Dr James, the famous Scottish preacher tells how one Sunday they had a visiting speaker at their service. At the end of the service, as people were moving out, one dear lady turned to Dr James and said, “That was a wonderful sermon, don’t you think, Dr James?” “And what did you find most helpful in it?” asked Dr James. To which she replied, “Far be it for me, an ordinary person, to understand such a brilliant man.” And, off she went.
The parable we will be looking at is about the importance of good listening when it comes to what God has to say to us. We will look at this parable at 3 levels: 1) The different responses to Jesus, 2) The need to dig deeper, and 3) The possibility of closing our ears when God tries to tell us something.
“Who was Jesus’ audience that day?” For a long time I was under the impression, as many others are, that this parable tells of different responses people generally make to God’s message and truth. While this is still true, the context here points to a more specific audience. The vast majority of Jesus’ ministry was directed to the Jewish nation. Although there may have been some Gentiles in this audience, being around the shores of Lake Galilee, most of them would have been Jews—the people who claimed they were God’s people.
Earlier on, when Jesus began his ministry, he said, The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. (Mk. 1:15). What was the good news that they were to believe? The time had come when God was making possible for sinful human beings to come back to a right relationship with him. And a right relationship always involves the re-establishment of God’s rule in people’s lives. In this chapter Matthew strings together a number of parables on the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father throughout his life and ministry; his willingness to take upon himself the sins of the world, and to face God’s judgement on sin on our behalf, made him the perfect sacrifice. He re-established God’s rule in himself. Although he was also divine, it was as a human being that he re-established that rule of God by his obedience. In him the kingdom of God took place. And as we commit our lives to Christ, we enter the school of discipleship where we continue to learn what it means to work at that obedience to the heavenly Father, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, and God’s Word.
The place of the parable
It is with this background in mind that we need to look at this parable. Why would Jesus say to the crowd that was listening to him, ‘Some of you are going to be completely indifferent to what I am saying. Some of you are going to get really enthusiastic about what you hear, but because you are not prepared to think through the implications of what I am saying, your enthusiasm is going to be short-lived. Some of you are going to accept my message just as you accept everything else in life, but because what I am saying is no more important to you than anything else in your life, all the other things are going to squeeze out my message until you have completely forgotten it. There are some among you, however, who recognise the importance of what I am saying, you will believe it, take it to heart, and as a result your lives will be changed to such an extent that you will touch many other lives and bless them with true knowledge of God.’?
Why would Jesus tell them this unless the different responses were not inevitable? People were not predestined to respond in different ways, as some people claim as a result of a superficial reading of these passages. Jesus never accepted that kind of view. That’s why we need to look at this passage again, and realise that there is a lot more to Scripture than we often notice.
Once we come to this passage, realising that Jesus is addressing God’s own people who are being challenged about their response to God’s rule in their lives, it makes a huge difference to the way we come to this parable. Jesus is not primarily talking to pagans, even though there may have been some of them around the Sea of Galilee (referred to here as the ‘lake’). That is why we need to see this parable as applying firstly to us, who are within the orbit of the Christian Church.
I want us to look at three levels of understanding of this passage. The first level is the most obvious one, but we still need to remind ourselves of the importance of how we need to listen to what God has to say to us. Again and again Jesus stressed the importance of listening with great care. He knew that we all have a bent towards hearing what we want to hear. But, in this case we are not dealing with some interesting information that we can take or leave; it has to do with God’s place in our lives. This is what true Christianity is all about. This is a most serious issue for us as Christians. So, let’s have a look at the various responses people tend to make. This is the first level of understanding of this parable.
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. (vv.3b-4).
The problem is not with the seed. The problem is with the ground. That’s why some commentators prefer to call this the parable of the “Sower and the Ground”.
When people spend a great deal of time stuck with a Walkman in their ear; or, go rushing from one activity to another, because that is what is happening in society today; or, no longer know how to be still; it is almost impossible to hear what God is saying. Even in shops and cafes we are bombarded by music that doesn’t help us to be still and relax. Society does not give our ears and our senses the opportunity to be quiet and to reflect. Our busyness does not allow for time with God and his Word. And the more we allow ourselves to be sucked in to the lifestyle of people around us, the less capacity we have to listen to God, and to consider the important issues of life.
There are some things that we do need to be indifferent to. Whenever we hear a sales pitch about the best kind of TV that we must have, or the latest and most exciting iPhone that’s out, we do need to switch off. Towards things like that, we should be totally indifferent.
But when it comes to the place we give God in our lives, we can’t afford to be indifferent. It’s all about being real Christians in a world that has plenty of experience of ‘Christianity’, but not of real Christians. There is an institutionalised form of Christianity which many people are happy to adopt because it requires very little of them. And there is real Christianity that finds its roots in what Jesus said about following him, and all that that implies. This is what many in the so-called Christian world reject. They hear about these radical claims of Christ, but that’s not for them. They are quite content with their nominal Christianity, thinking that they will be safe one day when they stand before some kind of benevolent grandfather figure of God.
Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (vv.5-6).
Shallowness is one of the greatest problems confronting Christian Churches everywhere. When Karl Marx claimed that religion was the opiate of the people, he wasn’t far wrong. Religion can inoculate us against the real thing to such an extent that we have no desire for real Christianity, while feeling that we have enough of it to satisfy ourselves. It can be like a hallucinogenic that gives us a false sense of security. We never dig deeper to find out the implications of what we claim to be our belief.
I remember attending a summer camp of young people run by a Baptist Church in Perm in the Ural mountains of Russia. The Church at that stage was very young and the leaders believed that the way to initiate a youth work, was through summer camps to which they invited all sorts of young people from the community around them. The school holidays in that part of the world are very long, and there is very little to do for YP during that time. As an outreach activity the idea was excellent, and the leaders all worked very hard to make it a successful time. By the end of the summer camp, quite a few YP seemed to have made decisions for Christ. Everyone was thrilled. When I visited their Church a couple of years later I asked how things were going in the youth work, and how many of the YP who made decisions for the Lord previously were still going on with the Lord. Evidently, there were hardly any. The same thing happens in our own churches in Australia, where there is no proper follow up to help YP to understand the implications of their decisions, and to help them grow in Christ.
But shallowness is present even among some regular church attenders, even among some who take part in church activities, but do not see the need to keep on growing in their understanding of what it really means to belong to God and to do his will in their lives. Their attitude is, “I don’t ask too many questions. If there is something I don’t understand, I don’t let it disturb me, I skip it, and keep on going. I just like to keep it simple for me.” It is easy for our responses to be based on our emotions, but we can’t live on our emotions for too long. We must never forget that God who created us, also gave us a mind and expects us to have an intelligent understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. When Jesus explained what it meant to follow him, he said,
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Mt.16:24-25).
He expects more from us than being merely religious, church-going people. A superficial experience of Christianity has never led anyone to appreciate the wonder of salvation made available to us by God. Nor has it led anyone to understand the incredible privilege we have of being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. No wonder some people feel trapped in a sterile religion that has no life, or joy, or satisfaction.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. (v.7).
What is worldliness? It is when the things we have, or do—not necessarily bad things—are allowed to squeeze out the most important things for us as Christians. It is where our relationship with Christ is simply one of the things in our lives. It is never allowed to be more important than anything else we do.
There are two ways of looking at life: 1) from the material point of view, and, 2) from God’s point of view. There is no doubt that we all live in a material world. We have families, homes, cars, jobs, we go shopping for food and the necessities of life. We were placed in a material world. But, we were also created to live in fellowship with our Creator, and to do his will. When the material aspects of life come to dominate our time, our efforts, our energies, our focus, they strangle our relationship with God. We become fruitless spiritually. Our lives and witness simply reaffirm the all-importance of our material existence to a world that is already committed to living only for the material world.
Worldliness is when we forget that we live in a material world, but not for the material world.
So far we have looked at three different responses to God’s message to us: 1) Indifference, 2) Shallowness, and 3) Worldliness.
The fourth response is of those who allow what they hear to travel through their ears to their hearts, and so to bring about change that transforms their lives in a way that brings glory to God. Like everyone else they live in a material world, but their lives are lived recognising God’s ownership of them, and that’s why they bless others. They are not satisfied with what they already have; they want more of what God has to offer them. It is about these that Jesus said, Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, [the person who goes away without giving more thought to what he has heard], even what he has will be taken from him.” (v.12).
When I was a young Christian in my teens, I had a wonderful friend. When they were babies, he and his twin sister were abandoned on the doorstep of strangers. Both of them grew up in orphanages. He had no opportunity to finish schooling and had to go to work from an early age. At some point he became a Christian, and he really loved the Lord wholeheartedly. The only kind of job he could get was packing in a factory. But, that didn’t stop him from being generous whenever he saw a need. He befriended me, although he was much older than I was, and encouraged me in my Christian walk, and my service for the Lord. Years later, when I was in the ministry, I met a Christian doctor who came to the Lord through my friend’s witness to him. It is a story of the ordinary, transformed into the extraordinary. For all his lack of education, he had a heart for the Lord, and always maintained a hunger to know God’s Word better, and I came to share that hunger with him.
We now come to the second level of understanding of this parable. The disciples ask Jesus, ‘Lord, why do you speak to these people in parables? Wouldn’t it be more effective teaching to simplify what you are saying, in the first place?’ What was Jesus’ reply? The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Wow, that sounds pretty exclusive. What did Jesus mean? Have you noticed how Jesus sometimes said things that drove people away from him, instead of drawing them to him? Let’s look at this passage,
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (Jn. 6:53-57, 60, 66).
I remember attending a Bible study in Ekaterinburg, Russia, one day, when the group was discussing this passage. One of the gentleman who was present, said, ‘I have always wondered why Jesus made such an off-putting comment. It certainly wasn’t designed to endear people to him.’
