February 12, 2012
Emmanuel Lutheran Church—Dwight, IL
Updated and revised February 23, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I always like parables that Jesus explains for us. Except that the one He explains are often harder to understand than the ones He doesn’t.
Case in point. Today’s Gospel is a parable complete with explanation by Jesus. But even after a very thorough explanation of the details, you’re kind of left with more questions than answers.
Jesus tells a lot of parables, but in today’s He explains why He uses parables in the first place. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells His disciples, “but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (v 10). What? Jesus wants people to see and hear, but not to understand? So He deliberately speaks in riddles?
Jesus is quoting Isaiah 6 here, when the Lord calls and commissions Isaiah as a prophet. He says to him, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing but do not understand; keep on seeing but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes” (Is 6:9-10). The Word of God is a two-edged sword—it has the effect of both saving those who believe, but also confirming others in their unbelief.
The parable is the perfect linguistic tool to do such a thing. Those who do not understand God’s Word for what it is—that is, who do not have faith—will be even more confused by Jesus’ parables. And that’s precisely what this parable is about.
In this parable, there are a variety of ways that God’s Word is heard, but it is received to little or no effect. The sower in the parable sows his seed and it falls in three different places. First it falls along the path, but it’s trampled underfoot and the birds come and carry it away. Next it falls upon rocky ground and it grows, but after some time it withers for lack of moisture. Again it falls among thorns; these grow up and some fruit even begins to bud, but the thorns choke it and the fruit never matures.
In Jesus’ explanation, He tells us what the parable means. “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” (vv 11-14).
One of the purposes of this parable is so that we might not be discouraged when someone who was thought to be of the faith falls away. Jesus said this would happen. You probably know someone who fits these descriptions, maybe even someone close to you. Do not think that it pains you more than it does Christ that they have fallen away. Nevertheless, His Word reveals unbelief just as the sower’s seed reveals the nature of the soil it falls on.
Just after Jesus tells this parable, He says, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks he has will be taken away” (Lk 8:18). It matters not only that you hear God’s Word, but how you hear it as well.
Those who hear God with no faith at all are already in the devil’s kingdom. They tread over the Word of God and abuse and scorn it. The person who is in the devil’s kingdom thinks he has the best that the universe has to offer right now. He doesn’t bother with church; he thinks that putting an offering in the plate is a foolish waste of money. When you tell this person about God’s kingdom, he laughs in your face and tells you how much better things are without a pesky God in your life. But even what he thinks he has will be taken away. The devil has no problem snatching the Word when it’s left unattended.
But then there are those who hear the Word, but it doesn’t take root, like seed in rock. These are those who look to God’s Word for something that it does not give, who put their faith in something that cannot be found in God’s Word. They put their faith in their own works, looking to God’s Word for motivation and confirmation for themselves. These are the ones who mistake the righteousness of their works for righteousness that counts before God. These are the ones whose faith is rooted not in Baptismal waters, but in the rockiness of their own hearts.
Then there are those who receive the Word of God in faith, but give more attention to the cares of the world than to the things of the kingdom of God. These are those who are religious about bringing their children to their baseball practice, but only once in a great while are to be found at Christ’s altar. The Word of God and faith, they think, is just one more extra-curricular activity. Faith that has to compete with every other aspect of life will soon be choked to death.
There is only one way to hear God’s Word to any lasting benefit, and this parable instructs you in that way. God’s Word, properly understood, is to bring Christ’s righteousness to you.
The Mystery of the Kingdom of God Is that Righteousness Comes Through Faith in God’s Word
The fourth location in which the sower’s seed falls is good soil. “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” (v 15). The phrase “honest and good heart” has an interesting usage in the way the Greeks thought. Originally, the phrase, which is probably better translated as “noble and good,” referred to someone who by birth or by virtue was a better class of citizen than the general Greek citizen. He was a landowner or someone trained in the arts.
Socrates, a Greek philosopher, is responsible for a slightly different understanding. A noble and good person was not someone who had those qualities by birth or by nature, but someone who was trained in the way of righteousness or virtue.
A disciple of Christ is one who is trained to see and comprehend the external righteousness of Christ in God’s Word. That is to say, the “noble and good heart” that receives God’s Word and holds it fast is the heart that looks for righteousness outside of self and finds it in God’s Word. It is the heart whose faith rests on the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.
How does your heart get to be this way? “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). This means that the Word of God is not simply a word on a page, a dead word, a word of the past, but that the Holy Spirit is the one who works this understanding in those who hear God’s Word. This training in righteousness is training to find your righteousness not in your own self, but in Christ. He is the One to whom the Word of God points us. Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
The good soil in the parable is the one who finds his righteousness revealed in God’s Word. The good soil in the parable is the one whose faith is rooted in Holy Baptism. The good soil in the parable is the one whose heart is constantly being tilled by the Spirit by Confession and Absolution. Take care how you hear—listen for a righteousness that is outside of yourself.
Such a faith is bound to bear fruit in good works. But, Jesus says, fruit that is borne in patience. That is to say that the fruit of faith in Christ’s righteousness is fruit that is borne under the cross. These works will endure to the Last Day, when they will be a testament to the faith that rests on Christ.
Jesus calls this a mystery of the kingdom of God. A mystery is a hidden thing that is revealed. Today the mystery of the kingdom of God is revealed to you, that God’s Word is given to you to deliver righteousness. “He who has ears to hear, hear this!” (v 8b). Jesus is your righteousness.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard