Have you heard about the middle-aged and somewhat troubled man who made up his mind to pay the doctor a visit? He went because he was distraught over his wife's adamant refusal to admit she had a hearing problem. The doctor promptly told him that when he got home he was to confirm the problem by opening the front door and from there asking his wife what's for dinner. Then, the doctor said, if she doesn't answer, move closer to the kitchen. Repeat the question again, and if she still doesn't answer, move right up to her ear and whisper in it, "What's for dinner, honey?" In this way, the doctor assured him, she'll have to admit she has the problem. So the man raced home with joy in his heart and opened the front door. "What's for dinner, honey?" he asked. When there was no reply he moved closer to the kitchen and asked again. "What's for dinner, honey?" No reply. When he looked into the kitchen, sure enough, there she was. So he tiptoed over to her and whispered in her ear, "What's for dinner, honey?" Immediately she turned and looked straight at him: "For the fourth time," she said, "we're having Spaghetti!"
There are times when we just don't "hear" that well, do we? Our spouse is talking to us, but we're a hundred miles away-sometimes even more, probably glued to the TV, fixated on the Lakers-Raptors game. And what's true in the physical realm is likewise true in the spiritual. There are seasons in life when we don't hear God very well either. Sometimes he has to say something, not four, but forty times before we catch on-and even then it's "touch and go." The truth is, when it comes to our heavenly antennae, there's a spiritual Edith Bunker in all of us. We're a fry or two short of a spiritual happy meal, a card or two short of a full deck.
Though I think our generation will go down as one of the most distracted generations in the history of the world, Jesus confronted this "hearing problem" in the first century as well. In fact, the bulk of his ministry was an attempt through love, sign, sermon, and warning to encourage people to listen. Praise God for the few who did.
Now the Parable of the Sower, recorded for example in Mark 4:1-9, is familiar to most of us. We often think of it as the Parable of the Soils because in it Jesus outlines four different responses to his message about the kingdom and compares them to four different kinds of soils for planting seed. It is arguably the most important parable Jesus ever taught. That this is true is evidenced by the fact that it really concerns entrance into the kingdom as well as life in the kingdom. And, insofar as it speaks to entrance into the kingdom Jesus was certainly correct to point out that if a person were unable to comprehend this parable, they would be utterly dumbfounded by his other parables (4:13). Based on how well you listen, you're either an insider or an outsider; "hearing" makes all the difference in the world!
So the "key" that leads to life inside the kingdom is simple: It involves the desire to listen well to Jesus' voice and to turn away from the competition. It is taken up with the passion to distinguish between his voice and the myriad of suitors, i.e., the cares of this world, the passion for riches, submission to the "worry-god," snakes, etc. Yes, of course, you do remember the last time we listened to a snake, don't you? When Jesus speaks, do we listen?
Notice the emphasis Jesus places on listening. In 4:24 He pleads with people to listen carefully to what they hear. Don't let other things distract you! But notice in Mark 4:3 and 9 how the parable itself begins and ends. It begins, like the shot from a starter's gun, with Jesus' prophetic summons: "Listen!" It ends with a fervent reminder and invitation/warning, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (v. 9). Here we have someone in the line of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the prophets, calling out to people: "Listen well! Listen well!" It is so vital that we learn to listen to God in all things, and especially when he's talking about eternal values and the proper response to Christ and his kingdom. Coming to God through scripture with a humble, prayerful, and praising heart is essential to listening well (cf. James 1:21).
Now Jesus had good reason to stress "listening." He has good reason today. In the immediate context in Mark we find several people and certain groups who are not listening very well. The Speaker has ascended the platform, but they're distracted with other people, things, coffee and doughnuts. They hear his utterances in the background, but they're really not distinct words. They're faint and droning sounds, not clear, crisp and ringing in the ears. As sounds they enter the ears; as personal invitations, they never make it to the heart, the control center.
We find the same phenomenon today, don't we? For example, if Jesus had healed you of leprosy, would you not have done whatever he commanded you ...without question or hesitation? But not so with the leper in 1:40-45. Jesus healed him and then the man immediately went out and did exactly what the Lord had told him not to do. In many ways this man is typical of the characters throughout the narrative of Mark's gospel. He is also typical of many of us who have received grace from the Lord and yet not done what he's commanded.
Again, not many in Mark's story are listening very well to what Jesus is saying and doing. They're not paying attention. Again, the Teacher is present, class is in session, but the students remain distracted by the kids playing outside the window. For example, the Pharisees and the Herodians-two otherwise disparate factions-unite to plot Jesus' death (3:6). The fundamentalist "right" lines up with the democratic "left" in a bold move to oust a common enemy! The teachers of the law from Jerusalem claim that Jesus' power is rooted not in his special relationship with God, but rather in his alignment with Satan himself (3:22-30). In other words, God himself "visits" His people-not foreigners-and they conclude He's in league with the Devil. Chilling, isn't it? Perhaps these religious authorities are good examples of the "hard" soil where the message never even penetrated an inch before Satan snatched it away. I wonder if we're ever so driven by our own agendas that we get to this point.
Further, and on a particularly sad note, Jesus' own family seeks to bring him under control for they fear that he has lost his mind (3:20-21, 31-35). Perhaps they represent the rocky soil, that is, after persecution, they fall away. The sandwiching of the "Beelzebub" story (4:22-30) in between this episode describing Jesus' family (4:20-21 and 4:31-35) is particularly revealing. Is Mark saying that Jesus' own family had more in common with those who opposed Jesus than with Jesus himself? The fact that Jesus redefines the true family of God in 3:31-35 seems to confirm this. In short, not many are listening very well.
Now my point in this discussion has obviously not been to explain the meaning of the soils. Why should I, when Jesus himself gave the proper rendering in 4:13-20? The point I wish to leave you with today is about "hearing." So then, as you read the Parable of the Sower, lay down your competing agendas, turn away the other suitors, and ask the Lord for a "listening" heart. Ask him for the grace to really hear from heaven. He may have some pleasant and wonderful surprises for you, not unlike the man who asked his wife what was for dinner. Come and let's see!
4:1 Again he began to teach by the lake. And such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there while the whole crowd was on the shore by the lake. 4:2 He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching said to them: 4:3 "Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. 4:6 When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have a root, it withered. 4:7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and they grew up and choked it, and it did not produce grain. 4:8 But other seed fell on good soil and produced grain, sprouting and growing; some bore thirty times as much, some sixty, and some a hundred times." 4:9 And he said, "Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!"
4:10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 4:11 He said to them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables, 4:12 so that although they look they may look but not see, and although they hear they may hear but not understand, so they may not repent and be forgiven." 4:13 He said to them, "Don't you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable? 4:14 The sower sows the word. 4:15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: whenever they hear, immediately Satan comes and snatches the word that was sown in them. 4:16 These are the ones sown on rocky ground: as soon as they hear the word, they receive it with joy. 4:17 But they have no root in themselves and do not endure. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately they fall away. 4:18 Others are the ones sown among thorns: they are those who hear the word, 4:19 but worldly cares, wealthy pleasures, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing. 4:20 But these are the ones sown on good soil: they hear the word and receive it and bear fruit, one thirty times as much, one sixty, and one a hundred."