Journey Post 45, What Jesus Actually Taught: The parable of the sower
Painting by Malcolm Guite
The Key to Understanding the Kingdom of God: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….” (Jesus)
NOTE: The parable of the sower is recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. I’m focusing here on the account in Matthew 13:1-23. I suggest reading it first. You can Google the reference on another browser page.
First, a parable about windows.
I grew up in a house (built in the 1920s) with wood windows and sashes. If you ever lived with those kinds of windows, you’ve experienced what I’m about to say:
Those windows stick … anytime, anywhere … when you least expect it … it just happens. Why? Maybe lack of use, maybe someone painted over the dirt, maybe the earth shifted or some other mysterious force of the universe was at work….
How you went about raising these windows was critical. The least bit of uneven lifting made them refuse to go anywhere but crooked! Those windows never would do what you wanted. If you ask me, I think they had free will … or were possessed!
Such windows are a part of American lore: they show up in old movies, really old TV shows. I’m mentioning them because those windows are me. I am the Donkey, the epitome of stubborn.
You can draw your own conclusions about the causes for a stubborn window (i.e., stubborn heart). I still can’t explain some of my own stubbornness. It just was … is.
I never figured out how to fix such windows. I didn’t want to, anyway. I knew it would be hard work.
Fixing the stubborn heart is simple, but it’s hard. The hard part is the willing: “whoever has ears, let them hear.” What Jesus was saying was that, if you truly listen, consider and honestly seek to apply what you hear, there is a great payoff: you will understand the Kingdom of God and its secrets.
I’ll not get into theological arguments here about how to be willing, or whether you can even be willing if God doesn’t do something first. I am here dealing with what is: if you are willing.
That is evident, since Jesus concludes by saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….” He quotes from the prophet Isaiah about those who never hear and never see. Actual hearing and seeing depends on the condition of the soil (the heart).
I’d like to clear up some confusion that many, both Christian and non, seem to have. This parable is fairly straightforward, but there are statements here that can lead one to conclude, as I once did, that either they’re stupid or else God has made them blind.
God wants to communicate. He wants you to understand his ways, and this parable provides hope that we can understand spiritual truth, what Jesus calls the “secrets of the Kingdom.”
I learned an important lesson as a middle school teacher about how to learn. I was teaching young people with learning disabilities how to read. It was often a disheartening battle. At that age, you may remember, many/most students weren’t exactly focused on learning.
Yes, there were always a few who were determined to learn. But by the time they came to my classroom in 7th or 8th grade, many were already convinced they couldn’t learn. They thought themselves stupid. Some teachers even wrote them off as such. They had stopped listening to the cheerleaders who said, “You can do it!” and ignored the exhorters who said, “Try harder!”
I wanted to find a way to give them hope, to motivate them. I discovered that the only way for that to happen was for them to see that they could achieve some success, however small. That would be something to build on, something to rekindle long-quenched hope and lead to more success.
My objective here is limited. I won’t explain everything in the parable passage. That would only be giving you predigested learning. It’s more important to encourage those who feel like they don’t really “get it” to know that there is, indeed, a way to get it, and it’s within their reach.
I’ve realized that, in this parable, Jesus is not simply giving an apt illustration of how different people hear his message. He is also providing an assurance—even a promise—that those who are honestly willing to listen, can understand the things of God and learn what he actually taught.
In previous posts, I sought to provide some useful and simple tools for “getting” Scripture. Remember the question: “What’s the main idea?” If you look for this first, you’ll spare yourself thinking too much about the little stuff. Also, always remember to think about context (with a capital “K”). Considering context is important at every level. As the saying goes, “You can prove anything from the Bible”—if you simply take it out of context.
These guidelines don’t sound especially spiritual, you might think. Anyone can, after all, learn them in school. But don’t forget: God uses human language to communicate with us. Perhaps you’re wondering, what about the Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit essential for understanding? God indeed gave his Spirit to help his people understand and apply his word: he promised to write it in our hearts (see, e.g., Ezekiel 36:26,27). And even if you’re a non-Christian, his basic message is there for you to hear, and, if you are willing, God can make it real in a way you’ve never imagined.
Jesus constantly faced large crowds, most of whom, he knew, would be ever hearing yet never understanding. That’s a disheartening prospect. But he knew there would also be some who genuinely wanted to understand. And that is why he said what he did at the end of the parable: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”
That phrase is more important here than you might think at first glance. It is more than a rhetorical flourish used to get them to pay attention. It was like a code phrase, a reminder of what prophets had consistently said to warn the people about the consequences of not paying attention to what God wanted to tell them. If they kept that up, their hearts would eventually become “calloused,” and they would be taken into exile as judgment. That is why Jesus quoted Isaiah. (After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the people were scattered in the Jewish Dispersion.)
Along with the warning there was hope. There’s this little word “otherwise.” If they did listen, Isaiah was saying, “they might see … and hear, understand with their hearts and turn,” i.e., they would recognize their need of God and turn to him for deliverance, “and I would heal them.” (Mark’s account uses the word “forgive” instead of “heal.”)
The parables were not meant to confuse people. They were a sign that God was doing something wonderful (see 13:34, 35). God was now doing something that had been hidden even from righteous people: namely, the Messiah was here!
Parables were also designed to promote understanding. A parable is an analogy in story form. The story form makes it easier to remember, and analogy is one of the most effective means of communicating in any language. Analogies are word pictures that say more than any lengthy, explicit exposition on the same topic; they are packed with an incredible amount of detail simply because the pictures were based on familiar things in their culture.
Jesus’s stories were vivid, pungent, memorable—and short, mostly. Even if you know little about agriculture, for example, you can understand most parables without knowing all the cultural cues.
Let me address a part that has confused many, including me.
When you read Jesus telling his disciples the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them,” you might conclude that only the inner circle elite (or elect) can get this.
But the point is that understanding spiritual truth (the secrets of the Kingdom) is not generally held back from those who genuinely want it. As I’ve written before, God wants to communicate; spiritual truth is mostly pretty simple; but it takes a willing heart to “get it.” The key to understanding is the willing heart, the listening heart that hangs on to what it hears, considers it, and seeks to put it to practice.
The seed is Jesus’s message of the Kingdom. The soil is the human heart (soul, inner being, what we really hear or see with). When someone pays no real attention and so does not understand, what little they have is taken away by the evil one. The one who has no root is not allowing the word to penetrate—they may be joyful at first, but trouble causes them to abandon it in a relatively short time.
The ground with thorns represents the heart whose own agenda squeezes out God’s. The good soil, of course, receives, understands, and produces fruit. The fruit they produce is not the same for everyone. Some produce just a little, some much more.
If you are just now beginning to understand some truth, take heart. You may understand only a tiny bit, and produce just a little bit, but this will set you up to understand more. Jesus often mentioned this basic principle of learning: “Those who have will be given more…. Those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (13:12).
Think about this: The first thing that Jesus did, after his temptation and baptism, was to begin preaching the gospel of the Kingdom. When he said, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” here was another sort of code, announcing that the one the Jews had been expecting, the Messiah (Christ), was arriving. This was the first “secret of the Kingdom.” Even Judas understood that. But his expectation of what the Messiah came to do was wrong (others thought the same thing). He thought Jesus would throw out the Romans. When he finally realized that Jesus would never meet his expectation, his heart was open to Satan—so even what he had was taken away.
Take heart, my friend. “If you have ears to hear, listen!” Take it in, mull it over, ask for understanding, hang onto it, seek to put it to practice.