A Fundamental Difference
I once knew a pastor who defended what amounted to a one-size-fits-all ministry philosophy. He argued that the fundamental job of pastoral ministry was teach at a level that the most basic members in the congregation would be able to understand the message.
He was right in his desire to reach the most basic. That principle is a given in Christian ministry, and Christian ministers must do their best to reach the neediest members of the people to whom they minister.
At the same time, I believe that he was shortsighted in his assumption that the basic-level teaching that is necessary for some would be sufficient for all.
Jesus’ parable of the soils shows us in the most concrete terms possible that fundamental differences exist between people who hear the gospel. Some get it while others do not, and Jesus directs the bulk of his time toward those who do. In fact, he builds his teaching ministry around that reality.
What Jesus Does with the Differences
In Mark 4:1-9, he brings a parable to the crowds who followed him to the Galilee lakeshore. Most of the crowd listens to the parable and the concluding admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Then they go about their business.
A few take the time to consider what they heard and the ask about the reason for his strange manner of teaching. Jesus explains that his parables go to differences in the spiritual divide between the people. Mark writes,
Mark 4:10-12 (ESV)
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,
12 so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Jesus divides the world into two groups: those who have “been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” and those who remain “outside.” Further, he quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10, which pronounces a curse on those who did not hear during Isaiah’s time in the Old Testament. The curse is simple. Those who cannot receive the truth have their chance to act on the truth revoked.
Well, that hardly sounds fair. What about teaching that tries to reach the simplest among us?
Living the Truth in a Deluded World
The bottom line is that most people are unable to discern spiritual truth regardless of how simply anyone presents it to them. This is why Jesus talked about four different soils. The soils symbolize the four basic responses to the gospel. Some reject the truth outright. Others fly with the message until they discover that discipleship is difficult. Still others spend their lives obsessed with stuff that interferes with the truth that guides their eternal souls. These three all fail in the end, and Jesus lets them go. They hear “without effort or heeding.”
The fourth group consists of those whom Jesus describes as “good soil” because they bear fruit. These are the ones who have been given the secret of the kingdom of God. Once they understand it, they do something with it.
They do not get to say, “Lucky me!” and then bask in their glory. They have an obligation to take the truth to a disinformation-saturated world. Jesus gives his disciples five principles that show the characteristics of fruit bearing:
Mark 4:21-25 (ESV)
21 “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?
22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.
23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 And he said to them, “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.
25 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.”
Biblical authorities debate the exact meaning of the sayings. I believe that they go to personal responsibility in discipleship.
- Verse 21: The rhetorical question in this verse moves to the heart of the issue. The lamp is Jesus.Those who have him know whom they have. To use a double negative, we cannot not know that we belong to him. If he dwells within us, he illuminates our understanding.
- Verse 22: Jesus ultimately will bring all truth to light. He will not be kept as a trade secret. He manifests the truth in his followers so that they may pass it on to others.
- Verse 23, the central point in the symmetrical arrangement, repeats the call to the walking deaf in verse 9. Its place at the center of this five-part teaching shows its importance. When Jesus calls the deaf to listen, he wants the truth to begin to cut through the fog in their brains. When he calls the privileged to listen, his call is not idle. He commands them to understand the purpose for the truth so they can begin to apply it.
- Verses 24: Those who hear the interpretation of the parable come under greater responsibility. On the one hand, they must pay attention to the truth. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you...” But the responsibility also promises reward: “…and still more will be added to you.”
- Finally, Jesus expands the meaning of the obligation. “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.” Those who take their gift seriously will receive great reward.
Jesus’ does not teach that God saves by our works. No one can offer him something that he does not already own.
He does teach that works emerge from salvation. They are the visible fruit of seed sown on fertile ground. Those who produce fruit have every right to expect even greater grace.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 138.
 Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 139.