Before entering into an explanation of these parables, perhaps a word ought to be said about what a parable is and why it needs explanation in the first place. A parable is a verbal expression, usually a story, whether spoken or written, that uses figures and images to communicate profound truths. Precisely because the truths that are communicated are profound, attempts to express them in plain language to ordinary people can be difficult. In some way, a parable proportions these profound truths to ordinary people, but paradoxically leaves many things hidden at the same time: a parable simultaneously reveals and hides truth. St. Thomas explains this paradox in the first question of his Summa Theologiaie:
God provides for all things in a way befitting to their natures. But it is natural for man to come to understandable things by way of sensible things, since all our knowledge has its beginning from sense. It follows that spiritual things are fittingly handed on to us under bodily metaphors. As Dionysius says, “It is impossible for the divine ray to shine upon us unless it be covered over by a variety of sacred veils.” It is also fitting that Sacred Scripture propose spiritual realities under bodily likenesses, since Scripture is commonly proposed to all . . . so that the unlearned might grasp at least a little, since they are not disposed to grasp the intelligible things in themselves.
In other words, the parable serves the purpose of giving spiritual nourishment to the simple and unlearned while allowing for even more profound nourishment for those who seek to understand its deeper truths through prayer and study. In fact, a parable is often deliberately open-ended, or sometimes even unconcluded, to stimulate reflection in the hearer so that he will internalize its meaning by reflection. Therefore, it can be very beneficial to meditate on and investigate deeper the hidden truths found in these parables of our Lord.
In Mark, Jesus tells a parable about the sower who went out to sow the word of God.
I have chosen to begin with this parable because it is one that has already been explained by Jesus. And so, by imitating his method of exposition, we can start to understand each of the parables with Jesus’ help. There is a second reason I have decided to begin with this parable. It is that Jesus himself indicates that it seems to contain the key for unlocking all the parables when he says, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables?” So by understanding this parable, we will be more able to understand the other parables of Jesus.
Here is the text:
On another occasion he began to teach by the sea. A very large crowd gathered around him so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down. And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land. And he taught them at length in parables, and in the course of his instruction he said to them, “Hear this! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. And when the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it produced no grain. And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit. It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” He added, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”
And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables. He answered them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that ‘they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.’” Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand any of the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown. As soon as they hear, Satan comes at once and takes away the word sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who, when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy. But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Those sown among thorns are another sort. They are the people who hear the word, but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit. But those sown on rich soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:1-20).
Let us begin by asking why Jesus says, If you do not understand this parable, how will you understand all the parables? Is it because this one is easier to understand than all the others (since the metaphors are clearer)? This does not seem likely, since many parables seem to use simpler metaphors. Is it because the principles of interpretation of this parable are presupposed for the others? This seems unlikely too. For Jesus does not say “if you do not understand the principles of interpretation of this parable, how will you understand any of the parables?” Besides, other parables seem to use the same principles, so why would this parable be special?
The reason why understanding this parable is necessary for understanding the other parables seems to be that the truths revealed in this parable are somehow presupposed to understanding the truths revealed in all the other parables.
For this parable is about receiving (that is, hearing and understanding) the word of God. And of course, all the parables are included among the word of God. Jesus is saying that unless one clears his soul of the hard ground and the stones and weeds that this parable signifies, he will not be able to understand any parable, or any teaching of Christ. Moreover, Jesus also instructs them that they are not capable of understanding any of the parables without his help.
This is the first step each of us must take: we must not be a hard path, nor rocky, shallow soil, nor soil mixed with thorns, if we are to understand the conversations and parables of Jesus. We should try to understand better what each of these impediments to the word of God signifies. And to do this, we need to look at the parable again more carefully.
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