Mark 4:2 tells us that Jesus “taught them many things by parables.” We’ve all heard a parable defined as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, or the more literal “to throw/cast alongside” which is suggestive of thinking of parables as analogies. Maybe it’s most helpful to keep in mind that parables are word pictures. When Jesus uses them He is no longer speaking literally but is employing figurative language (John 10:6, 16:25). If someone says the sun is shining that’s literal speech. If they tell us they hope our day is full of sunshine, they’re not. The parables belong in this latter category. And as with all picturesque speech, the challenge is to grasp the intended correspondence between the picture and the spiritual truth we’re to learn.
Parables then are for pondering. Most of us initially read a parable and have something of the same reaction that Jesus’ disciples had (v. 10). We don’t fully understand it. There are elements that confuse us, parts we are uncertain about. Sometimes people can get frustrated over this—especially if they approach the Scripture from the mistaken perspective that everything should be so simple that we can readily understand it the first time through. The truth is, like any illustrative material, the parables are designed to engage us and make us think. They certainly have insight to offer, but not without effort on our part and the sooner we understand that the better off we’ll be. So if you read a parable and it leaves you scratching your head that’s okay—it’s supposed to. You don’t eat a meal in a single bite.
The parable of the sower is in many ways the parable of parables. It introduces the section on parables in Matthew, Mark & Luke. It is surpassed only by the story of the prodigal son in terms of its length. Then there is Jesus’ question, “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable? (v. 13), that perhaps suggests that this parable offers an interpretive key for understanding the rest of the parables.
The parable is about people, but it’s ultimately about the different ways of hearing kingdom truths (such as parables). You can have no interest and the word bounces off you like seed on sunbaked ground. You can have a passing interest. If everyone in Bible class or the church assembly is acting excited about the message, then you are too. But it’s an environmental kind of thing so as soon as you are out of that environment, so is the word. Or, you can have a real interest in the word and it has a place in your life (but not the place) and sooner or later competing interests extinguish it. Finally there is the way of listening where you open your life to God and His word and keep it open. This results in fruitfulness.
The truth is, we can and have listened (or not listened) in all of these ways. The real question is: what are we now and how can we remain open to God’s word? One important way is to aim for consistency—the feast or famine approach isn’t a good idea. A second thing is to utilize the entry points in your life (see Deuteronomy 6:7ff). Driving to work, early in the morning—learn to take advantage of whatever times are readily available. Finally, implement what you learn. Nothing keeps your life open to God more than putting truth into practice (John 7:17).
How is your hearing?