Preached by Jason Abbott
As we jump back into Luke’s gospel, we’ll want to briefly remind ourselves where we’ve been and where we left off.
Recall that Luke wrote an orderly historical account in order to reveal truth and to give his readers certainty about Jesus. He has presented Jesus as the Christ by showing his authority, power, and fulfillment of prophecy. He depicts Christ, therefore, as trustworthy—or faith-worthy. But how will we respond to this Christ? That’s the question Luke places before us, because it’s the question Jesus placed before the crowds who swarmed to hear him teach. How will you respond to me?, Jesus asks in this little story about seeds and soil.
Let’s read this parable and, then, pray that we’ll have ears to hear its truth.
4 And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6 And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. 8 And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
To open up this passage, we’re going to hang our thoughts on two questions: (1st) Do you care enough to hear Jesus? And if you do: (2nd) How will you respond to what he says? Let’s dig in.
1. Do you care enough to hear (vv. 4-9)?
Crowds are flocking to Jesus. Jesus is a rabbi—a kind of theology professor. When, consequently, Jesus abruptly begins this lecture by telling a farming story without mentioning a spiritual parallel, we may find it strange and a bit confusing. His disciples were obviously a bit confused because later that day they ask Jesus for the cheat-sheet to his story (v. 9). What does it mean, Jesus?!
This kind of instructional technique would never fly in our religious context. Imagine that you come on a Sunday morning, sit down in the normal row and seat, and stand to sing a fairly typical worship set. But, when it’s time for me to preach in the service, I walk onto the stage and say this:
A woman owned three cats and fed them equal portions of food each day. One cat always ate and then napped, so it became a fat cat. One wouldn’t eat because it was distracted by the birds at the window, so it became a thin cat. And, one ate and then played joyfully with balls of string and squeaky toys, so it became a healthy, muscular cat. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! 1
Then, after this, I pray and have the music team up for a final worship song, and, following that, Ben dismisses you to go home. How would you react to this? How would you respond?
Some of you would go away confused and decide to never come back again. Others would go away amused thinking that’s funny, that’s just Jason being Jason, but you would never imagine there was something in that story for you to learn. Another group of you would simply be glad because the sermon was really short, and that means you can catch a little more of the Steelers’ game or Eagles’ game. Still a few more of you would surely demand to know the meaning of my cat story; you’d corner me after the service and ask—What did that mean?
And all of these would be reasonable responses to me in our context.
But let me ask you this: How many more in the congregation would stay after the service to ask me about my cat story, if I were a world-famous theologian and bestselling author? Wait…let me raise the stakes: How many more might stay, if I were a world-famous theologian and bestselling author—as well as!—someone who’d been regularly performing miracles around town? My guess is a lot more, because, when my importance or my authority increases, the importance of hearing and understanding what I say increases as well.
Friends, Jesus has such authority! He’s earned the right to be heard!
Additionally, when Jesus tells this parable about farming to these people, he’s not just telling the parable but simultaneously acting it out. What do I mean? Well, as he tells his mysterious story, he’s taking the crowd’s spiritual temperature at the same time. He’s essentially asking them: Who did you come out here to see? Who do you say I am? How much authority do you think I have? What will you do with me and my message? How important am I to you? Will you stay and learn about this parable’s meaning?
And friends, if this is what Christ Jesus is doing with the crowds of people who flock to him—taking their spiritual temperature, gaging their interest in him and God’s word—then we must allow him to examine us also.
- What do you come to church to see?
- Old friends, good music, entertaining preaching…what draws you?
- Who do you say Jesus is?
- A good moral teacher, a law-giver to keep your kids in line…who is he?
- What will you do with Jesus when his teachings confront you?
- Leave, ignore the challenging, change the unpopular…what will you do?
- How important is Jesus to you?
- Below family, below prosperity, below pleasure…how important is he?
- Which of these four soils are you?
- Trampled, dry and rocky, thorny…or good?
Each of us must personally decide what we’ve done with Jesus and his word. Each of us must decide if we really care enough to truly hear what Jesus has to say. If we do, our very lives will demonstrate it—if we do, our lives will truly change. And this brings us to our final point—to Christ’s explanation of his parable.
2. How will you respond (vv. 10-15)?
The beginning of Jesus’ explanation seems cruel to us. Look at what he says to the disciples. He prefaces his interpretation with these words:
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’ (v. 10).
We wonder: Is Jesus being enigmatic on purpose? Is he playing at favorites? Is this parable some kind of an exclusive insider language, like a secret handshake? The answer is no.
