Here we have a parable that seems really simple, and our opinion is reinforced by Jesus when he says to His inquiring disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?” Of course He already has put forward His usual challenge, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And when His disciples ask for clarification about the parables (plural), He makes one of His most troubling statements ever, quoting a verse from Isaiah (6:9) in order to suggest that those who are “outsiders” get everything in parables simply because it has only been given to the disciples to understand “the mystery of the Kingdom of God.”
But then, how much could Jesus really have expected even His own disciples to have understood? We still do not feel as enlightened about the Kingdom of God as we would wish when Jesus says that the Kingdom is like a man who casts seed on the ground and lets it grow on its own until harvest time; or the Kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree in which birds make their nests; or like a treasure hidden in a field; or like a pearl of great price; or like a master of a house who brings out of his treasure both what is new and what is old; or like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was all leavened; or like a net that fishermen threw into the sea, gathered all sorts of fish, sorted them out and threw away the bad ones. Taken cumulatively we get lots of hints and guesses about the Kingdom of God, but very little in the way of hard data or vivid pictures.
Yet Jesus did say to His disciples that knowledge of the mystery of the Kingdom was given to them. And, by contrast, it was evidently withheld from the outsiders, and here’s that unexpected twist: “so that seeing they may see and not perceive and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they turn again and be forgiven.” Isn’t this the very same Jesus Who said that He came to seek and to save that which is lost, and that He came not for those who are healthy but for those who are sick and not to call the righteous but to call sinners to repentance? Which is it: that they should repent or that they should not turn again and be forgiven? This is hard teaching, and very little light is shed on these critically important matters through the telling of parables and the qualifying remark, “Let those who have ears to hear, hear.”
What exactly did Isaiah say? He said that he was simply recording what God had said directly to him: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I. Send me!" He said, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.' Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed" (Isaiah 6:8-10).
Some prophetic message that was! It helps us not a bit to get closer to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. Isn’t our God a God of second chances? Yes, of second chances and then some. But He also is a God Who draws lines in the sand, Who by His very character as a righteous and holy God cannot let evil slide forever, a God Whose sense of justice requires judgment just as certainly as His sense of mercy requires forgiveness. So it is in our psalm this evening that we have two of the most beautiful verses in the whole of the Old Testament: “Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land. Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” But the psalmist has had to preface these incredibly special words with three questions addressed to God:”Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not Yourself revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your lovingkindness, O Lord, and grant us Your salvation” (Psalm 85:5-7, 9,10).
The problem in Isaiah is that God’s people had wallowed so long and so deeply in apostasy and immorality that it was time for judgment. Isaiah’s message was no longer intended to promote repentance but rather to convict his hearers that their time was up and that God’s impending judgment was altogether just.
That may be precisely what Jesus is saying to the vast crowds that came to watch His miracles and hear His teaching. For those who had eyes to see the power of God at work and had ears to hear the truth of Messiah’s message, there was indeed the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. But for those who had rejected Him in their hearts, there remained only the awareness of judgment and of the lost opportunity for turning again and being forgiven. There is nothing more condemning than to hear true words that are meant to bring life and yet not to be able to understand anything that is being said. Therein may lie a deep sense of conviction, but it may not result in a true turning away from sin and of turning to Jesus Christ as Savior, as God’s Messiah.
And so, assuming for the moment that every one of us truly has had ears to hear, what exactly is our parable saying? Doubtless all of you could give the right answer without hesitation. Worst case scenario you could just read back the explanation that Jesus gives to His disciples. It seems completely straightforward. Does it help with Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah? Let’s dig deeper and see if we can find out.
This used to be called the “Parable of the Seeds,” but now is more commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Soils,” probably a better name for it since presumably all the seeds were exactly the same and so was the sower. That is very important, because we have just eliminated two variables from the equation. The more important of the two for our purposes is that there is but one sower who is out doing the work God has called him to do.
We could get lost in the wrong details and say that this sower, who scatters his seeds indiscriminately, is not particularly bright and that he definitely needs a graduate degree in agricultural engineering. But when we turn to Jesus’ explanation of the parable, we understand that the sower is not sowing seeds but the Word, the Word of God, the Word concerning Jesus Christ. The sower is you, or at least it should be! It’s our responsibility to be sowers of the seed of God’s Word and perhaps God even intends that we should be sowing it indiscriminately. And we may not need an advanced degree in evangelism or apologetics in order to be God’s sowers.
