In Matt 13:1-23 Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower.
This is a parable about spreading the gospel. The sower in the story represents the messenger, the communicator. The seed is the message, the truth. If someone told this parable today it probably would go something like this. Four sowers went out to sow. Four preachers went out to preach. The first was decidedly boring. He quoted dead guys. He used theological jargon. Everyone in the audience fell asleep. The second preacher was a little better. At least he traded in the old KJV for a newer translation. But his sermon was too long, far, far too long. This is the twenty-first century; we’re used to commercial breaks and Twitter. If you want to keep our attention, get your sermon as close as possible to 140 characters. The third preacher almost had us with his wonderful stories, but he could have used an occasional joke. The mood needs to stay light; we’re not looking for anything too serious. After all, this is church. The fourth guy was good. Easy on the eyes. Conversational delivery. Multiple references to pop culture. Jokes. Stories. Sprinkle in a little Bible. And all in 7 minutes! This guy had us ready to sign on the dotted line.
Satire aside, if told by a church leadership expert today, the emphasis in the parable probably would be on the sower, the communicator: this type of presentation will virtually guarantee these results. I don’t mean to suggest that sermon preparation and delivery are unimportant. In most cases, the difference between bad sermons and good sermons is the preparation of the preacher. But when Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower he is getting at something altogether different. As he tells the story, there is only one sower. The one sower scatters seed on four types of soil, and he gets different results, mostly negative results. In Jesus’ version of the story, the problem is not the communicator, nor is it the message; the problem is the soil, which represents the human heart. Only the seed that falls on the final soil, the “good soil,” takes root and produces an abundance of fruit. We see in the other type of soil something that appears for a while to be a positive result, but it does not last. The parable provides a sober reminder that even the most enthusiastic outward response to the gospel is no guarantee that a person is a genuine follower of Christ. For Jesus, a profession of faith must be accompanied by perseverance in the faith. And it is only when the word penetrates the heart of the hearer that he or she will persevere. As one of my favorite theologians says, “Words are impotent unless and until hearers take them in and give them a home. The word must be taken to heart: ‘incardiated’” (Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding).
How does the truth find a home in the heart?
Our explanation must begin with this point: Not by our power. You and I do not possess the ability to carry the gospel—the good news of what Christ has accomplished for sinners in his life, death, and resurrection—into the hearts of people. I cannot work the gospel into your heart. You cannot work the gospel into the heart of your spouse, your child, or your next-door neighbor. This is at once freeing and frightening. It’s frightening because we like to be in control of things, and basically what I’m saying is that we do not have control of true conversion. But it’s also freeing. If you have been living with guilt, a feeling of failure because your child or someone close to you is not presently walking in the truth, then you have placed on your own back a burden God never intended you to bear. You cannot convert your child, grandchild, sibling, or friend. This does not mean that you and I have no part to play in the conversion process. In Romans 10, Paul explains, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” That’s our part. Our task is to get the gospel from our mouths to their ears, but only God can address their hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can guide people into the truth; only he can guide the truth into people.
What, then, are we to do about those people we know who have never responded positively to the gospel? And what about those whose profession of faith has not been accompanied by perseverance?
I have two simple words for us: presence and prayer. First, be a faithful gospel presence. Share the message of Jesus and show the love of Jesus. The best evangelism is not door-to-door, but life on life. Exercise a ministry of presence. Walk through life with that person who is need of the Lord. Show him that you care about him. Show her that you enjoy her company. You will find an excellent example of this in Larry Taunton’s new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the Word’s Most Notorious Atheist. This powerful book shows us that, though “it does not depend on us that the gospel be believed, there is much we can do toward making the gospel respected.”
Second, pray. Pray for God to intervene in a way that you and I cannot. Pray for the Holy Spirit to plant the truth of the gospel deep within their hearts, ensuring that it remains there. We know God is able to do this, because he has done it for us. So never stop praying. Pray that God will do for them what he did for Lydia, the woman we meet in Acts 16. Lydia heard the preaching of the gospel, and the Lord opened her heart to receive the message.