The Parable of the Four Soils
Sound waves are collected by the outer ear, pass through our ear canal and cause our eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are transmitted to our inner ear by the bones of our middle ear. The bones in the middle ear amplify the sound vibrations and send them to the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure filled with fluid, in the inner ear.
Our inner ear plays a vital role in the transformation of these mechanical vibrations into electrical impulses, or signals, which can be recognized and decoded by our brain. When the vibrations reach the cochlea, the fluid within it begins to move, resulting in back and forth motion of tiny hairs lining the cochlea. This motion results in the hair cells sending a signal along the auditory nerve to the brain. Our brain receives these impulses in its hearing centers and interprets them as a type of sound. And we can hear. But as we age, our ability to hear decreases, starting with the highest pitched sounds.
In fact, a few years ago, someone figured out that this might be useful information in designing cell phone ring tones, and they designed a ring tone just for middle school and high school students. It’s called the mosquito tone, and students used to use it to keep teachers from figuring out that they are using their cell phones in school. These days most high school teachers don’t mind, but a few years ago they did, and the pitch of this ringtone is too high for people over 25 to hear. So the kids can still send and receive text messages during class without the teacher knowing.
The mosquito tone was first developed in Great Britain to irritate teenagers who were loitering around convenience stores and keeping customers away by their loud and obnoxious behavior. Some kid simply figured out how to use that sound as his cell phone’s ringtone and – voilà – kids are downloading it by the millions. How does the mosquito tone go undetected by adults older than 25?
Those microscopic hairs inside our ears create movements that send electrical signals to our brain. As we age, those hairs get worn down, actually damaged, so our hearing becomes less sensitive. We first lose the ability to detect the sounds of high frequencies. People over 25 can’t hear sounds above 16 kilohertz. (The highest note on a piano is 4 Khz; the mosquito tone is 17 Khz.)
Don’t believe me? Let’s try it. Let’s do a large group hearing test. If you’re able, I need you to stand up. So this first one is just a test. It’s 8 khz. Ok. So sit down if you couldn’t hear that one. These are the people in our congregation who are deaf. Now, here’s the next one. This one is 12 khz. Ok, so sit down if you couldn’t hear that one. I would guess that pretty much everyone roughly 50 and older is sitting down now. Here’s the next one. It’s 15 khz. So this is where I sit down. I’m over 40 and I can’t hear this one, but when I tested my kids on it this week, they could hear it. Ok, here comes the mosquito tone. 17.4 khz. High enough that most people over 24 can’t hear it, but younger people might be able to. Here’s the catch. These things. Ear buds. When I was a kid, we had Walkman cassette players that used removeable batteries and over the ear headphones. Sound actually distorted if you played it too loud, and the batteries ran out faster. But in today’s world of smart phones that play music and come with these ear buds that pump the sound directly into your ear drum, people are actually losing their hearing faster. So there are probably some under 24 years old who couldn’t hear it because they have the normal hearing loss of a much older person. Now, don’t play this video for your dogs. It’ll drive them nuts.
Today is the first in a series of sermons on the parables in Luke’s Gospel. We’re calling the series “Thy Kingdom Come,” because the central message in each of these parables, in fact, the central message of ALL of Jesus’ teaching, is the kingdom of God. Turn to Luke 8:4-15. Most of our Bibles probably call this the parable of the sower, but it should really be called the parable of the soils, because that’s what it’s about. Read text.
As with so many of his parables, Jesus uses the phrase “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It’s a phrase Jesus repeated over and over again. “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.” In other words, pay attention to what I am saying. Really hear me. You see, we often have a hard time hearing what God is saying. Sometimes that happens because we aren’t paying attention, which is really the same things as saying “I don’t want to hear.” On Saturday afternoons in the fall you’ll probably find me in front of the television watching the Ohio State football game. I really get into the game. I get engrossed. At one of Aubrey’s horse shows this past fall I watched a late-night Ohio State game on my phone sitting on the floor in the bathroom so that Aubrey could sleep. And I get really engrossed in the game. And sometimes Becky will try to carry on a conversation with me during the game. If it’s during a commercial, I might hear and engage. But if the game is live, chances are I won’t. At least until she says the words “Did you hear what I just said?” For some reason, I always hear those words. Nothing that came before them. But I always hear those words. What’s really happening? I can hear just fine. My ears are working just fine. But I’m not paying attention.
