace the footsteps of the quickening Spirit in the secrets of a human heart. By this similitude the Lord represents the extent and the limits of human agency in the progress of his kingdom.
Having made our way through the difficulties of the parable, and found the key-note of its interpretation, we turn again to its terms for the sake of observing and applying the practical lessons which it contains.
The sower sows the seed; the seed is the word; the hearts of those who hear it are the field. Parents make known the Gospel in their families, ministers in the congregations, teachers in the schools. These sowers lose sight of the seed from the moment that it drops into the ground. It sinks and disappears; they must go away and leave it. They sleep by night, and attend to other matters by day; they cannot see how it fares with the Gospel in a neighbour's soul. They cannot put their hand to the work at this stage to help it: the seed must be left to itself in the soil.
 Here, as in the case of the tares, the sleep of the husbandman implies no culpable negligence either in the natural or spiritual sphere. "Sind wir am Tage recht wach; dann, moegen wir Nachts ruhig schlafen." -- Draeseke, vom Reich G.
At this point the likeness between the natural and the spiritual is exact and obvious. When you have made the Gospel of Christ known to some in whom you are interested, you are precisely in the position of the agriculturist who has committed his seed to the ground. If you think of the matter when you lie down, or when you awake, you discover, perhaps with pain, that you do not know whether the seed is swelling and springing or not: and that though you knew its condition you could not reach it, to stimulate the process. It is out of your hands, and out of your sight. It is not, however, out of mind, when it is out of sight; and your own helplessness may draw forth a more eager prayer to the Almighty Helper. In this way it is when we are weak that we become strong; it is when we are made most keenly sensible of our own weakness that we cast our care most fully on the Lord. The law that shuts the sown seed out from us, shuts it in with God. One door closes; but the closing that hides the seed in its seed-bed from our eyes and separates it from our hands, leaves it open to His sight, and pliant to his power. The moment that the seed is sown, he takes it out of our sight, but then and thereby he brings it into his own. It is away from us, and with God.
 Like the seed, is the Word himself. He became flesh and dwelt among us; but he has ascended out of our sight. At the beginning he came into the world; and at the close he will return; -- a spring and a harvest, but all the space between, he is out of sight.
The parable shows, with great perspicuity and certainty, both the extent and the limits of this withdrawal from human cognizance and help. In the main concern the exclusion is complete; but in some subordinate and incidental matters, it is only partial. As to the power of germination, and the knowledge of it, the sower is entirely shut out from the seed, both in the natural and spiritual departments. But as he may continue his care in nature, with much profit to the seed; so he may, in a subordinate capacity and in an indirect manner, do much to promote the growth of grace in the heart, after the Word has been addressed to the understanding. The exclusion of a minister, a teacher, a parent, from knowing and helping the growth of grace after the Gospel has been published, is like the exclusion of the farmer from his seed after it has been committed to the ground. He can help it, and does help it much by his care. He keeps the fences up, that the field may not be trampled by stray cattle: he keeps the drains open and the furrows clear, that water may not stand on the field, but run off as soon as it falls: he gathers off the stones, that they may not crush the seed, and pulls out the weeds that they may not choke it.
In a similar way and with similar profit, ministers and teachers of the word may remove obstructions which would prevent its growth. Not only have we permission to do this: we are bound positively to do it. The parable excludes us indeed from further knowledge or power, after the word is made known, but it excludes as the farmer is excluded from his sown seed. We know the nature and extent of that exclusion. While the lesson relieves us from the responsibility of that which is beyond our power, it lays upon us the responsibility of that which is within our power.
