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The parable of the sower


30 January 2005 11:00 | The Revd Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: 2 Corinthians 11.19-31; Gospel: Luke 8.4-15

Did he notice their attention wandering? It was a large crowd, and although they all appeared to be looking directly at him, had he detected their eyes glazing over, or were they beginning to chatter among themselves? Whatever the reason, Jesus stops speaking. And with the perfect timing of a rabbi accustomed to addressing crowds, he pauses to enhance the effect… then with all eyes on him, he shouts out: "If you have ears to hear, take heed!"

As the disciples gather around him, wondering what that was all about, they ask him what the parable meant, fearing perhaps they too had missed the point? To their surprise, Jesus confides in them: "You have the chance to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that even though they look, they do not see, and listening, they do not understand…." And then he goes on to tell the disciples what the parable means.

But that left some of the disciples more puzzled then they had been before! Wasn't Jesus the popular teacher who, unlike the professional scribes and Pharisees, made things simple for ordinary people to understand? Didn't his teachings draw upon ordinary life, so that they would have the widest possible appeal? What does Jesus mean about speaking in parables 'so that people wouldn't understand'!!? What's the point of that?

To discover "the point", I suggest (as I did last Sunday, and as I will often do again), I suggest we put ourselves into this story. Stand in the crowd at the lakeside, and hear Jesus calling out: "If you have ears to hear, take heed!" There's something rather un-nerving in those words. And there's meant to be!

We, and those around us are meant to feel rather unsettled - even though from our position in the crowd we haven't heard what Jesus goes on to say to the little group around him, about speaking in such a way that some are left 'in the dark', not understanding. Does that include us?

Even at this relatively early stage in his ministry, Jesus was well aware that his message inviting people to prepare for the coming of God's kingdom was not being met with universal approval. Not only was it irritating the religious establishment; it was also giving the civil authorities - the occupying Roman forces - cause for concern. But what was perhaps more unexpected, even among the ordinary people there was opposition brewing. Only recently he had preached in the synagogue in his home town, Nazareth; and his sermon had so incensed members of the congregation - people whom he had known all his life - that they dragged him from the pulpit and when they got him outside the mob became so enraged he only just escaped being lynched! Clearly the Jesus they had encountered in their worship that morning had not struck them as gentle, meek or mild!!

Jesus is now faced with something of a dilemma; and it was time to share this dilemma with those who had committed themselves to his cause - the numbers of whom were actually decreasing? Jesus' dilemma is this: Unpopular though some people are finding his teaching and preaching, he feels he must go on. There are more places he must visit, there are more people he wants to reach. But he will have to be a bit more circumspect. Despite the opposition, and the disappointment of people drifting away, some people are getting the message, some are catching the vision, and seeing how things could be different - imagining how they themselves could be different. These people look and do see what he is driving at; when they listen, they get the message. For them he must go on. And what's more, he believes this is what the Father wants him to do. This is what he was born to do. But he must be careful…!

But he cannot blunt the cutting edge of his message. Possibly at this stage he was already aware that a showdown would eventually be inevitable. But until then he would carry on…, and yes, true to the rabbinic tradition in which he had been brought up, he would use parables, images and figures of speech, stories that people could relate to. And those who wanted to hear, those with ears to hear, they will take heed. Those who have caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of what Jesus is on about, they will respond accordingly.

For those who are threatened by what he has to say; for those who feel they have just too much to lose; for those who for whatever reason don't want to change or are fearful of being changed, they will resist. They will steel themselves against his message; and if that means a showdown - then so be it.

That's what's being played out in the parable of the sower (and many of the other parables). Jesus was the last in a long line of messengers and prophets whom God sent to bring his people back to the way of truth, of justice for all, of compassion, the way of selflessness, forgiveness, and peace. Other parables tell of messengers and servants who were not heeded, and were killed because their message was unpalatable. Then, so the story goes, the king, or the lord, decides to send his son - and of course we know what happens to him! And we know, paradoxically, that in his rejection, the kingdom comes to be established.

The parable of the sower is in the same vein. Jesus is God's messenger, who has come to spread the word. Some of the seed does not germinate; it fails to bear fruit. There are those determined that it doesn't bear fruit! But God's prophetic, subversive message of upheaval and transformation will prevail, producing a great harvest. Those for whom the unfolding of that scenario is to be resisted will close their eyes, block their ears and harden their hearts. Those for whom that message is Good - even though unsettling - News will join Jesus the messenger in his prayer: "Our Father, … thy kingdom come!"
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