He Who Has Ears
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
July 13, 2008
Scripture:Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13 1-17
“He who has ears, let him hear!” — Matthew 13:9
The starting point of our reflection today is the well-known Parable of the Sower. On closer examination we find that it is better called the parable of the seeds – and their fate. Three batches of the seed sown come to grief and bear no significant fruit, and one bears a surprisingly large crop. “What does this mean?” his disciples ask, and with pathetic literalness some early Christian scribe who lacks ears to hear gives a plodding allegorical interpretation in vss. 18-23:
Jesus he says has given an allegory of four kinds of disciples or hearers of his word, one robbed by the devil of their fruitfulness, one that has not depth enough for the word to take root in them, one too careful for the things of this world, and one humble and sincere. The first three are fruitless, the last kind of disciple immensely and overwhelmingly fruitful. The anonymous explainer of allegories thinks Jesus is speaking of four kinds of disciples, what should we think?
Firstly, we should follow the prior profound and enigmatic teaching that this is a parable not an allegory and that parables are not obvious like allegories but obscure like riddles and playful like word games. That is why between the parable and its explanation in our text there lies the discussion about the nature of parable and why Jesus teaches in parables.
Jesus teaches in parables so that one may hear and not hear, one may have literal ears but not parabolic ears. This is very important for several reasons; let me mention only one: Parable is at the farthest remove from Law. Law strives to be as controlling as possible and leave no room for ambiguity, for what we used to call “loopholes”. On his deathbed WC Fields was seen to be reading the Bible; when a friend asked in surprise what he thought he was doing he said, “Looking for loopholes.” Well, there is a sense in which a parable is one big loophole, because it opens the way for the mind to go through the mundane to God while the law closes every way except the one to a mundane submission to the powers that be. It is a sign of “earlessness” that so many Christians choose Law over Gospel, ‘Thou shalt not..” over, “what do you make of this story?”
Once again we are face to face with the radicalism of Jesus; do we have the will (dare I say “guts”?) to live like this, with ours eyes on the horizon of God’s kingship and only a side-glance at the confining Law of human societies? I know that this is a problematic thing to say; it irks most of us, because we equate social order with divine ordinance and demand conformity as the price of membership in the race. And to be sure one cannot go too far in the direction of God’s horizon or the keepers of the Law will kill us, but the Kingdom is the truth and the life, and it is better to die like a lion than live like a swine, to stand up and say what you believe rather than acquiesce in nonsense on your knees. But, finally on this subject, let me warn that compromise is unavoidable because we live in the kingdom of the prince of this world and we are forbidden to use his means, – violence, coercion, manipulation, moral blackmail – that is, all the blandishments of utopia. God alone brings an end to the prince of this world and turns his kingdom into the kingdom of the Lord and his saints. We must not usurp the work of God.
What then should we do in the mean time, while the Kingdom of God tarries? Whatever you can, whenever the opportunity presents itself; and those who have the ears to hear not just the blather and the howl of this world’s hucksters will understand that Jesus in this parable has given us very great succor for our hope. For, you see, three quarters of the sower’s seed goes to waste, but the quarter that succeeds, succeeds beyond measure or imagination. Thirty percent interest on your investment is good by today’s standards. Sixty percent is immense and a hundred percent very, very unusual; but that’s the largesse Jesus promises us even here in the belly of the beast, where birds eat our hope and weeds choke and the shallowness of our faith starves it to death. That surprising corner of deep devotion in us, small and always overshadowed, there God plants the seeds of the Kingdom and they sprout in us and through us and grow to a global harvest of hope.
You don’t have to be a moral athlete or a spiritual celebrity, just hang on to faith and hope in that little corner of reality in your life, never stop hoping and believing, and the love of God in Jesus will use you. For after all it is not our hold on God that matters, not our faith in God that saves, but God’s hold on us, and God’s faith in us, that is the energy of the Kingdom.
Let me end with this; Shortly before his death I visited my teacher WD Davies, who died in 2001 in the same week as my mother died. I asked him for a valedictory, since we knew it was the last time we would talk in the world. He gave me a new book of his, a collection of his articles just published, and pointed to a sentence in the preface. “My other teacher was the intensely Christian C.H. Dodd. He taught me two thoughts which I have long known by heart, though I cannot now find them in his written works: first, that ‘the whole course of history remains… plastic to the will of God” and secondly, that ‘our destiny lies in the eternal order where ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which god has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9 alluding to Isaiah 64:4).’ ”
This is the chain of tradition of which by the wisdom and great kindness of God I am a link, from Isaiah to Paul to Dodd to Davies to me, and today what my ears hear is not the music of heaven but the sweet sound of the voice of Jesus promising me surprising fruitfulness for my puny efforts here in the belly of the beast, and unimaginable satisfaction there in the bosom of Abraham. He who has ears to hear, let him listen carefully and let her hear the promise of success in the parable of the sower and his four kinds of seed.