Years ago, in the church where I was pastor, we had a telephone prayer chain. These were the days before the prevalence of texts and instant messages, so if there was urgent news and people needed to be mobilised to pray, the telephone prayer chain was the way to make it happen.
The idea was simple: the first person activated the chain by phoning the second person with concise details of what or who needed prayer. The second person made a note and went on to phone the third person. The process was repeated to the end of the chain by which time a small group of people were mobilised to pray.
One day we needed to pray for the friend of one of our members who was dealing with a serious health issue. The church member was called Watha and her friend was Ann. So the prayer was for “Watha’s friend Ann.” At least that’s how it started. For by the time the news reached the end of the chain, we were praying for Walter’s friend’s aunt.
I suppose it’s a spiritual version of Chinese whispers.
Communication can be a complex business. The pop psychology books remind us that the message which the sender sends is not always the message that she intended to send. And the message that the receiver receives may be different from the message that the sender has sent (or, at least thinks she has sent), and effectively quite far removed from the message that the sender intended to send.
Not to mention the fact that receivers can suffer from, or be guilty of, selective hearing.
Selective hearing can be a useful skill. If you are in a conversation in a crowded room, you need to be able to filter out the other conversations, along with the background noise in order to give full attention to the person who is talking to you.
It can also be a slightly devious ruse. We only hear what we want to hear.
I saw a Gary Larson cartoon about what people say to dogs. In the first frame a man is talking to his dog:
OK Ginger, I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!
The second frame is what the dog actually hears:
blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah…
No doubt there are wives who have diagnosed this condition in their husbands. You have had your husband come home with some breaking news he wants to share with you: the only thing is that he is simply telling you something you told him the week before.
The story that Jesus told about the sower who sowed seed on four different kinds of ground is a story about hearing. How do people hear the word of God? The question that emerges for us is what kind of listeners we are: how receptive are we when God speaks to us through his word?
That is the challenge that Jesus gives at the end of the parable: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The theme of hearing is quite significant in Luke 8.
In verse 18 Jesus warns the people who are listening to him to take care how they hear. Each time God speaks there is an opportunity to grow. Some people take every opportunity with both hands (or should that be ears?) and open themselves up to receiving even more. Hearing from God is like a spiral: each positive step opens us to receiving more and each negative step may lead to us losing even what we have.
In verse 21, when his mother and brothers have come looking for him but are unable to reach him because of the crowd, Jesus says that his mother and brothers and those who hear the word of God and do it.
And in verse 25, when Jesus has just rebuked the raging storm on the water, his amazed disciples comment on the fact that the wind and the waves obey him. Obedience is a form of hearing.
The story of the sower is quite uncomplicated in terms of what happens. Presumably no one in that rural setting would have had any trouble in understanding what the sower was doing. For all we know there might have been a sower at work within view of the crowds as they listened to Jesus.
But understanding the point of the story is another matter.
One of the problems in reading the parables is that many of us are already quite familiar with them. We know how the story ends. We know what we are supposed to think. We know the “right answer” to give on questions of interpretation.
But think how mysterious this must have seemed to the first audience. In fact, even the disciples didn’t get it. When Jesus had finished the story they had to take him to one side in order to ask him what all this was about. They couldn’t work it out for themselves. Once you have the key, it all becomes quite straightforward. It’s a good job for our sake that they asked the question: we have the key of understanding that Jesus gave them. The seed is the word and the four kinds of ground are four kinds of hearer.
Straight away we face an issue. Normally we tend to think that Jesus must have told stories in order to clarify his point. Many of us know preachers and Bible teachers who have the ability to tell a story, or craft an analogy that suddenly brings to life a seemingly obscure point. But that is not what Jesus is doing with this parable. In fact, as he explains to his disciples, he has spoken by means of this parable in order to throw a veil over what he is saying. Everyone will hear the words but not everyone will understand. Some people will hear without hearing. The kingdom lessons that Jesus wants to teach are not intended for the casual listener.
Hence the challenge that Jesus throws out at the end of the story: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
There is good reason why Luke gives us this as the first of Jesus’ parables. The key to understanding nay of Jesus’ teaching will be an open and attentive ear. In fact Mark’s version of the parable has Jesus telling his disciples that if they are unable to understand this parable, they are unlikely to understand any of the others. The meaning of this parable is key to receiving Jesus’ teaching.
While our focus naturally falls on the four kinds of listeners depicted in the story, we must not miss what the parable teaches about how God works in our lives. Obviously he works in many ways – through circumstances, through the influence of other people – but the parable makes it clear that he works to bring change and fruitfulness in our lives through his word.
Sometimes the Bible talks about God’s word in terms of it being a hammer that smashes rocks in pieces. Sometimes it is a fire that burns up wood, or a sword that is so sharp that it can discern our deepest motivations and intentions. Here it is a seed.
A seed contains life. Someone has said that anyone can count the number of seeds in an apple but only God can count the number of apples in a seed. A seed carries the potential for growth. Sometimes that growth goes unnoticed for long periods of time. Eventually it becomes clear for everyone to see.
A seed is also extremely vulnerable. As we will see in a moment, someone can trample on a seed. A seed can fall on the wrong kind of ground and become ineffective. A bird can swoop and the seed is gone.
The parable demonstrates both the surprising vulnerability of God’s word and its transforming, growth-producing power.