Proper 10 • Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23 • July 10, 2011
By Francis C. Rossow
From childhood on we’ve known the scriptural truth that hearing affects living. Only the word of God can create faith in our hearts and good in our lives. The more we hear the word of God, therefore, the stronger our faith and the better our behavior become. Right? Right!
A colleague once told me that this doctrinal truth was a factor in his decision to teach at a seminary. “Look at all the additional opportunities I will have to hear God’s word in the daily chapel services,” he said. “Why, in no time at all I should be moving mountains!” I heartily agreed with him. But, as both of us have since discovered, the mountains are still there.
I suspect that many of us have made this discovery: too many mountains are still there. Like St. Paul himself we are more painfully aware than ever of “another law in [our] members warring against the law of [our] mind and bringing [us] into captivity to the law of sin.” “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Worse yet, we find ourselves on occasion becoming less attentive and less enthusiastic in our reception of the word than ever before. How devastatingly applicable have been the words of the offertory right after another unlistened-to Sunday sermon and how fervently we have prayed them: “. . . renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation . . .”
Well, there’s the problem: all this hearing and things seem to be getting worse, not better as the Scriptures promise. What’s the cause?
Part of the cause is probably natural. Weekly church services, daily chapel services—one can gradually assume a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward them, I suppose, even when one attends them. Furthermore, going from our workaday routines to a church or
152chapel service requires a shifting of gears, and sometimes our transmissions aren’t up to it. The late hour you got to bed, the one for the road that you took, the social blunder you made, the test you blew, the question you didn’t get to ask in class (or the question you shouldn’t have asked)—thoughts of all these accompany us to the worship service and interfere with our receptivity of the word. And let’s face it: Sometimes the officiant at a worship service hasn’t done his homework. He’s dull, unprepared, or long-winded, and it requires a herculean effort as well as a heap of faith and charity to tune in to him. It isn’t always our fault!
Another part of the cause is supernatural. I mean the devil. We don’t always give him his due. Well, the parable of the sower and the seed, our text, surely does. It says quite flatly, “Then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” I think many of us have experienced this. We can listen to a dull, jargon-laden lecture on Shakespeare or Kant, we can tune in on a political speech riddled with clichés and abstractions and delivered in an asinine manner, but comes a sermon, a message of life and death, and we’re not listening! What but a devil can account for such perversity? And have you ever noticed what you’re thinking about when you’re being inattentive during a sermon? How you can help your neighbor? Planning your next lecture? Uh-uh. The appointment coming up tomorrow? Maybe. But what is it? Shiny cars and shapely blondes! No question about where those thoughts come from. There is no better empirical evidence for the existence of Satan— and I’m not being facetious now—no better empirical evidence than the depravity of the things a person can think about during a sermon, and only during a sermon.
But the part of the cause I want to call attention to today is the thing our parable emphasizes. And that is that living affects hearing—a classic inversion of the more familiar scriptural truth that hearing affects living. You see, there are two sides to this coin. Not only hearing affects living, but also living affects hearing. Although we can do nothing to add to the power of God’s word, we most certainly can do something to impede its power. As our text makes very clear, if we’re choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, we bring no fruit to perfection. Too many thorns in our lives—such things as carelessness, indifference, worry, grudges, materialism, pleasure—can choke the word of God and inhibit its success. How come our faith is weaker and our good works fewer even though we’re attending more services than ever before? How come we’re hearing God’s word more but enjoying it less? These developments don’t prove that the Bible is lying when it says that the more we feed on God’s word, the better we get. They only remind us of another truth the Bible tells us (especially in our text): that if we have too many thorns in our lives, God can’t get a word in edgewise. If our house is filled with unclean spirits, the Holy Spirit can’t crowd in; there’s simply no room for him.
The point of our text is best expressed in Luke’s version of the same parable. “Take heed therefore how ye hear” (Lk 8:18). You see, it’s not only important that we hear the word of God; it’s equally important how we hear the word of God.
An important reminder at this point. Although the emphasis of our parable is on the power of the soil to impact the seed, the gospel of our parable is that the seed alone (the message of Christ crucified and risen in our behalf) can make the soil grow things—such as faith and good works.
So the next time you’re perturbed at the lack of correlation between your hearing of God’s word and your everyday living, don’t right away blame the church or the preacher, fault the system, or put your hope in some liturgical reform. Just check your thorns, that’s all. Maybe this life of easy conquests and frequent cocktails and off-color stories and monthly payments isn’t so innocuous as it appears. It’s just possible that these things are choking the word of God in our lives or, to mix the metaphor, causing our antennae to cake over and lose their receptivity.
“Take heed therefore how ye hear.” Bad living makes for poor hearing—which, in turn, makes for more bad living. The thing snowballs. We get caught in a vicious circle, and the mystery of our parable suddenly dissolves. “Whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have” (Lk 8:18).
But, thank God, there is the other circle too. Careful hearing makes for good living—which, in turn again, makes for more careful hearing. Let’s give God’s word every chance we can. After all, it is “the power of God unto salvation.” It does not return void. Its account of God redeeming us through his life, death, and resurrection works wonders on us. This thing snowballs too. Caught up in this circle, we discover it to be a glorious circle, the circle described by our parable when it says, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given” (Lk 8:18).