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Ears to Hear

July 16, 2023 |Ear to Hear|Matthew 13:3-9,18-23

JD Cutler

Over the next three weeks we are going to be looking at a series of parables Jesus gave concerning the kingdom of God.

Specifically from the book of Matthew where Jesus is surrounded by a great crowd, puts out on the sea and sits in a boat and the crowd gathers around the shore. The bible says in Matthew 13 (ESV) And he told them many things in parables,

This is where we will pick up in a moment, at Matthew 13, verse 3.

But first, what is a parable?

A parable is a literary genre, and in being a genre, it follows certain familiar conventions.

Imagine if you will a popular genre, the romantic comedy. We know that the couple will go through comical, unbelievable circumstances, that there will be some big misunderstandings along the way, but that ultimately everything will work out and they will live happily ever after. This is why we can predict almost every hallmark Christmas movie’s ending, right?

When we watch a movie or read a book in the action genre we know we will have to suspend the normal rules of magazine capacity, concussions and broken bones because surely they can jump from a moving car, land on their feet and shoot a gun that holds 30 rounds 180 times without reloading.

In the same way a parable has a predictable course.

It starts with everyday life, farming, shepherding, fishing, traveling, but typically takes a surprising, attention getting turn. Within the parable is a veiled lesson for us to learn, a truth for us to discover, or a falsehood to expose.

They teach us only when we commit to seeking out the answers they hold.

Parables have a unique quality in that they give truth to some and withhold it from others.

They can be easily dismissed as stories or they can be mined as life changing truths revealed by God. It is what the hearer does with it that matters. Interestingly enough the first parable Jesus gives refers to this very truth.

He tells a parable about sowing that serves as allegory for all his other parables.

If you haven't already, open your bibles to Matthew 13, where we find this parable.

Matthew 13 at verse 3.

Matthew 13:3-9 (ESV) 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

The disciples, realizing that there is a depth to this story that they do not understand. There is truth tantalizing their spirits, something just beyond their reach, come to Jesus and ask him to explain it to them. Which he does, beginning in verse 18.

Matthew 13:18-23 (ESV) 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 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. 22 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. 23 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.”

Jesus takes his disciples and us through the parable line by line expounding on what each piece represents.

From this parable and its subsequent explanation I want to share with you an encouragement, an exhortation, and an edification.

Encouragement for the Sower of the Word

Four types of soil, four results, one type of seed

Jesus tells us these soils represent four responses to the word of God, represented by the seed

The sower, though not officially recognized in the parable, can easily be seen as Jesus who faithfully proclaimed the news of the kingdom of God.

Upfront, here is the encouragement.

The response had nothing to do with the seed.

Within each seed is the potential for life, the potential for a healthy, fruit bearing plant. The response had nothing to do with the sower. He faithfully sowed the good seed.

As a pastor, sometimes as I am studying a passage and getting ready to preach, someone will come to mind that, at least from my limited understanding of them, would greatly benefit from this scriptural truth. I will think about them and their situation as I am preparing and how much their life could be impacted if they took this truth to heart.

Sometimes, as I am making my rounds before Bible study or making my way around the worship center, if I see them, I’ll get excited and pray ‘I hope God uses the message today to impact them.’

But, never am I in control of the outcome. I can study faithfully, I can pray fervently, and I can preach my guts out and it may go in one ear and out the other, or God may use it to produce fruit in their life.

Teachers, you know what it is like to proclaim the truth week after week and never see the fruit you pray for.

Friends, you know what it is like to continually point your friends to God’s word, to faithfully share God’s truth and watch it make no difference in the life of your friend.

But we do not give up, we do not shrink back, to use the analogy of Jesus, we continually go back to the seed bag of God’s precious word and continually throw it out, knowing that it may land on deaf ears, it may make a short lived emotional impact, it may get crowded out by concerns of the world, but it may take root and produce fruit in the lives of those who hear.

Charles Spurgeoun in preaching on this parable says this,

(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) What the minister has to do, is to go forth in his Master’s name and scatter precious truth. If he knew where the best soil was to be found, perhaps he might limit himself to that which had been prepared by the plough of conviction. But not knowing men’s hearts, it is his business to preach the gospel to every creature—to throw a handful on that hard heart yonder, and another handful on that overgrown heart, which is full of cares and riches and pleasures of this world. He has to leave the fate of the seed in the care of the Master who gave it to him, for well he understands that he is not responsible for the harvest, he is only responsible for the care, the fidelity, and the integrity with which he scatters the seed, right and left with both his hands. . . . We are bound to preach the gospel, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear. Let men’s hearts be what they may, I am not loosed from my obligation to sow the seed on the rock as well as in the furrow, on the highway as well as in the ploughed field.

I think Jesus knew his laborers needed this encouragement for a few reasons.

