Continuing with this parable, the first group spoken of “…hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it…” thereby producing no fruit. However, in verse 23, the parable concludes with “…the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.” The word “understand” means “to set or bring together,” or to “join together in the mind.” As we prepare to consider the important role understanding plays in the process of producing good fruit, let’s digress slightly to consider the context of the parable.
Jesus is presenting truth to His disciples. This truth is presented in such a way that those having a particular level of understanding will gain more understanding while those unprepared for such truth will fail to grasp what is being taught. The understanding in question specifically pertains to the kingdom of God. This is to be seen as part of the training of His disciples; preparing them for their upcoming work. Certain people might feel it’s unfair for Jesus to keep truth from some while making it available to a special, specified group. To avoid this tendency, we could think in terms of a sports team. There are times when those who play a certain position on the team (a catcher in baseball or a quarterback in football) will gather for specific instruction or training that pertains to their role on the team. This is not to belittle the other players but to prepare certain people to play their role to the ultimate benefit of the team. On the other hand, we could consider the environment of a classroom. Having gained understanding about certain mathematical principles, some students are prepared for the next level of information while such instruction would only serve to confuse other students. The next level of information, referred to above, is not something a good teacher will give to a student not advanced enough to use it properly. Such information will likely produce confusion. Though the context of the parable involves keeping some people from deeper understanding, it is not because God is against understanding but because understanding involves “joining together” new information with information previously grasped in order to produce a broader, more comprehensive perspective. Thus, certain information depends upon prior understanding before it is appropriate to dispense. This is certainly true regarding the truths and principles of God’s kingdom and His purposes in and relationship with planet earth and human history. I am convinced that God wants us to gain as much understanding as possible and produce as much fruit as possible, recognizing that such understanding proceeds “…order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there.” Consequently, the statement “…whoever has, to him shall more be given…” is to be understood according to the explanation above. Consider, as well, that Jesus taught that the one who is faithful with little is faithful with much and to whom much has been given, much will be required. God is good and wise in all He does.
The point of this section is to emphasize that producing fruit involves more than simple exposure to truth. According to the parable under consideration, many people were exposed to truth (the word of the kingdom) but only one category actually produced fruit as a result. As well, of those who gained understanding, some produced “more” fruit than others. It was “…the man who hears the word and understands it…” who produces various amounts or levels of fruit. This would seem to suggest that the more understanding one gains, the more fruit one can potentially produce.
A number of cautions and clarifications are in order. First, I am not suggesting that understanding alone will produce fruit. There are issues such as faith, character, perseverance, wisdom, etc. that factor into this process. As well, I am not suggesting that the possession of an abstract thing called “understanding” automatically produces fruit. I am emphasizing that the process of consistently producing fruit includes and involves having and properly using understanding. Understanding refers to the mental process of properly “joining together” information to expand one’s comprehension of truth that is available to formulate in the mind. We might envision a jigsaw puzzle of which we connect the various pieces in order to get the picture. Understanding involves specific mental effort to analyze, reflect upon, reason and logically work with available information. Many people assume that there should be no need to and, consequently, refuse to make an effort to think. There is a direct connection between thinking and gaining understanding. Charles Finney wrote, ”My brother, sister, friend – read, study, think, and read again. You were made to think. It will do you good to think, to develop your powers by study. God designed that religion should require thought, intense thought, and should thoroughly develop our powers of thought. The Bible itself is written in a style so condensed as to require much intense study. Many know nothing of the Bible or of religion because they will not think and study. I do not pretend to so explain theology as to dispense with the labor of thinking. I have no ability and no wish to do so.”
While considering the mental processes related to assimilating truth, a distinction in the mental functions of knowing, understanding and wisdom might prove helpful.
Those able to identify the engine of a car have knowledge. Those who can offer a technical explanation about how a combustion engine works have understanding. Wisdom is a mental application that involves envisioning how to arrive at a useful function. Wisdom involves identifying the best means of arriving at the best end.
As you walk along the sidewalk near the edge of town, you notice a man standing on the train track as an oncoming train approaches from behind. Scenario #1: Knowing you are close enough to get his attention were you to shout, you quietly stand and watch thereby giving the endangered individual no warning. Hearing no truth about his impending doom, he does nothing in response to his dangerous situation. Scenario #2: Knowing you are close enough to get his attention were you to shout, you raise your voice and shout a number of indistinguishable words and phrases in a combination of various languages that the individual is not able to understand. Scenario #3: Knowing you are close enough to get his attention were you to shout, you raise your voice and shout a very clear and appropriate warning that the individual hears and understands with absolute certainty. With full awareness of the clear and present danger, he maintains his current position, refusing to budge.
In each scenario above, the impending doom of the oncoming train is not averted. Hearing no truth or warning, there is no reason to change one’s position. Hearing something that one does not understand (for whatever reason), there is no reason to change one’s position. Gaining understanding but refusing to act upon and obey the truth made known, one suffers the consequence of rebellion and stubbornness. With this, we can briefly consider the importance of obedience to known truth.
To this point, I have emphasized the importance of being exposed to truth and of gaining understanding of the truth to which one is exposed. We must recon with the idea that simply because large numbers of people gather in buildings to hear sermons week after week, it is not safe to conclude that they walk out of the building with understanding. If they have understanding, there is no guarantee that they will practice obedience. We proceed to consider the role of obedience in producing good, lasting fruit.