The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 appears to have been given to order to answer a very perplexing question: why do people respond to the Gospel in such radically different ways? Why do some people persevere and bear fruit, 30, 60 and 100 fold while others whither, fade and fall away?
When persecution comes, according to Jesus, some people will break and other people will blossom. How can I make sure that I come out on the right side of that prediction?
It mustn’t be wrong to ask a question like that and it mustn’t be wrong to put some thought into the matter of one’s own perseverance; the Epistle to the Hebrews appears to commend this very thing:
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12 ESV)
So what does that look like? How does one “take care” not to fall away? Or, in the language of the Parable of the Sower, how does one put down roots that will hold us and sustain us no matter what weather comes?
A few suggestions arise naturally out of the text:
Turn the soil
The parable assumes a basic knowledge of Jewish farming techniques in the first century. Apparently, it was common practice to plough the soil before sowing the seed. The farmer would use a shovel or a ploughshare to turn over the soil, exposing the soft earth and creating cracks and crevices to receive the seed. Then he would walk along narrow paths that intersected the field and sow seed from a bag or folded sash slung around his waist. The paths, of course, would not be turned over and this introduces the first conundrum in the story: the seed that lands on the hard surface of the path is exposed and quickly eaten up by the birds.
The point would seem to be that a hard heart will not allow the seed of the Gospel to penetrate to the depth at which it could have real and lasting effect.
A person who wishes to plan for perseverance and fruitfulness therefore will expose the heart to disruptive and destabilizing influences. Such a person will invite correction, seek out truth tellers and sit under the penetrating force of the preached word. He or she will likewise welcome circumstantial disruptions in the natural course of life. Illnesses, tragedies, losses and change may all be used of God to unsettle a settled heart and to break down the natural barriers to Gospel truth.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
Crack the surface
If the problem of the “path people” was that their soul had never been upended, the problem of the “rock people” is that their soil wasn’t very deep. The thin soil on top of flat rock would warm up quickly and thus the seed that fell there was often the first to put up shoots. But the shoots didn’t last. They withered and scorched in the full heat of summer.
The spiritual symbolism isn’t hard to decipher. Jesus says:
“this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20–21 ESV)
Shallow people fall away.
Therefore, if one wishes to “take care” lest they fall away (Hebrews 3:12) then it would seem that spiritual depth is something to be pursued.
A person who wishes to persevere should delve deeply into the Word of God. Such a person would want to read it, know it, memorize it and apply it. He or she would want to be like the wise person who built his house upon the rock (Matthew 7:24-27). When the winds blew and the rains fell this person was gloriously unmoved.
That is the sort of faith that never falls away.
Weed the garden
If the “path people” were never really open and the “rock people” were never very deep, then the “weed people” were never very wise. They surrounded themselves with influences that were contrary to the growth of faith.
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22 ESV)
People are empathetic thinkers. We like to believe that we make all of our decisions and evaluations based on data but that simply isn’t true.
And those around us absorb from us.
Therefore a person who is concerned to persevere in faith chooses their ideological neighbourhood carefully. He or she must become aware of influences that stir up greed, undermine morality or promote dishonesty. Occasionally, friendships may need to be redefined; careers may even need to be abandoned; lifestyles may need to be adjusted because such things can and do have an influence on the development of our faith.
Great discernment is here required.
Inspect the fruit
According to Jesus, good seed and good soil result in good fruit.
“As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:23 ESV)
Fruit can therefore be used in order to assess the health, depth and viability of one’s root.
Jesus appears to have accepted this logic at face value. He said:
“Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:17–20 ESV)
As the root is, so the fruit is.
This can help us recognize a false teacher, according to Matthew 7, but it can also help us recognize a false conversion and a false understanding of faith in our own hearts. If we are not producing fruit – if we are not growing in the likeness of Christ (character fruit) and having Gospel influence on other people (evangelistic fruit) – then we are almost certainly not authentically converted.
The fruit of our lives tells the truth about the root of faith that exists in our hearts.
The Apostle Paul commended this sort of self-inspection in his epistles:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV)
A person concerned to persevere in saving faith ought regularly to take a tour through their character and missiological orchard. Do I look more like Jesus today than 10 years ago? Am I more patient? Am I more compassionate? Do I serve with greater humility? Yes or no? And am I reproducing this faith in others? Do I have disciples? Is my faith contagious? Are there any people following Jesus today because of my life and witness?
If the answer to those questions is disappointing, then it is time to revisit your root system. There must be something rotten beneath the surface. Dig up the soil of your heart. See if there are any rocks that need to be removed. Check your environment. Then replant the Gospel, cover, water, sleep and check again.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.