Luke 8:4-15 records a parable Jesus told about a farmer scattering seed. Like all of Jesus’ parables it is well known:
“A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. Other seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
Jesus goes on to explain to the disciples what he meant by his parable. It seems straightforward, but it raises many questions for me.
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved. The seeds on the rocky soil represent those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation. The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.”
There are two ways of looking at this parable. Firstly, it could be seen as an observational study of different responses to God’s word. The seed is the message of Jesus, the gospel, and the gospel is the same for everyone. Objectively speaking, it is good news: God has reached out to humanity to make a relationship with him possible, to bless us, and to show us a better way to live.
How can such a message fall on deaf ears? How can such a message lose interest with the passing of time? How can such a message lose its relevance? But this is exactly what seems to happen for some who hear it. This parable acknowledges this reality, and offers reasons. It is not a story about people who have not heard the gospel and therefore can’t respond, which is the challenge of missions. It is a story about people who have heard the gospel and respond in different ways, and presents other challenges. It is describing the reality of two groups of people: those in whom the message takes root so they produce fruit, and those in whom the message does not take root and no fruit is forthcoming.
The difficult question for me has always been, why is this so? The parable speaks about obstacles that prevent fruitfulness. But why do such obstacles effect some but not others? Jesus says that the fruit bearers are “honest, good hearted people.” So what are the others? Are they somehow intrinsically different to the good hearted people, so that they are more affected by the pressures of the world? Are they weaker (but aren’t we all weak)? Are they more sinful (but aren’t we all sinful)? Or is it just that they are not chosen?
Why does the good news of Jesus grow into something beautiful in some, but not in others? What do we do with this parable? Is it just a depressing observation, or is it Jesus’ intention to teach us something more? I believe that it is the latter, and this second way of looking at the parable is the most helpful for me. So what does this reading of the parable teach us?
The second way of looking at this parable is to see it as a warning of what can go wrong, what factors can change the life transforming message of Jesus into an irrelevant idea. It contains challenges both for those who are charged with the planting and cultivation of the seed, and for individual believers who are keen to stay strong in the faith (the “honest, good hearted people”), to avoid falling away. This second way of looking at the parable is the most helpful for me.
So what are the obstacles to maturity? What are the things that prevent the message of Jesus from taking hold in a person’s life, becoming a life transforming force, and “producing a harvest?” What challenges does the knowledge of these obstacles present?
Sin, the world and the devil
Jesus lists three hazards: the devil, temptation (leading presumably to sin), and “the cares and riches and pleasures of this life.” Each of these justifies an essay of its own, and it is worth reflecting and meditating on how they affect us individually and personally. However, I do not intend to write an essay on each. Just some short reflections.
I am reminded as I read this parable of the Anglican baptism liturgy, in which a person being baptized is challenged with the following words:
I sign you with the sign of the cross [the priest makes the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead] to show that you are to be true to Christ crucified and that you are not to be ashamed to confess your faith in him. Fight bravely under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to your life’s end.
I love this acknowledgement that when we choose to follow Jesus we enter into a spiritual battle against forces that can overwhelm us: sin, the world and the devil. We forget the spiritual battle at our own peril. We need to be aware of the enemies of our faith, guard against them, stand against them, fight against them, lest they drag us away from the wonder and joy of knowing God our father.
I am reminded too of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples,
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory for ever.”
It’s all there – sin, temptation, evil (the devil). We are even to pray for our daily bread, for when our needs are met it is easier to avoid being overwhelmed by the cares of this world, which can easily lead to the god of materialism and wealth (riches), with its companion of the god of pleasure. That is not to say that riches and pleasure are wrong, but when they become our focus, and make us forget Jesus, they destroy our faith and any fruit that might come from it.
These then are the obstacles of our faith, according to this particular parable: the devil, temptation to sin, and the cares and riches and pleasures of this world. These are the forces that will either prevent us receiving the message, or alternatively choke out the message of Jesus after it has taken root in our lives. The challenge is to be on the lookout for them, to fight against them, to pray against them. We need to recognize that this is a spiritual war we have entered, that evil has a name – the devil – and that it is personal. As we fight these battles and by God’s grace triumph against them, we will grow to maturity and our lives will bear the good fruit we long to see.