Annual Spirituals — Ears

Mark 4:1-20
February 28, 2021
Matt Goodale

The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”

Listening: that quintessential skill engrained in us since Preschool or younger by parents and teachers who themselves probably did more talking than listening. “Listen to your teachers,” our parents would remind us. “Listen to your parents,” our teachers would remind us. “You’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason. Remember to listen more than you speak.”

Even those of us who were obedient children and did our part to listen more than we spoke were over time broken of this habit by simply abiding in a culture that is characterized more by noise than contemplation, that is more about winning arguments than being changed and affected by the words of another, that encourages multi-tasking over focusing on one thing or one person at a time, a culture that valorizes those who are outspoken and rarely recognizes those who quietly listen and absorb, thinking before they speak and act. In a culture of immediacy, there is hardly enough time to slow down long enough to listen.

It should come as no surprise to us then when we completely misunderstand Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soil, a parable all about listening and receptivity. As the saying goes, “Jesus’ parable goes in one ear and out the other.” In fact, Jesus lets his disciples in on a little secret: he teaches in parables and stories precisely because he knows not everyone will understand. He tells his disciples that to those who don’t understand the ways of God’s kingdom, Jesus’ parables will remain exactly that: parables. For those who aren’t on the “inside” of God’s kingdom, though their eyes may be open, they won’t see a thing. Though their ears may be open, they won’t understand a word. What? If this move by Jesus has you puzzled and scratching your head then you’re not alone.

What happened to the Jesus who invites everyone to come along? What about the Jesus who wants everyone to be saved and come to know the ways of God’s kingdom? This Jesus, if we’re honest, seems a bit exclusive, talking about insiders and outsiders, those who will understand and those who were meant not to understand. Why does Jesus talk in parables, such that some are prohibited from understanding? Let’s hold onto this question for a little bit. Let’s allow it to make us a little uncomfortable. Because if you read about a Jesus who doesn’t make you uncomfortable sometimes, then you’re either ignoring parts of the story or you’re not truly listening to what Jesus is saying.

As we hold onto these important questions, let’s dive into the meat of Jesus’ parable here. There’s only one character in the story: a farmer who sows seed. This farmer throws seed out as far and as wide as he can manage. The seed falls upon the road, rocks, thorns and some of it falls on good soil. Either this farmer has bad aim, or he is overly optimistic. At any rate though, the focus of Jesus’ parable turns from the sower to the soil and its ability to bear the seed to a good harvest.

We think this parable is about soil types, and it is in a way. I remember in middle school youth group trying to figure out which type of soil I was. Soil was a metaphor for discipleship. I’d go through the list: “Ok, well I’m pretty sure I’m not the path or rocky ground that has no place for the seed to grow roots. Check.” If I was feeling particularly humble I might admit to possibly being the soil among the thorns, that allowed the seed to grow for a bit but then choked it out. But most times I would try to convince myself that I was the good soil. I went to church, I read my Bible and prayed fairly regularly. It seemed pretty obvious to me that I was the good soil, ready and open to receive God’s word that was sown in my life. I was “in” it seemed. I determined that there was probably nothing wrong with my eyes or ears as I tried to understand Jesus’ parables. Phew, that was a relief.

But as I reflect back now, many years later, I wonder if I did in fact miss the point of the parable. What tips me off to this is the fact that Jesus’ own disciples don’t even get it. After Jesus shares his parable with the crowd they quietly pull him aside and ask what that was all about. If Jesus’ disciples, who lived, ate and slept with Jesus for three years didn’t even get what he was talking about, then how am I so confident I understand his point? Jesus even tells his disciples straight up: “Don’t you understand how this parable works? All my stories work this way, so how do you hope to understand them if you can’t understand this?” True to his ordinary communication style, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush.

If this story is really about insiders and outsiders, those who understand and those who don’t, then it seems like the disciples are on the outside. They don’t even understand! And it’s this detail that should get us wondering if maybe we’re missing Jesus’ point too.

What if this story isn’t really meant to be a measuring rod to determine which type of soil we are? What if the point of the story isn’t really even mainly about the soil, but is instead about the sower and the seed? What if trying to reach a point where we fully understand Jesus’ parable is in fact missing the point of it?? (If that last question hurt your head as much as it did mine, then you probably heard it right).

What if trying to determine the “main point” of Jesus’ parable is counterproductive? After all, Jesus chose to speak in stories and parables, rather than morals and main ideas. He could have come right out and said exactly what he wanted people to take away from the teaching, but he didn’t. Like the sower, Jesus seems intent on throwing a bunch of seed all over the place, waiting to see what might grow from it. Which brings us to an important observation from this story: what the heck is that farmer doing throwing seed all over the place? I’m no gardener, but I know enough to know where I can and can’t throw seed if I hope it has any chance of growing.

The home we just moved into has a backyard that in some ways looks like a hurricane just ran through it. Where the grass is supposed to be, there is a bunch of rocks, slabs of concrete, garbage and weeds. We want to eventually grow grass there, and so first we’ll remove all of the rocks, garbage and weeds that present obstacles to good growth. If this was Jesus’ yard though, and if his gardening technique is anything like the farmer’s in his parable, I have a feeling he’d just start throwing seed all over the place. He’d throw it on the concrete, the rocks and the garbage.

