I started the previous post with a story about Paula Deen’s restaurant. My wife, Barb, wondered what that story had to do with the rest of the posting. I said, “Not much, except for the word ‘heartburn’.” It was the only story that came to mind to lead off the post. I’ve learned from great communicators to start a talk or writing with a (hopefully) good story that draws people in. Are communicators manipulative? I don’t think so. I suspect they speak to our hearts. We always like a good story, whether in a book, movie, or sermon. Good stories draw us in and engage us.

I have been working my way through the Gospel of Mark as of late. I recently arrived at chapter four and The Parable of the Sower, as the heading in my Bible indicates. It was the first parable that Mark chose to include in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. The realization that this was the first parable in Mark caused me to pause and think about parables a bit. It’s my understanding that nearly one-third of the teachings of Jesus’ recorded in the Gospels are in the form of parables or parabolic statements – upwards of 60. So some pondering might be of value…

It seems that parables were Jesus’ preferred way of teaching, especially in public venues. Jesus was a good story-teller. Actually, Jesus was a great story-teller. We might be well aware of many of his stories – The Sower, Good Samaritan, Mustard Seed, Hidden Treasure and Pearl, to name a few. Primarily, Jesus’ parables, his stories, point to God – his character and the nature of his kingdom. Parables help bring clarification to the reader or hearer.

I don’t know about you, but as I have read the parables over the years, they have not been especially clarifying regarding the nature of God and his kingdom. In fact they have often left me scratching my head in confusion. In addition, Jesus regularly concluded parables/teachings with a statement like, Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear – further adding to the confusion. I have ears but am not always understanding!

I know I am not alone in this – I suspect you might be in the same camp. As apparently were his disciples – even the Twelve, his inner circle. They indicated as such. In the Parable of the Sower they pressed Jesus to help them understand. Further confusing the issue, Jesus seemed to indicate that understanding was primarily reserved for the insiders.

Assisting me in my journey through the Gospel of Mark is Jim Edward’s commentary. Edwards agrees that Jesus’ parables, though reflective of real life, are not simple or easy to understand. I have always wondered how the first century hearers dealt with the open-endedness of Jesus’ parables. I suspect they went away saying something like, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way.” They probably went away pondering and discussing with their friends the meaning of the story – which I suspect was Jesus’ intent. He was helping them develop ears to hear!

Parables are often considered allegories, but Edwards suggests otherwise:

An allegory can be understood from the “outside,” but parables can be understood only from within, by allowing oneself to be taken into the story and hearing who God is and what humans may become.

Please take a moment and re-read the quote from Edwards. This may be why Jesus intimated that parables might be more understandable to the insiders – to those who were beginning to “get it.”* And who, in the early days of Jesus’ ministry, were beginning to get it (the operative word being beginning)? Those who had spent the most time with Jesus!

There we have it! As we spend more time with Jesus, the parables will begin to become more clear and make more sense to us. How do we spend more time with Jesus? Continuously reading the Gospels** and pondering what we read – alone (with the help of the Holy Spirit) and with others (again, with the help of the Holy Spirit). As time goes on, we develop ears to hear. We might find ourselves saying, “Huh. That was new. I’ve never heard that before or, at least, not that way” – in other words, Aha! Moments.

* Over the years, I have pondered and discussed with others how to define “get it.” My best shot do far: If we “get it,” no definition is necessary. If we don’t “get it,” no definition will suffice.

** ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!

Seed Scattering

Recorded in Mark 4 are two of Jesus’ agrarian-related stories (parables). The first one is about sowing seeds in God’s economy. The kingdom message is sown indiscriminately in all kinds of soil – rocky, gravely, and good soil. Since we tend to be people focused on outcomes, we have terribly moralized this story with a focus on trying hard to be good soil, entirely missing the point of the story. Wanting to continue our conversation about doing right things, we are going to turn our attention to the second seed-sowing parable in Mark.

In first century Israel, farmers did not prepare the seedbed in any manner close to the way it’s done today. Same when planting seeds. In the first century, the farmer found a plot of ground capable of growing a crop, scratched the surface with primitive tools, and then threw seed randomly over the “prepared” soil. This seed scattering is what the first Mark 4 parable is all about – some seed landed on the road, some landed on less favorable soil, some among weeds, and a majority (presumably) of the seed landed on the prepared seedbed.

