A monk was dying. This is a true story—he had been a monk for more than sixty years, and he was dying. His reputation for humility, compassion, and gentle spirit was untarnished. As he lay upon his bed, the entire community gathered, hoping to hear some last words of wisdom fall from his lips. The priest administered the last rites. And just as the monk was about to take his final breath, he sat bolt upright and said, “If there’s nothing there when I get there, some bugger’s going to pay for it.”
It would be hard to imagine a world without stories like these. We wouldn’t be human if we had no stories to tell. Human beings are a story-telling people—ancestor stories, personal stories; stories of love and happiness, anger and sorrow, heroism and courage, adventure and mystery.
Jesus, of course, was the great story teller. Listening to Jesus’ stories is to listen to find ourselves within the story because stories are essentially about us, about our lives, and about what our lives might mean. We believe we can always be found somewhere in the plot—even though the characters may be cast as animals, or objects, or even seed. And when we find our place in a story, we know we have come home. This is why stories solicit our laughter, bring the tears of pain, or inspire hope for the future. For if we can find ourselves in the story, then perhaps all might in the end be well. It is an assurance that we are not forgotten and not beyond help, a promise that we are not alone.
Of course, we like the story to end in terms we can understand. It’s very irritating to watch a movie or read a book and discover we either don’t understand the outcome, or can’t figure out whether it is good news or bad. Yet often it is those stories that stick in our mind, make us think, cause us to wrestle with what is going on in the plot.
Jesus’ stories are like that. His meanings are rarely crystal clear. There are always more meanings available to the listener than you can count. You are never finished with a Jesus story—if you listen to it. And that’s the key— Jesus told his stories from hillsides and lakeshores, in houses and synagogues, from boats and on the roadside. He didn’t just flip to the relevant page, he spoke and those who were present listened.
To listen is to give our full attention. To open our inner eye and focus it on the other: the one who speaks. To truly listen is to place your heart alongside the heart of the one who speaks. To have no other goal but to receive that word in all its fullness and otherness. Because word is holy, story is sacred, and listening is the way in. To listen without reservation is to be willing to be changed. To listen is to search less frantically for ourselves within the story and to pay attention to what is on offer—the paradox that open listening to another is to find our own true self.
Just consider a story not in today’s gospel but a story, nevertheless, which we know well. The story of the Prodigal Son. We hear the account of the profligate younger brother, squandering the family inheritance while his elder brother works hard on the family farm. We immediately identify with one or other of the brothers. Our feelings about the father’s unconditional forgiveness tend to be directed by which brother we chose. If you are a prodigal you rejoice. If you are the hard-working, unrewarded elder brother, you think it’s unfair.
But to listen for what is on offer is to notice the joy of a broken-hearted father, the hard-won humility of the younger son, the ambiguity of the fact that we are not told whether the elder brother ever went into the house to become part of the party. To look only for ourselves in any tale is to miss the glorious range of possibility, mystery, and potential for insight contained in every line. To look only for self is to risk never discovering that, at different times, we are father and other brother. To uncover that, frail though we are, the door stands open for us to go in.
The art of listening, Jesus points out firmly this morning, does not guarantee we will get it. Jesus often taught by parables, and usually people didn’t get it. But they must have been fascinated, drawn by the ambiguities and difficulties of being spoken to in this way, for he was followed everywhere. In this morning’s story there were so many people that Jesus had to leave the seashore and teach from a boat so he could be better seen and heard. People sensed that in this man and in this man’s stories was something so vital to their lives, they could not afford to miss it. “He told them many things in parables.” and boy was it frustrating. The tidy explanation of the meaning of the parable provided in the gospel may, I suspect, have been more the product of the early church than of the man Jesus. It smells suspiciously like the church trying to tidy up the gospel when no tidying up is necessary. Perhaps the church couldn’t take the ambiguity either.
The irony is, of course, that even when an explanation is imposed on the story, we are oddly dissatisfied. There are as many things not captured in that explanation as are. We are not told how to prepare the ground to receive the seed, or why some seeds will have the power to grow and others not. Seed dies before it grows, just as Jesus will die before God raises him to life. It is in the dying that life itself begins. It is in the changing that our creation happens. Explanation can be dangerous. It suggests limits. It invites us to look no further.
For it is in the story, not in the explanation, that we discover each of us has something of God in us—it is where our holiness begins, where our true self is to be found.
And Jesus’ message is urgent. He comes to speak of a kingdom—God’s kingdom. The same kingdom for which Isaiah the prophet longed. About which Isaiah spoke “Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? ….” For that which is not bread. Labor for that which does not satisfy. And in the naming of our weariness, Isaiah is immediately inside that gaping God-sized hole in each of us—inside our restlessness, our numbing anxieties, and fearful hostilities. And, having entered our restlessness, penetrated our mask, he lays his heart alongside ours and speaks. He takes us to a new place by painting a fresh picture of what is to come. Wine and honey without price. Wine and honey at no cost. A world without weariness. A world of joy and peace.
And Jesus is announcing that the kingdom is already bursting out around us. That the kingdom is at hand. The time has come to declare that God loves and that love wins. There is “something there” when we get there. In God’s kingdom all are welcome at the table. It is the table of hope and the table of peace. It is milk and honey. Bread and wine. Body and blood.
“Listen,” says Isaiah, “that you may live.” Hear then the parable of the sower: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up…