Same Word, Different Responses
Matthew 13: 1-9, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 16, 2017
In my kitchen, there is a small print of the painting by Van Gogh called “The Sower.” You might be familiar with it. The sky is a yellow-green, the soil is almost purple, and a large figure of a man sowing seed is in the foreground, with a large yellow sun almost forming a halo. The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Van Gogh actually did 30 drawings and painting of sowers. It might be a picture of a particular farmer in the Netherlands, or simply an imitation of the French painting by Millet, but given the fact that Vincent was once a missionary and deeply Christian, I suspect that underlying the painting is the story Jesus told.
Sowing is always an act of faith. Jesus tells another little story about the farmer who plants seeds and has no idea how they grow; he just waits patiently while God makes them grow. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says. In this story the farmer seems almost reckless, as if he had more seed than he knew what to do with, throwing them on worn paths and rocky patches and in the middle of weeds. He throws the seed out joyfully, hopefully, with a confident abandon. To me, Van Gogh’s sower feels like that. The yellow and purple are colors of joyful hope.
When Jesus first tells the story of the sower, his disciples don’t know what to make of it. If they were lost, you have to wonder about the large crowd gathered on the shore, so many of them that Jesus had to get in a boat and preach from the water. (The whole scene makes me wonder if I could get an audience if I preached from a boat to sailors on the Great Salt Pond!) In Matthew, Mark, and Luke—in all three versions of the parable—Jesus gives an explanation of what it means as an allegory. It’s the only time Jesus spells it out like this, rather than leaving it as a provocative riddle as he usually does, letting you make of it what you will. For that reason, many scholars doubt that Jesus gave the explanation at the time; they suggest that it was added by the early church to help readers understand it, and to apply it to their situation in the world. In any case, the explanation is the one the writers believed was correct. Even though I didn’t ask Kyle to read the explanation in verses 18-23, you’ve probably heard it at some point.
The seed is the word of God—or, as Matthew puts it, the word of the kingdom or, as several translations have it, the message about the kingdom. What do you picture when you think of the word of God? Is it a big leather-bound Bible, maybe the one sitting on a table at your grandma’s house, solid, immovable, dusty? But Jesus isn’t talking about something printed and bound. He’s talking about the word that is coming out of his mouth. In the explanation, Jesus says that someone hears the word—Jesus’ preaching, his announcement that the kingdom of God is here, his call to change your life and follow him.
We forget that when the Bible refers to the word of God it is always oral, a spoken word that is dynamic in a way a book sitting on a table is not. We forget that for centuries only the 1% could read a Bible; for the 99% the Bible was an oral experience—until the printing press and translations came along in the 15th century. The word of God that Hebrews calls “living and active” is the spoken word, the preached word that comes out of my mouth and comes into your ear with an ability to pierce deep within. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Let anyone with ears listen.” That’s the challenge every time you hear Jesus speak—either in the gospels or inside your own spirit. What you hear on Sunday morning is not static but dynamic. I can print up the sermons, but it’s not the same thing as the listened-to word of God. And here’s the thing: Jesus’ parable is not about the content of that word, but about your response to it. How you respond to the word is as important as what you hear.
I am not going to ask the typical question, which I have asked before: “What kind of soil are you?” There are four kinds of soil in the story—a beaten path, a rocky patch, soil with thorns, and beautiful soil that produces a crop. The usual strategy is to ask you which kind you are, as if you could only be one kind. If you think you are good soil, then there’s nothing left to do. You’re fine. If you think you are bad soil—as poor Emily Dickinson thought in her Calvinist church in the movie we showed Friday—there’s nothing you can do. Soil can’t change itself. Asking what kind of soil you are sounds to me like asking “What’s your sign?” As if your personality and your freedom were somehow determined without your participation.
Thinking about the four kinds of soil leads us down the path of comparing our soil or our souls to those of other people. Oh, I could name some people that are definitely rocky soil, we think. Or perhaps: Lots of people on Block Island don’t give a flip about religion; the gospel bounces right off of them. Why bother? Or perhaps you have been guilty of comparing the state of your soul to the soul of our President. Our tendency is to think that since we are Christians, since we have responded to the word and chosen to be a part of the church, we are the good soil
I don’t think Jesus wants to label people as one kind of soil or another. Instead, I want to ask, “How have you felt all those responses to God’s word?” Maybe instead of different groups of people, the soils represent different times in our own lives. Have you ever had a time in your life when you sensed that God was speaking to you, but you tried to ignore it? Or maybe that word from God didn’t make any sense to you. Or you realized when God gave you a challenge or a promise that you were skeptical, deep down, about what God’s word can actually do. Is it really true, as Isaiah says, that God’s word will accomplish its purpose?
In the explanation of the parable, Jesus says that it’s not really hearing that is the issue; it’s understanding. The first type of soil is one who hears the word and does not understand it. The good type is the one who hears it and understands—and, Jesus adds elsewhere as in the story of the house built on the sand, the one who obeys the word. Jesus knows that most people do not understand him—not even the twelve who traveled around with him as his students. Jesus is aware that most of the message he is preaching is not taking root. But he is the joyful and extravagant farmer who throws the seed out there anyway.
What keeps us from understanding Jesus’ message? Sometimes we are like the path most traveled, soil that is packed down hard by having people walk over it. It doesn’t even take a lot of traffic; think how packed-down the Clay Head Trail is, and I only ever see a handful of people there. Jesus says our heart can be like that. The word is sown in the heart, he says. In the New Testament the heart is the center of the self, the understanding and the will. Did you know that ancient people, including those scientific Greeks, had no idea that thought came from the brain? Thoughts were in your heart, to them. The Greeks thought the brain was like a radiator, used to cool off the body!
