Hear and Understand God’s Word
David J. Sigrist
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
It can be discouraging to be a Christian these days. As a whole Western culture is leaving behind its Christian roots. Overall church attendance is dropping every year, even as the number of people rises. For most people Saturday and Sunday just blur together into the weekend. The Bible is becoming less and less well known in popular culture. It can feel discouraging to be a Christian.
On the other hand, if you recently became a Christian, you’re probably very encouraged. You can see how the Gospel has changed your life. You now belong to a new community. You are learning more and more new things as you come to church. There’s so much to explore in the Bible and so much our ancestors in the faith can teach us. Maybe you’re learning how the Church is growing by “leaps and bounds” in other places like Africa and East Asia. It can feel encouraging to be a Christian.
How can this be? Why the difference? Why does the seed of God’s Word sometimes produce a great harvest that only God could provide, whereas sometimes God’s Word does nothing, it seems? To address questions like these, Jesus once told his disciples a parable to help explain how God’s kingdom works. Let’s hear again what Jesus said:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
What does this mean? First of all, let’s review what a “parable” is. A parable is an illustration you use to explain some truth by means of a comparison. So a parable gives you a different way to think about some truth and understand it better. A parable is a way for a truth to “do something” in someone’s life as they figure it out.
In Jesus’ day teachers (called “Rabbis”) would commonly use “parables” to help explain God’s Word in memorable ways. And Jesus is well-known for his many parables. But this is the thing about parables or any illustration. If you don’t know what the point for comparison is, the parable is a mystery. So Jesus often told parables so his disciples would hear and understand, but those who refused to become disciples would hear but not understand.
Today’s famous “Parable of the Sower” is one of those parables that only Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to understand. And guess what? When we read Matthew’s Gospel with faith God’s Spirit also gives us the ability to understand it. So today we’re going to let Jesus explain what this parable means, as he does several verses after what we heard, and then we’re going to understand what it might mean for us today.
The parable shows about four things that might happen when people hear “the message about the kingdom,” that is, the Gospel. Let’s hear Jesus explain the first where “some [seed] fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
“Sowing seed,” that is, getting the message of the Gospel out to the world does not “happen in a vacuum.” The reality is that there are forces in this world that work hard to stop the message of the Gospel from spreading. And as Jesus tells us, the “evil one,” that is, the devil, is at work to make this happen, often in ways unseen to us because they are “below the surface.”
This is what happens when the Gospel goes “in one ear and out the other.” This is what happens when people are “hardened” against listening to anything to do with Jesus or church or the Bible. In the same way that seeds need “plowed soil” to get below the surface and take root, people often need to “dig through” what concepts like sin, grace, faith, and works mean or struggle with deep “existential” questions like “who am I?,” “why am I here?,” and “what’s the purpose of life?” before they are open to listening. And sadly, sometimes people need a “hard plowing,” like a tragic illness or devastating failure, like losing good health or a good job, before they are “open” to the Gospel.
Now let’s hear Jesus explain the second situation where “some [seed] fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
Jesus is describing the people who come into contact with the Gospel through a ministry like ours at Saviour of the Nations, maybe attend some Bible classes, or attend worship for a while, and see the Gospel begin to change their lives, but then stop.
Why do they stop? As Jesus says “[S]ince they have no root…when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” Maybe these people believe being a Christian means everything “goes your way.” Maybe these people believe following Jesus means being served, instead of serving others. Maybe these people believe God won’t allow any of his people to suffer or face temptation. Whatever it is, they fall away when things get tough. Woe to us if we let people believe these things!
Now let’s hear Jesus explain the third situation where “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.”
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
Jesus describes “the worries of this life” and “the deceitfulness of wealth” as thorns that choke us. Jesus is talking about priorities here. Especially in today’s busy world it is easy to worry about all the little things of daily life and get so “choked” that we don’t have time for what really matters. Or if things are going well, your business “takes off” and becomes successful or you get a promotion at work, it’s easy to forget what really matters and let God’s Word be “choked out.”
Notice that Jesus isn’t saying it’s bad to take care of things in this life, like making sure your family is well-fed and your home’s chores are done. And Jesus isn’t saying it’s bad if you gain wealth. What is bad is letting worries or wealth choke the word so that you no longer produce “fruits of faith.” With similar words Jesus told the devil when he was tempted to make bread for himself to eat in the desert: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Again, regarding the worries of this life Jesus told his disciples at another occasion: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” The way that Luther explains the Third Commandment is this: “We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
So far we’ve heard Jesus describe bad situations where the seed of God’s Word doesn’t produce fruit. This is different than how Jesus ends when he says this:
But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
The key phrase here is “and understands it.” Jesus gives us a picture of the power that one little bit seed has to produce a plentiful harvest. You see, in all these examples there’s nothing wrong with the seed. In all four situations it’s the same seed that is sown. To use a science term, the seed is the “control” in each “experiment” that doesn’t change. What does change is the soil.
In Lutheranism we explain this truth with the theological words “effective” and “efficacious.” It’s like this. God’s Word in Law and Gospel is always efficacious. This means God’s Law always has the power to convict us of what we have done wrong, and guide us when we want to do what is right. This means God’s Gospel always has the power to comfort us when we feel guilty and to motivate us to do what is right.
But, God’s Word is only sometimes effective. This is what Jesus’ parable shows us. The seed of his powerful Word sometimes produces fruit, and sometimes it doesn’t. To be sure, it always accomplishes God’s purpose, as Isaiah said in our first reading, whether that means producing new faith or fruits or faith, or condemning those who refuse to believe.
So as you can see, the point of the Parable of the Sower is not to just make us all feel bad for times we have been like a hard path, rocky ground, or ground with thorns (though God’s Law can always lead us to repent or give us a warning so we can protect ourselves). The point is to get us to understand God’s Word so it can produce fruit that yields a huge harvest.
You see, like the crowds Jesus spoke to on the shore that day, our task today is to read God’s Word together, listen to Jesus, and figure out how God will bless the seed of his Word in our day. And this isn’t always easy, just like gardening isn’t always easy. You see, the Gospel isn’t like a motivational speaker or inspirational quote that just makes us feel better. The Gospel is about what God has been doing and continues to do through us, his church, today.
The Parable of the Sower makes us think, what kind of stories can we share so hardened people will listen? How can we give God’s powerful Means of Grace through Word and Sacrament the opportunity to break up rocky soil and make deep roots? What are our priorities and where are we putting most of our efforts? Are we in danger of any of these negative reactions to God’s Word? Are we being faithful with the abundant harvests we do see?
Today God asks us to not just hear, but also understand his Word. This takes time and hard work, like sowing actual seed to produce a harvest. We need to be aware of how the devil works to snatch opportunities away from us. It won’t help to be naïve and think everyone wants to believe. We need to “dig into God’s Word” and think through it. This may mean lots of time clearing away stumbling blocks and getting answers to difficult questions. We need to remove sinful thorns and weeds that choke our faith. This may mean a painful process of walking away from sinful lifestyle choices. This may mean people despising or hating us who used to be our friends or even family. And more than anything, understanding God’s Word means being ready for a fruitful harvest. This means being faithful with God’s blessings and letting his church grow. This may be celebrating when relationships are restored between parents and children who grew apart. This may be finding satisfaction when those with guilty consciences find peace, or those looking for hope and purpose find it in Jesus, or any number of hundreds of things I can’t even imagine.
So hear the Word of the Lord, and understand what it does. The world needs it, we have it, and Jesus blesses it. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Amen.