Who Listens to the Word of God? An Introduction

When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.”

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”

Luke 8: 4-15 NRSV

It is often that one finds themselves reading the Scriptures only to inevitably discover the repeated lessons and messages learnt in past times, due to a passing familiarity. It is no surprise that The Bible, having had the immense cultural impact upon western society that it has, begins to feel familiar to us. Practically speaking (and likely more responsible than an abstract notion of “cultural impact”),  for the average Christian, or even average westerner before the millennial generation, Sunday School education has played its part in inculcating us with a latent familiarity with the Biblical text. These stories have been introduced to us at an age where our minds are young and fertile, all too readily grasping at a creative retellings of Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den or Jesus feeding the 5000. These stories imprint upon the mind; and not just the story per se, but the story as told by the teacher telling it: both how they’ve told it and what they were trying to say by it. That is, both the mode of communication (be it drama, through song, or by felt easel board) and, the main message behind the story – or at least, the teacher’s understanding of the message, the “spiritual truth” – is remembered.

As such, when we find ourselves reading the Scriptures afresh, or at least trying to, we are often brought back to a place of nostalgic familiarity. Reading Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.retrieves pleasant, familiar images of Miss Trudy placing felt Noah into the felt ark with the felt turtledoves. Unfortunately, in an ever changing, always updating, “new and improving” conceptual worldview, this preexisting familiarity all too often becomes banality. When novelty is king, stability is undermined. The lessons that we heard as children, or as new converts, whilst interesting the first time, no longer seem to hold our interest as they used to. The lessons become old, which is often synonymous with being boring. The Parable of the Sower is no different – it’s no small contender in the “Most-Picked-Sunday-School-Lesson Awards”. When one runs out of appropriate Old Testament material, it’s no surprise that this is often used – the imagery is most certainly vivid: crowds from town upon town gather together and huddle together to expectantly listen to Jesus; seed is thrown and scattered, clattering amongst stone footpaths to be eaten by birds; some seeds happen to grow and wither and exhaust under the harsh rays of the sun. All of these elements are easily replicable by an eager, young youth leader, who, wanting to dramatise this story, can opt his wards into acting like a choking weed, or avian fiend. Not only this, but Jesus himself explains his message. It makes sense that one would choose a parable that, wrongly being tempted by the potential notion of interpretation and explanation being unnecessary, seems as if it was made to be read and taught to children. The story, in a sense, seems to do the hard work for you! And so when we read it, due to our existing familiarity, and due to our advanced comprehension and exegetical skills, we implicitly and unconsciously approach the text with a sense of superiority: “I comprehend you Jesus; I know you, Jesus; I have learnt from you already Jesus”, gloating as if there is nothing more to hear, learn, or comprehend. The irony of it all, however, is that this very process, this very construction of familar-banality, simultaneously (and paradoxically) acts as violence to the very message of Jesus is trying to communicate in this instance, locking up the meaning and nature of the message as a message heard in prior times, whilst also confirming the message that He means to share.

What I mean by this is that in our familiarity, the text becomes static, unchanging and boring to us – the Word of God is no longer heard, the very word which we have been urged and told to hear is no longer heard. We’ve seen it all before, we’ve heard it all before, and there’s nothing new under the sun. The very result of knowing the story, in being taught the word of God, of the message of the gospel of Christ, we come to the very message again finding ourselves unable to hear and follow it, because we assume that what we know is already what we need to know. We tell ourselves, “I’ve heard it before – tell me something I didn’t know already,” like teenagers who presumptively posit that they’ve had more life experience than years they’ve existed. It’s not as if Jesus wasn’t prepared for this eventuality; whilst contradicting the words of Christ in our reading –  doing violence by ignoring the word of God in presuming we know the word of God – we reveal ourselves to be amongst those who don’t perceive what Christ is saying as he speaks in the very words of his parables. We read Christ’s own explanation and think that we understand, yet we don’t. Looking we do not perceive;  listening we do not understand.

