Listening to Jesus About How People Hear

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 4:14-20

The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Mark 4:14-20 rsv

It’s a story from the farm that has become familiar the world over. Some call it the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. Others say it’s a story about different kinds of soil. All agree that to Jesus and His apostles it was an extremely important message.

Think about the space devoted to it. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, this fills more verses than any other parable. Note also how this is one of the only two of Jesus’ stories for which He gives a detailed interpretation. Further, He seems to say that this one parable is a key to the understanding of all the others. He asks His followers in Mark 4:13, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?”

These are enough clues to make us especially alert when we study this story that Jesus told. It’s loaded with significance for God’s purposes in the world, for the life and ministry of His church, and for individual persons like you and me.

Here’s the parable as Jesus tells it in the fourth chapter of Mark. Listen:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Now for the interpretation Jesus gives.

The sower sows the word, and these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Why, do you suppose, is this parable so vital, so significant to Jesus and His followers? It deals, we note, with the proclamation of God’s Word, an activity which Jesus always saw as central to His own ministry and that of His disciples. The seed, He says, is the Word, the Word of God. The sowers are God’s messengers who proclaim it. And this to Jesus is how the secret of the kingdom is made known, how the mystery of God’s purpose is unveiled. God speaks. He breaks the silence, draws back the veil. He makes Himself known. In the proclamation of Jesus and His witnesses, a miracle of revelation is happening. The preaching of the Word is not only central to God’s purpose, central for His saving work; it also constitutes the most important thing that ever happens in the lives of human beings when they hear it.

THE SOILS

In telling us about the different kinds of soil into which the seed falls, Jesus is helping us to understand what goes on when the word is proclaimed, why responses to it are so varied. More than that, He wants us to ask ourselves the personal question, “What kind of soil am I? How do I receive the seed of God’s Word?”

By the wayside, along the beaten path, the ground is hard packed. The seed finds no entrance. It’s like trying to grow something on concrete. The seed just lies there on the surface, exposed and vulnerable. Soon the birds come and make off with it. Nothing happens. No growth, no crop.

There are people like that, Jesus says. They never let the word of God get into their minds and hearts. They remain closed to it. Before long the evil one has removed every trace of the Word. They have scarcely given it a thought.

Do you know people like that? You can’t get them to go to church, to listen to the word preached. They refuse to open a Bible, to read it for themselves. And if, while tuning the television or radio dial, they should come upon someone heralding the word of God, they quickly switch channels or stations. They seem determined not to let the word of God get to them.

Some seed, Jesus continues, falls on the rocky ground. There’s a thin layer of soil on the top, then a massive ledge of rock. The seed drops on the ground and almost immediately, it seems, we see some green growth. But it doesn’t last. As soon as the sun is high, the little seedling withers. Its problem: no depth of earth and therefore no root system.

These, says Jesus, are the people who, when they hear the word, are enthusiastic. They come to church. They celebrate their new faith. But a few weeks later, they’re nowhere to be found. They’ve fallen away completely and are living just as they lived before. The response, the growth, was only on the surface. Nothing ever went deep. For when it became difficult to be a Christian, when some cost was involved in discipleship, or when someone spoke against them because of their faith, they had had enough. Their career as disciples was shallow and brief.

Do you know anyone like that? I’m afraid I do. I can think of people I’ve known who seemed to me at one time to be genuinely converted. They said they believed. They were happy in their newfound faith but very soon they seemed to lose interest. They had no heart at all for the disciplines of the Christian life and so as soon as the going got rough along the Christian way, they dropped out.

Then there was that seed that fell among the thorns. That seemed promising, too. But the soil had already harbored other seeds and they began to sprout and grow along with the good seed of the word. They grew up with it, cut off its air and light, and choked it out so that it never matured enough to bear any fruit.

Jesus doesn’t leave us in doubt about what these thorns are, at least some of them: the cares of the world, the deceit of riches, the desire for other things. Some people get sidetracked in the Christian race because they’re consumed with worries. “Will I be able to keep my job? What about my health? How are we going to make ends meet?” They’re so preoccupied with anxiety, about what’s going to happen to them, that everything else in their lives suffers. Their Christian growth is stunted.

Maybe it’s the deceit of riches. People pursue the will-of-the-wisp of wealth. They somehow believe it’s the secret of happiness. And so to make more money, to strike it rich, they compromise conscience perhaps; they walk over others. They forget the Lord.

