Hearing the Word
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Even to us who live in the midst of agriculture, the image of the sower who sows his seed by hand is something from the distant past. At one time, of course, before the coming of mechanized farming, the figure of the lone farmer hand-casting his seed was commonplace about anywhere in the world, giving this parable an immediate appeal; it was one to which most people could instantly relate. While He spent time in the cities and towns, much of Jesus’ ministry was spent in the little villages and the countryside of Palestine. As time passed, opposition to Jesus began mounting up. The teachers of the law had turned hostile toward Him. The Pharisees were beginning to gang up on Him. He had been driven from the synagogues and even from his hometown. There had been setbacks and discouragements. And now even His disciples and close followers began to show signs of discouragement. Was that great Kingdom of God to which Jesus had called them doomed to failure from the start?
The parables of Jesus normally follow the rules of popular story-telling, which means that the emphasis falls at the end; in this case, the abundant harvest. In spite of all hazards and losses, in the end the farmer reaps a splendid crop. Likewise, in spite of all frustrations and failures, the kingdom of God makes its way, and His harvest exceeds expectation. To be sure, the kingdom of God encounters opposition. It experiences what the world considers failure. Yet it triumphs. Just as unproductive pockets of soil belong to sowing, so opposition and failure belong to history and sinful human nature. But the kingdom of God belongs to the realm of eternity, and what we have to keep always in view is the harvest—not the failures.
To begin with, then, on the lips of Jesus this parable was a ringing encouragement to His disciples to not fear, to have faith in their God. It is still a clear call to all the fearful saints of our day. We see how many enemies have ranged themselves against the Church. We see the Church’s setbacks and failures. All around us are empty pews and dwindling, even dying, congregations. Spiritual apathy seems rampant. We must learn from Christ Himself that, however gloomy the outlook for the Church may seem to be, the Holy Spirit is unceasingly at work wherever the Gospel is preached. That “little flock” which the Good Shepherd gathered on the hillsides of Galilee continues to stand under the blessing of God, and will never be permitted to fade away. Our gracious God, who has already done so much for us through Jesus Christ, will continue doing even more, and can be trusted to complete the good work He has begun in us.
But this was not the only purpose Jesus had in mind when He told this story about the sower and his seed. Make no mistake about it: the description of the various soils is by no means accidental. It is a reflection of His own experience of preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and His awareness of our need to hear it, to listen carefully and attentively to what He is saying.
How do we hear the Gospel? There are various ways of hearing. We can listen only with our ears, as often happens in polite conversation; that is a case of “in one ear and out the other.” This suggests the seed that fell on the footpath; it made no impression at all. Or we can listen with our minds only, as we might do to a great orator. As he is speaking, we may be thrilled and moved by his words and even persuaded, for the moment; but all of those responses evaporate as quickly as did the moisture from the shallow soil. Or we can be listening attentively, only to be distracted by other voices or other life concerns that take over our attention, like the thorns that choked the life out of the young shoots of grain. But, one day that same message is spoken to us in a way that we hear our own name in it; perhaps it is at a moment of sickness or weakness, or at the height of a profound temptation, or in the depths of sorrow and despair. And that is when we hear not with ears only, or with minds only, but with ear and mind and heart, and everything there is about us. Whether or not we are hearing rightly is a matter of life or death! This is the kind of hearing the Gospel calls for, and we must listen!
If we listen to this parable again with this kind of hearing, will we not ask ourselves questions like these? “What kind of soil am I? Am I hard, shallow, thorn-infested soil, or good soil?” Of course, we may brush aside these questions, and say, “I am just the way God made me and there is really nothing to be done about it." There are some who actually think that that is the Biblical view of who we are; but in fact, this sort of fatalism is really a denial of the truth of the Gospel. The grace of God changes hearts and lives! The real truth is that in each of us there is something of all four soils. Do not let the seed of God’s Word fall on hard ground. Don’t be so spiritually shallow that God’s Word cannot take root in you. Weed out those thorns. God will use His Gospel to make you His good soil, receptive to all He does, hearing well everything He says.
As you stand on the far side of the cross and resurrection, you know who the Speaker of the parable is. He is the “Word made flesh,” God’s own dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. He is the one who give moisture to you in Holy Baptism, planting the seed of the Word in you and watering that seed to grow in you. He is the one who weeds out the thorny sins that would choke your faith to death with the words of Holy Absolution. He is the one who shed His blood and died to make your faith fertile, feeding that faith in the Holy Supper unto live everlasting.
What we do with Jesus and the Gospel is of everlasting importance. How we hear Him is everything. Pray to the Lord that, as He sows His Word among us, as He speaks His Gospel to us in Word and in Sacrament, our ears would be wide open to hear Him, and that our hearts would be that good and fertile soil which receives Him. He is the Lord of the harvest, and He will gather you in. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.