Mark 4: 3-9, 14-20 (Revised Standard Version)
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
This requires some setup to get things done right.
First, I need to talk a little bit about the way I read the Bible. Next, I’ll share what I’ve discovered about the Parable of the Sower through my way of reading Scripture. I’ll end with some speculation about what this means for our relationship to the Parable of the Sower.
So. SETUP GET!
I translate a few different tongues.
My main tongues are modern English, Middle English, Old English, and modern German. My secondary languages are Old Norse, modern Faroese, and Japanese. These selections suggest to me that my transmigratory soul has lived on many islands during past lives. The speakers of most of these languages were like Christ at the beginning of Mark 4 – only accessible by boat.
When I respond to the Word, I am acutely aware that I am responding to language. A problem with literalism is that it presumes that all Bibles are the same Bible, and I’ve gained a sense for the differences in each tongue’s Christianity as I’ve read their varying Bibles. The differences aren’t huge, but they often matter. The words of the Word are not, strictly speaking, the Word.
I tend to read English Scripture with texts from different eras set side by side. The King James Version gets credit for being the first English translation of the Bible, but let’s be clear: that’s modern English. Christianity previously found anchor in the tongue through John Wycliffe’s Middle English translation along with anonymous Old English translations. The West Saxon Gospel is one of these latter translations. These, together, are my Bible – a bible of Bibles.
I confess bias for the West Saxon Gospels. Old English will always be the tongue of my heart, my great affection.
Now let’s look at how modern English translations compare with the West Saxon Gospel – first the differences that are lovely and then at the difference that matters.
I will provide a translation for the Old English. Old English was heavily alliterative. It favored words that repeated the first consonant sound (trick, tire, toll, trouble). It also had a lot more flexibility than we grant modern English when it needed new words. If something lacked a name, Old English speakers would create a name for it by putting two familiar words together.
(I’ve also included a full translation of the Old English Mark 3-9, 14-20 at the end of this devotional. It’s pretty awesome because Old English is awesome, so you should check it out.)
Some of the variations in phrasing make me swoon. Mark 4:3 features some lovely alliteration.
* A sower went out to sow. (Revised Standard Version)
* Ut eode se sædere his sæd to sawenne. (West Saxon Gospels)
* Out went the seeder his seed to sow. (James Clinton Howell)
Mark 4:5 communicates in two words what modern English translations only accomplish in four.
* … it had no depth of soil. (RSV)
* … hit næfde eorþan þiccnesse. (WSG)
* … it hadn’t earthen thickness. (JCH)
And Mark 4:6 creates a whole new word to describe the shallowness of soil.
* … since it had no root, it withered away. (RSV)
* … hit forscranc, forðam hit wyrtruman næfde. (WSG)
* … it shrank because it hadn’t root-room. (JCH)
The difference that interests me most is the absence of either definite or indefinite articles in 4:14, a key passage in the text’s own cipher. Let’s look at one modern translation alongside the King James Version and Wycliffe’s Middle English translation.
The sower sows the word. (RSV)
The sower soweth the word. (KJV)
He that sowith, sowith a word. (Wycliffe)
My ears perk at Wycliffe’s Middle English translation. Instead of sowing “the word,” the sower sows “a word.” This softens the certitude of the definite article (the).
This certainty dissolves further when we look at the Greek and Old English translations. (The Old English tries very hard to mime the Greek’s grammar.)
ὁ σπείρων τὸν λόγον σπείρει. (Wescott-Hort Greek Edition)
Se ðe sæwþ, word he sæwþ. (WSG)
He who sows, word he sows. (JCH)
Holy crap! We’ve rolled back the certitude of both “the” and “a” to the lone, bare “word.”
The absence of the definite article (the) places the most common interpretation of the Parable of the Sower that I’ve encountered under scrutiny.
The most immediate interpretation of the Parable of the Sower regards evangelism and conversion – the Great Commission. The sower is God through the evangelist, and the seeds are the Gospel. The parable then becomes a description of ways that the Gospel is rejected, defeated, or enthroned in peoples’ hearts.
This raises a number of questions.
If those in whom the Gospel does not root cannot achieve salvation, why is God so flaky as to abandon them to their circumstances? None of the instances of failure in the Parable of the Sower point to ill intent on behalf of the different plots of earth. Does the efficacy of God’s grace depend upon good circumstances, a right mind, good luck?
I used to be an evangelical fundamentalist Presbyterian, so let me sock-puppet the countering train of thought. Some of this might sound familiar.
Our total depravity categorically shuts us away from God’s love. We shouldn’t regard those who don’t receive the Gospel as unfortunate because their condition remains what it always was. They cannot lose what they never had. Instead, we should count those who receive the Gospel (which always includes us, natch) as fortunate to have been given the gift that we cannot refuse.
This strikes me as an insufficient, even petulant, disowning of those for whom the Christian Gospel generates no light. The Spirit is not a sower of sour grapes.
How, then, can this text respond to the seeking heart?
Through the Old English translation, I have come to a different understanding of the parable of the sower, specifically due to its handling of Mark 4:14. The seed is not “the word” but is “word.” The grammatical case and number are accusative singular, without definite or indefinite articles.
For a parallel in modern English, consider the phrase “I love fire.” Fire, here, is a substance. It is an abstraction that can take many forms. “I love fire” means something different from “I love the fire” or “I love a fire.” The latter are bound to time and place. They are concrete.
