That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” – Matthew 13:1-9
Well it has been a long time since I was “on the water” exploring water-related passages from the bible. I have no good excuse for my secular sojourn. I think I just allowed myself to drift when I should have had my sails up so I could move toward the destination that God has set before me.
I think part of what shook me awake was reading a book about C.S. Lewis call the Inklings by Colin Duriez. This book describes the conversion of C.S. Lewis and his steadfast search for truth even when he was pursuing an atheistic path. I confess I have been lazy in my pursuit of God for the last several months. Time to get back on the water and continue the journey.
This passage marks the beginning of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. I thought that when I arrived in the new testament that the number of water-related passages would be greater. I am somewhat surprised that I am already well into the gospel of Matthew and I am only on the ninth water-related passage. Perhaps this is because the need for analogy has somewhat lessened as the Godly Condensate has arrived. No need for conversations about God veiled in clouds and dew,
Jesus is teaching by the lake and his listeners become too numerous so He has to get into a boat so that all can see and hear Him and His teaching. Jesus was teaching in parables. Parables are a bit like juice concentrate. They are a condensed version of a much bigger teaching that is “reconstituted” in the hearts and minds of all those who are listening. One of the interesting things about about teaching with parables is that a given parable can have almost infinite shades of meaning depending on the perspective and experiences of the listener.
I do a lot of work in Haiti and one of the things that I have learned as I have struggled to learn Kreyol is that although the language of Kreyol is somewhat limited by the number of words in common usage it is rich with proverbs and parables. These proverbs have many layers of meaning and can be applied to many different situations. I have many favorite proverbs, but one of my favorites is “Deye mòn gen mòn”. The literal meaning is “Behind mountains there are mountains.” I have had interesting discussions with Haitians about the meaning and application of this proverb. It could mean behind troubles there are more troubles, or it could mean there is always another vista or view beyond the one you are currently seeing. The interpretation and meaning of the proverb is determined by the experience and context of the listener. The same thing is true of the parables of Jesus.
Jesus is taking a very common event, seed planting, and giving it whole new layers of meaning. Why does he do this? I think there are many possible reasons, but the ones that immediately come to my mind are to: 1) make complex spiritual concepts more understandable; 2) give the people a word picture that will stick with them and become part of their “spiritual DNA”; 3) provide a teaching that can be heard and interpreted in unique and important ways by each person hearing it.
The first reason is perhaps the one I can relate to most easily as a teacher by profession. Complex concepts are always easier to understand if one can use analogies and metaphors that listeners can relate to. This has become more challenging as the age gap between my students and myself has widened. What would seem to me to be a clever and relevant metaphor can sometimes fall flat if the students have no experience with the chosen metaphor. Jesus knew his audience and that many of them were in fact farmers and could relate to his metaphor about planting seeds.
The relevance of the metaphor ensures that the next time these people are planting seeds they will remember and reflect upon this deeper spiritual truth Jesus is teaching about here. This contextualization of the deep spiritual truths is what allows the people to ingest this teaching and make it part of their “spiritual DNA” so that it becomes a part of them that cannot be removed when trials and tribulations come. The form of the parable is such that it is compatible with all those who “have ears to hear”.
One thing about ears is that they vary quite a bit from person to person. Some people have large ears that stick out like wings, and others have very small ears that seem to almost disappear into their heads. What Jesus is saying near the end of the passage is that it is OK, and in fact expected, that people will “hear” different things in this parable. That is a feature not a flaw. The many layers of meaning is what makes this type of teaching so rich and “tasty”. A bit like a pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) in baking. This layered pastry is created by layering butter and dough in a time-consuming process involving much rolling and refrigeration. This pastry is “tasty” because of the many layers. Multi-layered parables like the one Jesus is sharing here are the same.
So what are the take home messages for me from this passage? Parables are a rich, tasty, and relevant ways to communicate complex spiritual truths (and other complex things). Jesus was clearly a master “baker” in this respect. He was really good at using parables. I have a lot to learn from Him both about this specific parable and crafting metaphors for my students that will allow them to learn the complex concepts that I am teaching.
Prayer: God thank You for providing deep spiritual truths in a way that makes understanding easier