A husband was distraught over his wife’s stubborn refusal to admit she had a hearing problem. He went to see their family doctor to ask for advice on how to convince his wife that she had a hearing problem. The doctor advised him to go home, open the front door and in a normal voice ask his wife what’s for dinner. The doctor said, if she doesn’t answer, move closer to the kitchen. Repeat the question again, and if she still doesn’t answer, stand behind her and whisper in her ear, “What’s for dinner, honey?” Then, the doctor assured him, she’ll have to admit she has the problem. So the man went home, opened the front door and asked “What’s for dinner, honey?” His wife made no reply, so he moved closer to the kitchen and asked again. “What’s for dinner, honey?” Again, nothing. So he tiptoed over to her and whispered in her ear, “What’s for dinner, honey?” She turned and looked at him straight in the eye: “For the 3rd time, I said, we’re having MEAT LOAF!”
Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9). Clearly those who cannot hear do not get it, and those who can hear, should. What did you hear when this well known parable of Jesus was read just now? I suggest the majority of us think we are like the good soil. We are sorry for others whose hearts are like the rocky, weedy or hard soil.
Lets be honest: Is that what you thought? That is because when the Scriptures are read, we invariably see ourselves in the best possible light, we tick the box and move on to the next passage. This is a very serious mistake. When Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9) he was giving a warning. That is the main point of the parable.
Lets begin by noting the context.
- The Context of the Parable
“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.” (Mark 4:1-2)
What do you read into the parables which Mark describes? He is already attracting large crowds and stirring controversy. Jesus therefore chose to speak in parables. Why? Because story is a more effective and a more memorable means of communicating truth than straight propositions. We remember stories easily but not speeches. We can retell them especially if they are short and funny and relevant.
That is the power of story. There’s a second more important reason. Communicating by story is a wise approach in a hostile environment. Story is a form of code. Jesus had indeed been born to die, but not yet.
He would only reveal why he came when the people understood who he was. You know what they say, “Familiarity breeds contempt” That was certainly true even of Jesus own family. In the verses preceding this story, his family had come to take him home fearing he had lost his mind. He simply rebukes them.
“Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35)
Jesus has just rebuked his own family and now he criticizes his disciples and warns the crowds. That’s the context.
- The Meaning of the Parable
If familiarity does not always breed contempt, it can certainly breed complacency. We live in a culture of niceness where causing offence is not just bad etiquette. Causing offence is increasingly a criminal offence too.
Which is why reading Mark Galli’s “Jesus, Mean & Wild” is so refreshing, if unsettling. We are discovering that following Jesus was an uncomfortable, unsettling, hazardous experience.
“Nearly everywhere we turn, in the Gospel of Mark … we find a Jesus who storms in and out of people’s lives, making implicit or explicit demands and, in general, making people feel mighty uncomfortable… This is Jesus the consuming fire, the raging storm, who seems bent on destroying everything in his path, who either shocks people into stupefaction or frightens them so that they run for their lives.”
Which is why we can easily miss the warning running right through this popular parable too. Here is a paraphrase:
“Listen!… The Word of God is being scattered about: Those whose spirits are hardened – watch out! You will hardly have a moment to consider the truth before it seems like it is snatched from you. Those not deeply rooted in God-watch out! You are going to wither away as trouble or persecution strikes. Those who pursue a comfortable and secure life-watch out! Your souls are being choked to death.”
We know from other Bible passages that God longs for people to repent and be forgiven. He is not willing that any should perish. Which is why in many ways the most troubling aspect of this parable Galli observes, “is the hinge between the telling and explaining of the parable… Jesus says something alarming to those who have sought him out.”
“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!’” (Mark 4:11-12)
We tend to gloss over verses such as this because we can’t imagine Jesus doing anything other than present the gospel as clearly and plainly as possible. Surely he must want everyone to respond.
He seems to be saying the secret is only shared with a select few. Which is precisely what he does. But then what did Jesus say to his closest followers? “Don’t YOU understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4:13). The disciples, at least at this point, cannot be good soil, because they clearly do not yet understand. So lets start again and listen carefully to Jesus. Jesus has just told them that the secret has been given to them. So although the disciples do not get the parable at this point, they will, if they continue to listen and learn from Jesus. If that was true for them, it is also true for us. To whom then is the secret of the kingdom given?
Galli observes, “Those who take the trouble to go deeper, to ask more questions of Jesus. Those who ask, Jesus says elsewhere, will be given answers.”
