Text: Luke 8:4-18
Today is Sexagesima, which means we are beginning the second week of our two-and-a-half-week season of “Pre-Lent.” We’re just shy of the halfway point, when we have been given a chance to prepare our hearts for our great Penitential Season. I’m very proud of my daughters who asked me to help them brainstorm what they might do to have a fruitful Lent.
Today’s Gospel reading is the parable of the sower in Luke 8. This is one of our Lord’s best-known parables, and an ideal text to think about as we prepare for a fruitful Lent. Blessedly, our Lord gives us both the parable and its explanation. He has very graciously told us what each of the images in the parable mean. In many ways, this makes my job as the preacher a bit easier. After all, there’s not terribly much more that I could possibly add! In fact, as I was going through the various commentaries on my shelf, several of them just referred me to the parallel passages in Matthew 13 and Mark 4 and said that Jesus had given enough of an explanation. No further commentary was needed.
Yet I do want to highlight one significant aspect of the parable. Notice that whether or not the seed is fruitful, whether or not there will be a harvest, is not dependent on the seed. The seed is the same. The sower is the same. The variable, the thing that makes a difference for the harvest, is the soil.
While this is pretty obvious when we think about it, it is crucial to understanding this parable. In Mark’s account, Jesus tells his disciples that this parable is absolutely key to understanding the rest of his teachings: “And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? And how then will you know all parables?” (Mark 4:13).
Jesus tells us plainly that the seed represents the word of God. We can see the identity of the seed with God’s word in two ways. First, we see the word of God as the message given to us by God in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is often called “special revelation,” because we recognize that God has definitively spoken to us in Scripture. Not only does Scripture contain the word of God; Scripture is the word of God in written form. We do not need to wonder what God says about an issue; he’s given his answers to us in black-and-white. And, as a whole, we would acknowledge that Scripture is, in fact, understandable. We can indeed understand the Bible by simply reading it and thinking about what we read. Yes, there are difficult parts of Scripture, but there are also many easy parts. And we always are to read those difficult passages in light of the clearer ones. As we do so, the seed of God’s word is sown into our hearts.
Second, we have Jesus as God’s Word with a capital “W.” Christmas wasn’t terribly long ago, when we read in the opening of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not made any thing that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
In Jesus we have God’s definitive message to mankind, God’s final word, as it were. This does not, of course, pit Jesus as God’s Incarnate Word against the Scriptures as God’s Written Word. No, the most important thing about the Holy Scriptures is that they infallibly teach us about Jesus. Our Lord himself said that Moses and the Prophets, (i.e., the whole Old Testament) is about Jesus himself. And the New Testament is the divinely inspired witness from Jesus’ apostles about the Lord’s life and teachings for the Church.
So, when you hear priests, pastors, or teachers saying that they’re going to follow Jesus instead of the Scriptures, you can be sure they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. You can be sure they are spiritual con artists. They are trying to exalt their own understandings, ideas, and feelings above Scripture and attributing those ideas to Jesus. Sometimes this is done by trying to pit Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels against those of Paul or the other Apostles in the Epistles. Other times this is done by pitting Jesus’ teachings against the moral commandments of the Old Testament.
In our current cultural moment, folks especially love to do this with regards to sexual morality. For example, the claim is often made that since Jesus himself never addressed same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior, the condemnation of it by St. Paul and the Torah are merely cultural artifacts that can be ignored. This kind of logic is not driven by proper reading of the Scriptures or a proper understanding of Jesus’ character. Rather, it’s driven by a desire to change God’s Word (both written and Incarnate) to fit our cultural norms. It’s driven by putting emotions, feelings, and a false understanding of compassion above what is objectively written in the Scriptures about what God is like, what love is like, and what goodness is like.
Yet, as we see in the parable, it’s not God’s word that needs to change. The problem is not with the seed. The problem is with the soil. Rather than trying to change God’s Word, we should seek to be changed by God’s Word. Indeed, to seek to change the seed is to be an agent of the Enemy, who (in another parable) sows tares among the wheat. Too many churches today, and throughout the generations, have failed to see this. They think if we only soften the Word of God, the multitudes will come in. They think that by putting feelings and emotions in the driver’s seat, the church can be more loving than God himself. That’s not how it works. It has never worked that way. Only God can bring in the harvest. Only he can show perfect love. Only he can change our hearts.
