God’s ways truly are not our ways. None of us would have written the story of redemption the way God has. The story itself points to a Personality and intentionality behind it. And if we’re paying attention, we can detect the same Personality and intentionality in the strange way Jesus communicates the kingdom of God in hard-to-understand parables. None of us would do it that way.
One of Jesus’s most repeated sayings in the Gospels is some version of this: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). If we’re wise, we’ll listen carefully to whatever Jesus says, especially what he says repeatedly. And in this case, listening happens to be precisely what he’s telling us to do.
There’s a very, very important reason behind Jesus’s exhortation:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24–25)
Do you understand what Jesus is saying? The fact that this warning itself is somewhat difficult to understand illustrates his point: listen and ponder carefully, for if you don’t, you will not understand, and if you do not understand, you will lose whatever capacity to understand you do have.
Everything hangs on how well you hear what God is saying — what we commonly call the word of God. And hearing God well requires your close attention. Are you paying attention?
The Strange Purpose of Parables
Jesus issues this warning in the context of telling a series of parables. Parables were riddle-stories in which Jesus hid profound secrets of God’s kingdom in brief, often mundane-sounding metaphors. In the stories recorded in Mark 4, he uses a farmer’s soils (Mark 4:1–8), an oil lamp (Mark 4:21–25), and seeds (Mark 4:26–32).
Read them. Do you understand them? Of course, Jesus explains the parable of the soils (Mark 4:13–20). But what about the lamp or the seeds? These stories sound simpler than they are. We won’t really get them unless we are paying attention.
And we have Bibles! None of Jesus’s original hearers had ever heard these parables before. They weren’t written down so they could be read over and over, have their grammatical structure examined, and be conveniently cross-referenced with other Scriptures. The first hearers heard these stories once. If they weren’t paying attention, they would miss the kingdom. That’s costly distraction.
When Jesus explained to his disciples why he taught in parables, he said he did so — quoting portions of Isaiah 6:9–10 — that his hearers “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). Here again, Jesus’s hard-to-understand explanation illustrates his point: if we’re not listening carefully, we’ll miss what he’s saying.
Is God really telling riddles so that people won’t understand? No and yes. Jesus told the parables to reveal spiritual mysteries of the kingdom, and he really wanted people to understand them. That’s why he said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” and “Pay attention.” But his revelatory method tested the spiritual wakefulness and earnestness of the hearers. Those who were listening to really hear would hear. But the spiritually dull and distracted would not. Jesus wanted to give the kingdom to the former, not the latter. Those who would not pay attention would reveal their spiritual dullness — dullness that has serious consequences: missing the kingdom of God.