Monday, March 07, 2011

Can I be fruitful today when I was barren yesterday?

The Parable of the Sower and the Seeds is one of the more familiar stories that Jesus told to teach the crowds about the Kingdom of God. I have read it and listened to sermons and Bible studies about it. I have not, however, given much thought to what it means and how it could apply to my life.

Recently, a friend who was joining my tour through the Bible this year, commented on this parable, and her words sparked something in me. Then, a conversation with one of my New Testament Greek students pushed me even further. I think that my thoughts today will help someone else, so I will share this with you. Think about it, wrestle with it, and reflect on it. If you like it, apply it, and if you don't, talk to me about it.

The parable is found in Matt 13:3-9, Mark 4:2-9, and Luke 8:4-8. In each version, the story is the same. A sower sows seeds in a field. There are four sets of results. Some seeds are eaten as soon as they hit the ground by nearby birds. Other seeds land in hardened, rocky soil. Although these seeds spering up quickly, they die as quickly becaused they are unable to take root in the hard ground. Still other seeds land in ground that also contains weeds. The weeds, springing up, overrun the ground, hampering the seeds ability to grow, as weeds are prone to do. Finally, some seeds take root, and, unhindered by the obstacles related earlier, bring forth a crop of varying sizes.

It's a pretty straight-forward story, and Jesus did not preface it by saying what he often says, "the Kingdom of heaven is like...". Somehow, I developed the idea that this parable discussed the eternal destiny of the four types of soil. To be sure, I cannot tell you why I thought this, but I know that I did. At the very least, I would have been certain that the soil which Jesus later described as representing people who never even heard the Word because Satan snatched it out of their hearts before they could even respond. Therefore, not having heard it, they were doomed to disobey and end up eternally lost. Now, to be fair, Luke does write, in his version, that the impact, or lack thereof, does seem to have an eternal impact. Verse 12 says that the devil snatches the Word from their hearts, lest believing they should be saved. In verse 13, he wrote that there were those who would fall away rather than endure trial.

The thing about this, however, is that Mark and Matthew were written earlier, and they merely say that some would stumble because of trial, and that the first group has the Word snatched out of their hearts by Satan, but neither Matthew nor Mark say that this is a unchangeable situation. To put it another way, only Luke discusses this parable from an eternal perspective, while Matthew and Mark leave room for an alternative understanding. The alternative, that this parable is primarily, if not totally, talking about the Word of God making an impact in our lives here and now, is what I would like to offer.

One of the reasons that I am looking at this parable this way, relates to the description of the seeds that bore fruit. Not all of the seeds bore the same amount of fruit; some seeds were much more fruitful than others. We have no mention in Scripture that there are different degrees of eternal life, or that there are different levels of heaven, some more heavenly than others.

We do recognize, however, that there are different levels of life here on earth, even among those who are committed to lives of obedience to God. Not all who are dedicated to serving the Lord experience the same type of lifestyle. Some enjoy lives of affluence and exposure, while others live much more modestly, and are only known by friends, neighbors and fellow congregants. In some cases, these outcomes are pursued, but in others, the results are unexpected and unsought. Charles Colson often wrote and spoke about the "little platoons," Christians whose lives of service to the Lord by serving others goes unnoticed by all except those whom they have blessed, and the Lord Himself. Further, the Lord gives no assessment regarding the relative superiority of the fruitful plantings; the "hundred-fold" seed is not commended for being over three times more fruitful than the thirty-fold harvest. The only comparison that we see is between the seeds that bear fruit and the seeds that do not. The "good" ground (Greek καλός) is good in the sense that it is well-suited to the task. It is prepared, fertilized, and cleared.

While the parable does not discuss the pre-sowing preparations, it is reasonable to expect that the good soil was not that way by chance, and in like manner, we believe that the hearts of those who experience the power of the Word in a positive way do not just happen to do so. Rather, God prepares those hearts, "through the washing (laver) of water by the word." The English makes it sound like a verb when it is actually a noun. This is a lovely description of baptism. In baptism, we are not merely undergoing a symbolic ritual, but God's word is operating upon us transforming us from spiritually dead individuals with no capability to positively respond to Him, into spiritually alive saints who will, through the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, become equipped for the work of ministry to which God is shaping them. It is for this reason that Baptism is an act that takes place in the context of the community of the saints. The new Christian, whether infant or adult, is not left to her own devices to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. Rather, the household of faith bears witness through instruction and fellowship that this person is also part of the body of Christ. It is an awesome responsibility, one that we perhaps take more lightly than we should.

Wherever one is in Christian experience, there will be times when the word does not strike home, for a variety of reasons. I have experienced times when I was filled from what I had heard in the service, and I have left the worship service struggling to remember just what had been said. It is not a situation that we should ignor. Just as ground which has been left untouched can become unserviceable, in the same manner, a heart that has grown hard from lack of exposure to the refreshing and cleansing of the word of life can become calloused to conviction. Even hard ground, however, after a long, barren winter, can, with the first showers of spring, be softened and enabled to bring forth fruit. We can be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and we can repent, if the Lord draws us by His grace. Rather than lamenting the winters past, let us look forward with expectation to the fresh wind of spring, as the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus brings newness of life to us.
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