Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Jesus told the parable and gave the explanation of it we read in today's Gospel lesson on a day when He faced mounting opposition from some and questions about His intentions from His followers.
Earlier that day, members of the Pharisee sect of Judaism claimed that Jesus wasn't from God, but was actually Satan. And those who had accepted that He was the Savior King promised by God in the Old Testament were beginning to suspect that Jesus had no intention of ushering the kingdom of heaven in as a rebel king.
The parables Jesus tells throughout Matthew, chapter 13, are meant to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like.
You know the parable Jesus tells in our lesson well. In it, Jesus compares the word about the kingdom of heaven to a seed. A sower--a farmer--scatters seed indiscriminately. The seed lands on different kinds of soil: some on a path where it's eaten by birds; some on rocky ground where it can't take root; some on thorns, choked off by the surrounding weeds; and some on good soil that allows the seed to be multiplied from thirty to one hundred times.
As Jesus explains it, the seed that fell along the path is like people who don't understand the word about His kingdom when it's shared with them.*
The seed sown in rocky ground is about people who hear this word happily and make a good start in following Jesus, but when troubles or persecution come, they abandon Him.
In the seed choked off by surrounding thorns, we see people who hear God's Word, but allow life's cares or the love material things to be more important to them than Christ.
And the good soil are those who people who stand under God's Word, trust it, and are transformed by it.
Jesus tells this parable for at least two main reasons, I think.
First of all, God doesn't want the Church to operate efficiently.
Even by the agricultural standards of his day, the sower in Jesus' story would have been seen as something of an idiot, tossing seed around with no regard for the kinds of soil in which it might land. He was wasteful!
But so is God. God offers His Son and life with Himself to all people, worthy or not. Promising or not.
Our call and command as Jesus' followers is to scatter the word about Jesus everywhere we can, no matter how unpromising the soil may seem to be.
You may not know the name of Mordecai Ham. He was an evangelist who lived from 1877 to 1961. In 1934, he conducted a series of evangelistic meetings in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each night, after sharing God's Word, Ham issued an altar call, summoning people to confess their faith in Jesus. (We Lutherans do the same thing every Sunday, only we don't do it with an altar call. We ask people to confess Jesus through the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds.) Throughout the week, folks came forward. We don't know their names or whether the word of God took root and grew within them.
On the last night that Ham preached in Charlotte, a scrawny teenager, the son of a dairy farmer, decided to hear what all the fuss was about with this evangelist. Mordecai Ham preached, then issued the altar call. People came forward. Time passed and it appeared that the last person had made their way up. Ham was about to give a blessing and dismiss the crowd, when that scrawny teenager came forward. I've often wondered what might have happened--or might not have happened--if Mordecai hadn't waited just a moment more for God's Word to land on good soil. That's because the teenager who came up to confess Jesus was Billy Graham, whose ministry has ushered millions of people from around the world into the kingdom of heaven.
Joe is a friend of mine. His teens were troubled times in his life. He became deeply involved with drugs. He suffered two overdoses and after each one, his parents, committed Christian people, worked hard to help their son get free of his addiction. But when a third overdose happened, they were at their wits' end. They contacted a Christian friend and asked an enormous favor. "We can't get through to our son. Would you please take him in?"
That friend immediately went to the hospital ER where Joe was coming out of the fog, still on a hospital gurney.
To understand what happened next, we need to be clear about what the Bible means when it refers to the word about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven exists in people who are ruled by Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, God in the flesh, brought both God's grace and God's truth into our world. Both of these things, grace and truth, are present in equal amounts in any true word about Jesus.
Grace is God's unconditional acceptance of us. Grace is what the Old Testament is talking about when it says that "The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love."
God's truth tells us that sin is unacceptable to God and that we are sinners who, unless we repent and believe in Christ, cannot claim God's grace and live with God. God's truth is what the New Testament is talking about when it says, "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow."
Apart from the grace God gives in Christ and our faith in Christ, the truth is our sin will condemn us to separation from God, now and in eternity.
This was the seed, the word of grace and truth straight from Jesus, that the friend of Joe's parents brought to Joe that night in the ER. He stood over Joe and got in his grill: "Joe, I'm taking you home to live with me. And I want to tell you that no one you know will be a fiercer advocate for you than I will be. I will love you unconditionally. I will provide for you and I will see that you get the best that my wife and I can offer. But Joe, I will expect you to toe the line. Turn to drugs again and I will turn you in. No one will clean up after you. You'll have to live with the consequences of your sin."
