Summary: The failure to live by the gospel is found in people’s hearts.
We come to our first parable this morning, so we ought to consider before we get into it, what is a parable? I’ll give you a starting definition. A parable is a picture with a point. The picture may be a story such as the tale of the good Samaritan. It may be an extended imagery such as the one in our text. There we have an imagery of seed growing. It is extended in that it is a fairly involved description of the process of planting and the results. A parable may also be a short imagery as we will have later on keeping a lamp hidden.
Now, these pictures have a point, or a moral. To put it simply, Jesus has a reason for telling each of them. Our task for each parable is to understand the point that he intends to make. That is not always easy for a couple of reasons. For one, contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not always tell parables to make his teachings easier to understand. A common complaint made against us preachers is that we don’t tell stories the way Jesus did. He knew how to tell a story that made sense; why can’t we? Undoubtedly Jesus was a masterful storyteller and no preacher would compare himself to Jesus as a preacher, but again, Jesus’ parables are not so obviously clear as they sometimes seem. Jesus uses common pictures of daily life in his parables that his listeners can easily identify with. A farmer sowing seeds, a fisherman catching fish, a shepherd looking for a lost sheep – these are images that people can readily picture in their minds. They, or we, think then that the point of the parable will be as readily made clear. But that is precisely where we get tripped up. Jesus tells a parable of common images not so much to make his teachings clearer, as to stimulate his listeners to think more deeply. The parable is intended to entice thinking, not resolve it. Thus, as Jesus concludes his parable in verse 9: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Let him think through the story to arrive at the profound meaning.
The second reason why Jesus’ parables may not be easy to interpret is that the parables by themselves are open to different interpretations. It is the context in which the parable is given that usually determines its main message. A good example is the parable of the prodigal son. When listening to that parable, most of us tend to identify with the prodigal son, the one who strayed from his father and yet was welcomed back. But if we were to consider the context of the story, we would know that the person Jesus intends for most of us as Christians to identify with is the older son. Luke 5:2 reveals that Jesus told the parable in response to the Pharisees’ self-righteousness. It is okay to identify with the prodigal son, but only after we first examine if we are more like the older son. Only the context would have given us such a focus.
The Hard Saying
All this sounds great if it were not for the hard saying of Jesus that Mark tosses in following the first parable:
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 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 12 so that,
”‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
If Mark followed verse 10 with verse 13, everything would be fine; but no, we’ve got this strange saying to cross over first. Verse 11 is somewhat confusing; verse 12 is downright offensive. Why would Jesus not give clearer teaching to those on the outside – those not in his inner circle – but instead reserve explanation for those closer to him? Don’t those on the outside need it more? And more unsettling, why would he prevent them from understanding and thus receiving salvation? Doesn’t he want them to turn and be forgiven?
First of all, Jesus is explaining what is happening, not what he is attempting to do. The secret of the kingdom of God (which is the gospel) has been given. That is an odd way of speaking. Why doesn’t Jesus just say, “I have given you the secret”? It is because he is speaking of the counsel of God which has determined to whom the secret will be given. Verse 12 substantiates this. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9,10 to show how prophecy is being fulfilled. Jesus is doing God’s will.