By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
As you know, Jesus spoke in parables. It was a common way Jewish rabbis taught in those days, and Jesus followed the rabbinic tradition. Yet, to this day, we have a hard time understanding the parables, not because they’re difficult or complex; in fact, just the opposite: Jesus’ parables are simple and to the point, as plain as the nose on your face. It’s our tendency to read more into them than is intended that’s the problem.
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I had the privilege of studying the parables in seminary with Dr. William Farmer, who, at the time, was one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world, and I’ll never forget the first lesson Dr. Farmer taught us. He said, “A parable is a simple story, using concrete imagery, to make a single point.”
Simple as that: “A parable is a simple story, using concrete imagery, to make a single point.” Parables are not intended to be allegories (where one thing represents another). They’re not to be interpreted metaphorically. They’re not similes, or analogies, or paradigms, or riddles. A parable is a simple story, using concrete imagery, to make a single point … and, in the case of Jesus’ parables … a single point about the nature of the Kingdom of God. With that, let’s take a look at the first parable in our series, The Parable of the Sower. The parable begins, “Behold, a farmer went out to sow…”
Take it at face value. Sowing seeds was something Jesus’ listeners knew something about.
That’s how they planted their crops. They’d take a handful of seeds and cast them out over a small area of ground, as opposed to our modern planting drills that place individual seeds in straight rows at just the right depth, so many inches apart.
Sowing, by comparison, is unscientific, and, by our standards, an inefficient way of getting the job done. A lot of seed is wasted. Some seed falls on the hard ground and can’t take root. Other falls on the pathway and gets stepped on. Other seed gets eaten by the birds before it can sprout.
Other gets taken over by weeds and grass. Only a small percentage of the seed sown actually grows and bears fruit.
So, Jesus told this parable: The Kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow. And, as he sowed, some fell on the path, and the birds ate it up; and some fell on rocky ground and withered away; and some fell among thorns and got choked out; while other seed fell on good soil and brought forth grain – some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. In spite of everything, the harvest was plentiful! That’s the nature of the Kingdom of God!
And that’s the Good News we need to hear. Because, when you consider all the “seed” that you sow in the course of a day or a week or a lifetime – and all that goes to waste – you’re apt to get pretty discouraged. You might even begin to despair and wonder and ask yourself, what’s the use?
For example, what’s the use … of preaching a twenty-minute sermon when the average attention span is something like three minutes? I know lots of preachers who get discouraged preaching Sunday after Sunday. Does anyone really listen? Is anyone’s life ever changed for the better by what’s said in the sermon? If we dispensed with the sermon entirely, would anyone notice?
What’s the use … of inviting others to church when maybe one out of ten (if you’re lucky) accept your invitation? Most of our efforts for church growth fail before they get off the ground, not because there’s not enough potential church members to call on, but because we honesty don’t believe we’ll be successful. What’s the use? They’re all Baptists, or Church of Christ, or Catholics, or heathens.
What’s the use … of teaching children sound values and good manners when ninety percent of what you say seems to go in one ear and out the other? How many times a day do you parents ask yourself that question?
What’s the use … of giving to charities when so much is spent on the unappreciative and undeserving? Ever wonder about that? Some of the most cynical people I know are those who’ve been burned by trying – and failing – to help someone who’s down and out: “Why, that no-good, ungrateful, so-and-so.”
And the most negative people I know are those who are suffering burnout. We see this a lot in the church – caring church members and ministers give so much for so long they just don’t have anything left inside to give. And they wonder, what’s the use of doing nice things for others when so much of what you do gets discounted and overlooked and overridden by busy schedules or worse, chewed up in the gossip mill?
What’s the use? That’s the attitude you’re likely to take when you consider the percentages.
The Good News is that, despite the odds, God promises an abundant harvest:
“…Some seeds fell by the roadside…Others fell on rocky ground…
Others fell among thorns…Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit:
Some one hundred times as much…”
I often describe ministry as putting your hand in a bucket of water, then pulling it out – it’s hard to see what you’ve accomplished. But, then, you never know. Only one success, now and then, is enough to outweigh a multitude of failed attempts.
