Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-17; Psalm 89; Mark 4:1-20
The parable of the sower is the first of the parables. Jesus tells his disciples that it is also somehow the key to all the parables: 'if you do not understand this one, how will you understand any of them?' Does he mean this is the simplest parable so if you cannot grasp this one you will be unable to grasp any of them? We will feel, reasonably, that we do understand this one: have we not been given a clear explanation of what it means? And it is not complicated. It tells us about different kinds of people and how they respond or not to the Word of God broadcast by the preacher. Or perhaps it means that there are different moments in our response to the Word, a response that has been at times indifferent or superficial, and at other times more serious and perhaps even sometimes fruit-bearing. It does not seem all that difficult to understand.
In fact the conversation between Jesus and the disciples that is placed after the parable and before its explanation is a lot more complicated. His comments are certainly more troubling than anything he says in the parable. In explaining why he teaches in parables he does not say that it is just a handy way of teaching, telling nice stories to catch people's imagination and help them remember his teaching. Parables do work in that way but Jesus's choice to teach in this way is not simply a matter of pedagogy, a teacher's strategy. He teaches in parables, he says, because some are admitted to the secret of the kingdom, whereas others, 'those outside', are not admitted. They will hear but will not perceive, they will see but will not understand, in order that they may not be converted and forgiven.
It presents a puzzling contrast. The parable speaks about an open, extravagant, and indiscriminate dissemination of the Word. The seed is thrown here, there, and everywhere. It is made available to everybody. Jesus' comments seem to imply that there is a distinction between those who are admitted and those who are excluded. This is fine, we will feel, as long as it is the people themselves who are making the choice about admission or exclusion. Is that not what the parable says? It will feel very strange to us, however, if it seems as if God is making the choice as to who will be admitted and who will be excluded. In fact Jesus here quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah to the effect that there will be some who fail to understand, who fail to perceive, who fail to respond to what the Word of God demands.
So the conversation about Jesus' use of parables in teaching is a second version of the parable of the sower. His teaching is offered openly and indiscriminately. He has to take to a boat because there are so many people gathered at the water's edge. He speaks the parable to all of them. There are some who hear it and are led into the mystery it carries. Or at least they come to him to have it explained to them. There are others who also hear it but for whom its mystery remains shut.
It must mean that the parable is also about what you and I are doing now, thinking about the parable of the sower and trying to understand it. This is another way in which parables work. They jump off the page and grab the reader or listener. They throw their arms around us and take us into themselves so that their questions are aimed directly at us. Are you, am I, rich soil for the Word of God? Or are we the path, the rocky ground, a thorny place entangled in anxieties or distractions? Are you, am I, among the disciples admitted to the secret of the kingdom? Or are we among those who listen but do not yet perceive, see but do not yet understand?
The parable of the sower is the first and the key to the parables. Engaging with it obliges us to a particular kind of meditation on Jesus and his teaching. The interpretation is easy to understand but the conversation about this kind of teaching in parables is not easy to understand. We must think not just about the kind of soil we are but about the mystery of vocation and response, of election and judgement, of sin and grace.
These themes figure also in today's first reading. David was a man of action, a leader who likes to take control of situations. God reminds him through the prophet Nathan that it is not up to David to find a home for God, it is rather God who will establish a house for David. It is a salutary warning about ways in which we might take the parable of the sower, as if for example we could be once and for all good soil: David has many ups and downs in his life with the Lord. Or as if we were proprietors of the Word of God which we preach: God always goes before us and comes after us since it is by God's grace that we are enabled to do whatever we manage to do in God's service.