“Hearing they may hear and not understand”. Sermon on the parable of the sower (Mark 4:2-12)

If we did understand anything, we would be capable of converting ourselves, and earn forgiveness. But this is exactly what we are not capable of. The good news is that God has mercy on us anyway – or perhaps rather, that this is exactly what makes it possible for God to have mercy on us. We cannot make ourselves a good soil, but God can.

Marten van Valckenborch – Parable of the sower (1580-1590)

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, seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest they may turn, and the sins may be forgiven them.” (Mark 4:2-12)

We have a natural tendency to make things revolve around ourselves. Often we read the parables of the bible as ‘law’ rather than reading them as ‘gospel’. The theme of the ‘law’ is, to put it in short, everything that human beings allegedly need to do in order to deserve God’s love. If we fulfill the law, we shall live, but if we break it we shall die (Rom. 10:5). But as it turns out, it’s not possible for human beings to deserve God’s grace and love – the purpose of the law is, in fact, to make us aware and convince us of our lack of abilities to save ourselves.

The gospel is, conversely, as Paul puts it, that God has sent his Son in Jesus in order that he may ransom us from the law by his death, so that he could adopt us as his children (Gal. 4:5). That’s the “secret of the kingdom of God”, which has been given to those who are called to be Jesus’ elect.

Or, perhaps, in other words, the secret of the kingdom of God is Jesus himself, who effects all this. He is the one that the disciples has learned to know as the son of God – the one who would put an end to the consequences of our lack of faith, our sin and death, by going into death himself. What we can’t and won’t do, God does for us, without conditions.

Now, the problem is, that we’d rather hear about what we can and should do. Perhaps because it gives us a feeling of being in control of things – perhaps we even sometimes experience a kind of freedom in thinking that we are responsible for our own salvation?

At any rate, when we hear a parable like that about the sower and the seed that falls into different kinds of soil, we are quick to ask, what our job then is. How can we be the good soil, where faith takes root and grows fruit, we might ask ourselves? How can we develop a clean soul, mind and heart, so that there will be room for God? This is the theme of much ascetic thinking and practice throughout history.

By thinking so we quickly become worried about how to develop a faith strong and good enough to make us right with God. It didn’t take long before Christians historically started thinking so. When Jesus explained that “wealth” and “desires for things” are the weed that choke the word (Mark 4:19), this could easily be understood as a teaching about how to develop the conditions for a strong faith by avoiding everything that had to do with material wealth and luxury. Rules for fasting and ascetic practices quickly became a part of Christianity – despite the gospel’s clear message that we’re set free from all those kinds of things.

But is this the right way to read the parable about the sower and the different kinds of soil? In the parable itself it sounds as if the seed, that is sown, is the word of God, and that we are the soil in which the seed lands. But in the explanation to the parable it sounds more as if we are the seed, and that our growth depends on the soil in which we land. At any rate, this is not essential. What’s essential is, that in both cases, nothing is said about our own will, practices and choice having a say in the matter.

Do we really choose what kind of ‘soil’ we want to be? Hardly if we follow the parable in all details. The soil does not choose what nutrients it wants to contain. The seed does not choose whether to be thrown on rock or in good soil, and neither does the seed choose its conditions for taking root. Where the seed is thrown depends alone on the one who throws it. From this perspective the parable is hardly an appeal for developing strong faith, fasting or engaging in spiritual practices. On the contrary, from this perspective the parable tells us that our faith and hearing is completely beyond our control.

Of course this is just one more interpretation alongside others. But then listen to what Jesus says immediately after the parable: “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!” (Mark 4:11-12).

There’s an important point here. When Jesus speaks in parables the purpose is not to ease understanding as a means of reaching those outside the kingdom. No, the purpose of speaking in parables is, on the contrary, that those who are not inside the kingdom, shall not understand at all. The purpose of speaking in parables is not – as we are apt to think – that the gospel needs fine wrapping in order to be easily digestible so that all may understand it as an appeal to free choice. No, rather the purpose of speaking in parables is that the gospel may be concealed in the hard shell of the law, as Clement of Alexandria did put it.

The word of God is revealed through its opposite (Luther). Grace is revealed as judgment, Christ reveals himself incarnated as a human being, the gospel hides behind the law. It takes faith to go beyond the hard shell of revelation. But – and this is the point – it’s not up to us whether we understand it or not. If it was, it would be up to us whether God would have his will or not. But it’s not up to us. If we ask: “How, then, can we have faith in God?”, the answer is, that we can’t. The sin from which we are saved is our lack of faith (John 16:9), our basic resentment against God and his word, which makes us incapable of understanding the gospel. Faith comes by hearing, says Paul, but we can’t by ourselves choose if we want to hear and believe the gospel or not.

