Introduction: The first recorded parable of Jesus is “The Parable of the Sower.” It is the only parable which Jesus explains line by line.
One of the important things for us to understand is that fields in biblical times were not like our fields today which have been prepared by modern machinery with the crops planted in neat rows. In those days, the fields were in long strips with paths between them so that people could pass through. That was important in a culture where everyone walked. Sometimes the Romans built their roads next to a farmer’s field. Sometimes the land next to the field was allowed to grow wild; it was full of thorns and weeds. The farmer would cast the seed all over the ground and then plow it under. In the ancient process of sowing it was impossible not to have some of the seed fall, or be blown by the wind, onto the different areas.
It is very possible that Jesus was watching a farmer sow seed as He told this story, in which Jesus is represented as the Sower, and the seed is the Word of God. Please note that the seed falls onto every type of soil without discrimination.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 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!”
Jesus went on to explain, “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Prayer: Farmer God, Your words of life are cast upon the earth with a generous hand and a hopeful heart. May Your word take root in our lives as we grow deeper in Your way and bear the fruit of justice, righteousness, and love. Amen.
The soil in the parable represents our willingness to hear and respond to the Word of God as given through Jesus Christ. It’s about how well we listen. Much of the time we are poor listeners.
Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”
We are selective listeners, tuning out when we think we know what another person is going to say. I’m embarrassed to admit that I do that. My dear husband, John, knows immediately when I have tuned out. It’s painful for us both, but I’m working on it.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about four kinds of listeners:
1. The hard-hearted listener
2. The shallow-hearted listener
3. The clutter-hearted listener
4. The good-hearted listener.
As I describe these listeners, think about whether you might fall into one group or another. Generally speaking, Jesus draws with a broad brush, meaning the separations may not be so clear. Each of us may fall into a number of categories.
The hard-hearted listener is cynical. Often they have done a fair amount of research to support their unwillingness to hear the word. Or they may have had a personal trauma that left them without faith. There is a woman in New York City that I counseled during a particularly difficult time in her life. When the tragedy happened that she hoped to ward off with prayer, she decided there was no God. I occasionally hear from a mutual friend that she wants me to know that she still doesn’t believe in God. The fact that it still bothers her enough to keep sending me that message makes me think that maybe she isn’t really a hard-hearted listener.
With a hard-hearted listener, words don’t work. Only actions carry any weight with them. To break down that hard heart, kindness and not sermons are the thing needed. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”
The second kind of listener that Jesus describes is shallow-hearted. They have no roots. This is the person who doesn’t have the discipline to hear and live faith. In today’s world, most of us are over stimulated. We lose our focus. We become shallow people. We forget the truth of the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” We expect faith to arrive in front of us.
One of the most difficult problems Protestant churches are experiencing is the lack of denominational loyalty. Protestants regularly church shop. If the preaching isn’t good enough, or the youth group isn’t large enough, or the music isn’t glorious every week…then we search for a church that at least for a while seems better by comparison. We don’t put down roots and we suffer from it.
The third listener that Jesus describes is the clutter-hearted listener. This is the person who is distracted by all the offerings of the world. We all know about how hard it is to make decisions about the time we devote to church versus other activities, even though plenty of research shows that children who attend church regularly gain more from church than from sports and other extracurricular activities. If you are interested in that story, please let me know and I’ll make a copy of it from the Washington Post.
A few statistics clarify the problem. The figures I have are from five years ago, but I believe the comparisons are still the same. Americans gave $2.9 billion dollars to overseas missions. That sounds pretty good until you find out that we spend $8.4 billion to see movies, $13 billion to buy chocolate, $23 billion to buy toys, $34 billion to buy stuff for our pets, $24 billion for jewelry, $58 billion for soft drinks…the list goes on. One look at our checkbooks shows what we truly believe is important. We are living shallow lives.
But Jesus describes the fourth listener as the good-hearted listener. The good-hearted listener bears fruit, yielding one hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold. How do we become the good-hearted listener?
First, we have to plow the soil. We have to be prepared to hear the Word. We often arrive rather passively to worship God. The way my parents used to put it is that we expect to be “spoon-fed.” Instead we need to arrive ready to hear and respond to the word.
Getting a good night’s sleep is important. I remember a girl in one of my seminary classes who just couldn’t keep her eyes open. All I could think of was, “That’s what I look like when I’m falling asleep in class.”
We also need to pray to be open to the Word. Most importantly, we need to come seeking to apply God’s word in our lives. We need to listen for God’s word to us.
I’ve never actually had a parishioner say to me, “Your sermon was just what so-and-so needed to hear.” But I’ve been told “It’s too bad more of those people weren’t here to hear that message.” You can fill in the blank for yourself. Whatever group you like to be critical of fits right into the sentence. Like this, “It’s too bad more of the so and so groups weren’t here to hear…” Or maybe it’s the children who need to here this or that. We do it all the time: we assume the message isn’t about us. It’s about someone else.
We need to look for the ways the lessons apply to us.
The second thing we need to do is put down roots. We need to build up our relationships with each other. Whenever we have new members, I hear from folks who say, “I don’t know these new people.” Why not? Can’t we go up and introduce ourselves?
Earlier this week, Mary Sakowski called me to ask for a simple favor which I was delighted to do. As we talked, she told me that she was amazed at how kind, encouraging, and helpful the church members had been. Do you know why everyone has been helpful? Because Mary and Henry put down roots. They pitched in to help from their first day at Geneva.
Putting down roots involves being committed to spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study. And when things get tough here at Geneva, which they inevitably do, we need to dig in and strengthen our roots.
The third thing we need to do to make ourselves fertile for the Word of God is to pull up the weeds that take our time and resources away from living our faith. We live in a culture where we are encouraged to think of ourselves first. We are encouraged to focus on wealth, prestige, and appearances, but those things are like weeds. They will grow and grow until they take over our lives.
There’s an old story about a miserable rich man who went to visit a rabbi. The rabbi took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. “Look out there,” he said. The rich man looked into the street. “What do you see?” asked the rabbi.
“I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man.
Again the rabbi took him by the hand and this time led him to a mirror. “Now what do you see?”
“Now I see myself,” the rich man replied.
Then the rabbi said, “Behold, in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver representing wealth. No sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, but you see only yourself.”
The story of the sower tells of abundant possibilities, but to yield one hundredfold, sixtyfold, or even thirtyfold, we have to create in ourselves space for the Word. There is much we need to do, so let us get tilling the soil of our souls. Amen.