“Words need to be sown like seeds. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size… Yes, precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions, and they produce impressive results — given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them.”
The Stoic Philosopher, Seneca well described the power of words.
Words have power to take root and multiply far beyond their initial resting place.
“We hold these words to be self-evident: all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”
Those seeds sown into the freedom loving hearts of 18th century Americans spread throughout the world bringing democratic revolution in their wake.
There are no words with greater impact than the words of Jesus of Nazareth.
Turn to Mark 4:1-9.
Jesus is on the shore of Galilee where he had gone for rest and instead found a massive crowd of perhaps tens of thousands of people.
He addresses the crowd, according to Mark, with a series of parables. Here, Mark records a parable about seed. The crowd gets the parable, but is left to wonder about the meaning.
Mark now takes us away from the crowd to the next scene when Jesus is alone and the disciples and some of the closer followers of Jesus gather around. They came to ask Jesus, “what was that all about? What did you mean?”
Verse 10- And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
His response comes in two parts: first he explains why he only gave the crowd the story. Then he explains the meaning to the disciples.
First why parables?
The word for parable means comparison. It is “something that is placed alongside something else for the purpose of clarification.”
We define it today as a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. Jesus often spoke in parables.
Depending how you define the term there are roughly 30-45 parables in the gospels. Our parable today is the first parable and it is unique because it explains the rest.
Jesus explains the methodology of parables in verses 11-12.
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”
Does that sound harsh? It sounds like Jesus didn’t want those on the outside to understand because he didn’t want them to be forgiven. Is that what he is saying?
He is quoting words from the Old Testament in Isaiah.
He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
The context of this passage is an expanding message of judgment contained in the opening chapters of Isaiah. God has given Isaiah a warning message to the people of Israel which they have repeatedly ignored.
God is not telling Isaiah to literally plug his listeners ears and close their eyes. The language is a description of what is already happening. God is expressing his response to the failed response of the people of Israel.
In his gospel, Matthew makes the meaning more clear:
Matthew 13:12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
Jesus says there are two types of people. Those who have and those who don’t have. What do they have or not have? The truth.
Those two types of people will experience two different futures.
The one who has the truth will be given more and will have abundance.
The one who does not have the truth, even what they have will be taken from them.
A different way of saying this is that “those who receive truth and act upon it receive more.”
And those who hear the truth and refuse to respond to it will in time be unable to respond.
This is a sobering warning.
The disciples are showing themselves to be the ones who have, because they have remembered Jesus teaching, discussed it, come to the conclusion that they don’t understand it and come to him to talk until they do.
Jesus is not being harsh, he’s expressing the frustration of God over those who will not listen to him. There’s a softness behind his frustration.
You see that in Matthew 23:27
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
In explaining the purpose of speaking in parables, Jesus set up the meaning of the first parable which is this: The condition of your heart determines your response to truth.
The question is what’s the condition of your heart?
The Palestinian farmlands were crisscrossed with walking paths, lines of compacted soil worn hard by years of traffic. When seed falls on hard ground it merely sits on the surface and is easy pray for birds looking for an easy snack.
This is the person whose heart is compacted by the busyness of life in this world. They have no concern for spiritual things, they have no concern for their own souls. The word hits their hearts and remains above the surface, easy prey for the spiritual darkness to come and pluck the seed away.
The grace of God knows what to do with a hard heart. In his soft mercy, God may send troubles and trials to plow up the ground of our hearts and make way for the grace of the gospel.
Much of the ground in Palestine consists of a thin layer of soil resting over a rocky surface. When a seed lands on that kind of soil it may germinate and quickly focus all of its energy above ground. But that growth is deceptive. The seed is unable to establish a root structure deep enough to handle growth.
This is the person whose heart is shallow. They may receive the gospel and embrace it a something exciting and new. But underneath that is excitement is a heart hardened by self-interest. The shallowness of this kind of heart is revealed by two catalysts: persecution and hardship. The moment it becomes costly to be a Christian, the joy of confessing Christ evaporates.
Any gardener knows the threat of weeds to a good crop. When weeds grow up near desired vegetation, the crop is endangered by competition.
