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Listen Up!

Erik Weihenmayer is blind, yet on May 25, 2001, he reached the peak of Mt. Everest. Suffering from a degenerative eye disease, he lost his sight when he was 13, but that didn’t stop him. On a mountain where 90 percent of climbers never make it to the top—and over 290 have died trying—Erik succeeded. Erik succeeded, in large measure, because he listened well.

Erik listened to the little bell tied to the back of the climber in front of him, so he would know what direction to go.

He listened to the voice of teammates who would shout back to him, “Death fall two feet to your right!” so he would know what direction not to go.

He listened to the sound of his pick jabbing the ice, so he would know whether the ice was safe to cross.

When we take a perilous journey, listening well can make all the difference.[1]

Life itself can be a perilous journey. Therefore, it can be most helpful to listen carefully to someone who has navigated that journey successfully before us. Personally, I know of no one more successful at navigating life than Jesus. Today, I would like to talk with you about listening to Jesus, based upon Mark 4:1-20. Listen for God’s word to you….

Again he [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
Why did Jesus speak to people in parables?

I think there are, perhaps, a few answers to that question. First, I think Jesus spoke in parables to capture people’s attention. Here he was in the open air, no longer in the controlled space of the synagogue.

I have spoken on a number of occasions in the open air. In such situations, the speaker has only a few moments to capture the potential listener’s attention, and if the speaker is boring, or needlessly offensive, that potential listener will simply walk away after a few seconds.

Like every good communicator, Jesus knew that one of the best ways to catch people’s attention was with a story. In this case, the type of story he told is called a parable, which literally means “something thrown beside something else”. In other words, the parable is basically a comparison. The parable is often used by Jesus to compare something with which people are familiar to something unfamiliar. Jesus takes stories from earthly, everyday life, and makes a spiritual point with them. In my own way, that is what I try to do every Sunday with the children’s mystery box. I take an object that they are usually familiar with and I compare it to something spiritual.

Jesus was not inventing a new manner of communication. He was simply perfecting an old method that the Rabbis often used. Thus, we have a second reason why Jesus probably spoke in parables—because it was a method with which the Jewish people of his time were familiar. There are parables in the Hebrew Scriptures, like the story that Nathan told to King David. Furthermore, we have other examples from Rabbinic history of the use of the parable.

A third reason why Jesus spoke in parables was to make the abstract concrete. Again, that is something I try to do with the mystery box. I am not sure that children always get the point, because children, up to a certain age, can only think concretely. So it is hard for them to make the leap from the concrete thing in the mystery box to the abstract spiritual principle I may talk about. Perhaps that is why adults often like children’s sermons so much more. Adults are able to make that leap from the concrete to the abstract and the concrete object or story from everyday life helps adults to make that leap to the spiritual.

That leads to a fourth reason Jesus probably spoke in parables: to compel people to think for themselves. In the case of the story we have read today, Jesus explained it to his disciples. However, Jesus did not explain his parables to everyone. He wanted people to discover the truth for themselves. In fact that is the way we learn best, isn’t it, by verbalizing the truth for ourselves, not just by hearing someone else do our thinking for us?

Before we move on to examine this particular parable, I would like to say something more about the parables in general.

One thing we need to notice is that by using parables Jesus was showing that there is a real kinship between earth and heaven. As William Barclay says, Jesus “believed that in the ordinary, common, everyday things of life men could see God.” Paul believed the same thing. In Romans 1:20 he says, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” For Jesus, God’s creation was not simply evil, though he knew that much evil went on in the world, carried out by human beings. Nonetheless, Jesus viewed creation as “the garment of the living God”.

Christopher Wren was the amazing architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wren chose to be buried in the cathedral, and he also chose his own Latin inscription as his epitaph. Translated into English it means, “If you wish to see his monument, look around you.”

Jesus, by his use of parables, was saying something similar. If you want to learn about God, look around you.

Another thing we always need to keep in mind about the parables is that they were spontaneous, extempore, and unrehearsed. As William Barclay explains, “Jesus looks round, seeking a point of contact with the crowd. He sees the sower and on the spur of the moment that sower becomes his text.” Jesus did not spend time in his study every week, like I do with each sermon, trying to come up with a story to illustrate his points. Rather, with the parables he did the spontaneous sort of thing I do with the object lesson in the mystery box (though I will admit that I do sneak a peak at the beginning of the service so I have a little bit of time to think about the object in question and a spiritual lesson inherent in it).

That brings us to another general point we always need to keep in mind about the parables. They were meant to be heard not read.

We have to remember that is what Jesus’ first audience was doing. They were hearing these stories, not reading them and picking them apart. The most important response was seen in the immediate reaction of the listener to the story. Each parable thus had one main point to make. They were not allegories like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In an allegory, there is a one to one correspondence between everything in the story and some spiritual principle. Thus, Bunyan’s story makes many spiritual points. Jesus’ parables almost always make just one point. I say, “almost always,” because as we will see with this first parable, Jesus explains to the disciples what each thing in the story represents. Therefore, I will grant you that this first extended parable is a little bit more like an allegory, but it is an allegory with a single point.

