Hearing God’s Word
(Romans 8: 1 – 11 & Matthew 13: 1 – 9; 18 – 23)
Many of us are familiar with the Parable of the Sower. It’s a parable that is sometimes read at school harvest services. And yet, perhaps this usage misses the point – for this parable is not principally about sewing seed and harvesting crops. Rather, Jesus is simply using the farmer to illustrate a much deeper spiritual point – and that concerns people’s reception of God’s Word. It should be said, though, that Jesus is providing a picture which more or less everyone in Palestine would understand: In fact, the Lord was taking an ordinary scene from the here and now, as it were, and using it to transport his listeners to another place in their thinking and understanding – to the there and then! He was basically using the boat by the lakeside as a makeshift pulpit; and presumably in a field near to the shore, a farmer was actually sowing his seed and could be seen by all. Jesus would have begun by saying something like this: “Friends, look at the farmer sowing his seed over there in that field”: And so the Sower would provide the context for the Lord’s teaching which was shortly to unfold. Jesus began from something which at the moment they could actually see and used it to open their minds to truths, which as yet, they had never seen.
Firstly, we might well ask, what do we know about the way seeds were sown in
Well we know that in Palestine ,
fields were in long narrow strips and the ground between the strips was always
used as a common pathway. In fact, the ground here on this pathway would have
been pressed down as hard as a modern pavement by the feet of countless
passers-by. The sower tended to walk along on the pathway scattering his seed
from side to side. The term used to describe the method of sowing in the time
of Jesus was ‘broadcasting’. We are
familiar with the term from radio, television and mobile phone networks – where
the signal reaches far and wide. The term originated in this farming method –
casting seed everywhere and it reached, like sound waves, a variety of places. Sound
messages and images infiltrate places where they can be ignored; or partially
listened to when other issues distract attention; or alternatively, people can
be rivetted to them. Much relies upon the recipient, not the quality of the
message. The sower’s broadcasting process was not an economically sound method
of planting – perhaps this is the point Jesus is making. God is not bound by our
rules – God invests in the seed and invites the faithful to cast it around the
world in the hope and trust that it will take root in some people. Palestine
From the parable, of course some of the seed was bound to fall directly onto the actual hard pathway itself where it had virtually no chance of penetrating into the earth and growing. Jesus also talked about seed falling on stony ground. This really refers to the fact that in many places there was a layer of hard limestone just a few centimetres below the surface of what appeared to be good soil. Seeds falling on this area would certainly germinate – but there was no depth of earth – so when the plants sent their roots down in search of nourishment and moisture they would meet only rock. Such plants would soon starve to death and wither under the heat of the sun. And then there was the thorny ground. Such ground was deceptive for it looked healthy enough. It is ground that would have been turned over such that the fibrous roots of the weeds and the wild grasses were just lying dormant under the surface, ready to spring to life again. Now weeds usually grow at a much faster pace than productive plants. The result was that the good seeds and the dormant weeds grew together – but the weeds were so strong and fast growing that they literally choked the life out of the seeds. Another problem was caused by a particular weed – folium temulentum. This weed, when it grew in areas where wheat was was grown, was often mistaken for wheat itself. However, unlike true grain, it is poisonous. It can cause blindness and even death when its black seeds turn up in the bread dough. Then, finally, there is the good ground which is deep, clean and soft: The seed could gain an entry and germinate; it could find nourishment and grow unhindered; and in the good soil it would bring forth an abundant harvest.
So that’s the context. But this parable is really about the word – God’s Word. It’s about those who hear the word – but it’s also about those who try to live and share that word. If we take the parable as a warning to those who hear God’s word it means there are different ways of receiving that word; and what this goes on to produce is entirely dependent on the hearts and minds of those who hear it! It is not for us to determine the growth, but to ensure that we cast the seed. Our mission and our witness is what is important, and thankfully we are not responsible or held accountable for the harvest.
Who then are the hearers described and warned in this parable? Well maybe the first of these is the person with the closed mind. There are many people into whose minds the word has no more chance of gaining entry than the seed has of settling into the ground of the hard-trodden pathway. And you know there are many things which can make people’s minds closed: Certainly, prejudice is one thing that can make us blind to what we do not want to see; it can foster in us a disdain for that which we don’t understand and which we make no attempt to fathom, accept or even to engage with. Now I’m sure there are times when perhaps all of us have the potential to erect barriers that are difficult to break down; but there are some people who seem to be particularly close-minded; for whom everything is either black or white – with no shades of grey. And it seems to me that this sort of close-mindedness can come from two sources – one being pride (or arrogance) – the belief that you alone have a monopoly on the truth; pride that does not know that it actually needs to know; and the other being fear – fear of change, of new things; fear of new truth; new understanding, new revelation – the refusal to embrace new ways of thinking. Of course, sometimes just our very lives themselves can cause us to shut off our minds and hearts to God: Maybe there are truths of faith that challenge and sometimes condemn us – and we thus refuse to embrace them. Indeed, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
Then there is the hearer with the mind like the shallow ground – basically the sort of people who fail to think things out and think them through. Again I’m sure that could apply to more or less all of us at some time: For instance, some years ago I joined a gym – and I was full of great promise to myself that I would go religiously twice a week; but you soon fall by the wayside and go back to your bad habits and old ways. You know many people’s lives are littered with things began and never finished. Someone one said that the smallest good deed is better than the greatest grand intention. Perhaps faith can be a bit like this too: There is a great evangelistic rally; the speaker whips his audience into an emotional frenzy; many commit their lives there and then to Jesus – and then rather quickly they discover that you can’t base your life of faith simply on high emotion. We have minds and brains and it is a moral obligation on us to have an intelligent, thinking faith. Christianity has its demands and these must be faced before they can be accepted. The offer of Christ is not only a privilege but a responsibility: A sudden enthusiasm can oh so quickly become a dying fire. So, it’s important to think it all through – to be rational about faith; and for that to be on-going.
Then there is the hearer who has so many interests in life that often the most important things get crowded out. Before the lockdown, people seemed to live lives that were increasingly crowded and fast. There were not enough hours in the day or days in the week to get things done – and the one thing, in such circumstances, that gets neglected – is our spiritual nourishment and development. Life was and still is a balance of body, mind and spirit – yet, sadly, we so often we overlook the importance of the spiritual dimension. For instance, we become too busy or too lazy to pray; and we neglect to read God’s word. Perhaps the lockdown has given people more time to think about the things that are really important to them – and maybe even among them has been matters of the soul and spirit! Maybe it also makes us consider what the Church is really about: You know within the pre-Covid Church we could become so focused on committees, structures and programmes; on organisations and on organisation; that we forget that we are here fundamentally to bring glory to God to extend his kingdom and to love our neighbour. No-one really knows what the
will truly be like – but love of
God and love of neighbour and the drive to nurture disciples and build the
kingdom must surely be to the fore. post-Covid Church
And then finally there is the person who is like the good ground – the person whose mind is open and who is willing to hear and to learn: That same person is the one who is never either too proud or too busy to listen to the voice of God. Such a person both understands what is heard and translates that hearing into action. And so, the real hearer is the one who listens, understands, obeys and serves. If we have said that at times all of us are a bit like those other kinds of soil; then maybe at times; just maybe we might see a glimpse of something of this good soil from time to time in us too. That would be wonderful. What is certain is that this is not for us to judge – that must always be the prerogative of God himself and we must place ourselves at the behest of his judgement, mercy, grace and love.
So far, we have focused on ways to hear the Word of God and responses to that word and maybe that gives us cause for concern for it highlights our failures and weakness. But what we also have to recognise is that this parable is ultimately optimistic. In spite of our inabilities and flaws, our propensity for discouragement and our failure in listening and serving; in spite of all of this – the harvest is sure; it is a certainty. The ultimate lesson is in the climax of this parable – in the picture of the seed that brought forth abundant fruit. No farmers expect every seed they sow to germinate and bring forth fruit. They know quite well that some will be blown away by the wind, and some will fall in places where it cannot grow; but that does not stop them sowing. Nor does it make them give up hope of the harvest. The farmer sows in the confidence that even if some of the seed is wasted, none the less the harvest will still come.
So, this parable is one of encouragement not only for all who hear the word but for all of us who try to live it and share it. Yes, there is discouragement; yes, there is apathy; yes, there is close-mindedness; yes, there is misguidedness and a lack of vision at times. Yes, sometimes we are short-sighted and look for quick fixes for that’s the kind of world in which we live. But you know if this parable says nothing else to us then it simply says, as Christians, our task is hear the word, to sow the seed; and then to leave the rest to God. It is not for us to determine the growth, but to ensure that we cast the seed. Our mission and our witness are what’s important – thankfully, we are not responsible or held accountable for the harvest.
Evangelism relies on the message being proclaimed, in a variety of forms and methods appropriate to our gift and opportunities. The transforming power of the Gospel is that of God and is not reliant on our abilities or qualities, or on our efficiency or persuasiveness. We take the message and then it is over to God and the individual who receives it – to respond and engage – or, alternatively, reject its power and appeal. Prior to Covid-19 this thinking would certainly have been counter cultural – for that was an era of ‘success’ where things were measured in numbers and profit margins (and bottoms on seats where many churches were concerned!) But, in our brave new world, maybe other things have become and will remain important – and each of us, reading through the lens of the gospel, must determine what they are. As the Church – as those who are the disciples of Jesus – and as we emerge into a changed world – all we can perhaps do is be faithful about our mission to glorify God, love our neighbour and share God’s Word and not be burdened with what might or might not be seen as success. The Word grows in fertile soil – for as it says in Isaiah, “….the word that I speak – it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do.” (Isaiah 55: 11) And so we can but strive then to be eager in hearing God’s word; faithful in studying that word; diligent and joyful in living and proclaiming that word; but let us also learn to fully trust the Living God – who holds the whole world in his hands. Thanks be to God. Amen.