Consider this: Each of you has twenty hours in a day, but I dare say, you’re doing well if, at the end of the day, you can cite one thing you did that’s worth telling about.
You’re not alone. When you think about it, the greatest sluggers in baseball get a hit only one out three times at bat.
How many wanna-be opera singers do you think Pavarotti’s voice teacher coached?
Sometimes one out of a thousand makes the whole effort worthwhile.
Nature itself is governed not by the laws of efficiency, but by the laws of waste. In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes:
“If indeed (nature) has no greater aim than to provide a home for her greatest experiment, Man, it would be just like her methods to scatter a million stars whereof one might haply achieve her purpose. I doubt very much that this is the aim, but it seems clear on all fronts that this is the method.”
“Say you’re the manager of the Southern Railroad. You figure that you need three engines for a stretch of track between Lynchburg and Danville. It’s a mighty steep grade. So at fantastic effort and expense you have your shops make nine thousand engines … You send all nine thousand of them out on the runs. Although there are engineers at the throttles, no one is manning the switches. The engines crash, collide, derail, jump, jam, burn. At the end of the massacre you have three engines (left), which is what the run could support in the first place … You go to your board of directors and show them what you’ve done. And what are they going to say? ‘That’s a heck of a way to run a railroad.’ Is it a better way to run a universe?” (pp. 178-179)
Remember, an oak tree sheds hundreds of acorns a year, but less than a handful become trees; most get eaten up by the squirrels.
If this isn’t enough to whet your appetite, think about the Parable of the Sower in relation to your family and friends.
I once heard a woman say of her mother’s best friend: “She always remembered to send mom a card on her birthday. She’ll never know how much that meant to my mother.” Over the years you send a lot of cards, a lot of notes, a lot of good wishes. A few, perhaps, are cherished for a lifetime.
Here’s something else to consider: Your best friends are not necessarily those with whom you spend the most time, but those with whom you share yourself most intimately. Why is it that a boy and girl can go out on a date and spend several hours together, and neither can remember a lot of what they said or did, but that one moment when their hands touched or their eyes met, they can remember forever?
Think about the parable in relation to the Christian faith. Thousands of people heard and saw Jesus of Nazareth, but only a handful came to believe that he was the Son of God.
On the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us, three thousand Jews from all over the Mediterranean came to accept Jesus as the Christ, yet, what became of them? Most of them were never heard of again.
Finally, consider this: Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of men and women have studied the scriptures. Only a portion have written commentaries. Of the hundreds of commentaries written, pastors like me buy only a dozen or so. Of the commentaries they do buy, they read only the chapters that pertain to their interests. And of the chapters they read, they understand only a part.
And of that they do understand, they forget most of it in time.
It’s all such a waste! So many pearls of wisdom go unheard. So many acts of kindness go unnoticed. So many opportunities go unaccepted. So many blessings fall through the cracks. It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands and cry, “What’s the use of it all? What’s the use?” Well, before you throw in the towel, hear once more the Good News of the gospel:
“Behold, a farmer went out to sow.
As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside,
and the birds came and devoured them.
Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil,
and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth.
When the sun had risen, they were scorched.
Because they had no root, they withered away.
Others fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them.
Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit:
some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty.”
In spite of all the obstacles, God prevails. And the resulting harvest is abundant and plentiful for all.
Well, here’s the kicker: Jesus told this parable to a crowd of Jews gathered at the Sea of Galilee. Matthew says there were so many of them, he had to get into a boat in order to be heard.
We don’t know how many were in the crowd that day, but there must have been a bunch. Let’s be generous and say most of them were paying attention and got the point. The truth is, after Jesus finished teaching, most of them went home – or back to work – their lives unchanged. But a handful of those who heard him that day were touched in such a way that they would never be the same again, and they went on to become a part of the larger group of Jesus’ followers, and it’s through this handful of faithful witnesses that the gospel of Jesus Christ spread from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
In spite of it all, God comes through.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to us today. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.