Daily Bible Reading Reflections

A Key to Understanding the Parables of Jesus

Jesus frequently taught with “parables,” encouraging his listeners to envision some ordinary object to which something much more substantial could be compared or contrasted. Jesus’ parables are memorable and easily-related-to because they are word pictures using everyday things people were already familiar with. Weeds, seeds, leaven, treasure, pearls, nets, sheep, servants, sons, weddings, coins, managers, beggars, and more. Parables are often described as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” Throughout the Gospels, over and over again we hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and providing a parable.

In Mark 4:13, near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus asked a question that provides a key to pretty much everything else he will teach.

“Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”

“This parable” was foundational. “This parable” set the stage. So what was “this parable”?

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (4:3-9)

When Jesus was alone, “those around him with the twelve” asked for some clarification. What did Jesus mean with this talk of a sower? Let’s listen in…

“The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (4:14-20)

Did you hear it?

“When they hear… when they hear the word… They are those who hear the word, but… the ones who hear the word and accept it…” Here’s the key. In what condition is my heart? Jesus isn’t really talking about paths, rocks, thorns, and soils. He’s talking about my heart. Your heart. Is it a listening heart? An honest heart? A humble heart? A receptive heart? A prepared-to-bear-for-another sort of heart?

Some hearts are like a well-traveled walking path. Beaten-down and always busy. Too busy.

Some hearts are like rocky ground. Full of clutter, with little room for spiritual roots.

Some hearts are full of thorns. Choked with the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things.

Some hearts are like good soil. Hungry. Thirsty. Prepared. Cultivated. Eager. Ready and willing to bear fruit for the sower.

In what condition is my heart? “Do you not understand this parable?” It’s leading you to vital self-evaluation.

Each one of us has a God-given heart. Jesus is the King who has come with news of the kingdom that turns the world upside down. As human beings, we too easily and often put up walls between our hearts and the message of this true and rightful King. So this master Teacher tells parables loaded with power to sneak right past the walls we’ve put up and smack us awake, forcing us to come face to face with truths we really need to see.

Back then, some were unwilling to repent. Some were hostile. Some were interested, but confused. Some were broken, but content right where they were. Some just wanted other things. Some were wrestling with doubt. Some were desperate, enthusiastically ready to listen, ready to follow Jesus wherever he went. So he told them all parables, and this is where it started, circling back again and again and again: in what condition is my heart? When I hear what I really need to hear–from Jesus, or one of his apostles, or a brother or sister in Christ–what happens? On what sort of heart does that seed fall?

Miss that point or fail to consistently ask that question and you’ll struggle to understand “all the parables.”

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”