It seems as if Jesus can’t help himself. More often than not, he puts the fox among the hens. Just when we expect him to act in a certain way, he surprises us again with the unconventional and unsettling. In Chapter 14 of Luke’s gospel, for example, a large crowd follows Jesus. He turns toward them with urgency and heralds, “If anyone comes to me but does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children . . . he cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Oh, Jesus, I whisper under my breath, why on earth make things so difficult?
Luke 8 and the famous parable of the sower fall into this self-same pattern. Jesus speaks in parables. As in Emily Dickinson’s famous and over-used line, he tells the truth but tells it slant. Instead of speaking directly, he speaks indirectly with metaphors, images, and language which at first glance seems to obfuscate as much as clarify. Jesus, we ask, why not speak directly?
When I was in my final days of seminary, I preached through a series on Colossians at the church where I ministered. I worked hard on these sermons and saw this series as the golden opportunity it was. After one Sunday of waxing eloquent, or at least waxing something, a deacon from the church stopped me and said, “We sure do enjoy your sermons. I bring the Bible, and my wife brings the dictionary.”
I smiled at the half-compliment and chuckled it off. But Monsieur John Calvin was not happy with me that day. For Calvin, clarity and brevity marked strong preaching and writing. I doubt I was either on that Sunday morning.
Jesus gets high marks in this parable for brevity. The images used are familiar and to the point: a sower, seed, and various types of soil. One doesn’t have to be a farmer to associate with the parable. My wife and I (read wife!) planted an herb garden over the summer: oregano, basil, dill, sage, thyme, mint, and more. The herb garden took off like gang busters. In time, however, our cilantro became a bare spot among the healthy herbs. Some seed died. Some seed grew.
How does Jesus fare in this parable for clarity? Not too well, if we’re honest. Jesus tells the parable and then shouts out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What’s the implication of this challenge from Jesus? There are those who do not have ears to hear and will not benefit from the parable. The sense of befuddlement from the crowd, including the disciples, is palpable. The disciples inch their way toward Jesus and in effect say, “Excuse us, Jesus, but we didn’t quite get it either.”
Then the tide of the scene changes. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.” This parable is a kingdom parable, and Jesus reveals its mysteries to his own.
You may recall texts in the prophets like Isaiah 6 where God tells Isaiah he will be the means of deafening ears and blinding eyes. You may also recall, as we heard recently in a sermon from our own Canon Leighton, that Isaiah 35 paints a picture of the future day of the Lord, a day when eyes will be opened and ears made to hear.
In this famous parable, Jesus is enacting the promise of the prophet; Jesus is opening ears to hear the wonders of the kingdom of God. He is revealing the very Word of God, the Word that amidst bad soil can by God’s good providence find good soil, take root, and bear fruit. This parable unleashes a confidence in the Word of God to do its work in hearts and lives.
As C. H. Spurgeon famously quipped about the Bible, “I don’t defend a lion. I just let him out of his cage.” Well said, Mr. Spurgeon. And so it is with God’s written Word, uncaged for the sake of witnessing to the living Word, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mark Gignilliat is Associate Professor of Divinity (Old Testament) at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He also serves as Canon Theologian at the Cathedral Church of the Advent.