Are We Hearing, But Not Hearing?
In the text before us today, Jesus tells another parable. The title commonly given to this parable is a bit misleading. The sower is not the focus of attention. It is the seed and the soils, which are the primary subjects.
In this parable, seed is sown—falling on 4 different types of soil—but only one type of soil yields fruit. The parallel is that when the Word of God is proclaimed there are generally 4 types of responses. Three of the responses are negative and one is positive.
The seed is said to be “the word (of God)” in verse 14, and each soil represents a type of person. More specifically, Matthew’s version explains that the soil represents the human "heart" (Mt. 13:19), and Luke’s version specifies even further that it is an "honest and good heart" that receives the seed of the Word (Lk.8:15).
We should note that the seed is always the same—even the soil is the same—the difference lies in the condition of the soil. Carrying the analogy through then, the seed is always the Gospel and the soil is always the human heart, and what determines whether the Gospel bears fruit in the individual is THE CONDITION OF THEIR HEART.
Jesus, no doubt, was using imagery quite familiar to His audience. Agriculture was central to the Jewish people. Every Jew would have understood the process of sowing seed and growing crops. In those days, the sower would drape a bag of seed over his shoulder, and as he walked up and down the plowed trenches, he would take handfuls of seed and scatter it. This seed would fall, typically, on soil of four conditions.
The first condition of the soil is the soil "beside the road"(4:15). It is important, first of all, to understand that Palestine was covered with fields. With no fences or walls separating these fields, the only boundaries were narrow paths—dirt paths walked on by travelers. The condition of this soil would be matted down dirt. Any seed that landed on these paths would not penetrate the ground, and would subsequently die.
The second condition of soil described is "rocky places"(4:16). This is not a reference to soil with stones in it; any farmer who cultivated a field would remove all the stones he could. In Israel, strata of limestone rock bed ran through the land. In places, the rock bed could jut so close to the surface that it would lie only inches beneath the topsoil. Seed sown here would immediately germinate, but the descending roots would quickly hit the rock and have no place to go. With limited access to moisture, the sun would quickly scorch the plant and cause it to wither.
The third condition of soil described is weedy soil; Jesus says the “seed was sown among the thorns”(4:18). This soil would have had the appearance of good soil. It would appear deep, rich, tilled, and fertile. The difficulty is, the soil is already taken up. Weeds, indigenous to that area, grow without any cultivation—they flourish naturally. And so when this foreign seed is planted and begins to grow, it gets "choked" out (4:19).
And finally, we have “good soil”, describing those who “hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold”(4:20). Matthew’s version says the “good soil . . . is the man who hears the word and UNDERSTANDS it” (Mt. 13:23). In Luke’s account, Jesus unpacks the implications of receiving the word by saying that those “who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, (also) hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Lk. 8:15).
We infer from this that those who truly understand God's Word will spend all their energies LIVING BY IT. And when we live by God's Word alone, the result will be a harvest of fruit.
Now, with the parable explained, it behooves us to identify our position within the parable. And as we do that, we should note, both, our ultimate position in the parable, and our present position within the parable.
In terms of our ultimate position within this parable, I pray that most of you can regard yourselves as “good soil”. Because if you can’t, there is a problem. The roadside soil, the rocky soil, and the weedy soil represent those who will not bear fruit. John the Baptist gives a warning to such as these, saying, “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9). Jesus says much the same in John 15, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (Jn. 15:6).
Beloved, it is imperative that we bear good fruit—and I am not talking simply about doing good deeds here. The fruit that Jesus speaks of explicitly corresponds to the planting of the Gospel into our hearts; the fruit Jesus speaks of explicitly corresponds to our abiding in Him.
For this reason, it is of paramount importance that we assess our position within this parable. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Have I accepted the Word of God in my heart? And am I growing in my understanding of it?’ Of course, this requires more than mere intellectual assent—James reminds us that mere belief is not enough when he states that “the demons also believe, and (they) shudder” (Jas. 2:19). Mere intellectual assent does not equal genuine Christian faith, and so Jesus adds this qualifier in Luke’s Gospel, “(those) who have heard the word . . . (also) obey it, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Lk. 8:15).
