“Are You Listening?”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 55:10-11
Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

The late Cardinal Cushing once related an incident that occurred in his younger years when he was a parish priest. He had been summoned to give last rites to a man who had collapsed. Following the custom of his church, he donned his stole, knelt down next to the man and asked, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?” The man opened one eye, glanced at the crowd which had gathered, and said, “Here I am dying, and he asks me a riddle.” Jesus came to a confused, lost and dying world and taught the knowledge and secrets of the kingdom in parables.

This Sunday’s Gospel Lesson contains a story that Jesus named “The Parable of the Sower.” Apparently, the disciples could not make heads or tails of it. They asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He eventually got around to explaining the meaning of the story. Some scholars think that the explanation was actually supplied by either Matthew or Mark (there is a kind of chicken and egg controversy regarding the two books), and that the other Gospel authors simply tacked it on as well. One reason for this assumption is that the explanation seems to turn the story into an allegory rather than a parable.

In the New Testament, the word “parable” is applied to a variety of figures of speech. Teachers of literature would want to subdivide many of them into categories like simile, metaphor, allegory and the like. A simile is a comparison or contrast usually introduced with either “like” or “as.” Jesus told the Pharisees that they were “like” whitewashed tombs. A metaphor doesn’t bother with pointing out the obvious truth that the subject is in reality something quite different from what it is said to be. For instance, Herod was not a furry, four-legged animal, even if Jesus did call Him a “fox.” (Jesus was not saying that Herod was pretty either, as the contemporary use of fox or foxy might suggest.) Similarly, if someone says, “She is the apple of my eye, the flower of my life,” we know better than to search the house and garden for fruit and flora in order to find some female vegetation.

It is probably an oversimplification, but a teacher once told me that a parable is an expanded simile, and an allegory is an expanded metaphor. Parables and allegories are narratives or stories. The principal difference, as I understand it, is that in an allegory, several properties and circumstances of the original subject resemble those of the figure. In a parable, the point of the story is the only real point of comparison. Other similarities are merely incidental. In other words, a parable is a story that forcefully illustrates a single idea. What I am about to say will probably make those who taught me all this stuff pull out their hair, but when an allegory winds up hammering home a single idea, rather than a bunch of little ideas and comparisons, it is probably better described as a parable.

Now, what does all this have to do with the story of the sower? Well, let me begin by saying that this is a very popular story. Consequently, it has been subjected to considerable scrutiny and numerous interpretations. Liberal scholars notwithstanding, I am convinced that Jesus Himself opened up this possibility by very uncharacteristically offering an explanation. Before I go into some of the interpretations, let me recap the story. A farmer went out to sow seed and the seed landed in four places:

  • Near or on the pathway (where it quickly became bird food).
  • On shallow soil with rock just beneath the surface (where moisture quickly evaporated leaving the young plant to dry in the sun).
  • In a weed patch (where the thorny uglies strangled the new plant).
  • On rich soil where it did what the sower had in mind in the first place.

Jesus says that the seed is the Word of the kingdom. The hard soil is the person who won’t let it in at all. The rocky soil is the person who lets it in only enough to think it over and then soon forgets about it. The weed patch is the lure of riches and worldly stuff which chokes out the Godly stuff. And the rich soil is the person who hears, understands, believes and produces fruits of the kingdom.

A longtime standard interpretation is that just as the farmer, at harvest time, must expect varying returns on his activity, so God will find varying responses to His Word at the time of judgment. Another popular interpretation warns converts to guard against attitudes that will undermine the sincerity of their commitment. Some people look at the story from the viewpoint of those sowing the Word. They suggest renaming it to the “Parable of the Soils,” or “Allegory of the Soils.” They see the story telling us that, just as a good farmer will not sow seed on an asphalt parking lot, so we ought to concentrate our teaching of the Word on the most receptive audience we can find. I think there is something worthwhile in such “soil studies,” but I doubt that this parable is Jesus’ direction to do that.

So what does Pastor Earl think? First of all, I think this allegory is a parable! In other words, even with Jesus’ detailed description of all the metaphors, there is one single point. I also believe He stated that point in no uncertain terms. At the conclusion of the story about the sower, before any questions were asked and any explanations offered, Jesus said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” A good translation is “Anyone who has ears should listen!”

Here is allegory-parable number two. This one comes from “Feddersen’s Fables.” A preacher went out to preach, but Louie and Louise Layman didn’t show up so, for them at least, nothing happened. The next Sunday they came in, sat down and smiled at his opening illustration, an amusing anecdote, and then fell fast asleep. They left, feeling proud of themselves for having done a good deed by going to church, but that was the end of it.

Two weeks later they felt the need for another good feeling about their piety and showed up again.

This time they listened long enough to hear the Law and realized that it applied to them. Several aspects of their lives needed serious improvement. They also got a glimpse into some very positive goals and values that they considered important. Then, just as the preacher was explaining how God loved them and Jesus had already done much for them and was wanting to do more, Louise remembered the roast in the oven and the fact that they had decided to leave early so that it wouldn’t get too dried out.

On the way home they shared their feelings about what they heard and they determined to change their lives. Of course, it would have to wait a while because company was coming out from the city next Sunday, then Louie had that business appointment, then they would be on vacation. . . . A few months later they discussed returning to church, but they couldn’t remember why they had wanted to do that.

Will Louie and Louise Layman become fertile soil and produce a crop yielding 100, 60 or 30 times what was sown? One of the problems with a parable, even if it is allegorical, is that not everything compares equally. We are not dirt! Every human is fertile to the sowing of the Word. No one is so hard, shallow or greedy that God cannot love it out of them. If there is a means by which God can communicate with us — be it ears, eyes, or touch — He is more than ready to do that. Jesus said that He did not come to save the righteous, who exist only in their own imaginations. He came to save the real people — the ones who sometimes refuse to listen, sometimes only halfway listen, and sometimes let the cares and worries of this world rip off what they have heard. At the foot of His cross, all of these kinds find forgiveness, faith and salvation, but they do not find it at the gambling boat, golf course, fishing lake, or shopping mall. If they have ears and don’t use them, they don’t find it at all.

You see, in the parable and in real life, there are those four kinds of soil. I am not four people, but at one time or another I represent each of them very well. In His infinite wisdom, Jesus was able to tell this story about me before I was even born. Sometimes I’m so “big for my breeches” that I won’t let Him in at all. Sometimes I let Him touch my head but not my heart. Sometimes I get suffocated in worries and preoccupations with myself, and forget to turn to the only real source of help and power in my life. I wind up regretting all of these times, but I have never regretted the times when He touches my head, heart and soul. I am never sorry, only joyfully thankful, when His Word blossoms in my life.

Are you listening?

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