You may have seen a sown field in spring immediately after a great rain-fall; and you may have observed that a large portion of it, on its lower side, was smooth, and run together and caked, bearing all the marks of having been for some days under water. On the higher portions the wheat was springing, but on this portion, sown at the same time, the ground was bare. You examine the matter more minutely and discover that the drains that had been made for carrying off the surplus moisture, had been choked in the operations of the seed-time, and not cleared out again; and that consequently when rain fell heavily, it accumulated on the lower ground; and having soaked and soured it for several days, had killed the germinating seed beneath the ground. You go to the farmer and ask why he had allowed a large portion of his crop to be lost. Suppose he should say, My work was done, as soon as the seed fell from my hand into the soil; I can neither make it grow, nor understand how it grows; it was not in my province that the failure took place, and therefore the failure could not be my fault. No such specimen of hypocrisy is found in the kingdom of nature: no man could hold up his face before his fellow and cover his indolence by such an impudent plea.
We must see to it, that we be not guilty of the same inconsistency in matters of greater moment. A parent or minister or teacher has committed the good seed of the word to the hearts of his young people, with all due solemnity and care; and thereafter permits them to be steeped in a flood of folly, which he could easily have drained away. The good seed is drowned in that deluge; but it is the sower's fault. It is true he cannot make it grow by his care; but he can make it not grow by his carelessness. We cannot do the saving; but we can do the destroying. Many pains and many prayers are competent to the sower, although he cannot directly control the growth of the seed. When it grows, it grows independently of him; but when it fails, the failure may in part be due to his unfaithfulness.
Further, when it is said that the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself, the influences of heaven are not excluded, any more than the collateral care of the husbandman. We know how and in what sense the earth brings forth spontaneously, after it has received the seed into its bosom: if the sun were kept from shining, or the rain from falling on it, the earth would produce nothing. It is thus also with grace in the heart: the Spirit ministering the things of Christ is as necessary in the kingdom of grace, as rain and sunshine are in the kingdom of nature.
Surrounding circumstances, moreover, tend powerfully to help or to hinder the growth of the new life. The seed grows indeed by its own vitality: the most favourable circumstances that are possible on earth could not produce a harvest of grace without the seed of the Word; but these circumstances go far instrumentally to help or to hinder the growth and ripening of the seed. The family of which you are a member, either as child or servant, -- the Church with which you worship, -- the companions with whom you associate, -- the tone of the society in which your social life moves on, -- the business that occupies your day, -- and the amusements that refresh you when you are wearied; -- these and many others affect for good or evil the growth of grace in Christians, as wet or dry, cold or warm seasons, affect the growth of the seed after it has been committed to the ground. Watch and pray; one of these small points may be the turning-point of your destiny.
The seed grows gradually from stage to stage. Three stages are specified; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. This does not determine the time occupied in the spiritual process. In this respect there is not uniformity: the spiritual growth from spring to maturity sometimes requires more than one natural season, and sometimes is accomplished in less.
In the first stage of growth, it is not easy to distinguish with certainty between the wheat and common grass; it is when the ear is formed and filled, that you know at a glance, which is the fruitful and which the fruitless plant There is a similar ambiguity, in as far as appearance is concerned, in the earliest outgrowth of convictions from the hearing of the word. Not that there is any uncertainty in the nature of the things: the wheat is wheat, and the grass is grass from the first: but an observer cannot so surely at first determine which is wheat, and which is merely grass.
Thus, many hopeful impressions that appear for a while in the young, die away, and bring forth no fruit; but at later stages, a judgment may be formed with greater confidence. The plant assumes by degrees a more definite form, and a more substantial fulness: the fruits of the Spirit, green at first, but growing gradually more and more mellow, crown the profession of a Christian.
Let us not deceive ourselves, in connection with the acknowledged secrecy of the Spirit's work. The growing is an unseen thing; but the grown ripened grain is visible. It is the inner power that is hid; the fruit may be seen by all. There is indeed an invisible Christ, who is already within his people the resurrection and the life; but there is no invisible Christianity. How grace in the heart grows is an inscrutable mystery; when it is grown, it is known and read of all men. Your life, as to its source and supply, is hid with Christ in God: but your life, as to its practical effects, is a city set on a hill. There is a great difference between the light that you get and the light that you give. The Lord in heaven is the light of Christians; but Christians are the light of the world.