Because of the tendency to moralize Jesus’ words, the second seed scattering parable gets overlooked. It’s short and can be found in Mark 4:26-28:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

Back to the Hinkle farm. Each spring, after preparing a good seedbed (doing right things) and sowing seeds in a meticulous manner (doing things right), my dad used to say something to the effect of, “Well, not much we can do now. It will be interesting to see what kind of crop we end up with.” That’s the exact point of the parable! The farmer sows the seeds and goes to bed! And all by itself, the soil produces grain. In the margin of my Bible, I jotted, “And all by himself, God can…”

Through the centuries, God has enlisted his people to be the seed sowers in his kingdom. As Christ-followers, we are kingdom people with one basic job – scattering seeds. Reading these two parables, it appears that we are to do this randomly, intentionally, and indiscriminately. The rest is God’s job. All by himself, God can produce fruit. This is what doing right things is all about!

Next week: I will share the contents of an email that a friend of mine, Mark Johansson, wrote to a friend of his after a conversation over dinner. His little epistle is focused on this parable. It is one of the most freeing things I have ever read! You will not want to miss it.

Doing Right Things

After reading the last post, you can probably surmise that my dad did things right. We had the best crops in the area with rows straight as an arrow. My dad loved driving down the field roads admiring the crops. We stacked hay on the hay-wagons with perfection – exactly 105 bales on each wagon load. We had a premier dairy herd, finishing 1968 with the highest producing herd in the state of Minnesota. And he had only been a dairy farmer for 17 years. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, right?

In fairness to my dad, his success as a farmer was directly related to the fact that he did right things. Anyone can plant corn in straight rows. But my dad was a good steward of the land. He applied humus (manure) to the soil, working it in to prepare a good seedbed. He was also a model conservationist. He rotated crops and allowed land to rest every seven years – a long-lost conservation practice. He treated the cows in a similar manner – allowing plenty of rest between lactations. Doing right things led to his agrarian success. So, how does this apply to our faith journeys?

Jesus told a lot of agrarian-related stories (parables), many focused on doing right things. Living in a highly agrarian culture, his followers were able to understand. Though our culture isn’t agrarian, we can certainly glean (no pun intended) from his stories.

The last post intimated that the Jesus way of doing life entailed doing right things, contrasted with the first century religious leaders who focused on doing things right. Grace versus law. First things first. We also suggested that we westerners tend to focus on doing things right, focusing on second things (and I would suggest western Christians are no different than others).

Did you know that the main topic of Jesus’ story-telling focused on the kingdom of God? Of the 34 parables recorded in the synoptic gospels (Matthew,* Mark, and Luke), 19 address the nature of the kingdom of God and/or life in the kingdom. Likewise, did you know Jesus’ primary message to his hearers was focused on the kingdom of God? Many don’t. In fact, while preaching at a “bible-believing” church a few years ago, I talked about this focus of Jesus. I was inundated after the service by a number of longtime parishioners indicating this was unknown to them.

With an understanding of Jesus’ focus on the kingdom, Matthew 6:33 makes a lot of sense – seeking first God’s kingdom and the associated righteousness. First things, doing right things. Then (and I would propose, only then) would the things we need for living be provided by Him. What does it mean to seek God’s kingdom? That’s a conversation for another post. However, here’s a hint: Jesus wasn’t talking about Heaven.* Meanwhile, as you read the Gospels, pay attention to how often Jesus talks about God’s kingdom and listen to what he is really saying. You might be surprised!

* It’s important to understand that Matthew used the term “kingdom of Heaven” which scholars agree equates with “kingdom of God” language used by Mark and Luke. However, this distinction may have led people to view the kingdom of God as simply Heaven. NT Wright suggests (a bit tongue-in-cheek) that this view might have been perpetuated by well-meaning people, intent on reading the Gospels, who started by reading Matthew first and quit part-way through, thus never encountering “kingdom of God” in Mark or Luke. 😉