Perhaps it’s simply the desire for other things. We get caught up in the rat race of consumerism. We have to have what everyone else has, the latest thing excitingly advertised. We’re so busy acquiring our assets and taking care of them, so bent on the next acquisition, that our spiritual life never gets a chance to grow.

Do you know any folks like that? Of course you do. Now we’re really getting close to home. Who can say that he’s free from anxiety, that she never worries about the future? Who of us hasn’t been fooled at times, as King Midas was, with the false promises of wealth? And most of all, who hasn’t allowed the desire for other things to crowd out an appetite for the things of Christ? That happens to all of us in some ways, doesn’t it? And with some, it goes on unchecked until it seems that every vestige of faith and obedience has been squeezed out of them.

Then there’s the good soil, the fertile soil, the welcoming earth. As soon as the seed drops there, growth starts. Soon there’s grain above ground. It grows, flourishes, multiplies, yielding thirty times more than anyone would expect, even sixty, even a hundredfold. Who are these people? Jesus says: They are the ones who hear the word and accept it. They take it into their hearts. They let it go deep. They won’t tolerate anything that chokes it out.

Do you know some Christians like that? Certainly you do. Maybe you are one yourself. They’re not perfect people. They’re flawed and fumbling like all the rest of us, but they are good listeners to the word of the Lord. They take seriously what He has said. They dwell on it and try to translate it into life. And as you watch them, you can tell the difference. They grow in the likeness of Christ. They become fountains of good works, helpful servants, and they have a way of attracting other people to the Lord.

Remember now what Jesus said when the parable was ended: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And again, “Take heed how you hear.” It’s as though He’s saying, “You have a capacity to take in the word of God. Now use that capacity.” And again, “You’re responsible for what you do with the word, so handle it with care.”

Do you know what that says to me? It suggests that whatever kind of soil we may be at the present moment, we’re not locked into that. Things can change. With real repentance we can plow up that hard-packed ground. We can dislodge those rocks and even root out the thorns. The Lord can make the most unpromising terrain into good earth, a garden for the Lord. So be careful how you listen when the word comes to you and pray as it does, “God, help me to prepare the ground. Lord, change my heart and make it receptive to Your word.”

THE SOWERS

But this is not only a parable for those who hear the word, not only a call to take heed how we hear. It’s also a message for proclaimers. It’s a word for those followers of the Lord who try to sow the seed, to preach, teach and witness. It’s a word meant for our encouragement.

All of us who seek to share the gospel with others meet with disappointments at times. Some people turn us off right at the start. Maybe they laugh and mock like some of the Athenians did when Paul preached on Mars Hill. Sometimes people seem to give us a hearing, nod pleasantly, act as though they’re responsive, but nothing ever comes of it. They tell the pastor they’re coming to church next Sunday, but something always interferes and they never quite get there.

Or maybe they do come to church. Maybe they’re members, even officers in our congregations. They sit under our ministry week after week and we keep bringing the Lord’s word to them, but we sense more and more that we’re working against some kind of opposition. There seem to be powerful forces in the lives of these people that are negating the effects of the word: their worries perhaps, their pursuit of wealth, their thousand and one distracting interests. We go through the agony of watching these things strangle out God’s word in their lives. It can be disheartening to preach the word and see that many of our hearers are so little changed for the better.

But, thank God, that’s never the whole story. One of the great themes of this parable is that whenever the sower goes out to sow there’s always some seed that falls on good ground. Some of it produces a bountiful harvest, some an exceptional crop, and some respond in a way that’s almost beyond belief, that brings tears of joy to our eyes. That’s the good news for those of us who preach: God’s word never comes back empty. It always brings forth fruit. When we proclaim the gospel, there may be people who shrug it off, who deal with it shallowly, who take it in only to snuff it out. There may be, I say, those people. But there will be some who hear the word and accept it, who hide it in their hearts and bear fruit. There will be some hearts changed, some lives dedicated, some people blossoming as God’s beautiful children. And so we don’t lose heart. We keep on preaching, keep on praying the Holy Spirit to bless the word. We know that whatever else comes from that ministry, some of that seed will always fall on good ground. Take heart, Christian. No sharing of the Word, no witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel will ever be in vain.

Prayer: Father, help us to receive Your word with great care and when we preach it, to do it with great joy and confidence. In the name of Jesus. Amen.