(Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Cjp)

A homeowner went out to promote his yard sale. As he was putting up posters, some fell to the ground and were washed down the gutter. Some were in windy places and were soon blown away. Some posters were hung along busy sidewalks and were soon covered by other posters and left unseen. Still other posters were placed in good neighbourhoods where they sparked interest and produced customers—some 30, 60 and even 100 times the number of posters put up. Whoever can read, let him read with understanding.

The simplest definition I know of the word “parable” is that it is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Telling such stories was one of Jesus' favourite teaching techniques. Storytelling was the television of the ancient world. People crowded around a good storyteller and listened with bated breath to his every word. He painted dramatic word pictures and their imaginations filled in the details and colours. With the story firmly planted in their heads they could recount it almost word for word to their friends and family.

Some stories were told simply to entertain. Others were to inspire patriotism or to glorify a country's heroes. But the best stories—the kind that Jesus told—were meant to teach spiritual truth that would change people's lives.

The first lesson in storytelling is to start where your listeners are. You have to connect with the culture around you. Jesus lived in an agrarian culture, one in which people depended on growing crops and raising animals to survive. Consequently, when Jesus told stories, they were about farmers sowing seeds, wheat and weeds, sheep and goats, and fruit trees and vineyards.

So we read of him talking to his neighbours like this: “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, 60 or 30 times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 13:3-9).

If the people of ancient Israel lived as we do today, perhaps Jesus would have talked about yard sales and posters, cars and mechanics, cellphones and computers. On the surface, the parables would be different, but underneath they would be the same. They would communicate the same spiritual truth with different word pictures to a different culture.

Jerome, an early church scholar, explained it this way: “Like as gold is sought for in the earth and the kernel in a nut, so in parables we must search more deeply after the divine meaning.”

So what is the Parable of the Sower really about? If the people who first heard this story took it only at face value, then Jesus was not telling them anything that they did not already know. They were farmers and knew all about planting seeds. In fact they'd probably say that the sower in the story was somewhat careless and wasteful for throwing seeds in areas where they were not likely to grow. But that was part of the storyteller's technique—to put into the story an element that was somewhat out of place, an element that made people stop and ponder what this was all about. After all, no prudent farmer would just throw his seeds to the wind and let them fall where they may. There had to be more to the story than that.

Fortunately, this is one of the few times in which the Gospel writers record Jesus' explanation of one of his parables. He explained others to his disciples when they didn't understand, but he usually left the crowds to mull things over in their heads.

And so in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When people hear the message about the kingdom and do not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to people who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to people who hear the word and understand it. They produce a crop, yielding a hundred, 60 or 30 times what was sown” (Matthew 13:18-23).

Get the picture?

Major Fred Ash is a retired Salvation Army officer, freelance writer and editor living in Barrie, Ont.

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