If the seed is not “the Word,” then, what does “word” mean? We have inherited working concepts of divine logos, holy word, as the revelation of an unseen God. “Word” is that which transforms the conscience through correction and mercy. Word is holy counsel. Word is the Spirit’s cultivation of the heart. Whether or not we pray, the work of reconciliation between God and the world is at work through us. Our participation is social and meditative. God speaks to our character to help us grow and become similar to Christ without losing who we are.
The terrains described in the Parable of the Sower do not, then, represent different people who receive the fact of salvation. These terrains describe an ecology that is within all of us.
Different parts of us receive God’s counsel differently. The heart has many facets working in unison. God takes root in my impatience, and God does not take root in my jealousy… takes root in my anger and not in my vanity… in my ingratitude, not my complacency.
Even as we heal, we hurt. As we hurt, we heal.
We understand from experience the flux between tension and peace. Sometimes we are more thorn than fruit, while at others we are more fruit than crow.
Faith is not an objectifiable thing to have, to lack.
Faith is an ecology – many things all happening at once, beyond our ability to apprehend in snapshot. Faith is an intersection of manifold insights, anxieties, and certitudes. As the construction of a forest changes after every storm – its countenance of fallen trees, vinework, and rough fast nests always in flux – we are too complex to know exactly how the Spirit roots within us as a stable fact.
We vary. We receive the Spirit unevenly. We are not one dimensional terrains with only sunlight, only crows, only thorns, only vacancy. We are the sum of these and more because of the seeder and the sowing.
These terrains seem contradictory when understood as discrete and separate from each other. Considered as a whole ecology, though, they are part of the same soul and, therefore, part of each other. Where the Spirit bears fruit cannot secede from where no fruit grows.
We cannot diagnose ourselves as reconciled in one area but not reconciled in another. In the Parable of the Sower, the work of reconciliation overwhelms analysis.
We can only trust that the sower sows.
Our nourishing God, thank you for our instability of this world. Without it, we would have nothing to share with You. Fully understanding your gift of faith to our lives proves impossible in analysis because we are impossible in analysis. We are never what we say we are, yet we are known by You. Keep this tension going. Sow, Lord, and fructify our earthen hearts. Amen.
PS Also thank you for cats and merlot and videogames.
James Clinton Howell
Mark 4:3-9, 14-20 – West Saxon Gospels, c. 990
3 Ut eode se sædere his sæd to sawenne.
4 And ða he sew, sum feoll wið ðone weg, and fugelas comon, and hit fræton.
5 Sum feoll ofer stan-scyligean, ðar hit næfde mycele eorþan; and sona upeode, forðam ðe hit næfde eorþan þiccnesse.
6 Ða hit up-eode, seo sunne hit forswælde, and hit forscranc, forðam hit wyrtruman næfde.
7 And sum feoll on þornas, ða stigon ða þornas, and forþrysmodon ðæt, and hit wæstm ne bær.
8 And sum feoll on god land, and hit sealde, uppstigende, and wexende, wæstm; and an brohte þritig-fealdne, sum syxtigfealdne, sum hund-fealdne.
9 And he cwæþ, Gehyre, se ðe earan hæbbe to gehyranne.
14 Se ðe sæwþ, word he sæwþ.
15 Soþlice ða synd wið ðone weg, ðar ðæt word is gesawen; and ðonne hi hit gehyraþ, sona cymþ Satanas, and afyrþ ðæt word ðe on heora heortan asawen ys.
16 And ða synd gelice ðe synd ofer ða stan-scylian gesawen, sona ðænue hi ðæt word gehyraþ, and ðæt mid blisse onfoþ;
17 And hi nabbaþ wyrtruman on him, ac beoþ unstaðolfæste; and syððan upcymþ deofles costnung, and his ehtnys for ðam worde, ….
18 Hi synd on þornum gesawen ðæt synd; ða ðe þæt word gehyraþ,
19 And of yrmþe, and swicdome worold-welena, and oðra gewilnunga, ðæt word of-þrysmiaþ, and synd buton wæstme gewordene.
20 And ða ðe gesawene synd ofer ðæt gode land, ða synda ðe ðæt word gehyraþ, and onfoþ, and wæstm bringaþ, sum þritig-fealdne, sum syxtig-fealdne, and sum hund-fealdne.
Mark 4:3-9, 14-20 – translation by James Clinton Howell, c. 2012
3, 4 Out went the seeder his seed to sow, and of what he sew some fell across the way. Fowl came and fret it away.
5, 6 Some fell on shale-soil where it hadn’t much earth. It soon went up because it hadn’t earthen thickness. It sweltered under sun, shrank because it hadn’t root-room.
7 Some fell on thorns, then the thorns stood and smothered it. It bore no fruit.
8 Some fell on good land. It delivered up-standing, waxing fruit. One brought thirtyfold; some sixtyfold; some hundredfold.
9 And he said: Hear who have ears to hear.
14 He who sows, word he sows.
15 In truth, there are those across the path where that word is sown; and when they hear it, soon Satan comes and tears that word sown in their hearts.
16, 17 And there are those like that sown over the shale soil. As soon as they hear that word, they embrace it in bliss. They haven’t root-room within themselves, are not steadfast. When the devil’s strife comes up, his persecution because of the word, [they fall away]*.
18, 19 There are those sown among thorns. They hear that word, yet misery, the swindledom of worldly wealth, and other pinings throttle that word. It becomes fruitless.
20 And there are those sown over that good land, those that hear that word and shoot up, bring fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some hundredfold.