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The Parable of the Sower

"The Sower" by Van Gogh 
Matthew 13:18-23

"Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

Have you ever walked through a maze? It can be very confusing can’t it? I’ve walked with my sons through mazes in England and Ireland and here in the United States. It helps to have a map of the maze to figure out how to get from where you are to the exit. Even better, in some ways, is what we experienced at a farm in Virginia. They had a maze created out of the dead stalks in a corn field. But they had a few key points throughout the maze where you could climb a ladder up on to a platform and see the whole maze. At one point, when I was desperately lost, someone else in our group who was atop one of those platforms told me what to do to get out. If she hadn’t I would probably still be there!

Just like that person who told me how to get out of the maze, Jesus explained the parable of the sower to his disciples. He warned them about various dead-ends in life, as well as telling them the way through.

But before we talk about all of that, we should notice, again, how surprising this whole story would have been to Jesus’ first disciples. They expected that when God’s kingdom finally arrived it would come in with a blaze of glory that would quickly sweep over the whole earth. A traveling preacher telling riddles and getting a mixed response was not what they expected.

Why was God’s kingdom coming in this fashion? The reason was because if God brought his justice to bear all of a sudden then many people would be caught in the dead ends of the maze. The same is true today. God is still giving people time to work their way through the maze and find His way out—the way that works through Jesus himself.

The seed of God’s word is central to this story. That seed is like a map, explaining the maze. Or in another way, it is like a voice from above giving us a “bird’s eye view” of life. When we take in that seed, that word, we have an internal map to guide us through all the craziness of the maze of life.

Not everyone who heard Jesus’ word had the right response. We have seen the Pharisees as an example of this. Some of them were like the soil on the hardened path. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and they didn’t seek understanding from him, so Satan came and quickly stole from them the seed that Jesus, the farmer, had sown.

Still others are like the seed sown on rocky soil. They receive the word of God enthusiastically at first. But since they have no root going down deep, they last only a short time in the kingdom—just like some grass seed I planted once that got washed away by the rain.

Yet others are like the seed sown among the thorns. The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the seed making it unfruitful. How is wealth deceitful? It promises answers to all the problems of life. It promises a way out of the maze, but in fact, wealth, in and of itself, is only a dead end. We can probably each think of people we know who have heard the word of God but have been distracted by making money. They never make their way out of the maze.

When I was in my first church after seminary I was involved in youth work. During that year long internship in that large church I encountered one young man and his friend, out of a group of probably one hundred students, who really wanted to learn the Bible. Robby and Tim met me once per week for in-depth Bible study. Among other books, we studied the book of Revelation together. When we got to chapter 4 which describes the throne room of God in heaven I remember Tim saying, “I can’t wait to get there.”

Amazingly, within a week, Tim had died of a sudden on-set of spinal meningitis. He had been a vibrant witness to those around him right up to the end of his life. When he asked a nurse at the hospital if he was going to die, she said: “Oh no, we have better hopes for you.” And Tim said, “You know, it will be alright even if I die because I know where I’m going.”

The week following Tim’s funeral many of his stunned friends and family members showed up at our Bible study—something Tim had often invited them to do, but they never took him up on the offer while he was alive. Many of those young people voiced commitments to follow Christ that night, and many of them continued in Bible study throughout the summer.

I often wonder how each of those young people is doing. Did some of them fall away from the Lord because they had no root? Have others allowed the cares of this world to choke out God’s word from their lives? Have some, perhaps, continued with the Lord, shared his word with others, and produced a crop of thirty, sixty or a hundred times what was sown in their lives?

It is interesting to think about what kind of soil the people around us are. However, what I think the Lord really wants us to do with this parable is ask ourselves: what kind of soil am I? Am I like the hard soil on the path, or the rocky soil, or the thorny soil or the good soil? If we are honest with ourselves we will probably have to admit that at different times in life we are each like each of those soils. There are times when I have been hardened to the Word of God. There are other times when I have responded enthusiastically, at first, to God’s Word. But then I haven’t pursued deeper learning. Still other times I have been distracted by the cares of this life.

Allowing Satan to steal God’s word from us, or not developing roots that go deep, or allowing the cares of this world to choke God’s word out of us, these are all ways of getting stuck in the maze of life. The good news is that Jesus shows us the way out of the maze—he tells us how to be good soil. We can be good soil by hearing his word, seeking understanding and then spreading that word to others to produce a good crop. Doing all of that takes a long obedience in the same direction. It does not happen overnight.

As Eugene Peterson has written, it is not difficult in our “world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

But the same was true in Jesus’ day. If we follow the parable literally, Jesus only expected about 25% of those who heard his word to take it to heart and then spread the word to others. So I suppose if modern day preachers are only batting 250 then we aren’t doing too bad. The good news is that some do hear. Some do have their lives permanently changed for the better by the seed of God’s word. And some do spread that seed to other good soil producing a crop of thirty, sixty, even a hundred-fold. The important thing to do is not to focus on all the bad soil all around us, but rather focus on being good soil ourselves. The question I must ask is not, “What kind of soil are you?” But rather, “What kind of soil am I?”

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