The Puzzle of the Parable

Mark 4:1-20
January 26, 2020   
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In my preaching and in my bible studies, I have often said that the disciples were a bit dimwitted, and have on occasion gone to the extreme of referring to them as dummkopfs, dunderheads, or dolts.  (Have you ever noticed that most of the words describing a person’s ignorance start with D?)  Now, of course, sometimes I am just exaggerating the dimness of the disciples for the sake of a good story, but here by the shore of the sea of Galilee, the Twelve are undoubtedly dense.  Jesus is teaching the crowds and he tells them this parable: “Listen, a sower went out to sow,” he begins and then he proceeds to tell a pretty simple tale about some seeds that die and some seeds that grow depending on where they fall on the earth.  I don’t know about you, but of all of Jesus’ parables, I find this one of the sower and the seed to be the easiest to understand.  Later in the gospel we will get to some parables that are more complicated to analyze, or at least more difficult to accept, but this one of the sower and the seeds is so straightforward that it is in almost every Sunday School curriculum because even a second grader can get the gist of it.

“A sower sowed some seed.” Jesus said. “Some was eaten by birds, some withered because it didn’t have roots, some got choked by thorns, and some fell on good soil and flourished.”  Preachers, myself included, have spilled a lot of ink on the analysis of this parable for the sake of filling time in the pulpit but I don’t think it takes a doctorate in biblical studies to perceive that Jesus is describing discipleship and that he is telling us — warning us? —  that no matter how good intentioned we might be, good intentions will not be enough.  The road to God’s realm is a long one and between the planting and the harvest, it’s easy to become distracted, turned aside by temptations, encounter resistance, or simply find that your initial passion didn’t have very deep roots and has dried up.  In other words, in the fate of the seeds, Jesus has described us to a T.  

“We see it over and over again,” Jesus says.  “People have the seed planted in them: they hear a speech by Greta Thunberg, get all fired up, and commit themselves to combatting climate change, or they are moved by a sermon and decide to devote every night to prayer and bible study to really become a better Christian, but then one day, they wake up and its sleeting, and gloomy, and they didn’t get a good night’s sleep, and they don’t have the energy to go to that meeting on climate change or to spend a half hour reading the Bible so they watch the Bachelorette instead.  And the weather continues to be dreary, and inertia sets in until after a few days the fate of the Bachelorette is way more interesting to them than the fate of the planet or their prayer life and the seeds that were planted wither and die.  And so it goes,” Jesus tells the crowd, “There are hundreds of people hearing my words, and a lot of you are going to go from here all fired up and ready to commit yourself to God’s work of justice and grace but few of you will be with me in the end because good intentions are not enough.”

I think that Jesus’ point in this parable is pretty clear; it’s just about as easy to understand this parable as the parable of the Good Samaritan — which is don’t turn away from those in need — or the parable of the Prodigal son — practice forgiveness.  As with any story, a parable can contain layers upon layers of meaning that will take you deeper than those simple conclusions but at the same time, the beauty of a good parable is that if you never go any deeper than that obvious point, the lesson will still be a good one.  Sure, we could peel back the layers of the parable of the sower today and I could point out, for example, the delightful optimism of the sower who was willing to give every type of soil a chance no matter how bad it looked — but if I stopped right here, didn’t mention any of that, and left you with just what we tell kids in Sunday School about this parable — that good intentions are not enough — my sermon could be complete.  You don’t need me to dissect this parable for you: it’s meaning is as obvious as the nose on your face. 

Which makes the fact that the disciples didn’t understand it more puzzling than the parable itself. 

“When they were alone,” the gospel says, “the disciples asked Jesus about the parable… and he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable?’” 

What was going on here?  Had the salt air pickled the disciples’ brains?  Could they really have been that thick-headed?  (Ahh, finally, a synonym for dumb that doesn’t start with a D!)

Well, the answer to that question is no.  It’s fun to make fun of the cluelessness of the disciples in the gospel accounts but I doubt that the disciples were really as dimwitted as Mark makes them out to be because they did, after all, manage to start the Christian church and to carry the gospel to the ends of the known world which would have been pretty nigh impossible if the disciples were really as dopey as Mark makes them out to be.  Mark, however, overplays the disciples’ ignorance in order to show us something very important:  he wants us to see that here at the very beginning of things, when Jesus first started teaching, no one could really have understood the full meaning of discipleship.  How easy it was in those early days for men and women to pledge themselves to discipleship when all that was required was a bit of hiking around Galilee and basking in the popularity of their teacher.  The disciples had seen Jesus’ healing and they had heard Jesus’ teaching, but it would be a while yet before they got to what we know is coming:  before they got to Jerusalem where they would have to watch in horror as Jesus was hauled before the authorities, beaten by the soldiers, and nailed to a cross.  The disciples may have been able at this early point in Jesus’ ministry to recite Jesus’ pithy sayings about turning the other cheek and forgiving seven times seventy times but none of that teaching would become real to them until Jesus embodied those teachings when he stood firm before the cross.  Mark played up the ignorance of the disciples in the early part of his gospel because he wanted us to see ourselves in them. 

