Every morning he marched to his front porch and shouted into the neighborhood, “Tigers, get out!” One morning his wife rebuked him, “Harry, there are no tigers for thousands of miles!” Smiling with satisfaction, he replied, “See. It works!”
Parables are like jokes. Gordon Fee, Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, explains, “The two things that capture the hearer of a joke and elicit a response of laughter are the same two things that captured the hearers of Jesus’ parables, namely their knowledge of the points of reference (the characters in the parable with whom they identify) and the unexpected turn in the story” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 127). Further, Fee writes, ” . . . parables function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer.”
Many parables are about the kingdom of God. George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, defined the kingdom: ” . . . the Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and . . . this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign” (The Presence of the Future).
In this next section of Mark’s Good News (Mark 4:1-34) he reports Jesus telling three parables. Today we’ll “listen” to just the first—the familiar “Parable of the Sower and Soils” (4:1-9 , NIV).
1 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. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” now Jesus has publicly preached and healed throughout Galilee for about two years. His fame has spread, again bringing a crowd to the shore so large that he taught—in parables—from a boat. The Greek word—parabolay—was used of riddles and puzzles and stories. Jesus’ parables were stories of ordinary life that were often puzzling—like an “inside” joke.
For about two years now, Jesus has preached and healed throughout Galilee. His fame keeps spreading, so again great crowds came to the shore, so that he taught them—in parables—from a boat. The Greek word parabolay is used of riddles and puzzles and stories. A parable, then, is a story of ordinary life with a puzzling twist.
This parable seems straightforward. We get the farmer scattering seed and the different results depending on the condition of the soil. But, had we been there, would we have understood what Jesus meant and the response for which his story called?
Later Jesus will interpret for his disciples (4:13-20). For now, let’s see what we can discover from just the parable itself. First, the audience is a “very large crowd” (4:1). Some were disciples (4:10), most not. Second, Jesus initially wanted each person to really hear, to consider carefully what he said. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9). From Jesus’ urging, we can be quite sure this is the response Jesus wanted.
The Greek word twice translated “hear” is akoueto. It can mean simply hear or, more deeply, hear with understanding. In 4:12 Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9,10 speaking of those who “hear but [do] not understand.” So in 4:9 Jesus means something like, “The one who has ears to hear, listen carefully to understand!” Later Jesus repeats it to his disciples . . .
21 He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? 22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you– and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
Hidden things are intended to be disclosed (4:22), just as we put a lamp on its stand to shine (4:21). Jesus is disclosing hidden things about God’s kingdom. “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:23) repeats 4:9 (“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”). Then comes 4:24a, an elaboration of 4:23—“Consider carefully what you hear” or “Pay attention to what you hear” (verse 24a, ESV). Again, Jesus wanted disciples to listen attentively, thoughtfully, seriously with an aim to comprehending what his story meant. And since this parable is about the kingdom of God (though Jesus doesn’t use the term), Jesus wanted them to listen carefully to understand what he was telling them about the kingdom of God.
Why does Jesus want them—and us—to consider carefully what he says in parables?
Parables are puzzling. This one isn’t to us because we have Jesus’ interpretation to his disciples. But if we were in the crowd that day, the parable would have perplexed us. Got ears? Listen!
The kingdom of God is a secret. “To you,” Jesus will later explain to his disciples, “has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (4:11a). In other words, the knowledge of God’s kingdom is hidden until revealed by Jesus. Got ears? Listen!
The kingdom comes in a counter-intuitive way. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he ordered his troops to openly march across the border and meet any resistance with force. But when God “invaded” the world to inaugurate his eternal reign, he sent his One and Only Son to preach, work miracles and ultimately die, then be raised. God’s kingdom comes in ways we don’t expect. Got ears? Listen!
Satan wants to steal what we hear. This will become obvious later (4:15). But even now we can see that hearing Jesus to understand is a spiritual battle. Got ears? Listen!
We’re not good listeners. “Couch potato” doesn’t describe a certain kind of furniture or vegetable. It’s me on a Sunday afternoon watching the Rays on TV. Soon (with eyes open) I couldn’t tell you what the announcer said, who hit the ball where, or who was playing what.
During 44 years of preaching, I dreaded knowing the answer to one question: “What was my sermon about today?” Many times I’ve seen that “holy glaze” on many eyes!
“Allan, I told you the answer to that question yesterday!” the teacher exclaimed. “Weren’t you here?” Yes, I was there, but my mind was on the girl sitting one row over.
There’s more to this parable than good listening. But, to paraphrase Jesus, “If we don’t understand this
parable, how will we understand all the parables?” (4:13). Got ears? Listen? Really listen with an aim to understand. Shut your ears to everything else. Open them wide to only what Jesus says. Think. Consider carefully. Pay attention to the parables of the kingdom of God.
Harry’s wife is right. There are no tigers. But there is good news of a hidden kingdom.