Are the results completely arbitrary? If so, should this discourage us from getting starting in the Word-sowing business? Whose responsibility is it to be sowing? Obviously it is ours. But whose responsibility is it to see that there is some fruit-bearing at the end of the day? That seems to be the responsibility of a sovereign God Who knows His sheep and calls them by name, to mix metaphors unabashedly. God knows the soils; God knows the activity of Satan in grabbing the Gospel message away from the fresh convert; God can tell the truly converted from those who simply get caught up in the moment by a charismatic preacher and a persistent and persuasive altar call; God knows those who give evidence of conversion but who are so distracted by the cares of the world as to become altogether unfruitful; and God knows those who are the genuine article, whose hearing and acceptance of the Word will bear fruit exponentially.
And there we have it: the all-knowing God made a covenant with His people through Abraham, renewing it at regular intervals with others among Israel’s leaders and delivering them not only from the Egyptians but also from their enemies in the Promised Land. Then, when they repeatedly went astray and broke the very explicit terms of the covenant, God in His longsuffering sent prophets to spell out exactly what their fate would be if they did not repent and return to the Lord. Yet again and again God’s people rejected the prophetic word and continued in their apostasy and immorality.
What was the result? Eventually it came to be precisely the way God told Isaiah it would be: ““that seeing they may see and not perceive and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they turn again and be forgiven.” So it was that first the Northern Kingdom rejected God’s prophetic Word through Isaiah and were carried off into captivity in Babylon, and then the Southern Kingdom rejected God’s prophetic Word through Jeremiah and were carried off into captivity in Assyria. Yet God in His great compassion heard the voices of His faithful servants and brought them back into the land. Is our God a God of second chances? Yes, of second chances and then some.
Seeing that His people were in need of something more than a prophet, He acted once again by doing something incomparably dramatic and powerful. According to the writer to the Hebrews,
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, Whom He appointed the heir of all things, through Whom also He created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the Name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:1-4).
Once again God knew the end from the beginning. A sovereign and omniscient God is like that. But only a deeply compassionate God, longsuffering and full of lovingkindness, would do that: sending His own Son so that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.
His Son came into this world in a miraculous fashion, born of a virgin, heralded by angels, worshiped by shepherds and wise men from the East and lovingly raised by Mary and Joseph until it was time for His public ministry to begin; attested to by one miracle after another and coupled with the most powerful preaching and teaching anyone had ever heard, or ever would hear!
And what sort of reception did He get? The same as in our parable. There were those who heard His Word but were snagged away by Satan. There were those who received His Word with joy, but lacked depth of conviction and, as soon as any opposition came along, they fell away. There were those who heard the Word with some measure of approbation, but were so distracted by worldly things that for them the very powerful Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword became unfruitful for them. But, God be praised, there were those who, hearing and accepting the Word, bore fruit dramatically so that God’s Kingdom on earth could grow by leaps and bounds.
So we have several categories of hearers for whom the Word was ineffectual and only one category for whom it was abundantly efficacious. What did Jesus have to say about those percentages? He told His disciples, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven” (Mark 4:11, 12). It’s the way it was in Isaiah’s day; it’s the way it was in Jesus’ day; and it’s the way it is in our day.
We are not to get caught up in the numbers game. But we are to remember the very last words that Jesus spoke before His ascension to the Father’s right hand: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are responsible to be sowing seed, the seed of God’s Holy Word, and to be doing it indiscriminately. We leave the results in God’s hands, not failing also to remember the Great Commission that says these newbies in the faith are to be baptized and discipled.
How can we become indiscriminate seed sowers? All of us could invite others to join us in Bible Study or Evensong or our respective Sunday morning worship services. We could have events in our homes where faith testimonies are shared. We could speak more freely among our daily contacts about our faith rather than leaving them to “get it’ by osmosis if they just happen to notice something different about our lives. We could go to Haiti or Waukegan or Palatine to do short-term missions of one sort or another. We could devote more of our time to prayer, study of God’s Word and volunteering for outreach ministries through our local churches. We could give more generously to the work of God that others are already doing, even pondering what a true tithe would look like. We could “let the word of Christ richly dwell within us, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in our hearts to God.” And “whatever we do, in word or deed, (we could) do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:16, 17).
If more of God’s people were truly committed to these spiritual priorities, to being “difference-makers” for the proclamation of the Gospel, we would see the sort of growth in the Kingdom that is supposed to usher in the reign of Christ on earth. We have no specific notion of the time that this will happen, but we do have our marching orders for what we should be doing while we wait. There is no room for passivity. Let others know what is happening in your lives spiritually and invite them to be a part of it through the saving grace of Jesus Christ so that they, too, may come to be among those to whom “has been given the mystery of the Kingdom of God.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen