Parable of the Sower: Pay Attention to What Matters

By Uli Chi

January 28, 2017

And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.

Mark 4:4 (NRSV)


A dirt road in Italy.

Photo © Gayle Chi, 2009

The human ability to pay attention is surprisingly limited. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has estimated that capacity at 120 bits per second. In practical terms, “this means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time.” (p.7, The Organized Mind) It seems we have been made to focus on one person at a time. If you are like me, even that’s considerable work.

We have been looking at Jesus’ seminal Parable of the Sower in the context of our work as leaders. In my last reflection, I noted that a Christian vision of human leadership is one where that leadership originates as a gift from outside us. More particularly, truly human leadership is a vocation. Someone else – God – calls us to our work and provides us the necessary gifting to carry out that work. In the language of Jesus’ parable, there is “a sower (who) went out to sow (seed).” (Mark 4:3)

Today’s text explores our response. “And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” The first kind of soil the sower and seed encounter is hardpan – compressed and impenetrable soil. Likely a dirt road, frequented by many travelers over long periods of time, now suitable only for others to go somewhere else, but not for bringing forth life and fruit in its own time and place. So, the seed falls on the dirt road without response or effect.

What does that mean? And, why might that matter to us as we reflect on our work as leaders?

Leadership often has a purely utilitarian focus. What are we getting done? How well are we achieving our goals and plans? What strategies and plans should we develop? No doubt these are important questions, and even vital to our flourishing as organizations. But, Jesus would have us ask deeper questions, such as Max De Pree’s “Who are you becoming?”

But, that question requires time and attention. One of the contemporary manifestations of being “compressed and impenetrable soil” is that our lives – both personal and organizational – are too busy to give attention to these matters. Indeed, we tend to consider such questions about the nature of our leadership of relatively little importance to our work as leaders. After all, it’s the results that matter! Interestingly, Luke’s version of this text reflects that kind of contempt and records that the seed “was trampled on.” (Luke 8:5) So, despite Peter Drucker’s warning that culture trumps strategy, we are much more comfortable developing new strategy than giving attention to what kind of organizational cultivation (and perhaps even transformation) may be needed. And, at a personal level, finding time for reflection, much less developing a corresponding personal discipline, seems equally difficult.

Today’s text reminds us that we need to pay attention to what is most important. Jesus precedes this parable with the imperative, “Listen!” And, he ends the parable with a double reminder to use our God-given capacity to pay attention: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9) Despite our fascination with multi-tasking, modern neuroscience underscores the limits of our attentive abilities. We all have the same amount of time and similar attentive capacity. How we use that capacity determines who we become.

One further observation is worth noting from today’s text. There is a cumulative effect to our attentiveness, or the lack of it. In the parable, seed that is scattered on the path doesn’t remain there waiting for another day. As the text says, “the birds came and ate it up.” Not paying attention to what is important has consequences. Or, as Jesus says later in the same passage, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24-25)

Following Jesus’ way of leadership – the paradoxical combination of being a king and a suffering servant – takes conscious, sustained and disciplined attention. Today’s text reminds us of the importance of making an intentional choice to pay attention to and follow that way of leadership, both individually and corporately. In my next two reflections, we will explore what it means to do that in a sustained and disciplined way.


How are God’s gifts of leadership evident in your life and work? Of what gifts are you most aware? How might you give thanks for those gifts?

How would you respond to Max De Pree’s question, “Who are you becoming?” How would you respond to that question for the organization you are leading?

How will you choose to pay attention to what is most important in your life and work?


Lord Jesus Christ, we marvel at your generosity in scattering the seed of your kingdom in the world. I have to admit, I would be much more discriminating in where I would choose to sow.

Thank you for your patient and faithful love for all of us, even when our response is one of callous rejection, trampling underfoot the good seed you’ve sown which is intended to bring life and flourishing in our lives and organizations. Help us to be attentive to you and to be receptive to the imperishable seed you’ve sown in and among us.

We ask in your name and for the furtherance of your kingdom, Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentaryParable of the Sower

Uli Chi

Board Member, Senior Fellow, Affiliate Professor

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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