This familiar parable was important enough to the early church for Matthew to reproduce at length Mark’s original scheme and interpretation. Luke condenses it in his version, but all three present Jesus teaching the parable to a crowd, his comments in private to the Twelve, and his interpretation of it for his inner circle, an interpretation identical in all three Gospels.
I believe it’s important to address Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ question about why he teaches in parables. In and of themselves, parables seem to move from familiar imagery to much deeper content beyond the literal meaning of the narrative. That’s a very sound pedagogy. But what Jesus says in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels has nothing to do with pedagogy; in fact, he’s intentionally obscuring the content, the accessibility, of his teaching.
What sense does that make? Is Jesus antagonistic to his audience? Don’t these people come to him voluntarily? Or is he just facing facts? When Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying, they look but they do not see and hear but do not listen or understand, might he only be identifying a short-coming in many religious people?
Might he be reminding us of the dangers of having our minds made up before we start to listen? How often do we manage our belief system as our security system? And when I do that, can God take me by surprise or open new horizons? Will I ever be free from the straightjacket of my fears? Is that any way to take responsibility for my life or my choices? How can I ever enjoy a living relationship with God, if I’ve reduced God to an abstraction I confess, rather than a person who encounters me?
In this parable, all hearers of the Word receive the Word in their own way. Jesus warns us, however, that hearing the Word, even receiving the Word, does not ensure that the faith community will be responsive to the Word. Receiving the Word does not mean that the Word will flourish or is immune from distortion. The body of believers is a broken body, as broken as the Body of Christ, the Host fractured at the Agnus Dei. Such a reality has nothing to do with security and I must deal with the loss of the Word’s potential, limited by believers—even limited by myself! And dealing with loss engenders maturity. It’s the only way any of us matures!
Can I receive loss, the disappointment of my expectations, as another way of receiving God’s Word and God’s love?