✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
When Jesus told a parable, he didn’t just sit the people down and start telling them a story for no particular reason. There was almost always some circumstance or event that moved him to tell it. So, for instance, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in part, to humble a self-righteous lawyer. Our Lord tells the parable of the Prodigal Son to explain to the Pharisees why he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners.
And the context of today’s Gospel is very important, too. It is written here that a great multitude had gathered before Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city. Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him. And so Jesus tells this parable to make something clear, especially to His twelve disciples, who might have been thinking at this point that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so well. Jesus tells a parable that gives a dose of reality. He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good. For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no effect. The apostles are going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run. They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus. Big numbers don’t mean anything. Not all of them were believers.
In fact there came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; just about all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him. After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55). That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers. Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion, when numbers are sometimes disappointing. What we must finally cling to is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose. Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.” But above all the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil. God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest. For in His love He desires all to be saved. The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.
First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God. Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused. Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life. They say, “Where has God been for me? Why should I even listen to His Word?” Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by clergy to manipulate people. And so the Word floats in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air. Think of all that flies across our airwaves that seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word. For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.
Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God. Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but, “it is also violated by that other crowd who listen to God’s Word as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear the sermon and leave again with as little knowledge at the end of the year as at the beginning! . . . On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”
In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly is to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when tragedy comes–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.
Next, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns. Jesus says these are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts. And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, things which seem to be the opposite of pain! But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true. For, in fact, the things that often promise us the most pleasure bring us the most pain. The things of this world give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if they are what we set out hearts on. These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.
And then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good. How did those hearts get to be honest and good? Not of themselves. All of us are by nature the first three soils. Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts. If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.
Here’s really the best way to think of it: Jesus is Himself the fourth perfect soil. He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human, but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.
This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil. Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you. Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the caws of scavenging ravens. But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume. This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!” But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently. And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again. A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit. The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.
In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity. In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world. In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven. In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted. You have been watered with the Word in your baptism. And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. The power of God to give life is in the Seed. And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.
Let us, then, seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here. Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon. His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness. For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