Published on February 6th, 2020 | by Stephen Barrington0
Are you Listeneing? Mark 4:1-20. January 29, 2020 by Sean
Warmest greetings from South Wales.
In this week’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Mark 4:1-20, we find Jesus surrounded by such a huge crowd of people he climbs into a boat and pulls away from the shore a short distance to address everyone. It was probably on a stretch of coast between Capernaum and Tabgha where there is a natural amphitheater, so talking to crowds of hundreds or even thousands was perfectly viable. Jesus’ frequent method of public teaching was using parables – in fact, there are around sixty examples recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels. He took images and experiences from everyday life and built a story around them that would not just offer good advice, but be genuinely liberating and challenging in explaining the Kingdom of God. You didn’t need to be highly educated to understand a parable and they weren’t just intended for the religious elite. They had the potential to be accessible to anyone, but not everyone was open to what they were saying, so it is no surprise that Jesus begins with, “Listen” or “Hear this” – what he was about to reveal for those with ears to hear, would be transformational.
This parable tells the story of a farmer going about sowing his seed on his land. The local Palestinian conditions would have made for hard work in growing crops and there was no point wasting seed in places where it didn’t stand a chance of flourishing. But the farmer in Jesus’ story behaves quite differently, almost recklessly, compared to the local traditional more orderly methods. He is so indiscriminate he throws the seed on the path, amid the rocks and weeds, as well as in the places that looked more promising. Every corner was covered, but the odds were pretty discouraging and the initial results were disappointing. Shallow, dry or crowded soil prevented some seeds from flourishing – but where seed found good soil it flourished in varying degrees.
Amid cries of ‘you’re wasting your time in these dark corners’, where there are no signs of life, the message of the Kingdom of God was not restricted to the obvious places. As the seed was scattered amongst the rocks, the weeds and along the path, as well as the good soil, so Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God in all the unlikely places and in the company of unlikely people. As the farmer goes out to sow without discrimination, so Jesus goes out with the good news of the kingdom amid resistance and rejection. Sometimes however, what we think is the obvious good soil, turns out to be the shallow soil, and what we think offers little support for life, turns out to be fertile ground.
Some of the religious folk that listened in on Jesus’ teaching would have considered themselves good soil. They knew the history of their people, their journey of faith and pursuit of a righteous life. But as it turns out, for many of them their roots had little depth, they were far from being good soil. Most of them didn’t really want to engage with Jesus, their life of faith was little more than a performance for others, sucking up to political powers, keeping tradition alive, and keeping people in their place. For others, the seed of faith grows quickly and strong, but like the hot sun, which is not always fun, their faith has little inner conviction. It soon withers when the honeymoon period is over, when reality bites hard, and the old way still seems more attractive.
It’s worth remembering, the early followers of Jesus left everything to take the road with Jesus and by the time Mark wrote this gospel, persecution in Rome was getting intense. They took challenges like not serving both God and money seriously, but even for one of them, Judas, the love of money became a snare – a thorn in his side and spear in the side of the Lord. What had initially appeared to be surprisingly good soil, was in fact a lot shallower than first imagined. Sometimes the way of Jesus becomes lost when we feed our souls on the fast food of temporary indulgences and attractive deviations that seem to offer something better. Yet, there is also good soil out there. There are those who seek to understand, who forage for truth that goes far beyond an intellectual understanding. It is an understanding that demands a lifestyle commitment, a costly existence that finds its home in the Kingdom of God.
Having presented the parable, Jesus then gathers his disciples and close group of followers together and helps them truly unravel the mystery of what he is saying. It is ironic that these social ‘outsiders’ are now taken by Jesus and treated as ‘insiders’ – and those who consider themselves as the real ‘insiders’ are left outside. The disciples need to ‘hear’ that genuine discipleship flourishes, not because of what we can produce ourselves, but how we allow the sower and the seed of the Kingdom of God to flourish in our lives. It is all about the providence of God. We ‘hear’ and see these mysteries becoming clear when we remain in the company of Jesus – when we immerse ourselves in his teaching, in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Faith in Jesus is dynamic, it doesn’t stay still, it matures by hearing and bearing fruit. If faith becomes static and idle, we can wither and decay. The kind of soil we choose to be, depends on whether we truly want to keep company with Jesus or not, to hear what is being said, or not. To be an obedient disciple of Jesus is to be good soil.
The first part of today’s passage (Mark 4:3-9) helps us to understand Jesus. The last part (Mark 4:14-20), helps us to understand the meaning of discipleship, actually following Jesus. To really understand any of the parables of the kingdom, we need to know that what we think of Christ and discipleship cannot be separated. The challenge for any follower and community of Jesus, is to decide whether we want to be ongoing ‘hearers’ of the word, and whether we want to be receivers of this word and bear fruit – or not. The message is heard in every context, the challenge is what happens next? As card-carrying, colours wearing, followers of Jesus, we are not immune to going through periods of being shallow, having selected deafness towards the truth, nor being preoccupied with a more comfortable lifestyle. But we must never forget the gospel is dangerous and there will be times when it will hurt, a lot. Dare we ask, has our way of life become so comfortable, it’s more important than the demands of the Kingdom of God? That my friends, is a scary question.
We all face different challenges and we can all use excuses to bail out or stand firm. Even in this parable, the good soil produces varying degrees of crops; thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown. Followers of Jesus are not all the same and there will appear to be varying degrees of productivity, and to some extent, that is not within our control. What is within our control though is the desire to be good soil – to be a place where the teaching of Jesus finds a home, is watered and nurtured into fruit with strong roots. So, what can this flowering of fruit look like in our lives? This is where we can look at all the other parables of Jesus, and the rest of his teaching and be ‘hearers’, as he says, ‘listen up’.
For example, most people would acknowledge that it is wrong to murder, even the Pharisees knew that. But hearers of Jesus, know the mystery of the gospel that challenges us to not just kill, but to not carry hate within our heart. The Pharisees were hot on adultery catching too, but hearers of the word of Christ, are not even to be motivated by lust, nor treat one another as objects to be discarded. The challenge of the good news of Christ also includes a harvest of those who choose not to just love the likeable people, but those who can truly learn to love their enemies and love those who have a different point of view. These things can be a mystery and a struggle, but they are part of the harvest of discipleship that becomes possible in the company of Jesus. When we choose to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, the soil of our soul is dug up, raked over, and prepared to grow something new. Are we committed to that challenge?
Cheers and God bless,
Gyda chariad o Gymru,
Sean, International President, GSCMC South Wales, UK.