At this point in Jesus’ ministry opposition is growing from the religious leaders. Jesus is proclaiming the gospel, it is being confirmed by miraculous events, he is confounding the learned and ministering to the down-trodden. People lovingly embrace him or vehemently reject him. As they watch his ministry, they must wonder why? Why do these learned, religious men reject someone who is so obviously sent from God, why do tax collectors and sinners embrace his message?

So first, Jesus says, it is not the proclamation or the message, it is the condition of the heart of the hearer that is the basis for acceptance or rejection.

Second, as they go out and proclaim the message of the kingdom, they will encounter the same reactions. Jesus encourages them to leave the results up to God and faithfully proclaim the message to all they encounter.

Third, there is temptation when you are not seeing fruit or results from your ministry to either get discouraged or worse, to try to change the message to produce a more favorable response. Jesus encourages them by this parable to trust the seed.

There is also the promise that some of what we proclaim will fall on ground that will receive it and God will produce amazing results in the lives of those hearers.

This manner of scattering seed may seem foreign to us, but this parable would not have seemed surprising to the original hearers. This was the common practice of the day. In the area there were places where the soil was not overly deep, there were places where thorns grew, and there were places that travelers had repeatedly traversed through the fields that were intermixed with good soil.

The only surprising point in the story would have been the amount of return, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred times what was sown. These amounts were unheard of in the agricultural world, but as we know Jesus is talking about what God will produce from his word in the hearts of those who receive it. We never know if God is going to take our faithful act of proclamation and do a mighty work in someone’s heart that will have a resounding and lasting impact for the kingdom of God.

This is the promise, this is the encouragement for the sower.

Friend, if you are a laborer in God’s field, and if you are a Christian, you are called to be. If you are faithfully proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to your family, to your co-workers, to your bible study class, to your friends, to your neighbors, trust that God can and will use it to produce amazing things.

Having looked at the encouragement we find in this parable for those who are laboring in the kingdom, let us turn our attention to the…

Exhortation for the Hearers of the Word

Exhortation is a biblical word, it means to come alongside someone and admonish someone, to entreat them to pay attention, or to instruct them. Like all parables, there are things to learn for those who hear the word of God proclaimed.

Notice with me that every one of these types of people have one thing in common. They heard the word, the seed landed on the path, it landed on the rocky soil, it landed on the soil with thorns, and it landed on the good soil.

Each one heard the word, but they experienced very different results.

Jesus invites us to think deeply about this parable when he sayshe who has ears let him hear’.

Part of that invitation, especially since Jesus so plainly interprets the parable for us, is applicatory in nature. We do not have to wonder what the parable means, do we?

When I was thinking about how to preach this, I was struck for a minute because I try to be a faithful expository preacher, that is digging in and exposing what the word of God says. How do you preach the meaning of a scripture, specifically here a parable, when Jesus already explained it? Right?

Rather, Jesus’ invitation to hear must then drive those of us who know the meaning to a deeper examination of the parable’s meaning itself.

If Jesus is the sower in the parable, if the seed is the word of God, then where do we find ourselves in this parable?

We are one of the four types of soils.

We are either the path, the rocky soil, the soil full of thorns, or we are the good soil.

Which one are you? This is one of the primary questions we must ask ourselves when we come face to face with this parable.

Do not rush to categorize yourself based on what you think you are or what you hope you are; rather we have to allow the parable to examine us by asking what to do when I encounter the word of God?

For instance if you are repeatedly encountering the word of God and your life isn’t changing, this parable teaches us something is categorically wrong.

There are various ways to describe or label the four hearers of the word, but one commentator used these four and I liked them enough to share them with you today.

(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) As we consider these four types more carefully, we can label them deaf listeners, superficial listeners, distracted listeners, and fruitful listeners.

The first, the path. This hearer is hard and indifferent, he is the deaf listener.

The ground is described as a path. Hardened by repeated foot traffic that have compacted the ground to a hard, lifeless patch of ground. Jesus tells us this is someone who lacks understanding.

They hear the word but it does not impact them, they listen carelessly. Maybe attending church from time to time, maybe a Godly friend offering wisdom. They are not hostile to God’s truths, they just don’t care deeply about them, so when they do grab a portion of God’s truth, it lays on the surface of their lives until Satan snatches it away, ultimately making no difference in their lives.

They may even say that they like to hear about Jesus, they may feel favorably about this whole Christianity thing, but their listening amounts to nothing because they do not care. They are indifferent and their indifference has made them deaf to God’s truth. Jesus, quoting a prophecy by Isaiah, describes them as having ears but never understanding. The problem is many of them are content in their ignorance.

Brittany and I experienced this early in our marriage. God had gotten our attention and we were growing in him and with each other and one of our friends, recently out of a failed relationship and lamenting all of the failed relationships in our friend group said, I just want to find something like you guys have.

