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 farmer 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 worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires 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– thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
I’ve not been looking forward to these verses. The quote from Isaiah is one of the hardest pieces of scripture for me to understand, so truly, I’m questioning this morning, “Why, Jesus?” I’m okay if I don’t receive a clear answer because part of faith is clinging to the Person of Jesus and trusting that the Bible’s life-giving truth is not dependent upon my understanding (or lack of).
Why would Jesus want his words to be hard to understand, and thus salvation hidden from the common listener?
This parable is found in Matthew and Luke as well, and Matthew’s presentation of it offers insight. Here is Matthew’s relaying of Jesus’ explanation to the disciples (starting at 13:10):
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
Point one: The parable of the sower is about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ coming to earth was to bring God’s kingdom here–“as it is in heaven.” But the reality is that not all receive his kingdom, which is partly what this parable is saying.
Point two: We know from other passages of scripture that God doesn’t want anyone to perish. “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” (John 3:17). And consider Jesus’ words, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:39-40). Ironically, Jesus spoke these words during a particularly hard teaching after which many stopped following him.
Which leads me to the questions . . .
1. Are we yielded to the voice of the Holy Spirit? Because without this Guide, we can’t understand God’s words, and furthermore, we can’t follow him. One of the concepts of this passage, as we see in Matthew’s version, is that when we yield to the Holy Spirit and truly hear the Gospel, we are set in motion to hearing and understanding: Whoever has will be given more . . .
But the flip side is, whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. From the world’s perspective, the Gospel is foolishness. It is not only confusing; it’s a turnoff. And the more people turn from the Gospel, the harder it is to come back. Truth rejected is a seed that takes root, making the heart soil hard and impenetrable. In other words, good soil leads to abundance, and but bad soil takes the heart down a path of increasing hardness. So I ask . . .
2. Have you grown hard-hearted? It’s easy to consider Jesus’ explanation of this parable as categories by which we can file people we know. But this is not so. Gospel-response is a continuum, not a set of categories, and all of us move along that continuum during different seasons or situations of life. For instance, I might have a heart of good soil when I consider God’s instruction for controlling my speech and treating those around me with patience and love. But when I come up against a hard teaching, and culture wants to pull me in a direction away from scripture, is my heart good for Gospel seed or does it turn to the rocky path? You see, the dynamic between hard and soft heartedness is tricky. On the one hand, we see God hardening hearts (Pharaoh) but we also hear the imperative from the author of Hebrews not to harden our hearts. Thus, there is a human component to hard-heartedness and I think Jesus hits on that here in Mark.
Conclusion: God desires all to be saved. But because he’s given us the choice to choose or reject him, all will not be saved. However, this parable promises that good soil produces a huge crop, “thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” So even though Jesus quotes Isaiah about many not understanding, his parable promises that many will be saved–through the witness of those who receive his seed in good, fertile soil. But lest we take credit for having good soil, we are reminded that ears to hear is something given to us (verse 11) and not of our own doing.