Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, but such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the beach, and he told them many things in parables.
He said, ‘Imagine a sower going out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on patches of rock where they found little soil and sprang up straight away, because there was no depth of earth; but as soon as the sun came up they were scorched and, not having any roots, they withered away. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on rich soil and produced their crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears!’
Then the disciples went up to him and asked, ‘Why do you talk to them in parables?’ ‘Because’ he replied, ‘the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to you, but they are not revealed to them. For anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case this prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled:
You will listen and listen again, but not understand,
see and see again, but not perceive.
For the heart of this nation has grown coarse,
their ears are dull of hearing, and they have shut their eyes,
for fear they should see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their heart,
and be converted
and be healed by me.
‘But happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! I tell you solemnly, many prophets and holy men longed to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it.
‘You, therefore, are to hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom without understanding, the evil one comes and carries off what was sown in his heart: this is the man who received the seed on the edge of the path. The one who received it on patches of rock is the man who hears the word and welcomes it at once with joy. But he has no root in him, he does not last; let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the word, and he falls away at once. The one who received the seed in thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this world and the lure of riches choke the word and so he produces nothing. And the one who received the seed in rich soil is the man who hears the word and understands it; he is the one who yields a harvest and produces now a hundredfold, now sixty, now thirty.’
Such crowds gathered around Jesus that he was in danger of being mobbed so he took up one of his regular stands. He got into a boat, moved out a bit from the shore, sat there and taught the crowds from the comparative safety of the boat. His teaching was as ingenious as his teaching methods. He taught in parables. He took some activity or incident and used it to illustrate a spiritual truth. This time, he took the example of the sower who went out to sow his seed. This was, of course the days before machines and long before the mechanisation or the industrialisation of agriculture. This was the Middle Eastern equivalent of the days of the bag-apron.
When he was asked why he spoke in parables, he replied saying that it was the only way of getting through to the people. They had become, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, coarse of heart. They were slow to understand, despite all they heard. They were slow to perceive, despite all they saw. They did not want to see. They did not wish to hear. They did not want to be changed, to be converted, to be healed of their coarseness of heart, to be given insight into the world around them, or to hear the truth that would challenge them. At the same time, he tells them they are blessed, for many wished to see the day of the Messiah and to hear him speak, but did not live to see it. Those listening had heard the parables from the mouth of the Messiah, the son of God, and had set eyes on their saviour, but the seed that was cast among them, like the seed in the parable, was destined for mixed results.
Parables are not meant to be explained but they do raise questions. The observation of Jesus of the abundance of seed that the sower needed, or the generous way nature sows its seeds, is an insight that is true to life. Many or most seeds fall into unwelcoming, infertile circumstances. The word of God, similarly sown, falls on deaf ears more often than it falls into the heart of a hearing audience. The insights of scripture or of creation are hidden to those who are the most blind because they do not wish to see all that is being taught to them in nature and creation and in God’s Word. Some seeds break into life through the concrete or the tarmacadam; some take root in unexpected places especially where we least expect it and, of course, some seed falls into a fertile soil and go on to bear much fruit. There is hope, especially when we remove the obstacles, when we clear the way and prepare the ground. When we open the eyes, unstop the ears and prepare the heart. Then the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled and the word of God does not return empty and succeeds in what it was sent to do.