To begin, instructing with parables was a common and even expected form of teaching in the ancient Near East. Moreover, when Jesus tells his farming story, everyone there would’ve known all the agricultural facts. They would have known from experience what soils are conducive to growing and getting a fruitful harvest since they lived in a farming society. Thus, if you put these two things together, then it becomes clear that everyone listening to Jesus’ parable would have known what Jesus was doing. They would’ve known there was a theological lesson there, not merely a kind of “captain-obvious” lesson about farming.
So, the question isn’t whether they know Jesus is teaching them something about God. They know he is. Rather, the question is really about what they will do with his teaching. Will they ask for the meaning? Will they seek more instruction? Will they knock at Jesus’ door for understanding? If so, the truths will be revealed. In fact, soon we’ll see Jesus promise this very thing (Luke 11:9).
These parables are consequently a kind of self-selecting, instruction method. Those who long for God’s kingdom to come, those with soft hearts, see and hear, while those who would oppose God’s kingdom come, those with hardened hearts, see the truth without recognizing it and hear the truth without comprehending it. The parables, in other words, simply reveal the state of one’s heart.
When the disciples, therefore, humble themselves and come to Jesus asking for meaning, Jesus gives it. He shares plainly the truths of his parable with them. And, certainly, the truth wasn’t merely for them. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus consistently welcomed all who longed for God. And even now, by his Spirit, God still welcomes us to learn and grow in our understanding of him—to truly see and truly hear and truly be transformed by the gospel.
(Baptism is a sign of gospel transformation and a response to Jesus’ call.)
Well, as Jesus unpacks this parable, we see that not all responses are equal—not all responses are good. Yes, we must respond to the word and the call of God, but how we respond to God matters. Look at what Jesus says:
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (vv. 11-15).
There’s so much here. Allow me to just make some practical observations about these responses, and, then, we’ll conclude.
First, spiritual warfare is real. It’s not a metaphor for having a few bad days. There’s a truly real and supremely important battle taking place between the devil and God. And humanity is the territory under dispute. Now, don’t be deceived, Satan won’t win the battle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lose it along with him. In fact, Jesus clearly explains that many will share the devil’s fate. Like the soil along the path, they will have the word snatched away and trampled on by Satan, and, therefore, not respond in faith and not be saved (v. 12).
Friends, be careful! It is so easy to adopt our culture’s materialist mindset—to believe that the physical universe is all there is, but Jesus teaches us that’s bunk. Don’t buy it! Jesus says, very clearly here, that your soul is at stake.
Second, notice that these next two responses begin with some kind of faith; however, they don’t end in faith. Either the rocks or the thorns destroy it.
The word of God scattered on the rocky soil sprouts quickly but the droughts of life—the difficult times of life—come along just as quickly and end that growth. Jesus says, when the trials come, those responding in this way will “fall away” because they “have no root” (v. 13). Their faith is shallow.
Perhaps, these are the kinds of people who profess to believe in Jesus Christ because they think he’ll make them happy. They believe Jesus exists to serve them when-ever and how-ever they please—a bit like having a genie in a magic lantern. Many people buy into this. It’s why the prosperity gospel packs huge auditoriums. But crimes and cancer and car-accidents exist. And, Jesus tells us to expect them because we live in a fallen world. So, we need a deeper faith.
The word of God scattered among the thorns is eventually strangled to death. And we immediately nod our head and think: Well of course they can’t grow there because thorns are nasty and dangerous. Jesus, however, doesn’t want us to move by this one too quickly. What do these nasty and dangerous thorn bushes represent in our lives? They are “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (v. 14).
Friends, this is our struggle. We live in a place where having tons of money and tons of fun and all our cares taken care of is worshiped. We’re constantly told in countless ways—both explicitly and implicitly—that this is the meaning of life. But, Jesus says: Watch out! Those good things can actually become the thorns which will choke your ability to respond to me and to my call. Brothers and sisters, Jesus says: Listen up! Watch out for the thorns!
Finally, Jesus tells us there’s hope; there is a soil where the seed will grow. There is “an honest and good heart” which will “bear fruit with patience” (v. 15). When those with a heart like this hear the word of God, they will hold tightly to it. What a good soil! What a pure heart!
Too bad this description doesn’t sound at all like my heart or like your heart! If we’re honest, we’ll confess that our hearts are lazy and wayward and deceptive and dull. If we’re being honest, we will confess that only Christ Jesus has the kind of heart described here. And that’s precisely the point.
Even as the disciples must come to Jesus to receive the parable’s meaning, we all must come to Christ so as to receive and realize that meaning in our hearts. We cannot transform our own hearts. But God promises to do that for us in Christ. Let me end with some of those glorious promises. God promises:
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart (Jeremiah 24:7).
And again he promises:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone…and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
And again he promises:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Amen! Praise God for his grace and mercy! Let’s thank God for Jesus Christ as we close in prayer. Will you bow your heads with me?