God sows the seed
Isaiah 50:4-10, Psalm 71, 2 Corinthians 11:19-31, St. Luke 8:4-15
Which of These Soils Am I?
Puberty’s a challenge for anyone but for me seventh grade was especially tough. It started in music.
Then as now, I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, but my talent deficit did not exempt me from music class. The teacher sorted out our voices, as choir directors do, and right away I got stuck with one other boy, a kid named Walter with big ears, and every last one of the girls in the soprano section.
What no one else knew was that I was a year younger than my classmates at Ezekiel W. Cullen Junior High School. At first, I kept quiet about my age because I didn’t want to be known as a little kid. Now I couldn’t bring it up for fear of sounding like I was making excuses.
So I just wore my humiliation like a billowing choir robe. I was stuck in the soprano section.
Then there was English. One day in class, Mrs. Perry, who was a very nice teacher, put a question to the class. I knew the answer; it was a book of the Bible titled “J-o-b.” So I stuck a paw in the air and piped up, expecting accolades for my dazzling intellect.
“Job,” I said, and all the kids started laughing. “Actually, Edward,” Mrs. Perry said gently, “it’s pronounced Job.”
I wish the answer had been “Ruth.” I could’ve handled that.
Now, I was rather sensitive, to be sure, but as I think back I remain convinced that every kid in the class laughed at me because I was the only one who didn’t know the correct pronunciation. I wonder what the reaction would be in the same circumstances today in a seventh-grade class in a public school.
How many would know Job from Job?
What used to be known as the Parable of the Sower is now generally called the Parable of the Soils. The Sower is the same in each case, as is the seed; the point of the story, of course, is that the seed – which is the word of God – takes root and produces or doesn’t depending on the quality of the soil. Four kinds are mentioned.
In first-century Palestine the common ground was divided into long, narrow strips. Between them were paths which served as rights of way for those who came out from town to tend their individual patches of garden. These trails were trampled as hard as the roadways and so seed scattered there would not penetrate.
The rocky ground in our parable was not laced with stones. It was thin soil that covered a shelf of limestone. A seed might begin to take root but that root would soon encounter the limestone underneath and the plant would die.
Then there’s the thorns. No farmer would sow seed in ground obviously dense with thorns; this third soil looked clean enough, as any dirt will when turned over, but the seeds of weeds and wild grasses present in it would produce harmful vegetation that would choke out the good plants.
And, No. 4, the good soil was simply that.
A preacher from Nazareth named Jesus told this parable. It’s one of the few that appear in all three synoptic gospels and it’s remarkable for one very good reason: God doesn’t usually explain Himself . . . but in this case, He does.
What does the parable mean, his slow-witted disciples want to know. And so Jesus spells it out for them.
So doing, He cites Isaiah 6:9: “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”
This is one of six places in the New Testament in which that verse is quoted. Luke appears to introduce it not to suggest that God blinds people to His truth but to make the point that those represented by the bad soils refuse to respond to that truth.
Jesus is revealing His mission: to use His words and actions to present His creatures then and now with the opportunity to respond to His life-saving call to faith. As His popularity with the masses soars, as more and more cock an ear to His words, He puts them on notice:
No magician is He; the word of truth does not cast a spell. It demands a response from the heart.
He frames the matter in a farming parable because so many grew their own food and the metaphor would hit home with them: Persevering and bearing fruit in the Christian life are, like the growing of plants, processes. And they’re central to the case He’s making.
Like the harvest of the field, the harvest of the heart doesn’t spring from the soil overnight but over the course of a season or a lifetime. Fruit does not appear through chanting “abracadabra” over the newly planted seed but by enriching the soil through prayer and study of God’s word.
Prayer and study are the fertilizer we add to the seed God plants within us.
The first soil, on which the seed is trampled down, clearly represents the damned. The word effects no change of heart in them.
The fourth, or good, soil just as clearly points to the redeemed. It bears fruit – spiritual fruit — a hundredfold.
The second and third soils have occasioned much speculation. The seed took root but quickly died, either because the ground was rocky or full of thorns.
The best interpretation seems to lump these two groups in with the first, the damned. We see that they “receive the word with joy” and “believe,” to be sure, but then they quickly die out.
In Luke’s gospel, staying the course and bringing forth fruit are the hallmarks of salvation. Those who believe only “for a while” are not true believers. Those who allow the shiny things of this world – cares, riches and pleasures – to turn them away from their faith never had saving faith.
Indeed, it might do great harm to offer assurance of good standing in the kingdom to those who have fallen away. They may believe themselves redeemed when in fact they are not, when more meditation on their condition might provoke them to get rid of the rocks or thorns.
Still, there’s a measure of ambiguity present and it’s probably intentional, meant to send each of us to the mirror to pose the question: Which of these soils am I?
The 19th-century English pastor and theologian J. C. Ryle wrote of this parable: “It was meant to be a warning to all ministers of the Gospel not to look for too great results from sermons.
“It was meant . . . to be a warning to hearers to take heed how they hear. Preaching is an ordinance of which the value can never be overstated in Christ’s church. But it should never be forgotten that there must not only be good preaching but good hearing.”