That man was speaking God's life-giving word to Joe. He spoke the full word of God: grace and truth, law and gospel.
At that moment, dropping the seed of God's Word on Joe might have appeared inefficient and wasteful to some people. He'd already gone far down the road of sin and self-destruction. Some might have seen him as a hopeless case. But the seed took root and today, Joe is one of the finest pastors I know.
So, we in the Church dare not be efficient in scattering the seed about Jesus. You never can tell what soil will turn out to be receptive--or when it will be receptive--to God's grace and truth.
There's a second reason Jesus tells this parable, I think.
While we don't control our salvation and it's all a product of God's work in our lives, we evidently can decide whether we will be good soil or not. We can decide whether we'll be receptive to the word about Jesus. Otherwise Jesus wouldn't have bothered telling this parable!
This is underscored by the way Jesus begins and ends the story. He starts by saying, "Listen!" He ends by saying, "Let anyone with ears listen!"
We've heard this emphasis on listening to Jesus before. Back on Transfiguration Sunday, we heard the account of what happened on a mountain when Jesus and three disciples were engulfed by a cloud from heaven and joined by two long-ago figures from Old Testament times, Moses and Elijah. Peter, one of the disciples present, wanted to build booths memorializing Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But a voice from heaven--clearly, the voice of God the Father--vetoed notions of putting anybody on a par with Jesus. "This is My Son, the Beloved; with Him I am well pleased," the voice said, "listen to Him!"
We are good soil when our focus is on Jesus and on the things of God.
It's so easy for us to lose this focus. Rick Warren recently posted this on Twitter: "We can't watch TV for three hours, then read the Bible for three minutes and expect to grow spiritually."
Jesus opens up the possibility of an intimate and life-changing relationship with God for all who repent and believe in Him. God plants the seed of the word about Jesus in our lives so that His kingdom will grow within us...and as we go on to scatter that seed, through us.
The Bible has a lot to say about seeds and the fruit that grows from them.
In Matthew 3:10, John the Baptist called people to repent and prepare for Christ's coming. He warned, "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
In Matthew 12:33, Jesus says whether bad or good, a tree (or a human being) is known by its fruit.
The Bible also says that those in whom the word of God has found a home evidence different fruit. Psalm 1 says:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;And the apostle Paul tells us about the life in which God's Word and God's Spirit is planted, looks like:
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. [And, I love this last part!] There is no law against such things.The fruit of God's Spirit will be evidenced in the lives of those who have ears and listen. They pay heed to Jesus. They pay heed to God's Word.
Choose to be good soil!
Ralph grew up in a turmoil-ridden household. His father was brilliant, but troubled. His mother was willful and demanding. Eventually, Ralph's parents were divorced and he, in turn, had difficult teen years. It wasn't that Ralph was a bad kid. He just pushed the envelope. By that time, his mother had gotten involved with a legalistic church. Its' idea of the word of God was all law and no gospel, all truth and no grace. She arranged for the pastor of that church to sit down with Ralph and deliver a stern lecture all about how he was going to go to hell unless he straightened out. Not a word was spoken about forgiveness or the second chances that come from God's grace.
As you can imagine, Ralph was turned off to Christianity for a long time after that. Somehow though, he managed to get through high school, then college. Then, he began his career, met a wonderful woman, got married, started a family.
It was at this time that Ralph and his wife decided it might be good to get involved with a church. There was nothing spectacular that happened at the church where they landed, just the reckless scattering of God's seed. But Ralph had decided to be good soil.
His life was transformed! His wife says with a smile that he's gotten to the point where she can stand to be around him. He has a servant's heart, taking on ministries at church that no one else wants to take. And, at work, where he reads his Bible at lunch and provides a caring ear to people going through tough times, he is an inspiration.
The Word of God has multiplied many times in the good soil of Ralph's heart and will.
My simple challenge to you this morning is this: Be good soil! Focus your life on Jesus Christ. Let God's Word into the center of your life and watch what happens.
*The inability to understand isn't a matter of mental capacity, but of an unwillingness to believe.