Dear Sisters and Brothers,
With the start of chapter four, the Gospel of Mark gets deeper into the teachings of Jesus. Today’s reading is longer than usual because Jesus tells us a parable, and then explains it for those who were unclear on its meaning.
A parable is a short story or symbolic image that is spoken to make an idea clearer. If you remember high school math, you will remember parabolas. A parabola is just a fancy word for a curved line.
So a parable is a story that sits alongside a normal statement of fact. It starts where you expect and ends where you would expect, but it takes a curving path to get there. Parables are stories that force you to think about things in a clearer way.
Instead of just telling statements of fact to children, we tell them stories that make it easier to understand the facts. Instead of telling a child that you have to be a trustworthy person for people to trust you, we tell them the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Instead of saying “don’t be lazy,” we read them “The Three Little Pigs.” If we want to tell them about greed, we read them the story of “King Midas.” “Green Eggs and Ham” is about being a picky eater. The movie “Toy Story” is about friendship and jealousy. Stories reach us in ways that facts don’t.
Stories also force you to really listen and think about the topic. Parables force you to do some work and think things out. And they almost always contain more information than anybody expects. So Jesus tells many parables, so people will work to understand and be profoundly changed in the way they think.
Today, Jesus takes familiar thoughts of birds eating farmer’s seeds, and uses it to describe the different ways people receive the word of God.
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
So far, Jesus has told a story that would seem familiar to a farmer or anyone ever planted a garden. A child given seeds might just throw them on the ground, or plant them in places where they will not grow well. The farmer in the story does not seem competent, but he proves the point.
Before the explanation, though, Jesus makes an odd statement to the disciples:
When he [Jesus] was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
The point is that parables only yield their meaning with effort, and they are designed to reveal their truth to people who are seeking the truth. These lessons are not something that can change your life unless you wrestle with them.
The quotation that Jesus makes is from Isaiah 6:9-10 that says “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding; you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving. This people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.”
So, people cannot take in the message of a parable in the half-awake stupor we often slip into.
You have to be an active thinker, and not just someone who passively soaks things in. If you state simple facts of moral behavior to children, they won’t remember much, but if you read them a story they will want to hear it again and again.
So that the disciples will understand the parables that will come later, he explains the parable he just told the crowd:
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
So the seed is the word of God planted in a person. Your task is to be good soil. Your task is also to be a good gardener. You pull out the weeds of distraction (sinfulness) to give the word a chance to grow.
Are you too hard and lifeless to let the word in? Are you too shallow for the word to build roots? Are you too distracted for the word to grow? Strangely, this applies to the particular seeds we call parables.
Earlier in the passage, Jesus said “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” A “person who hears” is the original meaning of the word disciple and it also is reminiscent of the passage from Isaiah. If we are to be disciples, we need to listen and think.
The grace of God is shown in this: The gardener sews seed not just once, but many times in our lives.
This parable does not limit God in any way, though. God is perfectly willing and able to forgive anyone; including those who are never bright enough to understand parables. But if we have the ability to understand God’s word, we should make the effort.
A Question to Ponder: The seed is sown. What kind of soil are you?