Here is the crux of the matter: How do we hear the word and what do we do with it? I think of a line from our Family Morning Prayer service: “Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgements, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.”
Afraid and ashamed. Fear is still with us but shame has acquired a bad name. It’s an empty word. Out-of-wedlock pregnancies, arrests, unbridled disrespect for parents – all things that once brought shame down upon a person’s head – are all normal bits of the growing-up process in these times. No scarlet letters here.
But not in this house. In this house, we must never cease asking ourselves: Am I by my words and deeds offending my Lord? If the answer is yes, we should surely be ashamed.
I think of another line from the Family Evening Prayer service: “Let the light of thy Gospel shine upon all nations; and may as many as have received it live as becomes it.”
Receiving the gospel is one thing, living as becomes it another. “You believe that there is one God,” James wrote. “You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!” Our nation long ago received God’s message; living as becomes it is proving ever more challenging.
Yet, as Luke and his fellow evangelists are determined to make plain, the mission begins with hearing.
No easy task is good hearing today. There’s so much clutter out there in the air waves that the truth is hard to tune in. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, only went to church when my hard-shell Presbyterian grandmother got her hooks in me.
But most of my seventh-grade classmates knew how to pronounce “Job,” and I would not wager a lot that such is the case in our post-Christian nation today.
A couple of years ago the Church of England consecrated her first woman bishop. I watched a British television interview with the Rev. Paul Williamson, a priest who spoke out against this innovation. It reminded me of how futile are biblical and theological arguments in a biblically illiterate culture.
There’s almost a formula for such interviews now as host and subject talk past each other as though one were speaking Urdu and the other Swahili. Fr. Williamson pointed out gender roles as the Bible presents them and the host replied that Bible times were long ago and we live in a “very different society” these days.
Look how women’s roles have changed over the centuries outside the church, she went on. The new bishop hopes she inspires other women, for goodness sake, and putting women in leadership roles will surely be good for church growth.
The host could not engage on points drawn from the biblical text because she had no familiarity with it. She could discuss only cultural norms, which, no doubt, she considers the relevant context anyway. The media reflect the biblical illiteracy of the society in which they live and they help to cement it by typifying those in its grip.
The soil becomes so depleted it can’t support anything but thorns. Change the accents and the interview could as easily have taken place in this country.
But beating up on the media will not set matters right. Christ gave that job – the work of evangelism and discipleship — to His church. We should take time here to listen to the passage that follows immediately the Parable of the Soils in Luke’s eighth chapter:
“No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light.
“Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him” (vv. 16-18).
Jesus sounds the cautionary note again. He has brought light into the world by His radiant presence. He is the light of the world and He is manifest in it. He has left His sacred word to guide us.
And while He is no longer the Sower of the seed that is the word of God in the same sense as when He trod the dusty roads of Palestine, He has appointed others to preach in His place. The light remains for those who have eyes to see, the word for those who have ears to hear.
But the willful deafness is growing deafening. My wife reconnected recently with an old friend who reports that in her church the pastor just began a series on “sanctified sex.” We’ll take it on faith that the term refers to sex between a man and a woman who are married . . . to each other.
Well, we all know how important visual aids are so this pastor had on stage with him a king-size bed – maybe for a mood enhancer. The man is clearly an idea factory. In a subsequent service he announced that any couples living together outside of wedlock could separate for the time being and he would marry them on Valentine’s Day.
We understand that he has procured big results and received rave reviews. I thought briefly about reprising his series . . . but then it occurred to me that I couldn’t fit a king-size bed in this chancel.
And I ruled the idea out entirely when I realized that in this crowd a bed prompts more thoughts of sleep than sex. I will not put thoughts of sleep in your heads during a sermon.
We have with us today more of those thorns that choke out the good seed than the world had ever known until now. While the mainline Protestant churches are rocketing down the road to elsewhere the megachurches and many of the minichurches as well are serving up worshiptainment to cultural Christians.
A church that diminishes the sacraments ceases to see God’s creation as sacramental – as revelatory of Him. And that is the purpose of the creation, to reveal the Creator. A culture that separates God’s gifts from the Giver becomes a Petri dish for the cultivation of materialism. Its citizens fall in love with the things that are passing away, the things of the world and the flesh and the devil.
They refuse to consider the things that will endure into eternity, God’s everlasting gifts of love, peace, beauty, truth and justice.
So the culture of the nation and the church at large have something to do with the condition of the soil, but as more and more weeds spring up each day God has not relaxed His standard because our culture is no longer fertile ground for the gospel. He examines us one heart at a time.
Christ shone His light upon us, brought us His word. If He were present with us today in body, I suspect He would tell us that we, His church, are in fact the reason for the cultural decay.
Lying down on the job of living up to the witness does not earn us a pass. Hearing the gospel once or twice or a thousand times is not enough, for preaching – even good preaching – goes for naught without good hearing.
We must meditate on that gospel day and night that we can produce the right answer – the one right answer — when we put the question to ourselves:
Which of these soils am I? For the question we will hear from Him on the last day will be: Which of these soils were you? Amen.