Brittany and I both told her it was no secret what made our marriage healthy, it was God, he was at the center of our marriage.

It was like we didn't say anything at all. She dismissed our comment and kept talking about what she perceived to be this perfect, fairy tale, once in a lifetime love, and we kept telling her, the only reason we had not gone the way many of our friends had is because of God. She never got it and left there completely unchanged by our testimony. It still breaks our hearts to think about.

We were desperately trying to tell her and she refused to listen because it was not what she wanted to hear.

Such is the deaf listener, listening but never hearing, encountering but never considering, many times close to the word but always having it snatched away before it can make any impact in their lives. There is no response because there is no understanding.

The second, the rocky soil. This hearer is shallow and superficial, he is the superficial listener.

The ground is described as shallow soil, good but without any depth. It looks like good soil but underneath the surface it is impenetrable, much like the path.

I have encountered this kind of soil often in ministry.

Notice the results of the seed.

Immediately they sprang up. There is immediate response to the word. Specifically Jesus says they receive it with joy or gladness.

This is the person who comes after the sermon and says, Pastor, that word was just what I needed, it was like you were talking directly to me. They are enthusiastic about what they have heard and their response is immediate.

They rush down the aisle to say a prayer or join the church or volunteer. And perhaps for a while, things look promising.

Jesus says they endure for a season. Then tribulation or persecution comes.

The word tribulation here comes from the idea of pressing grapes, some pressure comes from their boss, their spouse, their friends, society. Something presses against their commitment to follow Jesus in obedience, or persecution comes. Not just pressure but outright hostility because of their decision.

Immediately, he or she falls away. They decide it’s not worth it and they retreat back from where they came, ultimately unchanged.

This is the danger of a purely emotional response without a heart change.

Without depth, without root, in our own power, we cannot endure difficulties.

This is the most heartbreaking category of hearer to me.

Let me describe what this looks like for you.

Joe comes to church and hears the gospel and he responds joyfully. He comes down and makes a decision for Christ. In our excitement we affirm Joe and baptize him and try to get him plugged into the body of believers. And for a season, it seems like his confession was genuine, and then one day we look up and Joe is gone.

Then we deceive ourselves. We say, maybe he is just backsliding, maybe he is just going through a difficult time. We reach out from time to time, but he never comes back.

Don’t think that happens here? Then why do we have almost 750 people on our membership rosters? Many of whom, not a person in this room would know from Adam.

Now, here is the problem we face. Was Joe saved? Is he saved? If he never comes back to a gospel community and lives his life with the word of God making no difference in it, what does that mean?

According to Jesus, some people who respond positively, even joyfully to the gospel, some people who even endure for a season, have not experienced a life changing salvation experience evidenced by their falling away at the first sign of opposition or persecution. There is no lasting impact from their hearing the word of God. There is an emotional response without heart change.

The third, the thorny ground. This hearer is preoccupied and distracted, he is the distracted listener.

The ground is seemingly better than the rocky ground to produce a plant, but it also is a place where thorns thrive that choke out the plant and it does not produce any mature fruit.

Jesus seems to imply if we follow his trajectory, this is someone who hears the word, understands it, and responds to it.

There is depth of soil, to me, this seems to imply some heart change. There are many varying interpretations of this person on whether they are saved or not. While there are many reasons we might consider this to be someone who has truly encountered Jesus, we must also deal with the reality that they have not.

It seems that this hearer receives the word, he acts on it, and he intends to follow Jesus.

However, as the gospel of Luke puts it in recording this same parable, as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

Life happens.

They are trying to follow Jesus while simultaneously living in the world.

Matthew records it as ‘the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches’ and Luke ‘the cares and riches and pleasures of life’ and for good measure the gospel of Mark says it this way, 9 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter.’

Cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things

The root word of cares means to divide, the idea is to have your concern divided between the things of this world and the things of God. This is the same word Jesus uses when he says in Matthew 6:25 (ESV) 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

So we could just as easily read his description of this type of hearer as someone preoccupied with the anxieties of this world.

The deceitfulness of riches could be translated as the delusion of riches.

Mark covers all the bases when he says the desire for other things enter, roughly meaning the lust for all the rest.

This hearer, seeingly having realized that they need to respond to the gospel of the Kingdom, that there is no salvation apart from the good news of the gospel, seems to ground themselves in that truth. They have roots.

But rather than continued growth that produces mature fruit, while they may be rooted below the surface, above the surface, in their day to day lives, they do not move beyond the anxieties of this present life, they stay convinced that more is the answer to their anxieties, and they begin to desire the things of the world more and more.

Here is where we must wrestle with what Jesus is saying here.

He does not say that the plant dies, but he does say that it is unfruitful, or barren.

There is one hand that we might be tempted to say, that this is referring to an immature or undisciplined follower of Jesus and I will not rule that out. On the other hand, elsewhere, in another analogy of vines and branches Jesus says the father takes away branches who are connected to him but are ultimately fruitless.

At the very least, we should be concerned about those that claim to be followers of Christ but do not seem to have the fruit of following Christ in their lives.

In this hearer there is a favorable response without real life change, ultimately bearing no fruit.

Finally, we have the fourth, the good soil. This hearer is good and fruitful, he is the fruitful listener.

When he encounters God’s truth it takes root in his heart, growing into a fruitful plant.

We will not spend much time here because it is evident that this is the kind of hearer that is a doer of the word and one that we will address in our next division.

But for now, let us take the exhortation from the parable seriously.

If you are regularly encountering the word of God and not producing the fruit of God, why not?

Is it because you are functionally deaf to the word of God, indifferent to what it means for you?

Is it because you are content being superficially obedient to the word of God, going along as long as it is easy?

Is it because you are distracted by the cares of the world, more concerned with the things of the world than the things of God?

If any of that describes your life right now, please hear me when I say, you need to seriously examine your heart and ask yourself if you have truly had a life changing encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We have examined the encouragement this parable offers those that proclaim the word, we have examined the weighty exhortation of those that hear the word but do not bear fruit from it, and lastly we will briefly look at the…

Edification for the Doers of the Word

Edification is another biblical word, it means to come alongside someone to build them up, to promote growth in the Christian faith.

These are represented by the good soil in the parable. That see fruit in their lives from the word of God.

In varying degrees surely, but fruit nonetheless.

Here is where I believe many of you fall this morning, and yet you can see yourself in some of the other descriptions.

If your honest, while you have had seasons of fruit bearing, you now that sometimes it is as though you hardly hear the Lord, you think sometimes I am like that rocky soil and I am happy to hear new truth from God’s word, but I have trouble applying it in my life consistently, or worse I find sometimes the cares of this world overtake me and I find myself less interested in God and his kingdom.

Be encouraged. We all falter, we all stumble, we can all go through dry seasons in our walk with Christ.

One of the key differences between those who stumble and those who fall away is what happens afterwards. The Christian may have seasons where they do not seem to be fruitful, but they do not last, indeed they cannot last.

We are connected to the true vine and those connected to the vine will produce fruit.

Here is what I believe this parable can help us grow in Christ.

One, we recognize the key to growth is in receiving the word of God, so we immerse ourselves in it.

We sit under Bible preaching, we study the Bible with a group of likeminded people, we take advantage of church bible study, we read our bibles together with our families, and in our own time alone with God. We saturate ourselves in the word of God because we know it is life giving and the key to producing fruit in our walk with Christ.

Second, we are on guard against functional deafness, we ask Christians around us to help us identify blind spots in our faith. We fight contentment with merely amassing Bible knowledge or hearing sermons, we fight satisfaction with being fed and fight to right divide what we hear.

Third, we look for the stones beneath the surface of our lives and we pray that God would uproot them. We search our hearts for those areas that seem untouched by the gospel and we attack them with the truth of God. Is God’s word affecting our marriage, our parenting, our work, our leisure, our hobbies? Where are we stone cold to God’s truth? These areas are where we must plead with God to do a work, we enlist fellow believers to pray for us and with us over these areas.

We do not hide them or ignore them, we uncover them so that the grace and mercy of God can remove them from our hearts.

Fourthly, we examine our lives daily for the roots of thorns growing there. Where are we being tempted to embrace the culture, where are we being tempted to compromise on the word, what are we being tempted to care more about than God?

The way to prevent thorns and weeds from growing is to pay constant attention to the soil. In the same way, we must be ruthless in examining our lives daily for evidence of things contrary to God’s word. Complacency allows unhealthy things, thought patterns and desires to grow up, and if we let them they will choke out the word in our lives and stunt your growth.

This is all what we could call soil work. Work that prepares us for the life giving word of God.

When was the last time you did this kind of work in your hearts and lives? When was the last time you spent time preparing to hear the word of God?

How different would your walk with the Lord be if you made this a regular part of your life?

If instead of just dragging yourself to church, instead of just mindlessly reading through your Bible plan, or attending your bible study group, or showing up on Wednesday nights for Bible study, what if you spent time with the Holy Spirit doing the work of soil preparation?

Good soil produces good fruit. This is the essence of the parable of the sower.

Conclusion: As we come to the end of our time together this morning, we are left with the inescapable question. What kind of soil represents you today?

When the truth of God is proclaimed what reception does it find in your heart?

Are you indifferent to it, do you superficially respond only to abandon it when it gets tough, does the care and concerns of the world crowd it out, or does it produce in you fruit in accordance with the mind and spirit of Christ.

May God’s word find fertile ground in our hearts this morning, let us pray.

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