If you are new to this series, you can read the introduction here.
Mark smiled as he noted the varied expressions on the faces before him: hope, curiosity, confusion. Much like the expressions had been on the faces of Jesus’ followers that day. “Later, when he was alone, his followers, along with the twelve, began asking him about the parables. And he was saying to them, ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of G_d; but those who are outside get everything in parables, in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven.'”
Rachel spoke up. “So the kingdom isn’t for everyone? Only ‘insiders’ get to know the secret?” She threw up her arms. “And what is the secret – or can’t you tell us if we’re ‘outsiders’?” Miryam rose from her seat to respond. “That is what I felt like when Yohannan first spoke of such things. But as I continued to listen, I slowly began to realize what Jesus had been saying. In quoting the prophet Isaiah I do not believe Jesus was denying the possibility of belief to ‘those who are outside.’ I believe he was saying that as long as they continued in their unbelief they would be excluded from further instruction in the mystery of the kingdom.”
“So what did they refuse to believe?” responded Rachel. Miryam’s face suddenly became luminous. “That the kingdom had come and could be witnessed in the presence of Jesus! But to see that – to understand that – requires faith, and a willingness to so something that our people have always struggled and often failed to do: to listen to G_d’s prophets. Jesus never spoke of the kingdom in the abstract, but as it was embodied in his own person.” She gestured around the courtyard. “And it is as we embody the gospel in our shared life that we bear witness to the kingdom of G_d.” Her face softened. “I suspect that it is not only the meal that draws some of us here each night.” Rachel looked down quickly, but then raised her head to offer Miryam a tentative smile.
As Miryam eased herself into her seat once more, Yiftach’s companion’s voice rang out across the courtyard. “If all it takes is faith, then why isn’t Jerusalem filled with members of the Way? Why are there so few of you?” Yiftach laid a cautionary hand on his friend’s arm, seeing the offense some had taken at his question, some muttering at this slight against their gracious host. Simeon rose to his feet, and gestured for quiet. “That is a good question. And an important one. And I think the parable we are discussing provides the answer. For Jesus also said to his questioners, ‘Do you not understand this parable? And how will you understand all the parables?’ If we fail to understand this parable, then we will not understand any of the other parables Jesus told – nor, in fact, the parable of his life.” Simeon gestured for Mark to continue.
“‘The sower sows the word,’ explained Jesus. ‘And these are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. And in a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away.’“ Mark turned towards Yiftach’s companion.
“The central act of the parable is the sowing: G_d is breaking into the world with the seed, the word of the kingdom. The first two scatterings of the seed represent those in whom the seed never takes root, so that their following is only temporary. The first group falls away because of Satan, whose opposition to G_d’s purposes was manifest in many ways during Jesus’ life with us, and continues to this day. The second group falls away because of tribulation and persecution – truly, suffering has caused many to defect from the Way. But it is perhaps the third scattering that sees the least response.”
“‘And others are the ones on whom the seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.’“ Mark turned back to Simeon, who nodded in response before speaking. “Why are there so few members of the Way? Why are there so many empty places among us that were once filled with family and friends? Is it because the word is difficult to understand? Or because it is difficult to receive a word that so profoundly challenges our commitments and loyalties? We hear the word in accordance with the space we occupy in the dominant social order, and respond accordingly. We may listen,” he looked directly at Yiftach’s companion, “but we do not hear.” With these words Simeon took his seat.
Mark spoke. “Jesus spends most of the time explaining the reasons why so few respond to the word and choose the Way of the kingdom. His concluding explanation almost feels like an afterthought: ‘And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.’” He surveyed the courtyard. “For most of our fellow countrymen, this kind of harvest is as unimaginable as the Messiah of G_d dying on a Roman cross. They cannot imagine the kind of kingdom that Jesus embodied. The parables are an invitation to experience a conversion of the imagination – to see the world differently. It seems that few are willing to accept that invitation.”
Rachel spoke up. “Then what a waste of seed! Why not just scatter it on the good soil?” Mark smiled. “Perhaps because it is only the harvest that reveals where the good soil is. And perhaps because all soil – all people – have the potential to be fruitful. Jesus spoke in many parables, and we will hear more of them when we gather tomorrow evening…”