This change is indeed something that our Lord Jesus is able to do. He is the one that changes hearts, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he speaks through the Word and Sacrament. As one whose vocation is to be a minister the Word and Sacrament, I find that to be a very comforting truth indeed. I’m reminded of a sermon on this text by Charles Spurgeon, who was known in the 19th century as the Prince of Preachers. He writes:
Now the preacher of the gospel is like the sower. He does not make his seed; the seed is given him by his Master. … What the minister has to do, is to go forth in his Master’s name and scatter precious truth. … He has to leave the fate of the seed in the care of the Master who gave it to him, for well he understands that he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only responsible for the care, the fidelity, and the integrity with which he scatters the seed, right and left with both hands. … Here let me remark, that the measure of our duty is not limited by the character of our hearers, but by the command of God. We are bound to preach the gospel, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear. Let men’s hearts be what they may, I am not loosed from my obligation to sow the seed on the rock as well as in the furrow, on the highway as well as in the ploughed field.
The same is true for you when you share Jesus and his Word with your friends, family, and neighbors. It’s not up to you to guarantee a harvest. You are just the sower.
Indeed, as St. Clement of Alexandria notes, it is the Lord himself who prepares the soil of men’s hearts. He writes:
There is only one cultivator of the soil within human beings. It is the One who from the first, from the foundation of the universe, has been sowing the seeds with potential growth, who has produced rain on every appropriate occasion in the form of his sovereign Word.
So, we do not need a new Gospel. We do not need to change the Word of God. We do not need to change the essence of the Truth that the Church brings to the world. We do not need new seed. Rather, we are called to be faithful, and to trust Jesus to bring the harvest. As St. Cyril of Alexandria writes:
He truly is the Sower of all that is good, and we are his farm. The whole harvest of spiritual fruits is by him and from him.
Part of the call to faithfulness is to be mindful of the soil of our own hearts. Jesus told us what the different soils look like. The way-side represents a heart so hard that the Word of God never goes in at all. There is no concern at all with Jesus or the things of God. The rocky soil represents those who have a shallow faith that falls away when temptation comes. The thorny soil represents those whose faith is choked out by the cares and pleasures of life. The good soil represents those whose hearts are “honest and good,” as evidenced by the word of God taking deep root and bringing forth a harvest of faith and good works.
As we head into Lent, the question for each of us is this: where are the stones and thorns that keep God’s word from taking deep root? What are the “pet sins” that make you vulnerable to succumbing to temptation? What are the stones that trip up your walk with the Lord? What are the besetting sins that you love more than God’s Word? Or what are the cares and pleasures of the world that choke God’s word? What are the things of life that have become more important to you than loving and following the Lord Jesus? A big challenge of Lent is to carefully plow these stones and thorns from the soil of our hearts. If you seek the Lord in doing this, he is faithful to cultivate your heart and make it better soil.
John Boys, an Anglican priest who was the Dean of of Canterbury during the time of James the 1st and 6th, has some very helpful advice in plowing the rough parts of our hearts. In his reflections on Sexagesima and its readings, he writes this:
“A good ear,” says the wise man, “will gladly listen to wisdom.” From this we note two lessons concerning hearing. First, we should listen to nothing but what is good, that is, to wisdom. Second, we should listen to it gladly, with a desire to learn. For we see in the Scripture that to hear is to obey, as Christ says in the Gospel: “He who hears you, hears me.” That is, he who obeys you, obeys me, and he who despises you, despise me. …
Therefore, when you come to Christ, bring your ears with you, ears to hear, so that in hearing, you might understand; understanding, you might remember; remembering, you might practice; and practicing, you might continue. In this way, God’s seed will be sown in good ground and bring forth fruit, in some thirtyfold, in some sixtyfold, and in some a hundredfold.
Again, it is not the seed that has the problem; it’s the soil. That desire to hear, understand, remember, practice, and continue in following the Lord Jesus is indeed a great way to work the soil of your heart. Lent is an ideal time, set aside by the Church every year, to work the soil of your heart. The spiritual disciplines of fasting, praying, almsgiving, and reading Scripture are there to help build on that desire. Indeed, that desire to work the soil through hearing, understanding, remembering, practicing, and continuing the the faith is evidence itself that the Divine Sower has already been cultivating the soil. And with patience and perseverance, we will indeed see a fruitful harvest. May this coming Lent be a time of both sowing and harvest in your life and the life of all the Church.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.