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[Jesus said:] “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 has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along 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 he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he 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 deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:18-23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In our readings today, we have a paradox. God’s Word is all-powerful and yet can be resisted. These truths seem to contradict one another. If God’s Word is all-powerful, then it seems that it cannot be resisted. If God’s Word can be resisted, then it must not be all-powerful, right? Yet our readings today call us as Christians to believe this paradox: God’s Word is all-powerful and can be resisted.
When you hear the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, you see how God’s Word is all-powerful. Using natural imagery, Isaiah proclaims God accomplishes what God wants through His Word. “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth… so shall My Word be… it shall not return to Me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose” (Isaiah 55:10-11). God’s Word is all-powerful, and God accomplishes what He desires with it.
Yet, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of the sower and teaches His disciples that God’s all-powerful Word can be resisted. The sower goes out to sow and some of the seeds are snatched away, some are scorched, and some are choked. Only a portion of the seed produces grain.
When you hold these two readings together, you encounter a paradox of faith. God speaks an all-powerful Word that can be resisted. This is an important paradox for us to meditate on because it helps us make sense of the tension we see in the ministry of Jesus, both in the Gospel of Matthew and in our lives today.
The seed is the Word of God. And the different kinds of ground are the different types of hearers. The seed that falls on the beaten down path and is quickly gobbled up by the birds is illustrative of the Word which is proclaimed and never received in faith. Satan comes and takes away the message about the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming and His hearers never understand it or even begin to believe it.
The shallow, rocky ground describes the person who gladly hears the Word of God and believes it. He is very enthusiastic about being received into God’s Kingdom and into membership in a Christian congregation. He expects that his Christian faith will exempt him from the troubles that other people experience in this life. He looks for success and prosperity, good health and uninterrupted happiness. (Sad to say, there are some false prophets who lure people into their church by giving them such false hopes.) But then reality strikes. Troubles, which are an inescapable part of living as sinful people in a fallen world come into this person’s life. Or hardships are inflicted upon him because of his Christian faith. Unprepared for such trials, he gives up his faith without much of a struggle.
Thorns represent “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.” The seed sown among thorns grows for a while but never really thrives. This kind of hearer is still too concerned about material things and the problems of this life. He has great difficulty trusting God to provide for all his bodily needs. He imagines that if he can only accumulate enough money and all the good things that money can buy, then he will be perfectly happy. If he gets rich and still is not happy, he imagines that the solution is to get even richer, and he never has enough. If he fails to get rich, he may still pin his hopes on what money supposedly could accomplish for him. Mammon is his god, and he becomes Mammon’s slave, so he never produces fruits of faith to glorify God.
Some of the seed falls into good soil. Some hear the Word and understand and believe it, and they produce abundant fruits of faith, such as good works, and the sharing of God’s Word with others. In this way, the seed of the Word literally is multiplied 30 or 60 or 100 times or more.
So, the parable of the sower describes the various ways in which people who hear God’s Word respond to it. We can easily see that it is an accurate description. But what is the benefit of hearing this parable? Is it just to enable us to pre-qualify our evangelism prospects? To enable us to classify people as hard or shallow or thorny ground? No, God’s Word works when and where He desires. Is the parable telling us that people are inherently different and that some simply are more receptive to the Word of God when they hear it? No, the Bible makes it very clear that by nature it is foolishness to natural man. When people hear the Gospel and believe it, it is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, a gift of God. On the other hand, when some hear the Gospel and reject it, that is entirely their own fault.
That doesn’t sound reasonable or fair to our human minds, but that is what God says, and we leave it at that. Any attempts on our part to logically explain this mystery of “why some are saved and not others” only leads to our denial or rejection of other clear Bible truths. So, we simply marvel at the grace of God that saved us when we were as bad as all the rest of sinful humanity, and we look for ways to express our deep gratitude to our gracious God.
Jesus’ teaching in this parable is an important antidote to a simplistic application of “church growth” principles in our own day, principles that border on “marketing” the Church in such a way that it gives the impression that the growth of the Church is predictable and within our control. There is nothing wrong with careful long-range planning, larger parking lots, or working hard to understand the people to whom you are trying to reach out. These are good First Article gifts. But we must always remember that it is the Word of God that makes disciples. Sometimes that Word takes root and produces a harvest, often it does not.
The ministry of the Son of God Himself met with widespread rejection, animosity, and lethal opposition. Should we expect better results? The parable of the sower teaches us a sobering reality. You can be right, you can do right, and you can get it right in your participation in the ministry of Jesus, who is present as baptizing and the teaching of His Word continues—and still for many, many people to whom you minister, there will be no faith, no understanding, no discipleship. God has to give the revelation to the people, and they have to keep their eyes and ears, heart and mind open.
So, this paradox Jesus offers His disciples, that God has an all-powerful Word which can be resisted, is not just an intellectual exercise. It is a spiritual reality. They have seen the Word of God cast out demons, still storms, and heal withered hands, but they have also seen the powers of government, religious institution, and indeed the Devil himself oppose such work. How are they to respond? In this parable, Jesus offers an encouraging word: God’s Word works, even in the face of opposition. God’s Word will bear fruit.
Such words are powerful for us today. Christianity no longer has the status it once had in our cultural setting. While some might remember the good God has done through the Church, others attack our beliefs as destructive of a common, public life. In newsfeeds and Facebook posts, they make accusations that Christianity has been used to subjugate women, to silence science, to foster racism, to fuel homophobia, or that is has been used to cultivate self-loathing and a lack of initiative through calls for repentance and humility. Such responses demonstrate hearts that resist the words and works of Jesus.
In such a world, it is easy to wonder how long we can go on. Jesus, however, offers us an encouraging word. His parable acknowledges our reality. God’s Word can and will be resisted. We are not missing the right communication techniques, the appropriate public relations programs, or the gifted evangelists and missionaries who will turn everything around. No, we proclaim an all-powerful Word that can be resisted. And we know in our own lives, in great detail, the power of such resistance.
But… Jesus reminds us… but God does have an all-powerful Word. Rather than retreat into the safe havens of our congregations, rather than hide our faith from public notice, Jesus encourages us to trust in the Spirit’s work through the Word. Even through this Word can be resisted, it remains all-powerful and will accomplish the growth God desires in His Kingdom.
Jesus is the Word made flesh, who encountered deadly resistance. He died under the attacks of this world upon God’s Word. But God raised Him from the dead and Jesus sent forth His people proclaiming His Word, bringing the Kingdom of God to the ends of the world. We cannot control the resistance of people to God’s Word, but we can trust in God’s power and promise to work through His Word. We can continue to joyfully sow that Word here and abroad.
So, this parable of the sower does not call us to turn our attention inward, to examine our hearts and question, “What kind of soil am I?” No, this parable turns our eyes outward, to the public conflicts of our world. It asks us to look out the windows of our churches and see how the Word is being stolen from some by Satan, how it is being scorched among others who begin to follow but fall away, and how it is being choked out by those who would rather have the pleasures of plenty than the poverty of the Kingdom.
But if we continue to look out the windows and see all the suffering and resistance, we will soon see a familiar figure walking on the distant horizon. Jesus, the sower, continuing to walk amid such great opposition, and continuing to speak His Word and do His work, trusting that, even though it is being resisted, this is still God’s all-powerful Word and it brings about His Kingdom, where and when God desires.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.