Beloved, it is necessary to take an honest inventory of the state of your soul, and to be sure to verify that the Gospel seed has taken root in good soil.
Firstly, then, we assess our ultimate position within this parable. Secondly, even if we have confirmed that our ultimate position within this parable is one of “good soil”, we must also be diligent to assess our present position within this parable.
Presumably, many of you here today have, at some point in your life, welcomed the Word of Christ into your heart. There was a day when you regarded everything that the world had to offer as rubbish, and you chose to follow Christ. But what about now? What is your present position within this parable? Has anything changed? What is your primary concern? Do the things of this “world” distract you from following Christ? Or does your primary concern remain with heavenly things—is your chief concern following Christ regardless of the cost?
It seems to me that Sunday morning provides each of us an opportunity to assess the present condition of our relationship with Jesus Christ. If the seed scattered from this pulpit each Sunday can be, in some measure, described as ‘the word proclaimed’, we should then be able to assess whether or not we are receiving the word.
If the condition of our heart matches the roadside soil, it is unlikely that the reading and preaching of the Word of God will penetrate our heart. In this condition, we leave worship in the same state in which we entered. We leave unaffected and unchanged. We leave none the better, perhaps even in a worse state than before.
Differing from the roadside soil, if the condition of our heart presently matches the rocky soil, we are told that we possess the ability to receive the word. Notice that this time the seed manages to penetrate the soil. Not only that, but Jesus says that we “receive (the word) with joy” (4:16).
This is something many of us can relate to. We come to church, we sing praises, God’s Word stirs our hearts, we enjoy fellowship and we leave church with a spring in our step! We are so full of joy . . . and then Monday arrives. Our boss has more work for us—much more. Our spouse says something inconsiderate to us. Our doctor gives us bad news about our health. Our bubble is quickly burst.
How many of you can relate to that? I sure can. I sometimes leave church on Sunday's thinking I'm "Super-Christian" only to find out on Monday how superficial my response to God's Word was. If daily trials and afflictions derail our pursuit of Christ, it is a sure sign that we have only superficially received God's Word.
And what if the present condition of our heart matches the weedy soil? Unfortunately, many of us know what it is like to have God's Word germinating in our heart only to see it later choked out. This analogy of the "weedy soil" is the most unsettling for me. There is the sense that we might be able to avoid having our hearts resemble a dirt path or shallow soil. But the idea of weed-infested soil, I'm afraid, is a genuine reality for most Christians.
We may have prayerfully prepared are hearts to receive the Word of God, but what we often fail to do is remove the harmful things within our heart. In short, we fail to do our weeding. We desperately want to see the Word of God take root in our lives, but at the same time, we are lackadaisical about having the sin, bitterness, and anxiety removed from our hearts.
Jesus explains that the choking of the word by thorns represents “the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things” (4:19). Now, isn’t that unsettling? Isn’t that unsettling that we can relate our lives to this analogy. Many of you are distracted from worshipping God; many of you are worried about things of this world, and subsequently, your desire for worldly things has disrupted your fellowship with Christ.
Beloved, those of us who, at one point in our life, received the word of God with all sincerity, ought to make certain that we are presently receiving His word. We ought not take for granted the current condition of our heart; we ought not take for granted the current condition of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
And perhaps there are some here today who are not certain if they have ever received the word in the manner that Jesus speaks of in this parable.
Whether you are someone who has never received and accepted the Gospel of Christ, or whether you are someone who once received the Gospel, but is now distracted, the called for response is the same for both: Pray to the One who has the ability to change the nature of the soil. Pray to the One who has the ability to change the condition of our heart.
The benefits of being “good soil” are innumerable. Pray that our Heavenly Father would give us “ears to hear” (4:9), and strength to obey, in order that Christ might be glorified in our lives. Amen.