And sometimes, the problem is that we’re so used to hearing the Word of God. Maybe we’ve been sitting in church for so long, we’re no longer amazed by grace. We’ve heard so many sermons, attended so many Bible studies, that the wonder and the beauty of God’s love and grace no longer stirs us. Now, don’t go off the deep end here. The solution isn’t to hear less. It isn’t to stop studying the Bible or participating in worship. The solution is to pay attention. I went to college at Asbury University in the small town of Wilmore, KY. It’s a town about the size of Elk Rapids. And down there trains still went through several times a day, and the tracks were pretty close to campus. When my family or a friend from out of town would visit, they’d notice the sounds of the trains … the horn, the wheels clicking and clacking on the tracks, the rumble of the diesel engines. I noticed them at first too. But after just a few weeks, I no longer heard them. They were background noise, rarely noticed. I’d become so familiar with the environment that I no longer noticed the massive trains moving coal and grain through the sleepy little town. Not paying attention. Overfamiliarity. The enemies of really listening. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” God is speaking. Are we listening?
And the problem isn’t with the seed. Look at V. 11. The seed is the Word of God. Matthew calls it the “Word of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:19). The good news of the love of God made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The announcement that the Kingdom of God is available to all who will receive it. And this seed will produce. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” says God through the prophet Isaiah (55:11). The seed is good and will produce, if it falls on the right soil.
You see, the heart of the parable is the condition of the soil. Most of us are at least familiar enough with gardens and flower beds to know that some soil is better for growing things than other soil. Look at V. 5. And then down at V. 12. This is hardened life soil. It’s been compacted so tightly by people walking on it that the seed can no longer penetrate. When we picture this scene, we might picture the farmer carelessly scattering seed too close to the road. But that isn’t what happened. In that day, most fields had pathways through them, places where people walked, very much the way our farmers’ fields might have snowmobile paths through them during the winter here in Northern Michigan. Some farmers put up “no trespassing” signs or “no snowmobile” signs because they don’t want the traffic compacting the soil, especially if they have wheat already planted. This is the heart that is closed to the Word of God. It doesn’t penetrate at all. But remember, it isn’t necessarily the fault of the soil that it is compacted. Sometimes, it’s simply been walked on too many times. It’s borne too much weight, and is now hard. I drive through our barnyard all winter long and right through the spring to put hay out for the horses. I can do that because even though it is covered with grass, there is a barn drive with very hard, compact soil running from the road straight back to the pasture gate. But if I get off that path this time of the year? I’ll bury the truck quickly. Hardened soil must be plowed, broken up, turned over, and mixed so that it can receive seed again.
And then we have shallow life soil. Look at Vv. 6 & 13. Now, any farmer worth his salt would have removed any stones and rocks that were above ground. But sometimes, unbeknownst to the farmer, there was a layer of rock a little below the surface. In the ancient world, plows were often simply sharp sticks and only turned over the first few inches of soil. These stones were farther below the surface. Deep enough to avoid the farmer’s plow but shallow enough to keep the seed from rooting deeply. My great uncle, a retired farmer, lived just up the road from us when I was a kid, and he always had a beautiful garden. One summer, we had a really bad storm, and he called my mom, asking her to send my brother and I down to his house to help him stand his sweet corn back up. We’d had a wet spring, and because of that, the roots of the corn didn’t run deep. They didn’t have to. And so in late June when the storm came, the shallow-rooted plants blew right over. So one plant at a time, my brother and I stood the corn upright while he tamped the roots more deeply into the soil. “No anchor,” he kept saying over and over again. “Shallow roots. Not deep enough to stand the wind.” The shallow heart receives the Word of God with great joy, but the seed never really penetrates. It’s an emotional connection, but nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with emotion. The love of God should move our emotions just as much as it transforms the way we think, but if our faith never goes deeper than emotion, it will not stand. It will not produce fruit.
