1 He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, 3 “Listen to this!
Listen! Hear this! Allusion to the Shema, the most well known passage of the Hebrew scriptures Dt 6.4-9
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.
“You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The importance of listening and hearing in the Jewish tradition cannot be over-emphasized. The Jewish tradition was an oral tradition. The stories were told and repeated and passed on for countless generations before they were ever written, and even when the stories were written, to this day the telling and hearing, the listening continue to play a prominent role in Jewish tradition. These laws which were the heart and soul of the Jewish faith tradition were passed on by telling and listening. Their Bible, basically, was transmitted by oral telling and listening. Listening without really paying attention was unthinkable. To frivolously listen without hearing was sacrilegious.
“Listen!” Jesus says. “This is important. Listen and hear what I am telling you. You need to get this so you can pass this on to others who need to know about this!”
And then Jesus tells them a story:
Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Did you catch that? “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Listen!
10 As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables,
You have already been given the mysteries of the kingdom, but those who have not been given the mysteries get the mystery in parables
12 so that WHILE SEEING, THEY MAY SEE AND NOT PERCEIVE, AND WHILE HEARING, THEY MAY HEAR AND NOT UNDERSTAND, OTHERWISE THEY MIGHT RETURN AND BE FORGIVEN.”
That sounds harsh. Outsiders are given the mystery in parables so they won’t hear? Won’t see? And won’t turn and be forgiven? Then why not just say nothing at all? Especially when listening very carefully to understand is so critical in the Jewish tradition?
Now it must be recognized that, while listening carefully to understand is indispensable in the Jewish tradition, it did not always happen that way. In fact, the story of Israel is a long and convoluted story of listening to hear and understand, interspersed with listening to subvert and sabotage God’s message; with false prophets who cried “Peace, peace! When there was no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11)
This particular quote Jesus pulls from the well-known call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. In the context of a rebellious phase in Israel’s history God is calling Isaiah and sending him out to call his children to repentance when they have shown themselves stubbornly uninterested in listening to understand and obey. Though they have ears they will not listen. Though they have eyes they will not hear. Because his children are not willing to repent, so they cannot allow themselves to listen; they cannot allow themselves to see, because to listen and to see would mean to repent.
The same dynamic is at work now. The parables are told so that everyone can hear and see, but those who are not willing to repent cannot afford to listen and see, because to hear and see life, and yet choose death, is an unthinkable and excruciating agony that ultimately betrays the very self one wishes to preserve at all costs.
That the intent of the parables is to disclose truth, and not to disguise truth is made clear later in the chapter:
21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”
If you listen to understand, your understanding will grow, if you repent when truth is revealed. If you refuse to repent when truth is revealed, then you refuse to understand, and your hearing will become dull, and your vision will grow dim. Listen! So that you do not have ears, but can’t hear! Look! So that you do not have eyes, but can’t see! Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!
The kingdom of God. That is what this parable was about. The mystery of the kingdom of God, and Jesus explains the parable to his disciples:
13 And He *said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word.
The sower who sows the word is Jesus, telling the stories of the kingdom, spreading the good news of the kingdom, inviting everyone who hears to repent and enter God’s kingdom.
15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. 16 In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”
The seed sown by the sower has astonishing power. With modern intensive methods and technology a farmer who plants two bushels of wheat per acre is delighted to harvest sixty bushels per acre - a thirty fold crop. A sixty fold crop would be legendary, and a hundred fold would be winning the lottery.
However, the point is not precisely what multiplication factor is operative or possible. The point is that the harvest will be huge! Even with all of the seeds that do not realize maximum potential, the impact of the seed is phenomenal, and it changes everything. The sower knows that not all of the seed will sprout, but he sows anyway. He sows prodigally, anticipating a bounteous harvest.
He heals, knowing most will be distracted by the immediate fruits that are far more alluring than really listening, seeing, and repenting, but he heals in hope that a few - maybe one in ten - will hear and see and understand, and will turn around (repent) and give thanks.
He tells parables, knowing many will only hear stories and be entertained, but he tells stories in hopes that some will see and hear and understand, turn from death, and follow him to life.
The story that follows this parable reinforces the notion that the mechanics and dynamics of the growth of planted seed is a mystery, but the harvest is tangible. The farmer sows, then sleeps while the crop grows without his participation or machination. Then when, after his neglect the harvest is ready, he reaps the benefits of what he had no hand in bringing about. Likewise, the kingdom of God is fecund; it produces fruit and a bountiful harvest far beyond the paltry influence we fancy that we could bring to bear on it. We do not begin to understand how it grows, but we can be sure that it grows.
So how then shall we live? How do we live in the mystery of a kingdom that we do not always see, but a kingdom that we are assured, by the King himself, is growing all around us, a kingdom that is bursting into bloom while we sleep? How do we live in faith when storms rage around us and God sleeps? How does God sleeping in the storm become for us a sign that engenders faith rather than a disconcerting absence?
We live by sowing prodigally. We do good when we have opportunity without worrying too much about how it will be understood, how effectively it will bear fruit, or whether people will see our generosity and try to take advantage of us. We scatter as much seed as we can, knowing that, while much may seem to go to waste, the harvest is the King’s business and it will be plenteous.
We treasure God’s words in our hearts, and we meditate on them day and night, speaking of them to our sons and daughters and neighbours when we sit in the house, and when we walk by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise up.
We have ears, and we listen.
We have eyes, and we look.
We turn our face toward Jesus, and look to him for the healing we need for our every day life.