We find ourselves existing as the seed that does not germinate, for whatever reason, without realising it, acting under the assumption that since the word of God began to grow in us it must still be doing so. Looking at myself and my generation I see what we have opted for – we have abandoned the quiet life of solitude, reflection and relation for the life of busyness, constant activity and permanent connection. We are swept up by the cares for the newer, better model; the pleasures of novelty and newness. It’s understandable at an almost primal and instinctual level: there is the inherent temptation to not do that which is boring – to avoid prayer and to go self-medicate on information, entertainment or socialising. It is easy to simply pass over the entrusted inheritance of the Scriptures handed down to us by generations past for that which seems new, exciting and dynamic. I become all too alike to the person whom Jesus’ says as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. It’s no surprise that Jesus warns against it – if it wasn’t as tempting as it was, people wouldn’t pursue it. But ultimately, if Jesus is to be believed, it’s a cul-de-sac that leads nowhere.

Where then does this leave us? We can’t simply abandon the Scriptures if we claim to be Christian; it is therein that we find the written words of God which witness to the Word of God in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. However, intrinsic in that very formulation seems to lay the answer – the idea of communion. In the very person of Jesus Christ, God Himself communes with us. He who became incarnate thus communed with humanity relationally: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. However, the communion to which Christ shares with us isn’t simply left as one abstract subject acting with and upon other subjects in a net of interactions. He didn’t simply just talk to us, feel what we felt, thought thoughts as we do – he became those very things to the very core of his being. He united and staked his divinity to the very being of humanity and is now forever the God-Man – without confusion, change, separation or division. He communes with humanity, and forever does so, because he has taken on the very essence of humanity in itself, having healed and sanctified it. Humanity now permanently communes with God because Christ has united himself to it, and brings it to participate in his very own divine life. It is this very God-Man to which the Scriptures act as witness – the telos to which they point. This, then, would indicate that it is meant to be read as a mirror – or if a mirror has too many connotations of perfect representation, a painting or work of art – held together by the unity of the God who loves us who calls us to love Him, wherein we find our true meaning. In finding our true meaning we find our true existence, and in finding our true existence, we find our true happiness.

So perhaps, from the outset, we have come from the wrong perspective. Perhaps when reading our Bible we shouldn’t expect to learn anything new at all, and perhaps we must fight against the cultural gestalt which claims that we must always be engaged. That’s not to say we never will learn something new or that we shouldn’t be willing to learn new things, nor is it an admission that what engages us is wrong. Rather when we read our Bible and we find something that we already recognise and are tempted to skim through, we should be reminded that we aren’t called to learn a new lesson, or to find ourselves entertained, connected, or busy, but are called to live in communion with God – to be present with Him in that very moment as in every moment. We are called to be readers and listeners not for the sake of being learners, but to be lovers. To borrow the poetic phraseology of the translators of the KJV in Psalm 119: 10-16

With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.

Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.

With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.

I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches.

I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways.

I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.

The appropriate motivation being love, then, seems to tell us that, as it is with any relationship, that we are not always necessarily expanding and expecting the breadth of knowledge of new things, but growing deeper in the love of the person we do know already, being re-presented with that which we already know of them. We are to grow further in love, taking joy in that which we already know, finding the spark of first love again in God not by demanding new highs, but, through bear fruit through patient endurance, holding to the word of God as it was first given, in the most boring and and banal sense possible. It would be absurd to think that married couples, who find themselves supremely familiar with one another after many years, will still be rapidly treading territory of new learning and new experience as they did in their younger years when they were dating. Whilst learning and new shared experience of the other still occurs, what happens is that the two grow in deeper and deeper love based upon the communion and re-visitation of each other to one another every day; based upon the commitment of continued attendance to one another, which, with great patience, bears much fruit. The analogy is, admittedly, flawed, as people change (though not entirely). God, however, and the Scriptures, do not – how much easier should it be to revisit the God who does not change, for in him we can find the same life giving love day after day!

The Scriptures, then, are a dynamic re-engagement with what we’ve already been given, a means to an end of love, and the proverbial doors that we pass through many a time before are meant to remind us of this love that we have already known, so that by the softening of our hearts we may bear fruit. When we are called to listen, to hear and obey the word of God, it is a summons to become who we are meant to be – to love. It is my hope and prayer that, in reading this blog, as I write on various topics regarding the Bible, Theology, Biblical Studies, Philosophy and whatever else takes my mind at the time, that much the same would happen for us – that in whatever it is you read you may come to love God more through revisiting what you have already known, or if we are fortunate enough, to learn that which we never knew before.