Jesus began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: "Listen! A sower went out to sow..." (Mark 4:2-3)
Have you ever done Myers Briggs? It's one of the world's most famous psychometric tests.
I'm an "INFJ" – just so you know – a personality type which "is very rare, making up less than one per cent of the population" (16personalities.com). Apparently we are people who "are able to have a real impact on the world". Furthermore, it says, we "have a fluid, inspirational writing style". Believe me, I'm just reporting the facts!
Famous "INFJ"s allegedly include Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa – as well as Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Trotsky. Hmmm...
Such personality tests may well contain useful insights. But it is actually Jesus who gives us the most valuable personal diagnosis kit in the Parable of the Sower, one of his best-known stories. As we continue our journey through Mark's Gospel we find it in chapter four.
We may be familiar with the basic outline: a farmer sows some seed, but it falls on differing ground. Some falls on a path, and gets snatched away by birds. Some falls on rocky ground and springs up as a leggy plant, but then wilts in the sun for lack of roots. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke off growth. But some falls on good soil and yields an abundant crop.
The seed, Jesus tells us, represents the word of God. And the different types of soil represent different responses to it. For some – those represented by the path – the gospel just bounces off them. For others, there is initial enthusiasm which collapses when hardship comes. For a third type, any response is choked "by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth". But for others, Jesus says, the gospel takes root and produces fruit.
Jesus is doing much more than diagnosing our personality type, of course – he's analysing our hearts. Fortunately, the truth it reveals about us is not a fixed and final one: indeed, grasping the story can be transformative.
So if you're reading about the Parable of the Sower for the first time now, danger number one to avoid is instantly forgetting Jesus' words. Don't let that happen! Get hold of a Bible, turn to Mark chapter four and ask for God's help to think further...
Then again, maybe you were into the "Christian thing" in the past but only happen to be here now because you stumbled across this article. Perhaps God didn't answer your prayers in the way that you'd hoped, or you felt God abandoned you. Maybe you look back in cynicism at your "religious phase".
If that's you, let me encourage you to think again. Life is difficult – and frankly rubbish sometimes. But there are Christian truths that can genuinely help you. Not all Christianity is shallow. There are people with a profound and deeply-rooted faith; will you go and seek them?
The third type of soil Jesus talks about represents people who get choked by everyday "stuff". As a couple once told me, they stopped coming to church as they "had bought a caravan". Well caravanning is great – I'm told. But is it (or whatever it might be for you) really so crucial that there's no time to think about the most important thing in life – the gospel? According to Jesus, it isn't: so what are you going to do about it?
Finally, Jesus speaks of people in whom faith bears fruit. Some, Jesus tells us, are more fruitful than others. So don't worry if others seem to have greater or fewer gifts than you. But ask yourself: how can I produce more fruit for Christ in my own particular way?
For all of us, Jesus' story is challenging. And for those of us who are INFJs, and thus – according to Wikipedia – "intricately, deeply woven, mysterious [and] highly complex", perhaps there is even more to ponder than for many!
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. Rev David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex.