Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/9/94
Luke 8:1 And it came about soon afterwards that He began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God; and the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary, who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means. 4 And when a great multitude were coming together and those from the various cities were journeying to him, he spoke by way of a parable: 5 "The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road; and it was trampled under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 And other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up it withered away because it had no moisture. 7 And other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. 8 And other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up and produced a crop a hundred times as great." As he said these things he would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" 9 And his disciples began questioning him as to what this parable might be. 10 And he said, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, in order that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.' 11 Now the parable is this: the seed is the Word of God. 12 And those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, But these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. 14 And the seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. 15 And the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance."
We come today to one of the most familiar, yet fascinating and "fertile" passages in the Gospel of Luke: the Parable of the Sower, or, more accurately, of the soils.
The first four verses actually have no connection to our topic today except proximity in the chapter, but they are worth a passing comment. For they show us Jesus' ministry in its practical and day-to-day details. We see in vs. 1 that there was a systematic effort to spread the Gospel throughout the cities and towns of Judea. And we discover how Jesus and his disciples were supported--by donors who had independent means. We seldom think of this, but without this support network how would thirteen men have been able to wander around the countryside and maintain themselves for three years without jobs? Those who play this crucial role for missionaries today should be encouraged by Luke's recognition here of their forebears. It is a crucial and important ministry they perform.
In addition, these verses add to the mounting evidence for Luke's reliability as a careful historian. It is very unlike early fictional accounts of Jesus' ministry, in which it would be supported more piously, by ongoing miracles. Luke has Jesus' ministry rooted in practical reality. And the names he gives are interesting too. Joanna was the wife of an important government official, a cabinet secretary as it were, and could be verified, while of Susannah we know nothing but the name. And then others remain anonymous. A writer of pious fiction would have given names to the woman at Simon's house, the centurion and his son, the widow of Nain and her son. Luke gives the names when he knows them and omits them when he does not--according to what was in his sources, not according to whom he thinks we would be more interested in (surely the widow or the woman with the phial) or what would seem more appropriate to narrative art. But we let these passing thoughts pass, and pass on to things of more than passing interest.
Verse 10 has given a lot of people problems. "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, in order that 'seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'" Many cannot believe that Jesus would want to conceal the truth from the multitudes. This seems to the pious to be incompatible with the purely loving and altruistic and benevolent image we have of him. But we must not forget the doctrine of Judicial Hardening, which is given in passages like Isaiah 6:9-11 (from which the Lord quotes here) or Isaiah 29:9-14. When people refuse to listen to the Word of God, the ultimate punishment of this greatest of sins is to be deprived of the ability to hear it. It is as if God, after exhausting his infinite patience with us, says, "O.K., you want to harden your heart? Fine. I'll help you!" There is no more awful fate, no heavier punishment, no more horrible judgment that can befall us. And Jesus came to reveal the whole character of the Father--his justice as well as his love, his wrath as well as his grace. How we respond to him determines which he is to us. The crowd in their superficiality and fickleness--they were a lot like the first three types of soil in the parable--had certainly made themselves liable to this judgment. To complain of Jesus' attitude here is to commit blasphemy, to make ourselves out to be more pious than God!
My difficulty with verse 10 is at an entirely different point. I have a hard time seeing how the parables are supposed to accomplish their alleged purpose of concealing the mysteries of the kingdom from the crowd! They are, on the contrary, among the most effective teaching techniques ever used in the entire history of education. Does the parable of the Good Samaritan conceal from you who God thinks your neighbor is? Do the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep conceal from you God's concern for the wayward? Does the parable of the House Built on the Rock conceal from you the critical importance of a Bible-based life? No, of course not. You don't even need a lot of interpretation to see the point of them, which seems as plain as the proverbial nose upon the face. So what gives here?
Part of the answer is to remember how familiar these parables have become for us who have known the Lord for any length of time. Indeed, even for others, they have become part of the store of legend and fable in Western culture. But what if we were hearing them for the very first time? Would the meaning of the parable of the soils be self evident? Probably not. The principle behind Jesus' cryptic statement is this: the Parable plus the Key to its interpretation reveals spiritual truth clearly and powerfully. The Parable without that Key may remain just a nice story. We could make it an equation: Parable plus Key equals Understanding; Parable minus Key equals head scratching, especially for those not in tune with the mind of Christ. The parable then reveals the truth powerfully to those who make the effort to understand it, i.e., to the disciples, who bothered to ask for the explanation. The rest felt vaguely taught but probably were unable to tell you exactly what. Rather than pursuing the answer, they just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Seeing they did not see, and hearing they did not understand.
In other words, the parable reveals the truth to the teachable while it leaves the rest in darkness, but without excuse. For they could have hung around for the question and answer session too if they had wanted to. The point is that you can be one of those to whom it is granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom just by wanting to be. Let's make sure we are in that group!
The key to this parable then is to see that the seed is the Word of God and the soils are the people who hear it. The point of the parable therefore is the importance of hearing teachably. When the word of comes to you, how will you respond to it?
There are two critical elements in the parable: the seed and the soils. Seed needs soil to grow, but the seed is the only part that contains a principle of life within itself. The soil in itself is inert. The soil adds only receptivity to that principle, a hospitable environment in which it may grow--or the opposite. So the choice of the seed metaphor is a wonderful way of capturing the mystery of the relation between God's initiative and our response. The life being in the seed pictures Sola Gratia, the fact that salvation is by God's grace alone. And the role of the receptivity or lack of it in the soil pictures Sola Fide, faith alone as the way we respond to God's grace. But the main emphasis of this picture is on the different types of soil, the different ways we can respond to God's Word as the carrier of his Grace.
The worst case is the seed that fell by the road. Satan takes away the Word and it never even has a chance to germinate. These people are definitely not saved. These are people who just don't listen. Either they violently reject the message or just turn a politely deaf ear to it. Their brains just have no sticking places for these notions. There may be some of you here today. Your parents brought you, or you just came to church out of cultural habit. You are listening, but you do not hear. These words, you tell yourself, are for someone else. They don't apply to you. Oh, really? If that's what you think when you hear the Gospel, then maybe you should be listening, if only because the Text is talking about you right now! Are your ears burning? Please give yourself a chance to understand that this voice telling you to be cool and not take the message to heart is Satan taking the Word away to your everlasting hurt. Don't let him do that! If you must rebel against something, rebel against that voice. You might find a kind of freedom you would otherwise be incapable of imagining.
The rocky soil represents people who seem to hear the Gospel, but in fact they are having only an emotional response to it that never reaches the will, the mind, or the heart. They might even seem to believe for a time. But "for a time" is the key phrase. In Greek it is for the kairos, a word for time that could be translated "for the moment." Their response is so shallow that it has no permanence. They have not faith but a fad. The Word in them is only able to produce illusory results that do not stand the test of time. These people are not saved either, for the plant of faith dies and withers away as if it had never been. Not faith, but a fad. Is there anyone like that here today? The Christian faith is not a game. It is a matter of life or death. What you call your belief can be seen as true faith only by testing and trial. Jesus has no place for fair-weather friends. Do not pretend that you have put your faith in him unless you are prepared to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him! Anything else is just a game whose only outcome can be your own spiritual death. Hear the Word and let it sink in deep so that it changes your life! Examine yourself whether you be in the faith. Do not allow yourself to run the risk of being a Stony Stumbler.
The people among the thorns are a sad bunch, though not so tragic as the first two soil types. Some of these people may be saved, for they are not said to die or wither away, but simply never to mature, i.e., bear fruit. They may be saved yet so as by fire, but they have wasted their lives by being too focused on the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world. They think possessions, position, prestige, power, and pleasure are things that will enhance their lives, but they sadly discover that these things are nothing but kudzu. These things are necessary, they may be part of our calling, and some may be good gifts to be enjoyed. But when we make them our main purpose, they begin to act like kudzu: to choke us, stunt us, smother us, and all but deprive us of real life. They will not bring you true happiness in this life, and they will send you to the back of the line in the next. Do any of us recognize ourselves in this portrait? Then let us ask ourselves why gardeners have hoes. Let the Lord use his to chop away the clutter so you can begin to focus on the things that really matter: his Word, his people, his message, his mission, and ultimately himself.
These folk don't need much explanation. "And the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance." What is the fruit they bear? Surely the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace. Certainly the fruit of the Christian: good works that bring glory to God and bring people into his kingdom. Definitely a sense of fulfillment in this life, and in the next, the chance to hear the most beautiful words that will ever be spoken: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." Who wouldn't want to be a Black-Dirt Believer? Well, the way to become one is to hear the Word in a good and honest hear and hold it fast with perseverance.
Let us all be like that good soil. Let the Word of God take deep root in you, and encourage the plant of faith it produces to grow by holding that Word fast and meditating on it day and night. Fertilize if with fellowship. Prune it with prayer and good preaching. Water it with worship. Weed it with witnessing. Hoe it with the help of the Holy Spirit, until it brings forth fruit a hundred fold to the glory of God and your own eternal joy. For unto you it is granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams