The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 12, 2020
Here’s what the Gospel-writer Matthew believed in telling the story of Jesus: In Jesus God had invaded this sin-sick world and set in motion the irrepressible power of His love that will, in the end, make everything right.
That power is irrepressible except before one other power: the sovereign power of each human being to determine their life by their own free-will choices.
Because of that power, Jesus hadn’t yet made all that much of a difference. Many hadn’t responded to Him, and many who did had rejected Him.
The situation needed some explanation, and every human being needed some exhortation to take responsibility and decide their response to Jesus.
In Matthew’s 13th chapter, Jesus explained and exhorted, and to do so used “parables” for the first time. The Greek word refers to setting two things “side for side” in a striking comparison that illumines a truth. For example, Jesus once set side by side “the kingdom of heaven” and a merchant buying a pearl of great value.
Now, Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek because it was the language most people in his world knew. But the heart language of Matthew, and of Jesus and almost everyone He spoke with back then, was Hebrew. The Hebrew word for parable is mashal. Mashal refers to everything the Greek word does, but also to an enigma whose significance is on purpose not immediately obvious. A mashal is then not always a simple story meant to make a point easy to grasp. On the contrary, its pertinence and meaning may by intention be initially elusive, in order to throw people into perplexity or wonderment, and so provoke them to look for wisdom on the other side of bewilderment. Such parables, therefore, only work for those who work with them, and only disclose their light to those who put themselves out to find it. As many a teacher in my childhood used to say, “You’ll only get out of my class what you put into it.”
Though at first the disciples were as much in the dark about this parable as anyone, they did know what Jesus calls “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”, for they knew to come to Jesus to have the mystery unlocked. They asked questions and listened again.
In these 23 verses Jesus mentioned “listening” or “hearing” 14 times; and this parable is all about that. It lays out four different kinds of soil, representing four different kinds of soul, distinguished by four different kinds of ear.
Jesus was urging people then, and is still urging them now, to take care how they listen or hear. Hearing in this context does not so much involve using our intellect to get the point as using our will to get it so on our mind and in our heart that it can’t help but get out into our behavior. It’s hearing in the sense our parents meant when, laying down the law about our behavior, they’d ask, “Do you hear me?” They weren’t asking whether we understood them but whether we were resolved to do what they said.
Those who make something of Jesus’ word are those who act differently as a result of hearing it. Each of us has to decide whether we will become the kind of soil in which God’s grace will grow and produce a bumper crop of improved character and conduct.
Sometimes we are unreceptive and impervious to the influence of His word. It bounces off of us like a seed off a hard-packed path, left to be snatched up by birds.
Sometimes we are shallow and inconstant in dealing with His word. At the start we joyfully receive it but we fail to persistently keep with it. Like the thin topsoil of rocky ground in Palestine, in which seeds quickly sprout but in which they can’t sink roots, we lack the depth and staying-power to give the seeds the opportunity to work their wonders into our lives with all their ups and downs. So, when the blazing hot sun of hardship beats down on us, when opposition assails us or costly commitments take their toll, we wither under the stress and strain, and our faithfulness shrivels up.
Sometimes we are distracted and thereby wishy-washy. We welcome Jesus’ call to follow Him as disciples, but no more than the world’s call to gain material prosperity or social popularity. We value many things but not the thing preeminently. And, without focused prioritization, the most important thing gets choked out by the multitude of less consequential things crowding in on us and claiming equal attention.
To be the soil in which God’s grace will grow and produce its fruit, we must deliberately choose to become receptive in our listening, persistent in our obeying, tenacious in our prioritizing, and resolute in our committing to do justice to Jesus’ word. We have to be “all in” on making something of the seeds He sows.
Finally, while we do well to view ourselves as soil, we also do well to view ourselves as seeds. For, to fulfill their destiny in bearing fruit, seeds must bravely be “all in” in their commitment of themselves, in their risky abandonment of themselves to their burial in the ground for the sake of new life. For, when they germinate and sink down roots, they anchor themselves for good into that ground and cut themselves off from any chance of evading whatever droughts, temperature extremes and hungry jaws they’ve thereby made themselves vulnerable to. In other words, to produce fruit, seeds must take a big gamble of faith. To bring forth God’s grace for others, they must rely on God’s grace for themselves.
May we, like good soil and like courageous seeds, be all in on our commitment and our trust of the Sower-Savior!