We must address one more point before we look at the parable of the sower. We must ask, why did Jesus say “but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”?
This may be one of the most difficult couple of verses in the New Testament. It is a quote from Isaiah 6:9-10. Isaiah has just had this splendid vision of the Lord high and lifted up in his temple. He overhears the call of God: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!” Then the Lord says to Isaiah,

“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah served as a prophet during a very difficult time in the history of Israel. The Lord knew that his people were not going to listen to Isaiah, and that eventually he would have to give them a time-out, exile, before they would listen. In the Greek version of this passage in Isaiah, it does not say that God intended that his people should be dull of hearing; it says that the people made themselves dull of hearing so that they would not understand.

The thing about a written text is that the reader must supply the tone of voice. In what tone did God originally speak these words to Isaiah? Perhaps it was a tone filled with a combination of irony, despair, and love.

When Jesus spoke these words and applied them to his own teaching, what was he really saying? I believe Jesus wanted people to grasp the truth, but in the crowd, he saw many eyes that betrayed souls filled with lazy incomprehension. Jesus realized he was in a situation like that of Isaiah. He knew that no matter what he said or did, many people would not really listen to him or follow. Thus, I think Jesus spoke these words in the tone that Barclay says was filled with wistful longing and unrequited love.

Now, in the few moments we have left, let us look at the parable of the sower itself.

It was interesting to me on this reading of the parable to notice that Jesus explains everything in the parable to his disciples except the most important thing. Who does the sower represent in the parable? Tom Wright addresses that question in this way,

The codes, the images in Jesus’ dream-like stories, are often taken from his biblical background. A sower sowing seed is not just a familiar picture from everyday farming life. It’s a picture of God sowing Israel again in her own land after the long years of exile; of God restoring the fortunes of his people, making the family farm fruitful again after the thorns and thistles have had it their own way for too long…. This is a story about the word that produces fruit, even though grass withers and flowers fade.

The problem—and this seems to be the main reason Jesus taught in parables—is that Jesus’ vision of how God was sowing his word was, as we would say today, politically incorrect. People were expecting a great moment of renewal. They believed that Israel would be rescued lock, stock and barrel; God’s kingdom would explode onto the world stage in a blaze of glory. No, declares Jesus: it’s more like a farmer sowing seed, much of which apparently goes to waste because the soil isn’t fit for it, can’t sustain it.

For those who understand the dream language, the code, this was and is bad news. It isn’t just a comment on the way in which people in general sometimes listen to preachers and sometimes don’t. (It would be a pretty dull sermon that simply commented on the way people listened to sermons.) It’s a specific comment, a political cartoon, on what was happening as Jesus himself was announcing and inaugurating God’s kingdom.

As we’ve already seen, some people were getting on board, while others were standing aloof. Now we see other reactions as well. Some hear and forget; some are enthusiastic but short-term; some have too much else in their minds and hearts. Yes, there are some who are fruitful, very fruitful indeed (any farmer would be delighted with a hundredfold yield); but Jesus is giving a coded warning that belonging to the kingdom isn’t automatic. The kingdom is coming all right, but not the way they have imagined.

If Tom Wright is correct, and I think he is, then the sower in the parable is God, but the sower is also Jesus in his current ministry. In other words, God is sowing the word of his kingdom through Jesus.

The most important question for us today is: are we listening? Notice that at the beginning and the end of this parable, Jesus says: Listen! In fact, at the end of the parable he is even more emphatic: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

The question is not simply one of physically hearing Jesus’ words, but really taking those words to heart and applying them in our lives. This leads to the question: what kind of soil are we?

If we are like the hard path, then when Jesus speaks his word to us we do not really take it in, and very soon, Satan steals that word away from us.

Perhaps we are like the rocky ground. We responded enthusiastically to Jesus’ word when we were young, but now the difficulties of life, the rocky places make us want to give up following the Lord.

Then again, maybe we are like the thorny ground. Perhaps the cares of this world and the desire for wealth choke out our desire to really hear and follow Christ.

Finally, we may be like the good soil that produces a crop of thirty, sixty, or hundredfold.

How do we know if we are good soil? If we are producing fruit, then we are.

What is the fruit that grows from the word of Jesus implanted in our lives?
Paul tells us: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

If we see this fruit in our lives then we can be assured that we are good soil.

Maybe we do not see as much of this fruit as we would like, but we must remember that Jesus does not work in our lives by means of a machine that plants massive quantities of seed all at once. He is more like an individual farmer, planting one seed at a time. We need to trust Jesus to do his work in his way and in his timing, in our church and in our individual lives.

[1] Bill White, Paramount, California; source: Time (6-18-01), submitted to


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