The word from God is thrown onto your heart—a heart that may be hard with defense mechanisms, or with preconceived ideas, or with pride. So just like grass seed that we throw out into the back yard with no preparation that gets eaten up by birds, the word that lands on unprepared soil is snatched away. By the evil one, Matthew says, the one we pray to be delivered from in the Lord’s Prayer (same word). What does it mean to say the evil one snatches away the word laid on our hearts? I think it means that the devil distracts us. We have too much on our minds. They can be good things, a whole catalog of duties, even church duties. Or maybe we are distracted by seeking to ease our painful loneliness. Or maybe we are distracted by the political sinkhole that seems to have opened up under our house. You could say that Attention Deficit Disorder, broadly defined as a cultural phenomenon, is the devil’s tool. Or that smartphones are an efficient way to keep our minds off what God is placing quietly in our hearts. We have to stop to pay attention—first to listen, then to understand.
If you have ears, listen, Jesus says. And if you hear, understand by considering deeply.
The second type of soil is the rocky soil—where a thin layer of soil sits on top of a layer of rock, common in desert terrain like Palestine. Sometimes when God speaks to us we are like plants that germinate quickly after the first rain, and up they shoot, but as soon as the sun comes out they wither. Jesus says that we can be like those who hear the message of the kingdom and rejoice. Forgiveness sounds good. God establishing his reign sounds good. Loving one another sounds good. But we fail to understand that responding to that message calls for faithfulness in hard times. We can’t stand the heat, so we get out of the kitchen.
Sometimes our response to God is shallow, Jesus says. I don’t know if any of us admit that we are shallow. I guess if you are extremely shallow, you don’t even know it. You’re not aware of the depths of human experience and pain; you haven’t suffered enough to have gained either wisdom or perseverance. I worry that when we talk to someone about becoming a Christian or joining the church, we are so eager to close the deal that we leave out all the clauses that say you have to take up your cross. The prosperity gospel that promises that God will make you rich if you trust in him is just a caricature of what many Americans believe secretly anyway. There are consequences to following the Crucified One, and if you minimize them you get a church like the one in Nazi Germany that happily went along with the Nazi program of Christian nationalism and cultural purification.
The reason our faith doesn’t last in hard times, Jesus says, is that we “have no root.” We are living on the surface. That’s not someone else he’s talking about. Sometimes we respond to God’s word that way, with immediate enthusiasm but no follow through. I love the translation of Colossians 2:7 I read earlier: “Let your roots go down into him” (NLT), into Christ. Let your roots penetrate into Jesus’ heart of compassion and faithfulness that led him to the cross. Let the word work its way deep into your heart so that it cannot be uprooted by a stiff wind.
But the third kind of soil Jesus describes is the one that will make us weep in America. The seed of God’s word can fall among thorns, in the middle of a patch covered with weeds. Jesus has in mind something like thistle, that can take over a field. A couple of years ago, when Seth Draper was starting to manage Justin Abrams’ large garden, almost overnight there was an invasion of thistle and it marched day by day to grow in half the rows of the garden. I’ve never seen anything like it. If Seth hadn’t pulled it all out by its roots it would have taken over completely.
What is it that Jesus points to as the thistle that will choke out any chance God’s word has of taking root in our hearts? Two things: worry and wealth. Could he have said anything more piercing to America? This is the same message that Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount: “Don’t worry! Trust God! Don’t chase after material things like those who don’t know God, but seek God’s kingdom with all your heart. You have to choose between God and Money. If your treasure is in money, that’s all you will have in your life. Seek treasure in God’s realm, in spiritual things, in what endures.”
“The cares of this life” can choke out the message God has sown in your heart. Does anybody here worry? Right here in church, I can tell you that I worry about the fair, and I worry about Vacation Bible School. I know that God can take care of our church but in the back of my mind there is a voice saying, “Pastor, if God doesn’t come through, it’s your ass on the line.” Do you ever worry about your job? Your kids and grandkids? Your retirement income or college debt? Nuclear war or Russian influence? We have plenty to worry about. I’m sure Jesus agreed with what Paul wrote the Philippians: “Don't worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart.” Your Father knows what you need. Trust the God who made you and gave himself for you, whose kingdom is breaking through all the time.
Then, of course, there is “the deceitfulness of wealth,” as Jesus calls it, the false appeal and lure of riches. You only have to turn on the news any day to see examples of people who have lost their souls in pursuit of wealth, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that our nation has lost its soul in the same manner. If there is anything that the Christians of developing nations, where the church is exploding, want to say to American Christians, it is “beware of your wealth.” That love is, as Paul says, “the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:10 NLT).
Our lives are shaped by our ultimate concerns, whatever it is that we desire most. If it is money or security, those concerns crowd out God and take God’s place on the throne of our lives. So even if God places his word in our hearts, and even if we hear it and attend to it briefly, that word has no chance against the competition, and is choked out.
I want to suggest that we all go through times when we are simply resistant or too distracted to hear God speaking to us. We go through times when we are shallow Christians who wish life could just be easy and comfortable. We go through times when we worry ourselves sick and obsess about money, so that there is no room in our heart for Christ’s message to take root. There is another possibility, Jesus says. Our hearts can also be beautiful earth, good soil where the word takes root and grows and bears fruit. When that happens, Jesus says, it’s wonderful and results in more seed, more words from God to share with others. That other option is the one described in the old gospel hymn I want to sing: Trust and Obey. That’s what it means to hear and understand the word of God: to trust it, and to obey it.