Ears to hear

Reflections on Mark 4:26-34

It wasn’t until I was given an IPod Nano that I began to notice how many other people have the regulation earpieces in their lugholes, trailing thin wires like bunting on Mt. Everest. I am a dinosaur and blind, it seems.

Many of us humans can’t even walk down the street without noise filling our headspace and my guess is that the more we are bombarded by this cacophony, the less we actually hear.

Because of this, I think that we don’t need to work at hearing; we need to work at not hearing. Case in point: airline travel. Next time you are flying somewhere by plane, watch the other travellers during the safety demonstration and see if we are intent on not hearing a spiel that is intended to save our lives.

For us, however, this may be a problem because we employ this tactic of not listening when we come to worship. Living in a world that spends much of its time working at not hearing, when we come to church we can easily allow the familiarity of the Liturgy to lull us into la-la land.

Rather than switching off when we come to the Kirk-house, we need to actively work at hearing. Unless we make a conscious effort to listen differently, to listen with attentiveness to the reading of Scripture and the preaching of the sermon, we may do to public worship what we do to the airline safety demonstration.

This process has a particular and immediate application because, for the next wee while, as the New Zealanders say, we’ll be walking through Jesus’ “Kingdom of God Parables” in Mark’s Gospel.

One thing’s for sure: these parables can’t be understood by a switching off the listening hole or by a folding of the arms in feigned objectivity or even by a ho-humming ourselves down the ‘heard-it-before’ track, although some will try.

The only way to understand Mark in this is to allow the stories to lay their own claim on us. How? By hearing, by letting the parables have their intended effect on us by hearing them.

Like the first three Chapters of this high-powered Gospel, Marks Chapter 4 is alive with action and determination as Mark allows the narrative to carry the message he wants to deliver. In Mark, the essential convictions and teachings are shown rather than told.

We stand a better chance of understanding if we first see it demonstrated. Mark’s vigorous narrative is designed to prepare us to hear what Jesus has to say to us.

Hearing is difficult, as we have discovered, so Mark postpones the teachings of Jesus until our familiarity with him helps us understand him, so he starts with the Parables.

Parables can be deceptive. Many of us grew up on the “Parables-are-earthly-stories-with-heavenly-meanings” theory and, for the most part, that’s fine, except that this shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of parables.

These Parables can’t be understood by standing outside and peering into them, like looking at goldfish in a fish tank. They can only be understood by getting out of our seats and becoming part of the action.

Each of the three Parables in Chapter 4 has two things in common: first, they’re each about seeds and second they’re each surrounded by Jesus’ own encouragement for us, his hearers, to actually hear.

By themselves, seeds don’t grab me greatly but I do know they have tremendous potential. I know, for example, that this or that little seed can become a carrot or a carob tree, buffel grass or banksia, given the right circumstances.

The clue for the Gospel hearer lies in what happens next: just as the seeds have to be planted and watered and waited for expectantly, so the Gospel has within itself the power to become something other than what it appears to be. The stories also require some additional activity.

The Parable of The Mustard Seed, proverbially the smallest of seeds, makes a point. Though almost invisible, the mustard seed grows into a shrub large enough for birds to nest in. That something so large could come from something so small is unfathomable. What we have here is an analogy.

When we first hear the gospel, when the gospel is first declared to our world, it seems small and insignificant. Many other things seem more important: there are plans to be made; careers to be considered; proposals and marriages and children to reckon with; houses to build; relationships to pursue, and so on.

Yet the Parable is about the power inherent in the gospel to supersede the eye evidence and to produce something else that is wholly unexpected. In comparison to such things, the gospel seems like a dark speck in the palm, something to be looked over for a moment, and then overlooked for ever.

However, the gospel will not be relegated to an insignificant place. If this was just about human stuff then, perhaps, we might ditch it. But it is something more than that; it’s God’s work, His creative, redeeming and restorative presence.

Maybe the beginnings are small and inauspicious but slowly, even imperceptibly, it creeps into our spirits and begins to intrude into our lives to the point that we can’t ignore it, despite the many competing sounds of a world that, at first, seem more important.

The transformative power of the gospel produces the qualities of life that we most long for, but that most elude us, by encouraging us to hear the story to the point of heeding. The Parable of the Sower in each of its complexities promises that those who hear the gospel in this way receive it, and “it bears fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20).

The Rev. Ian McAlister is the Ministry Development Officer in the Diocese of Queensland and blogs at Reflections from the HIll

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