When Jesus speaks in parables, it’s not in order to formulate his message in a way that everyone can understand it and choose whether to believe it or not. On the contrary, his purpose is that only those who God has chosen and given faith, may believe it. God’s word is not a theory that we can safely observe from a distance, but it creates itself the faith and understanding that God has planned (Isaiah 55:11). When someone hears the word of God, understanding may follow as well as misunderstanding, but in any case it’s not up to the one who hears, but to God’s purposes.

Now, the strange purpose of Jesus, when speaking in parables here, is to prevent certain people from converting and being forgiven. What a strange purpose! Often we seem to think that the gospel should be preached for all, so that all can have the opportunity to convert themselves and thereby enter the kingdom of God. But here the point is, that the secret of the kingdom of God is only given to those who are already “inside”.

Jesus quotes Isaiah when he says that “seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand”. A similar quote from Isaiah appears in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, when he says about the religious elite of Israel, that “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear” (Rom. 11:8). The explanation that follows  is really the key for understanding Jesus’ strange reasons for speaking in parables.

Now, Paul argues that the religious people who seek to be saved by works and by their own will and choice, will in fact not find what they seek. God rather reveals himself to those who do not seek him, says Paul. The purpose of saving people – “the gentiles” – by faith is to make it clear, that salvation is a free gift of God. Faith is not a condition for grace, which would then not be grace, but the instrument used by God for saving us, the hook, so to speak, by which he pulls us out of the mud. It is not us, but Christ, who is the author and pioneer of our faith, as it says in Hebrews (Heb. 12:2).

The final purpose of saving the gentiles rather than the religious is not, however, that the religious people, who don’t hear the gospel, may finally be damned because of their unbelief – while others are saved because of their god-given faith. No, the point is that God has hardened his elect people, Israel, in order that all the others may take part in the election that was theirs: “The salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and they will hear it!”, Paul exclaims in the synagogue, when the Pharisees turned against him, after he had quoted Isaiah’s words, that they would hear and understand nothing (Acts 28:28).

But Paul also makes it clear, that the purpose is not that Israel will be lost forever or be damned for eternity. On the contrary, the purpose is that the election of the gentiles will eventually be a way to reach Israel, so that finally all will enter the kingdom of God “in full”.  Paul concludes with his famous words, that God has shut up all under disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all (Rom. 11:32).

This explanation should shed some light on Jesus’ strange explanation to the parable of the sower. When Jesus speaks in parables, so that no one outside understands, it’s not in order that the outsiders may finally be lost because of their lack of repentance, but in order that God may eventually show mercy against them, so that they will thereby repent and be forgiven – not as a result of their own understanding and choice, but because of God’s kindness and mercy: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).

Notice, by the way, that the original Greek in the explanation to the parable of the sower does not say about the Pharisees that they may be “ever hearing but never understanding“, as it says in some modern translations (NIV), but rather that “hearing they may hear and not understand” (YLT), which at least opens for the possibility, that at some point – when God wills – they will hear and understand.

Mercy, when Paul talks about it, arguably means unmerrited grace – grace that does not depend on the conversion that follows upon human choice after having understood the word of God, but grace that is given exactly to those who do not understand, and can for this reason not choose and convert themselves.

This is what it means, when Paul says that “all” has been shut up under disobedience. No one hears, no one understands. Really? No one? Are all really disobedient? Even Jesus’ own disciples? Are they not the insiders, who has been granted at least some insights into “the secret of the kingdom of God”? Well, not if we follow Paul, when he quotes Psalm 14: “there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:11).

In the end it turns out, that not even the disciples understood anything of what Jesus told them: “The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” (Luke 18:34). If they had faith just the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains, said Jesus, thereby proving that they didn’t have any faith at all. Finally they all ended up renouncing him. Jesus died alone. But the people who renounced him were the exact same people, for whom he died.

We must admit that we are hardly any better than his disciples. If we did understand anything, we would be capable of converting ourselves, and earn forgiveness. But this is exactly what we are not capable of. The good news is, that God has mercy on us anyway – or perhaps rather, that this is exactly what makes it possible for God to have mercy on us.

We cannot make ourselves a good soil, but God can. We can’t save ourselves, but God can save us. By God’s help we can hear his word as gospel rather than law. Let’s pray that God will have mercy on us despite our lack of faith and understanding.

Amen.

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