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Quick Takes

The Parable of the Sower in Light of the Charleston Tragedy (Douglas Ottati)

Return now to the martyrs who met for Bible study at Emanuel Church on the evening of June 17th. They teach us very many things, and also many more than I can know. Still, I want to say here that, by their faithful practice, they too illumine the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, and that they do so by indicating what it means to be good and fertile ground.

A Brief Meditation on Mark 4:3-20

The passage that people were studying at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. when they welcomed a stranger, Dylann Roof, on the evening of Wednesday, June 17 was Mark 4:13-20.  In this passage, after making some more general remarks about the purpose of parables in 4:10-12, Jesus explains to his inner circle the Parable of the Sower, which he tells in Mark 4:3-9.  Here, I want to suggest how the practice of the Wednesday Bible Study at Emanuel Church also illumines the Parable of the Sower.  So, as you read this essay, you may want to look over Mark 4:3-20, which has parallels in Matthew 13:3-23 and Luke 8:5-15.  (The parable itself also circulated apart from any interpretation, as we see in Thomas 9:1-5.)

According to survivors, the young white man sat down and listened for a while, became argumentative, pulled a .45 caliber pistol from his fanny pack, and then murdered nine people.  Roof intentionally targeted Emanuel Church, the oldest AME church in the South, and one of the largest African-American congregations in the South, due to its historic significance.  Before the Civil War, the congregation not only met for worship, itself an illegal act at the time; some also met to plot a (failed) slave rebellion.  During Jim Crow, churches like Emanuel were often the only buildings blacks had access to, as well as the only institutions where they could hold positions of leadership.  Emanuel remains a prominent church today both in Charleston and in the wider state of South Carolina – one of those murdered was its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also served in the state senate.[1]   Dylann Roof wrote racist screeds, wore Rhodesian insignia, posed with a Confederate battle flag, and selected Charleston because he thought it had an especially high ratio of blacks to whites.[2]

When the group gathered at Emanuel that Wednesday evening, it was engaging in a time-honored and traditional practice of Bible study that extends from the early church to base communities in Latin America to the congregation nearest you.  And in fact, even when we focus on Mark 4, the Parable of the Sower in 4:3-9 seems susceptible to at least three interpretations.

One takes its cue from Mark 4:10-12: Jesus speaks in parables in order to communicate with Christians, who “possess a secret knowledge,” and to prevent outsiders, who do not possess the secret, from turning and being forgiven.  However, a number of contemporary Bible scholars think that, while Jesus taught something like the parable in Mark 4:3-9, the idea that the meaning of Jesus’ teaching is available only to those who possess secret knowledge was added by some later gnostic strands of the Christian movement.  Indeed, they think that excluding outsiders is entirely uncharacteristic of Jesus.[3]

Mark 4:13-20 is probably another later interpretation of the parable.  It reflects the experiences of early Christian missions as well as the challenges and trials of discipleship.  Interestingly, it does not dwell on secret knowledge.  The focus here is on varied responses to the word (or the church’s preaching) and the claim that, where the Christian message is sown on “good soil,” it withstands persecution, is not choked by worldly cares, and bears fruit, “thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

Finally, if it is correct that Jesus himself taught a parable like the one in Mark 4:3-9 but without the later interpretations, then we also need to reckon with another possible meaning.  Jesus’ teaching, which antedates gnostic Christianity as well as the church’s later missionary challenges, centers on the kingdom or reign of God – a rule of justice, peace, and wellbeing (or shalom) in which the poor are blessed and the outcasts and the marginal are welcomed to God’s sumptuous banquet.  Moreover, Mark 4 also contains two additional parables that connect the kingdom of God with growing seeds (4:26-32).  So, a third interpretation of Mark 4:3-9 is that the kingdom takes root and yields increase when it falls on good ground.

Return now to the martyrs who met for Bible study at Emanuel Church on the evening of June 17th.  They teach us very many things, and also many more than I can know.  Still, I want to say here that, by their faithful practice, they too illumine the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, and that they do so by indicating what it means to be good and fertile ground.  The clue, I think, is that, in the tradition of Christian hospitality and certainly also the hospitality of Jesus, the evening Bible study at Emanuel Church welcomed Dylann Roof, a stranger, into their midst.  They thanked the visitor for coming.  According to a survivor, they even told him they enjoyed having him.

That’s probably not secret knowledge and it’s certainly not exclusionary.  That’s radical hospitality.  That’s discipleship.  That’s a faithful and ultimately also dangerous welcome that accords with both the message of the church and the teaching of Jesus.  That’s the radical, faithful, and dangerous hospitality and welcome of the gospel and the kingdom.  Once again and so very tragically, we have seen that it sometimes leads to suffering, persecution, or even crucifixion.  But it also subverts the enmity and violence that mark the ways of prejudice, racism, and corruption.  And, it shows that, at Emanuel, both the kingdom and the message of the church have fallen on good and fertile soil indeed.


Douglas F. Ottati is the Craig Family Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice at Davidson College in NC. He is the co-general editor of the multi-volume series, The Library of Theological Ethics.


[1] Elizabeth Leland, “’The Beating Heart of the Black Community’: A Place of Refuge, Hope,” The Charlotte Observer (June 21, 2015), online.

[2] Paul Lewis, Amanda Holpuch, and Jessica Glenza, “FBI Investigates Website and Manifesto Linked to Charleston Shooting Suspect Dylann Roof,” The Guardian The Observer (June 21, 2015), online.

[3] The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, Translation and Commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, et. al. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 193.

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