Slow Down: Parables at Work

Mark 4:1-25,33-34




As we continue through the season of Epiphany, we are noticing some of the features of Jesus’ ministry. Last week we talked about miracles. This week we are going to talk about his unique method of teaching with parables. Again this morning we are in the gospel of Mark. Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel because 90 percent of it shows up in Matthew and Luke, so it was probably a source those authors had when writing their gospels. Mark is also the shortest gospel and it doesn’t have any stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood. The whole book of Mark is punchy and fast, with Jesus is always on the move, teaching and healing, and his disciples struggling to keep up, especially with the teaching.

This story is in Mark chapter 4 verses 1 through 25. 

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The sower sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the anxieties of this age, the deceit of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear. And he said to them, “Consider carefully what you hear. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

<Then Jesus tells two parables, one comparing the Kingdom of God to seed that grows without the influence of human hands, and another that compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard plant that starts as a very small seed and grows into a very large plant, although horticulturally we don’t know of any variety of mustard that gets so big.>

Picking back up in verse 33: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

I sometimes hear people say that Jesus taught in parables, simple stories based in the real world, so that people could really understand. The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. In what we read this morning, Jesus literally says that he speaks in parables so that some people will not understand. And even the disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, need to have the parables explained to them in private. Parables are not simple; they do not have a direct one-to-one, this-equals-that correlation in the world. They are not designed to help people quickly and readily understand the message of Jesus, and that bugs me. I want people to quickly and readily understand the message of Jesus. I would like to be able to quickly and readily understand the message of Jesus. Because many times, I read this and I’m like, “What?!” Parables do not clarify things, at least not for me.

Friends we have been conditioned by the culture around us to expect that things should be fast and easy. And when things are not fast and easy, we dismiss them and move on. Which is exactly why parables are important. Parables are a spiritual tool that help us live counter-culturally by making us to slow down and think more deeply. Parables are a spiritual tool that help us live counter-culturally by making us slow down and think more deeply. And that is a very good thing, for us personally and for how we show up in the world.

Parables are designed to have multiple meanings. What I see is different that what you see and also different from what I may see the next time I read the same parable! And that’s the beauty of it. What keyed me into this idea is the parable of the lamp. Jesus says that the point of something being hidden is so that it can be revealed. He says, “Consider carefully what you hear. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and more will be added. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they have will be taken away.” Now at first glance this sounds like he’s talking about stuff, material possessions. To which we might say, yeah that’s definitely how it feels in our consumeristic capitalist system. BUT, right before this Jesus was not talking about “stuff,” so why would we assume that he has suddenly completely changed subjects? What if instead he is talking about what people hear? 

What if he’s saying, “Pay attention, and the more attention you pay, the more depth you discover. The more you tend to your spiritual life, the more hope and peace and joy and love grow in you. And if you don’t tend to it, it’s going to languish, and even what little you may have will wither.” The point of things being hidden is so that they can be revealed, so that we can experience revelation as we search for the hidden nuggets. The point of the wisdom of the kingdom being secreted away is so that we can grow in the process of discovering it. Things mean more to us when we invest something in the getting of them. Things are more valuable to us when they cost us a little something. That’s what parables are for. They are supposed to be a little off, a little confusing, because if we choose to slow down and think more deeply about them, that’s where the growth happens. That’s how we receive insight. 

Now let’s combine that with the parable of the sower. Do we always get what we put into it? Not always guaranteed. The parable uses the image of Satan snatching the word before it can take root and that seems to be outside of the control of the soil. So sometimes life is mysterious and outside our control. But what about the other options? Rocky soil yields shallow roots and when we experience trouble or persecution on account of the word, when we live the gospel and it doesn’t give us more personal comfort, safety, and power, when following Jesus is hard, if we don’t have deep roots, in those situations we will wither.

Soil that already has thorny plants growing in it is like what happens to us when we experience what the parable calls, 1. the anxieties of this age. Some of your translations may say, “the cares of the world” which sounds vague and overly spiritual to me. Another translation would be “the anxieties of this age” and I immediately feel like I know what it means to be overwhelmed by the anxieties of this age. 2. the deceit or lure of wealth. Well, yeah. That’s distracting for sure. And 3. the desire for other things. This one is so poignant for me. What we have received is the word, the same Word as John 1, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. We have received the word but sometimes we are distracted or overwhelmed by a desire for things other than the word. I’d rather watch TV than read my Bible. I’d rather check Facebook than pray. I’d rather have a lazy morning at home than come to church. I’d rather do sports than youth group. I’d rather fill my sense of emptiness with food rather than spending some time facing it in quiet meditation.

Listen, I’m not shaming you because I have done all of those things. And I hope most of you know me well enough by now to know that I reject the presentation of Christian faith that is always pointing out how we come up short. I am well aware that I come up short. However, as your pastor, I can tell you that when it comes to faith, for the most part, we do reap what we sow. God does not force God’s way into our life. Our sense of personal spiritual connection to the Divine requires nurture just like any other relationship in our lives. And if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the anxieties of this age by paying too much attention to things we can’t control, or distracted by the lure of wealth, or we just desire other things, we should not expect for our spiritual life to feel fruitful. I’m not saying you’re going to hell, that’s not what this is about and I don’t believe that anyway. I’m just saying, for the most part, when it comes to our Christian faith, we reap what we choose to sow. 

The beautiful flip side of this is that when the seed of the word is sown in good soil, the harvest is tremendous. I read this week than in a really good year a harvest would be 15 times what was sown. This parable says that the fruit that is produced in good soil when the word is sown is at minimum 30 times, which is double the best we could expect, and at maximum, it blows our minds. What does it take to have good soil? It takes intentional attention. In the stories of the Kingdom, small things always matter. That one choice to turn off the news or resist the advertisement to buy something you really don’t need? Adding some compost to your spiritual soil. That one choice to spend time in prayer or in the word instead of distracted by a screen? Tilling your spiritual soil. Choosing this week to make worship a priority? Fertilizer. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus affirms that seemingly small things contain everything needed for great growth. 

Let those who have ears to hear listen. Amen. 

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