Then there’s the divided life soil. Look at Vv. 7 & 14. This is the soil that contains the seeds of weeds as well as the seed planted by the farmer. Again, any farmer worth anything at all would have removed weeks from the surface. But there was a weedy root system below the surface. I read these words from a sermon on this passage this week: “Butterfly Christianity [belongs to those] who try to combine with their profession [of faith] a life in and for fashion and frivolity. We cannot withdraw from society … but those who delight in it as the supreme good have already overlaid the germs of spiritual life within them, and will soon become [worldly]. Am I wrong, my friends, when I say that in these thorns we have the great dangers against which gospel hearers in this day and in this place need most of all to guard? They are too largely choking the growth of the word in the city as a whole. They have encroached on our week-day Christianity, and they are gradually invading the sanctuary of the Lord’s day itself; while among individuals they are growing so strong and rank, that they [prayer] closet is too much neglected; family worship has almost disappeared; the weekly prayer and [worship] is ignored, and every thing is made to give way to business or pleasure or ambition. I am no pessimist; but I see in all this a great peril, not only to individuals, but to the Church as a whole, and to the community at large.” Those words were penned and preached by Dr. W.M. Taylor to his congregation in New York, in 1886. The divided, distracted life. This isn’t to say that our lives shouldn’t have pleasure, that we shouldn’t attend to the everyday issues of life, or that wealth in and of itself is bad. But they become weeds when they choke out the Word of God that is at work in us, stunting or stopping it’s growth.
And then there’s the open, receptive, fertile life soil. The soil that receives and nourishes the seed, that receives the sun and the rain to that allow the seed to grow, and that allows the seed to produce a crop. This is the person who hears, really hears, the Word of God. And having heard it, holds it, patiently allowing it to do its work. Now most of us assume that we are in one of these four categories: hardened, shallow, weedy, or fertile. And I’m sure that is sometimes the case. But I think the truth is that we are each one more like the farmer’s field. And there are areas of our lives in which we are closed, not wanting or allowing the Word of God to penetrate. And there are areas where we are shallow. And areas where we are weedy. And areas where we are fertile. Our job is to seek to make as much of the field as fertile as we can so that day by day, month by month, and year by year more and more of the field becomes receptive to the seed and fertile and produces more and more of a crop.
There are three things we can do that will allow the Word of God to produce its fruit in our lives. The first is to pay attention. Become skilled in your ability to listen when the Word is taught. Participate in worship and pay attention. Participate in Bible studies and small groups. Read and study the Word of God for yourself. Become skilled in your ability to study the Word of God for yourself. You don’t have to have a seminary degree. The second is to allow the word of God to penetrate deeply into your life. Take notes and reflect on them later. Underline verses in your Bible and make notes in the margin. Keep a study journal. Don’t focus so much on how much of the Bible you read a day and focus more on how deeply you read and meditate on a few verses. Allow the Word of God to penetrate deeply. And third, obey. Act on and act out the truth of the Word of God. Move past feeling to doing. Apply it. Patiently allow the Word of God to transform the way you behave.
We all know that grass grows. But most of the time we cannot see it grow. We mow our lawn, and for a few days it looks nice. But before long we notice the grass getting taller and taller. We can’t see it grow. All we know is that at some point during the week the yard stopped looking so good. We can’t see our kids grow. We simply know that they are growing out of clothes and shoes faster than we can buy them. We might at times be aware that growth is happening, but we cannot see it happening. We’re the same. Others might see growth in us long before we see it in ourselves. That’s why we have to be patient. There is nothing wrong with the seed. It will grow when the conditions are right. Our job is to till the soil deeply, removing the stones and weeds that keep the plant from maturing and producing fruit. And as we do, we must hold on to this promise, that “… he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Paul began that sentence with the words “I am sure of this.” “So he and she who has ears to hear, let them hear.”