Sunday afternoon I led two back-to-back Bible studies in Skagit County Jail on the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. After introductions and an opening prayer, a volunteer reads the first nine verses. As I listen a strategy unfolds for the mere twenty minutes that remain.
I ask the fifteen or so men where Jesus was, who else was there and what they were doing in the story. Since nobody seems to remember, we read the first two verses again. Then people piece together the details.
Jesus had left his house and was sitting by the sea. Large crowds came around him so he got in a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the beach listening.
“Ok, let’s pretend I’m Jesus and here’s my boat,” I say, jumping up on a table pushed up against a disheveled bookshelf in the jail’s multipurpose room. How about if you guys all stand, pretending you’re on the beach listening.” All the men stand up, and I pretend I’m teaching.
“So what happens in this story that Jesus tells?” I ask the men.
Together we talk about what a sower is, and how in the parable the sower throws seeds out on four kinds of ground. Seeds fall beside the road, which end up getting eaten by birds. Seeds fall in rocky soil, which spring up but then dry up fast in the hot sun. Seeds fall in the sticker bushes, which get choked to death. Finally seeds fall on good soil, which is fruitful.
“Who do you think the sower and the seed might represent?” I ask the men. Standing there looking at me sitting on the table (in the imaginary boat) the answer seems obvious. Jesus is the sower and they’re the soil. The seeds are Jesus’ words. I invite the men to take a seat and continue.
“So seeds go into ground, but we’re not ground, are we? How do invisible words enter into us?” I ask.
“We hear them,” someone says, and I remind them that Jesus ends his parable saying “He who has ears, let him hear.”
“So who has ears?” I ask, and everyone looks around and someone says, “we all do.”
So the sower scatters seed in all these places, which represent all kinds of people in different states of openness. If Jesus reveals God, what’s God like according to this story?”
“God doesn’t discriminate, he scatters his seed to everyone,” someone says.
“He’s generous and doesn’t judge. He teaches everyone,” someone adds.
“So he doesn’t say—‘no, I’m not giving that guy anything, he’s a sex-offender. Not that guy either, he’s addicted to porn. Not him either, he never goes to church and is a felon,’” I say, and then suddenly realize I’m speaking to inmates from the sex-offender pod. Nobody seems offended though. It feels like I’ve got their full attention.
We talk about how Jesus believes in the people, including us. He tells anyone who has ears, “hear.” There’s still a little time left so I invite someone to read the next verses.
“And the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.”
“So the disciples want to know why Jesus speaks through these not-so-easy to understand stories,” I say. “Does his answer sound kind of harsh, even discriminatory?”
The men look down at their Bibles silently, some of them probably thinking that the good news they’ve barely heard is about to be snatched from their trampled path souls by the birds.
I ask if anyone knows what a disciple is and nobody answers. I ask a man in front of me what’s his profession, and he answers: “I’m a chronic alcoholic.”
I acknowledge his confession but probe deeper, learning that he’s a mechanic. I tell him that if I came to him and asked if I could shadow him because I wanted to learn how to work on cars like he does and he agreed, I’d be his disciple.
“That’s like an apprentice,” a guy who says he’s a metal worker chimes in—and people get it.
“So the disciples come to Jesus with their questions and concerns, and he helps them understand,” I summarize.
“When we don’t understand something, we can come to Jesus and ask him. Of course we can’t see him. But we can tell him and ask him for wisdom and understanding. That’s called prayer. Jesus tells them in other places: ‘Ask and you will receive.’ ‘Seek and you will find.’ ‘Knock and the door will be opened,’ I say.
“Any of us can speak to Jesus or the Holy Spirit by faith. If you do this God will give you clarity, like Jesus says: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”
“What if Jesus is just saying that if you don’t understand something and don’t ask, you won’t get the clarity?” I ask.
The men seem to like this answer, so I dare to have them read the next verse and ask them what they think it means. Someone reads:
“For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”
A heavily tatted-up guy probably in his late twenties humbly offers an answer.
“When we have faith and ask, God will give us more and our faith will grow. If we refuse to trust we end up with nothing.”
The guards pop the doors announcing time’s up, and we haven’t even prayed. I nod to the guard and ask if we can have one more minute to close with prayer.
“Any of us can be Jesus’ disciple if we want to learn from him.” I say. “You can be that good soil that receives the seeds of his word. He wants to tell you the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. While you’re in this jail you can be hearing and receiving his words, taking in these seeds. You can ask Jesus by faith and he will give you in abundance,” I say.
I invite the men to tell Jesus right then and there if they’d like to be his disciple to learn from him. Many of the guys are nodding that they want this. I bless the seeds of God’s words that have gone in, and prohibit the enemy from snatching them away. I bless whatever faith they have and then notice the guard peaking in through the door. Time’s definitely up and men file out. I feel God’s gentle presence and wait for the next group, wondering what’s going to happen.
Only three men come in for the second Bible study. A guy in his mid forties gets all choked up begins to cry when we talk about how Jesus doesn’t discriminate, but speaks to everyone in whatever state we’re in, calling us to listen, to receive the word so it can be fruitful.
He says that his mother-in-law, who he lives with, is a really religious person who goes to church every Sunday, and reads the Bible and prays every day.
“All the time she hugs me and tells me she wants me to live a long life. But I’ve been completely closed, feeling nothing. All I think about is where I’m going to get that day’s supply of heroin,” he says, sobbing.
“She doesn’t know, or I guess she probably does know that something’s wrong,” he reflects.
I’m deeply moved, and so are the other two guys. The man who’s crying suddenly realizes that these hugs are like seeds that are still there, waiting for the soil to be ready. Suddenly his heart is open, and the seeds of love are penetrating into the softened soil of his heart.
I ask if I can pray for him and the others, and people nod yes. I bless each of the men, asking the Holy Spirit to fill them, to cover over the seeds, make them germinate and grow, and become fruitful. I leave feeling like I can feel seeds germinating and growing, bursting out of my heart. Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.