That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘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. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
“Which historical figure would you most like to meet, and why?” I always loved that day in history class when we were asked to answer that question. Language barriers and cultural differences were suspended for the sake of the exercise, and students were encouraged to think long and carefully about their choices. It was always so interesting to hear which figures my classmates settled on. Some went for the obvious and the easy: George Washington, Albert Einstein, perhaps even Elvis Presley. Fine choices all, but rather hastily made. And then there were those who had plainly given careful thought to the question, and had chosen a person in history whose interests they shared or whose passions they sought to emulate: Marie Curie, Frederick Douglass, or maybe Joan of Arc. With every answer, I could imagine a sort of patron standing behind each of my friends, telling me something about their aspirations and values. By the end of the exercise, our class was a constellation glowing with the borrowed light of history’s great and good.
In today’s reading, Jesus plays something of an inverted version of that game with his disciples. He does not ask them what figure they’d most like to meet—Abraham? Moses? Isaiah? Esther? Instead, he tells them that if all the great heroes of their faith were asked the question, “Which person would you most like to meet?” every single one of them would reply in the same way. Who would the great figures of Israel’s past most like to meet? No one more than the Messiah, the Christ—Jesus himself. The One with whom the disciples ate and drank, talked and prayed, traveled and taught: this One was the hope and expectation of untold generations. “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
And what he earnestly wants the disciples to understand is that this privilege—this amazing opportunity—is not given in recognition of any special virtue or unique righteousness that his disciples possess. Jesus says simply, “To you it has been give to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.” There is no indication that the disciples had worked to prepare in their hearts good soil for the sower’s seeds. There is certainly no reason to suspect that they were better, or wiser, or holier, or more faithful, or more fervent than all of Israel’s prophets and sages and righteous people of ages past. But in the fullness of time, by the grace of God, the longed-for One had been revealed. This is purest gift. As Jesus says to his friends, “To you it has been given to know…”
Beloved, one of the greatest challenges we face in this season of Lent is receiving that same gift of grace. In this time when so much of our focus is on us and our worthiness—Are we keeping our disciplines? Have we been faithful to our vows? Will we grow in our faith?—we risk forgetting that this season of repentance and preparation is a gift and a work of God’s Holy Spirit. The desire to undertake a Lenten commitment is not a sign of some deep holiness of our own. Much more wonderfully, it is a sign that the Lord is at work in us. The fear that we might not be perfect in performing our disciplines is not a reason to doubt and to worry. Much more powerfully, it is a sign that God is convicting us: turning over the fields of our hearts and revealing the heaviest boulders and the rockiest soil.
Do not let what remains of this season become an occasion for self-righteousness. Do not forget that our hearts so easily grow dull, our ears so hard of hearing, our eyes so tightly shut. The Good News of this holy Lent is that God has come to walk the road with us. The long-awaited One is in our midst. To us it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven. May we pursue that gift of knowledge with thankfulness and humility, following it even to the hill of Calvary. May we go with awe and expectation with the sad women to the quiet tomb. May we hear again the words of the Risen Jesus echoing in our grace-readied hearts:
“Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”