“Don’t fool yourselves like they did,” he told us, “and think that just because you can recite chapter and verse of Jesus’ teachings means that you know anything about discipleship.  Don’t think that just because you’ve said, “Here I am, Lord,” that you know anything about discipleship.  Don’t think that just because you’ve been plunged into the waters of baptism or marked with the oil of confirmation or raised your hands in prayers of praise or sung ten choruses of ‘Just as I am without one plea’ that you know anything about discipleship.  These twelve,” Mark says, “had to walk all of the way to Jerusalem with Jesus; they had to be covered in the shadow of the cross, and be reborn in the light of the empty tomb before they could come to know the full meaning of what it is to be a disciple of Christ.  They had to see Jesus’ teaching made manifest in his body, and experience the grace that he talked about bestowed on them even in their failures before they could really understand what the realm of God is all about.  Christianity is not about following a set of teachings;” Mark tells us; “Christianity is about following the teacher.  It is about walking side by side with Christ, even all the way to the cross with him.”

Among all of the world religions, Christianity is unique because it is an embodied faith.  It cannot be learned from a book, even if that book is the Bible, nor can we discover it through private meditation in our living room.  We have to see it lived out in the fullness of Jesus, in his hands extended in welcome to the tax collectors and prostitutes, and hear it in his voice as he forgives those who persecute him.  We have to see it in the heart of a man whose kindness cannot be extinguished even by the cruelty of the cross.  Good intentions will not sustain us for the long haul of life because it is so hard to really believe that grace has any power over the thorns and stones of the world; we have to see grace in action to believe the truth of it, and so God sent us Christ so that we may see him and believe.  God sent us grace enfleshed in this man to give us someone to hold on to, someone to fix our eyes on, someone to show us the way so that even when it is dreary outside and we didn’t get any sleep and our initial passion has burned out and we really don’t care about much else but the Bachelorette, we can reach out to Christ and trust that he will lift us off of our couch and breath strength and faith back into our weary hearts, bringing us to life again.  We need to see grace in the flesh so that we can become disciples in whom grace is enfleshed, for ourselves, for the world and for the long haul.

This past Christmas, Apple put out a commercial for their new iPad that was intended to tug at your heart strings.  Maybe you’ve seen it:  In the commercial, two young girls are riding to the airport in the car with their parents and when they begin to argue with one another in the back seat, their father hands them an iPad to keep them occupied.  In the next scene, the family boards the plane and before the kids are even buckled in, the mother says, “Where is the iPad?  Let’s find some movies for you to watch.” Soon the scene changes to another car ride: it’s night, the children are half asleep in the back seat, their tired faces lit by the iPad screen.  When the family arrives at the homestead, the girls’ grandfather greets the family but soon their parents usher the two girls into another room and hand over the iPad again so that the adults can chat around the kitchen table.  The next morning — it’s a long commercial — the mother says to the girls, “Now, keep busy this morning and don’t annoy grandpa,” and she gives them — guess what — the iPad to occupy them.  At this point in the commercial, we find out that the grandfather is struggling because his wife died recently, but apparently grief is not something for the young because when the girls walk in on a conversation about their grandmother’s death, their mother says, “Girls, why don’t you go downstairs and watch something?” and that stalwart iPad is pressed into duty once more. 

The commercial ends on Christmas morning and in a scene that is supposed to be heartwarming, the girls hand their grandfather their iPad on which they have made a video collage of old photos and times they spent with their grandmother.  At this point, you are supposed to shed a tear for the sweetness of the moment but for me the entire commercial is tragic.  While the video college made by the children shows the girl’s grandmother interacting with them in real ways with nary a screen in sight, since her death the whole family has become “disembodied.”  The girls are constantly pushed off into a virtual relationship with their iPad, and their grandmother’s love is reduced to memories and video clips.  If the parents had only put that iPad down and looked into the eyes of their children, shared their grief with them, talked with them about how to move forward as a family from that place of mourning, and hugged them tight, the love of their grandmother would have lived on as more than a memory.  It would have been given flesh in the continuing love of her family for one another.

The human heart cannot subsist on memories, on ancient texts, on intellectual teachings, on private reflection, and on academic theories about grace.  We need the warmth of real human hearts.  We need a human hand reaching out to us to help us stand.  We need a real human smile to fill our hearts with joy when we are tempted to despair.  We need to see with our eyes real men and women who refuse to give up on the world so that we might be inspired to likewise persevere.  We need to see Jesus take on the cross for us to show us that love is stronger than the worst of the world’s brutality and to prove to us that God’s grace is always victorious so that we do not need to be afraid.  We need to see God’s love in the flesh, and so God sent us Christ, God’s compassion and promise embodied for us, and called us as disciples to embody that same grace in our lives so that his love would continue to live through us. 

The disciples couldn’t know all of that so early in Jesus’ ministry when they listened to him talking about a sower and some seeds, but one day, they would hear the nails being pounded through his hands and feet for our sake, and one day their despair would be lifted as they discovered him walking by their side still that first Easter morning, and then they would finally understand.  Then, they would know that they didn’t need just the strength of their own good intentions to carry them because they would have Christ himself to lift them up and bear them forward.  

And as was for the disciples, so too it is for us.  When we understand that Christianity is God’s grace embodied for us in Christ who died for us and continues to live with us, carrying us farther than our good intentions ever could, then the full truth of the sower and the seeds will be revealed to us as well, and we will bear fruit, thirty fold, sixty fold, perhaps even a hundred fold.