Don't just hear. Listen.
Our home is not on a large tract of land. We live on just about a quarter acre which means we aren’t surrounded by large fields or farms. But just the same, my wife and I regularly engage in planting. She plants various vegetables in the raised planting beds that my sons and I built for her years ago. The primary planting that I tend to focus on relates to our lawn. It’s a task that takes intention and maintenance. There’s also a yearly rhythm to it when it comes to planting seed, nourishing the soil, mowing at the right height, and keeping weeds under control so they don’t take over the yard.
I know a very small number of people on this planet who actually care about lawn care to the degree that I do, which is fine because in the scheme of things, it really isn’t that consequential. But I will say that even though I don’t live on a large tract of land, there’s something that feels healthy about growing things in the limited soil I actually own. It’s fun to watch it grow. Sometimes I joke with my children that my lawn is like another child to me, except it does what I tell it to do without talking back.
In our industrial world, it’s rather easy for us to live disconnected from the annual cycle of farming or agriculture. Most of us probably don’t think about it very much. But during the time in which Jesus was conducting His earthly ministry, farming, fishing, and caring for livestock were commonly understood subjects. Many people were involved in these activities to one degree or another, so Jesus would often tell stories or parables that included references to these tasks and vocations.
In Mark 4:1-20, Jesus shared a parable that drew from the example of a person sowing seed in the ground. Typically, when someone would sow seed during that era of history, they would take a bag filled with it, sling it over their back, reach into it, and grab handfuls of seed that could be spread liberally. But as anyone who has attempted to scatter seed by hand can testify, not all of the seed lands how or where you’d like it to.
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:3-9)
In this parable, Jesus mentioned four places where the seed landed. It either fell along the walking path, on rocky ground, among thorns, or on good soil. The seed that didn’t fall on the good soil wasn’t productive, but the seed that fell on good soil produced a very healthy harvest.
What do you suppose Jesus was trying to illustrate in this parable? Please notice what He says at the beginning of the parable and at the end. He tells those who were near Him to “Listen!” He also states, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It’s clear from Christ’s words that listening to Jesus leads to understanding. But not everyone who interacts with His teaching actually listens to what He says. In fact, there are many people in this world who give off the impression of being religious in their demeanor, but even they don’t actually listen to Him.
But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:25, 27)
Jesus wants us to understand the nature of His kingdom and how those who are part of it are called to live. Christ’s kingdom isn’t like the kingdoms of this world. It isn’t limited to geographical barriers or ethnic heritage. It doesn’t grow through military conquest or land acquisitions. Christ’s kingdom presently operates in our hearts where He reigns as our Lord and King. His kingdom grows when the message of His gospel is shared from person to person. As citizens of His kingdom, His Spirit leads us and cultivates the desire within us to obey Christ’s teaching.
It’s clear that most people don’t understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom. That’s true today and it was true when Jesus was ministering in the days Mark records in his gospel. Jesus even stated, when He quoted from Isaiah 6:9, that people would see and hear what Jesus was doing but not understand what it all meant. Do we understand what Jesus was doing and teaching?
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. (Mark 4:13-15)
Jesus is the one who was sowing seeds in this parable. The seed is the truth of the word of God. Likewise, it can be said that anyone who follows His example and sows God’s word is also a “sower”.
People respond in multiple ways to the word of God when it’s shared. Some people are like a walking path. Because they’re all pressed down like the soil on a commonly walked path, the seed that’s sown on them never gets the chance to take root. It’s snatched away just as quickly as it’s sown. Satan swoops in like a bird and does his best to make sure the seed of God’s word never takes root in their life.
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)
Some are like rocky ground. It looks like they’re receiving the word of God with joy, but they quickly show that the word didn’t take root in their lives. This becomes obvious as soon as tribulation or persecution comes their way. They’d rather disassociate from Jesus than endure any level of discomfort that may come their way by being thought of as one of His followers.
And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)
Others are like soil that’s plagued by weeds and thorns. The cares of this world grab their attention more than anything else. They want this world’s riches. They want this world’s goods. The thought of prioritizing an invisible kingdom or approaching life with an eternal perspective isn’t as appealing as what they can see and feel in the here and now. The word of God is never given the chance to produce fruit in their lives because their affections are primarily geared toward earthly rewards that have no capacity to last beyond their natural lifetime.
But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold. (Mark 4:20)
But then Jesus speaks of the good soil which, according to Him, are those who listen to Him. They hear and accept the teaching of God’s word. Their lives bear the fruit of obedience to the teaching of Jesus. It becomes very obvious through their lives that the priorities of Christ’s kingdom are their priorities.
When I look at a parable like this, I most certainly desire to be good soil. I want to be the kind of person who welcomes Christ’s teaching, not the kind of person who looks for excuses to ignore the parts of God’s word that challenge my thinking, make me uncomfortable, or ask me to sacrifice my selfish preferences.
I was talking to a friend the other day who told me about a conversation she recently had with her sister. Her sister claims to love Jesus but has been doing more running from Him than clinging to Him lately. She told me that she said to her sister, “If you really loved Jesus like you claim to love Him, you’d actually listen to what He teaches. You’d be compelled by your love for Him to obey Him.” As you can imagine, her insights were not warmly received by her sister even though everything she said was true.
When we look at a parable like this, I’m sure we can find all kinds of scenarios that sound familiar to us. We’re familiar with seasons when we were spiritually shallow. We’re familiar with seasons of trial, tribulation, and possibly even persecution. We know what it’s like to idolize the treasures of this world. We’re familiar with all of those scenarios, but I hope they describe where we once were not where we are presently.
The primary voice many of us prize is our own. It’s been said that there are few things some people like more than the sound of their own voice. But Christ invites us to subjugate our voice to His. He invites us to do more than hear, see, and walk away. The invitation Jesus offers us is to actually listen to what He’s revealing. To be good soil that welcomes the word of God as it seeks to deeply root itself in our souls.
You’re either the soil along the walking path, rocky soil, soil that’s choked by thorns, or good soil that’s abundantly fruitful. There are no other options. Which kind of soil do you desire to be? How deeply will you welcome the word of God as the Spirit of God seeks to implant it within you?
© John Stange, 2023