What If We’re Not Listening?

This week’s sermon comes from Matthew 13:1-23, which includes the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of why he speaks in parables. May God’s light shine on you and yours this week.

What If We’re Not Listening?

            The thirteenth chapter of the book of Matthew is made up entirely of parables, and it begins with a parable known as the Parable of the Sower. The Parable of the Sower is a good parable to begin with, because it has a clear and easy allegorical interpretation. In fact, many of the foremost Parable scholars think that the Parable of the Sower may not have originated from Jesus for that very reason, that it doesn’t live up to the difficulty and obscurity of the other parables, and thus was likely an addition by a later scribe or author like Matthew. I think we might be chasing our own tail on that. When it comes to separating what came from the teacher from what came from those teaching about the teacher, the most that we can ever boldly say is, “I don’t know.”

            But the Parable of the Sower is a good parable to begin with also because it is paired with the only discussion in the gospels of parables themselves. Right after this parable, in all three Gospel versions, the disciples come to him asking “Why do you speak in parables?” And it’s a good question. Why talk in riddles when you could just say what you mean?

            “The reason I speak to them in parables,” he says, “is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” Jesus’ response suggests that he speaks in parables because of the blindness and deafness of his listeners.[1] He’s calling back to Isaiah chapter 6, when God calls Isaiah and tells him to prophesy deafness and blindness to the people of Israel.

            So if Jesus is speaking in parables because his audience is befuddled, what does he hope for parables to accomplish? I have always thought that the answer to this question is easy. Jesus tells parables to open our eyes and our ears. Jesus tells parables, common stories about common folks, because they are a much more effective means of getting his point across. The simple images of every day life make it easier for his listeners to understand. But I read an article this week that asked a question that turned that idea up on its head.

            Paul Achtemeier points out that if Jesus spoke in parables to communicate his meaning more effectively, then why would the disciples come up to him afterwards, befuddled and bewildered and asking him to explain? If parables are supposed to make it easier for people to get his meaning, why are the disciples banging down his door to ask what it means? The confusion of the disciples suggests that the purpose of the parable isn’t to provide clarity for our blindness at all.

            So if the parable isn’t intended to be a remedy for our blindness, then why use it? Ken Robinson, in a TED talk about education, told this wonderful story. It’s about a little six-year old girl, who hardly ever seemed to pay attention to anything they did in class. But they did this one drawing exercise, and she puts her head down and starts working furiously with the crayons. The teacher is intrigued, so he goes over to her and he asks, “What are you drawing?”

            The little girls doesn’t even look up, she says, “I’m drawing God.”

            “But,” said the teacher, “no one knows what God looks like”

            And the little girl, still busy with her crayons, looks up and goes, “Well they will in a minute!”[2]

            It’s funny to think about, but I think that’s where most of us are. We have a very specific idea of God, and we’re convinced it’s right and if you sit down for a second we’ll be happy to give it to you so that you can be right too. But she’s a little girl; she’s six. In the next week she’ll be this sure about a hundred other things. At that age I thought chocolate milk came from brown cows. Children try out new ideas all the time, and the moment they stop working they toss them out like yesterday’s paper. They aren’t afraid to be wrong, they’ll just switch to something that works better.

            But adults, on the other hand, we can’t stand to be wrong. So when we get an idea that we like we try to protect it. We invest in it. We learn all the arguments in favor of it and we avoid hearing the arguments against it. We close ourselves off to information that might challenge our ideas. We blind ourselves, without even realizing what we’ve done. And we hang on to that blindness with all our might. Maybe that’s why he said that unless you become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

            Achtemeier suggests that the parable may be intended to reveal our blindness. He says Jesus speaks in parables to show us that we’re blind. Let’s go back to that passage Jesus quotes in Isaiah. God tells Isaiah:

            Go and say this to the people:

            ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;

            keep looking, but do not understand’

            Make the minds of this people dull,

            and stop their ears,

            and shut their eyes,

so that they may not look with their eyes,

            and listen with their ears,

and comprehend with their minds,

            and turn and be healed.


            And turn and be healed. It’s a small phrase, you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention, but it suggests that when we give up on the idea that we can see and hear and comprehend, when we finally acknowledge how blind we truly are, we can turn to God and find the healing we were too blind to find on our own.

            So we’re walking along, mistaking our blindness for wisdom, and Jesus comes along, with these puzzling stories that make us scratch our heads. Like that a tiny mustard seed that grows up into a tree where the birds make their nests. You know I once was supposed to teach this to a group of Vacation Bible School students once, and I picked up some mustard seeds from the store, and I thought I’d go find a picture of a great big mustard tree so that kids could see how the parable was really true. I spent hours on this, trying to confirm my idea of what the parable meant (this was in the age of google, it shouldn’t have been that hard). Come to find out later that mustard isn’t even a tree. It’s a weed. Unfortunately for me the kids I didn’t realize my blindness until later. I showed them a picture of some scraggly looking thing that someone said was a mustard tree and tried to pretend like it was big. It was hardly as big as I am. I covered up my blindness by pretending to be excited about it, and teaching it to someone else.

            And so with this explanation about blindness, Jesus explains the parable of the sower, or the parable of the four soils. He says that the seed is the word, and the dirt is us, and he challenges us to be good soil. He highlights all the ways it can go wrong, if we’re soil that’s full of rocks that we’re hanging on to too tightly to receive the seed, or deeply rooted thorns that choke out new growth, or we’ve become so hardened that the message doesn’t even sink in.

            And when Matthew pairs this parable with Jesus’ explanation about blindness, I think it suggests that being good soil means acknowledging our own blindness. If we’re really going to hear the wisdom in the parables Jesus’ preaches, we’re going to have to suspend our own wisdom for a while. We need to look at the parables not to line them up with our way of thinking, but we need to read the parables so that we can line our way of thinking up with them. If the intention of the parables is to shock us in to realizing our own blindness, then we should read them with the expectations that they will shock and surprise us.

            When we read them, either to ourselves or in a classroom, we should be asking, “What blindness does this seek to reveal in me?” Because it is only when we can acknowledge our own blindness, and acknowledge that we’re not about to fix it either, that we can put our trust in God enough to turn and be healed. What Jesus wants for us is not to replace one bad idea with one better idea that we can twist and turn to fit what we agree with. What Jesus wants is for us to recognize that the only way to keep our nature from getting the best of us is relationship. It is to choose to be dependent on God, rather than on our own wisdom. If we’re going to do this following Jesus thing well, we need to follow closely, and that’s the challenge of being good soil. The challenge is to recognize our own blindness, and instead of looking for a cure look for a relationship with God, so that even in our darkness we find that we have a guiding light.


[1] Achtemeier, Paul. “Matthew 13:1-23” Interpretation, vol. 44 no 1 Jan. 1990, pp. 61-65.

[2] Robertson, K. (2006, February) Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill Creativity [Video File] Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/transcript .


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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