Summary: God spreads his word among all kinds of people, many people will respond to his word with less than saving faith but some people do respond positively and we get the privilege of seeing them grow in faith and bear fruit.
By Rev Bill Stewart
"Farmers call for HECS-style loan to see off drought"
"Cost of carbon regime ’modest’ "
"Man of the land supports laws of nature"
"Recycled water ’will have bugs’ "
All these headlines come from the front page of this Wednesday’s copy of The Australian newspaper (29 October 2008). They remind us – as if any of us needed reminding – that in most parts of Australia rainfall has been very low from many years now and a serious water shortage is being experienced. This shortage has implications for people on the land but also for those of us living here in the city. I quickly watered a few of my plants between 6-8am this morning. How many of you did too? We are all "living at 3a", the advertisements tell us – level 3a water restrictions, that is. And there will almost certainly be greater restrictions on water consumption unless there is an almost biblical flood in the next few months.
I expect that if Jesus were telling his parables today these are the kind of situations he would be talking about in his parables because they are the things that shaping our lives. That’s why they are "front page news". Jesus talked about the things that shaped the everyday lives of the people of his day.
2. Everyday life ("the kingdom of heaven is like")
"A sower went out to sow". In one sense, parables are simple short stories aren’t they? They are based on simple analogies: a resemblance between two things: in some ways this thing is like that one. And they all have the same basic theme. Many of them begin with the words: "The kingdom of heaven [or the kingdom of God] is like…" Some of the later parables in chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel do have this introduction (vs. 44, 45, 47 etc.) Jesus does not use it in what he calls "the parable of the sower" (see v. 18), but the theme is the same. So what is Jesus saying the kingdom of heaven is like in this parable?
"A sower went out to sow". Or "a farmer went out to plant some seed", in our language. Why do farmers go out to plant a crop? Farmers plant seed to get a harvest, don’t they? This is the key point isn’t it! Jesus’ parable doesn’t teach a lesson about agriculture – his listeners already knew that -- but it takes what they already knew to teach a lesson about "spiritual fruitbearing" (Craig Blomberg). God as a "sower", people as "soil", and birds as "Satan" were standard images in Jewish circles. Just as the sower’s desire is to plant successful seed, Jesus says, God’s desire is to establish his kingdom. The seed is "the word of the kingdom" (v. 19). And the people of Israel are the soil upon which the seed falls. And immediately we recognise a contrast, don’t we? The three unfruitful soils are contrasted to the fruitful soil (Blomberg). It seems to me that Jesus had at least three points to make here.
(1) Firstly, that like the SOWER, God spreads his word among all kinds of people. "Listen! A sower went out to sow" (v. 3). Of course, hand sowing wasn’t as precise as modern direct-drilling cultivation equipment. So the seed is sown all over the place. But the results are different in different places.
(2) Like the three kinds of UNFRUITFUL SOIL, many people will respond to his word with less than saving faith. Some seed Jesus tells his followers fell upon the "path" (v. 4). And when Jesus followers ask for an explanation he tells them: "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" (v. 19). In other words, for some people (i) there will be a complete lack of response due to the enticement of evil, the desire to live without God.
Some seed fell upon "rocky ground" (vs. 5-6). And "this is the one", Jesus says, "who hears the WORD and immediately receives it with joy but such a person has no root, but endures only for awhile, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the WORD that person immediately falls away" (vs. 20-21). For other people, it seems, (ii) there is temporary but ultimately superficial response which appears at the beginning to be true commitment.
Other seed feel among "thorns" (v. 7). And, Jesus says, "this is the one who hears the WORD but the lure of wealth choke the WORD and it yields nothing" (v. 22). For other people, then, there is (iii) genuine interest and conviction that in the end simply falls short due to the demands of discipleship.
Like God we too desire to see people come to saving faith. The sad news is that not everyone responds favourably to God’s word. And it is always distressing, isn’t it, to see people reject God. Sometimes it can be even harder to see them respond enthusiastically at first, then drift away as time goes by. Those of us who have been Christians for many years will probably have had the experience of seeing that happen. It can be especially hard when it involves people we know and love, family and friends.