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Jesus tells them an enigmatic story without explaining its meaning. That is all a warning has to do. What you do with it is your responsibility. Galli adds,
“In this haunting passage, Jesus warns people about the rhythm of judgment that begins with rejecting his Word. So once again, Jesus is being mean, stern – anything but the warm and fuzzy friend who blithely overlooks are shortcomings… Jesus is not simply being mean; he’s telling the truth. Some truths are stern. Some truths are sobering. When someone is in danger, telling the sobering truth can be the most loving thing one can do.”
Most of the parable is a warning. A warning to the proud, to the complacent, the worldly – those who think they are OK when they are not OK, or they wont be in the near future. We tend to focus on the four types of soil and begin to put our relatives and friends in one of them. That’s not the point. Remember the key verse? “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9). So listen carefully… Jesus tells us the sower is God. The seed is the word of God – the gospel. The seed is cast everywhere. What happens to it depends on the soil.
2.1 The Hard Path: No Understanding of Jesus
“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.” (Mark 4:15)
You can tell when someone is not listening to you. Their eyes glaze over, as if they are looking right through you. They are miles away or they blank you out. Jesus said “hearing they hear not”. What makes people hard? Things like cynicism and pride act like concrete and the good news just bounces off.
2.2 The Stony Ground : A Shallow Understanding of Jesus
“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.” (Mark 4:16-17)
These are impressionable people who hear the word and make an emotional decision. They join all the groups, buy all the books, go on all the courses. But when they begin to experience the cynicism of relatives or the sarcasm of neighbours, or persecution from the authorities, their fervor dries up, their zeal is transferred to other pursuits.
The problem is the lack of depth to enable their roots to grow down deep and draw up nourishment. How can we avoid shallowness? So, the Hard Path stands for those who can’t or won’t listen to Jesus. The Stony Path, represents those with a shallow faith that easily dries up in adversity.
2.3 The Thorny Ground : A Choked Understanding of Jesus
“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.” (Mark 4:18-19)
These are people who hear the word gladly. They are sincere, and they make a solid beginning in the life of faith. God begins to bless them. They have children, grandchildren. They succeed in their jobs, promotion brings a pay rise but also additional responsibilities. They must be away more often. There’s the second home to keep up, the club membership privileges to enjoy. And before long, these good things begin to choke out their first love for Jesus. What may be choking your faith? There’s another reason weeds grow. Laziness. Every gardener knows that a weed free garden doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of hard work to remove the weeds that would choke the vegetables and flowers. We must be ruthless with weeds. The Hard Path describes an indifferent faith that’s easily deceived. The Stony Path, a shallow faith that quickly dries up. The Thorny Path, a cluttered faith that becomes choked.
2.4 The Good Soil : A Fruitful Understanding of Jesus
“Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop–thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)
What a difference when seed is sown on good soil! What a difference hearing, understanding and obeying God’s word makes. The Bible is the word of God. It is the seed Jesus is talking about here. When we share the word of God, people will trust in Jesus. Not may but will. It’s inevitable. A certainty.
‘”Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?… “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! … Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:13-17)
‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ (1 Peter 1:23)
The Context of the Parable. The Meaning of the Parable.
- The Application of the Parable
‘Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”’ (Mark 4:9)
My own hearing loss brings this parable into sharp focus for me. I have to be intentional in wanting to hear you. I have to concentrate to listen. And I have to especially concentrate to listen to God. Because prayer is as much about listening as it is speaking. Each one of us is somewhere in God’s field.
The point of the parable? Its not about classifying ourselves and other people in one of four categories of soil, least of all being complacent in thinking we are the good soil.
Its about heeding the warning and being ruthless with anything that stops us being the good soil.
Its about heeding the warning. Its about asking how can we deepen our faith, share our Lord and reproduce ourselves? Three ways:
3.1 Have Confidence in the Seed
“I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
The seed is the word of God. Get to know it and love it. Do not be ashamed to read it, to quote it, and to share it. Learn to handle is accurately and sow it widely.
3.2 Be Sowing the Seed
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Look for opportunities to share Jesus with your friends and family, neighbours and colleagues.
3.3 Trust the Lord of the Harvest
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Luke 10:2)
Remember that our world is God’s harvest field. Have confidence in the seed. Always be sowing the seed. Pray to the Lord of the Harvest to bear fruit in you and through you, by his grace and for his glory. Lets pray.
Thank you to Peter Loughman for the opening illustration and introductory ideas, and of course, Mark Galli and his book, Jesus, Mean and Wild.