The source of the mighty Ganges is secret; and that secret the superstition of the Hindus has converted into a religious mystery. But the Ganges is not a secret unseen thing, as it flows through the plains of India, fertilizing a continent.
"The harvest is come." It is not the end of the world; it is not even the close of a Christian life in the world. There is a ripening and a fruit-bearing while life in the body lasts: there is also a reaping and an enjoying of the harvest by those who sow the seed, or their successors. The announcement, "one soweth and another reapeth," clearly implies that the same one who sows may also to some extent reap. There is part of both: a sower gathers some of the fruit of his labour in his own lifetime; and some of it is gathered by others after he has departed.
Here is a lesson for ministers and teachers. The Lord, who sends them out to sow, expects that they will look and long for fruit, and be disappointed if it does not appear. When the case occurs, as occur it may, in which the sower is not permitted to reap, the delay, although not a ground of despair, should be a source of disappointment: the stroke will be felt painful, if there is life where the stroke falls. The giver of the seed expects that the sower, if he lives to see it ripening, will reap it joyfully. It is like the joy of harvest to see the Lord's work prospering under our own hand. The Master seems to chide the inertness of his servants when he says, "the fields are white already to harvest." If it were their meat, as it was his, to do the Father's will, they would bound more quickly into the field, whenever they saw it whitening.
Some lessons, partly encouraging, partly reproving, which lie in the parable, but have hitherto been either omitted or only incidentally touched in the course of exposition, may be now conveniently enumerated in the close.
1. The work of sowing and the joy of reaping advance simultaneously on the spiritual field. The labour of the husbandman in the natural sphere is all and only sowing at one season, all and only reaping at another: the seed of the word affords a different experience; in the kingdom of God there is no period of the year when you must not sow, or may not reap. These two processes are in experience very closely linked together. They become alternately and reciprocally cause and effect: if we were not permitted at an early period to reap a little, the work of sowing would proceed languidly or altogether cease; on the other hand if we cease to sow, we shall not long continue to reap. When the workmen are introduced into this circle, it carries them continuously round.
2. In any given spot of the field there may be sowing in spring, and yet no reaping in harvest. If there is no sowing, there will be no reaping; but the converse does not hold good; you cannot say, wherever there has been sowing, it will be followed by a reaping. The seed may be carried away by wild birds, or wither on stony ground, or be choked by thorns. "Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation."
3. The growth of the sown seed is secret; secret also is its failure. It is quite true, there may be grace in the heart of a neighbour unseen, unsuspected by me; but the heart of my neighbour may be graceless while I am in its earlier stages ignorant of the fact. The gnawing of a worm at the root of one plant is for a time as secret as the healthful growth of another. "Lord, is it I?" I must not too lightly assume either in the natural or the spiritual husbandry, that everything is prospering that is out of sight.
4. Though the sower is helpless after he has cast the seed into the ground, he should not be hopeless; we know that the seed is a living thing, and will grow except where it is impeded by extraneous obstacles. "The word of God is quick (living) and powerful."
5. In every case the harvest, in one sense, will come; on every spot of all the field there will be a reaping. If one set of ministers do not reap there, another will. Where there is not conversion, there will be condemnation. The regeneration is one harvest; the judgment is another. The angels are not sowers, but they are reapers. Where the men who sowed the seed find nothing to reap during the day of grace, those ministering spirits to whom no seed has been intrusted will be sent with a sickle to cut down and cast away. The first harvest is like the first resurrection; blessed are they who have part in it. In the ministry of the Baptist, the appointed preparer of his way, Christ comes from heaven to earth on the blessed errand of gathering his wheat into the garner: rejoice therefore, Christians; he has prepared for you a place, and he will bring you safely to it; but take heed and beware of hypocrisy; for see, while he comes to bring home the wheat, he carries a "fan in his hand" (Matt. iii.12).