I am aware that there are Christians who take this statement of Jesus literally in their Communion services. Most evangelicals don’t, pointing to v63 of that passage where Jesus said,
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are spirit and they are life.
What Jesus said was to be understood in a spiritual sense, but the disciples who broke off their relationship with Jesus from that moment, didn’t stay around long enough to find out what he meant. This approach of Jesus is seen on another occasion. I think what we read in Mark 4:10 will help us understand his approach.
Matthew reports Jesus as saying, The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not them. But, if we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find out that Mark includes an important ingredient in his report of this event. In Mark 4:10 we read, When he [Jesus] was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parable.” What does Mark include that Matthew doesn’t? It is something that is of great importance to our understanding of Jesus’s approach to teaching?
Let’s image that Jesus concluded his teaching about the kingdom of heaven using parables. A long pause followed. The crowds, thinking that Jesus had finished saying what he wanted to say, began to disperse. Some headed to their farms, some to take care of their flocks, some to their domestic chores, some to work, and some, like the lady in Dr James’ church, went home. But, some remained behind.
What was Jesus’ intention in talking to them in this veiled way? Even today, the Jews value the Talmudic method of teaching in which you don’t volunteer all information to a learner. If a student was really anxious to know more he would ask questions. Answers that he received as a result of his questions were valued much more. Those who stayed behind wanted to know what Jesus meant by that parable. They were prepared to sacrifice their time to find out more. Did these people have more time to waste than everyone else who went off? Did they have fewer responsibilities in life than their neighbour whom they watched hurrying off with the rest? No, they had a heart to know what God had to say to them, and they weren’t prepared to leave until they heard Jesus’ explanation.
Often Jesus’ approach led to a separation between earnest listeners, and those who were mere ‘window-shoppers’. He wasn’t any easier on those whom he loved deeply, like John the Baptist.
When John was in prison, facing execution, and bombarded by fears and doubts, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him whether he was indeed the Messiah who was to come, Jesus answer was thought-provoking.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Mt. 11:4-6).
Seeing Jesus, had to be thoughtful seeing, and hearing Jesus, had to be thoughtful hearing.
When we commit our lives to Christ in the first place, that is the beginning of a long journey of growth. At no stage can any of us say that we know Jesus Christ the way we should, or that we are living the kind of Christian life we need to. It is God’s Word under the ministry of the Holy Spirit that leads us ever forward. No growth can take place without it. And that means responding to the whole Word of God, not simply to those passages or texts that we sometimes take out of context because they bring us comfort. We need to dig ever deeper as we grow in our Christian life. Never skip over things that are sometimes hard to understand.
In conclusion we need to briefly look at ground that has been good in the past, and ask ourselves, ‘Is it possible for that ground to become hard again?’
Working in my vegetable garden I am constantly discovering principles that apply to the Christian life. I had to work hard when we first moved to the place where we are now living, to develop a vegetable patch. There were so many rocks and so much building rubble that was hiding just beneath the surface. Builders have a way of hiding their sins. That soil had to be broken up and fertilised. It had to be composted regularly and looked after. It produced some excellent vegetables the first year. But, had I relied on my early efforts to keep the ground productive, I would have been disappointed.
What needs to be done to make the ground hard again and unproductive? …Nothing.…It becomes hard quite naturally. The surface develops a crust so that air and water cannot permeate. Weeds take over. And, nothing worthwhile grows. Plants wither and die.
And it’s the same with the Christian life. What do we need to do for the heart to harden towards God? …Nothing…. We don’t even have to commit any gross sins. It hardens by itself. It’s its natural tendency. All we have to do is drop our regular seeking of God through his Word; drop our prayer life, thinking God knows all about us anyway; stop attending worship service and relating to people who have a passionate desire to know the Lord better. Having dropped our study of the Bible we become less aware of what is missing in our lives. Everything else in our lives seems to continue normally. So, why worry? We might even console ourselves with the memory that we used to be keen for the Lord, and been involved in service for him. But, it is no longer a memory that is fresh and up-to-date.
Yes, we do need to worry if that has happened. In the letter to the Hebrews we are warned that at times like this, we need to pay more careful attention… to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. (Heb. 2:1). Drifting is a very gradual process, but a dangerous one.
Is there a way back?
Jeremiah (4:3-4) says, Break up your unploughed ground … circumcise your hearts. To circumcise the heart is to set ourselves apart for God completely. Hosea (10:12) adds that we need to seek the Lord afresh. We need to repent and admit to God that we have allowed our hearts to get cold and unresponsive, and then be prepared to do whatever he tells us to do.
Can cold hearts be warmed again? Yes, they can. Can unfruitful lives be made fruitful again? Yes, they can. But, indifference, shallowness, and worldliness to the way we listen to what God has to say to us, have to go. We have to begin to listen again. And it has to be a listening that does not rest until it comes to a proper understanding of what God is saying to us, accompanied by a willingness to obey him even in the hard things.