If we’re Jesus’ neighbor looking on at his gardening methods, we might ask what he thinks he’s doing! Jesus’ first century audience probably had the same question sitting on their lips. What does the farmer think he’s doing, tossing seed on the road, the rocks and the thorns? Everyone knew farming in Palestine is no walk in the park. Farming instructions in the Jewish tradition decreed that farming should be orderly, methodical and with special care given not to mix seeds. But the sowing in Jesus’ parable is far from orderly and methodical; it’s extravagant and even wasteful! What is going on?

It seems that we need to pay more attention to Jesus’ exhortation to “Really listen!” He opens his parable with the imperative command, “Listen!” and closes with the words, “Let the one who has ears to hear listen.” Jesus knows we’re not very good at listening.

What if that’s Jesus’ purpose in telling parables then? To get us to start listening better? In his parables, Jesus takes ordinary things such as seeds, lamps, coins and sheep, and uses them to tell stories that subvert our expectations and leave us scratching our heads. His parables invite us to become an active participant, using our imagination to immerse our self in them. They are not mathematical problems meant to be solved. They are stories to be inhabited and walked around in.

As with most of Jesus’ teachings and parables, we rush to find the main point and then run off with it to wield it as a tool or a sword. But what if Jesus’ parables are meant to confound us, meant to keep us searching, listening and learning, preventing us from running off with an answer that is too convenient? I wonder if the moment we think we have Jesus and his parables figured out is the moment we miss them.

Let’s take Jesus’ soil analogy and run with it. What are the characteristics of soil? It by nature takes a contemplative posture. It must receive before it can give. It must receive seeds, water and sunlight before it can give growth to life. Soil, in order to provide growth, must always be open to receiving. It’s no accident that this is the first parable Mark introduces us to in his gospel. It’s a parable that sets the stage for what is to come; it’s a parable that prepares us to be at times confused and grappling around in the dark for answers, just like Jesus’ disciples who heard this parable and immediately needed the answer from Jesus. Jesus though, enjoys handing out questions more than answers; he prefers giving us stories over math problems.

“Listen.” “Let the one with ears to hear listen.” Whoever thinks they have found the answer will stop listening. Whoever thinks they understand will stop searching. Whoever thinks they are “in” will try to keep others out. Jesus, by telling parables, seems to want us to maintain a posture of listening, of searching so that we never miss what might be hiding right in front of us. The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ parable, so they asked questions, they sought Jesus out. And that’s exactly the point. I’m not sure we’re ever supposed to have “it” figured out…whatever “it” is…life, the Bible, Jesus. Jesus speaks in parables so that we will keep listening, keep contemplating, keep being open for some new word, new meaning, new understanding of the world and our place in it. We don’t ever reach a point of Nirvana when we totally get it. We keep growing, keep receiving, keep learning, keep being ready for our expectations to be overturned, keep watching for the seed that is scattered everywhere.

I wonder if in slowing down long enough to really listen and immerse ourselves in Jesus’ parable, we become the good soil, ready and open to receive God’s word, which is sown all over the place. If we are able to slow down long enough to stop talking, to stop always grasping for answers, I wonder if we become more able to receive a fresh word from God—a fresh seed looking for a place to grow and burgeon into a bountiful feast to supply the kingdom of God. If we start listening, Jesus’ life and parable will do its work on us.

How well do we slow down from the frantic pace of our life? How well do we listen for a fresh word from God? God is always speaking; are we listening? Like a farmer, God casts the seeds of his kingdom far and wide, allowing them to fall indiscriminately where they will. A good measure of spiritual health is how well we remain open and receptive to God’s word. If we open our ears we may find that God’s word can be encountered anywhere: in the embrace of a loved one, at a soup kitchen, in the eyes of a stranger asking for help, while pushing your shopping cart through Yoke’s. God’s word has been scattered far and wide, and Jesus invites us to slow down, to let go of our expectations, and like a child running after a butterfly to allow the joy of the chase to engulf us.

A visual depiction of this parable has been created in St. John’s Bible. The illustration of the parable shows a simple figure of the farmer, clearly identified as Jesus himself, in the center. The rows of soil–fertile, rocky, shallow, weedy–are at his feet. The illustration is enclosed by a rather ornate etched frame. But the frame does not constrain the farmer. His sweeping arm breaks through the frame of the illustration as it scatters seeds. The seeds themselves are scattered beyond the frame into the rest of life. With these artistic decisions, the illustrator is making an important theological claim: God is the sower who cannot be bound by the limits of human imagination. Even a fancy, ornate “frame” around God’s action does not hinder God’s action. The seeds of God’s gracious action spread beyond where we would expect them to be, even beyond where we might wish them to be. The scattered seeds from God’s arm spill out beyond all limits. “Let the one with ears to hear listen.” Let the one who is open and receptive to God’s word hear it and forever be changed. Amen.