Jesus tells us that there are three spiritual weeds which compete with the seed of the gospel in our hearts:
- the cares of the world
- the deceitfulness of riches
- desires for other things
The cares of the world are good things cut off from faith and worship: getting a paycheck, finding a relationship, maintaining a marriage, raising children, car maintenance, physical health, home improvement, family vacations, planning for retirement. These are all good and godly things, but when they become ends in themselves or means to an end other than God – they become weeds.
The deceitfulness of riches are the false promises money makes to our hearts. Promises that wealth can makes us secure, successful, powerful, happy, desirable, content. When we buy into these promises, the weed of greed takes root and becomes a deadly threat to genuine faith.
The desires for other things are the idols are hearts latch onto: hobbies, entertainment, toys and games. A heart crowded with desires for trivial and passing pleasures is a heart unable to grow up in the gospel.
The goal of every sower is the germination of seed in good ground. When the right seed finds the right ground, miraculous things take place. One little seed can become one hundred seeds in one season. In a second season, that seed can become ten thousand seeds.
The potential of the seed of the gospel is exponential.
The character of that seed is extraordinary. The words of Jesus are spiritual words. They are eternal words. They are words of grace and truth and life. When they take root in a human heart a harvest of life and grace follows.
The four possible responses to the word of God are an invitation for us to consider our own hearts. How is your heart these days?
Is it hard? Shallow? Crowded? Good?
Do you need to do some weeding?
Let me finish with a story of one man who pulled a weed out of his heart to make room for the seed of the Word.
In February of 1958, a country preacher in Pennsylvania named David Wilkerson was reflecting on his time. Every night he spent the last two hours of his day watching tv. What would happen if he gave that up?
Maybe he could try spending that time in prayer instead. David sold his television and began to pray. One day while praying, he glanced at the copy of LIFE magazine on his desk. He saw the drawings of 7 teenagers in court for the murder of a disabled boy. In that moment David felt overwhelming grief. He felt God say “go help those boys”.
He talked to his wife and told his country church about that experience and took up an offering for the money needed to drive 8 hours to New York City.
He got the money together and made the trip. He found the courtroom where the preliminaries were being held, and tried to approach the judge and request permission to speak to the boys. He was thrown out.
Reporters took advantage of the opportunity and the next days papers printed a photo of a crazed preacher brandishing a Bible in court.
The burden remained.
Once again David took up an offering.
He developed a routine of spending his day off driving to NYC and walking the streets.
Once, while driving he felt a sudden impulse to get out of the car. As he stepped out he heard a young voice called out, “Hey Davie. You’re the preacher from the Michael Farmer trial.”
The teenager introduced himself as Tommy, president of a gang called the rebels. They embraced him as one of their own. One of them took him on a tour of the hideouts of the gangs and street kids of the city.
For the next four months David walked the streets of New York, taking in the scenes of sin and heartache.
He decided to attempt a first experiment in a housing project called Fort Greene. Two gangs controlled the project – the Mau Maus and the Chaplains. David took a friend who played the trumpet, set up shop at a street corner and played some music. A crowd gathered around the two, heckling and jeering. As David tried to get the attention of the crowd, a couple of patrol cars parted the crowd and took the two men into the station for questioning.
“Don’t we have free speech?” David protested. He was told he could preach if he stood under an American flag.
Half an hour later, on the same corner. They repeated the process. A crowd gathered, heckling. Unsure what to do, David bowed his head and began to pray. One by one the crowd grew quiet.
David lifted his head, quoted John 3:16 and told the crowd that God loved them. “God knows who you are. God knows what you have done. But he sees your future, not just your past.”
That day the four senior leaders of the Chaplains kneeled on the street corner and gave their lives to Jesus.
One by one the seed of the gospel took root in those kids’ hearts.
In time Wilkerson started a residential home for particularly troubled kids. His created a ministry called Teen Challenge to bring the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit into the desperate lives of those kids.
Today there are 1,400 Teen Challenge houses in 125 countries around the world. Wilkerson wrote a book called The Cross and the Switchblade which has sold over 50 million copies. The impact of the book is incalculable.
That’s the power of the seed of the gospel.
That’s what can happen when one person decides to do a little weeding in their heart.
What could God do in your life?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown