Pastor Drew Williams
When I was a kid, my mom tried to plant a papaya tree in our yard. Have you ever had a papaya? It’s a delicious fruit, similar to a melon, that is orange and sweet. My dad used to have some almost every morning with his breakfast.
So my mom figured it would be economical to have our own tree. So she asked a friend how to plant the seed and care for it to ensure it sprouted and took root.
My mom is NOT a gardener. She’ll be the first to tell you she has a black thumb, not a green one. But she worked hard on this. And our neighbor was a bit of a master in the garden. So she had help.
She cleared the soil of rocks and clumps of hard dirt. She was vigilant with weeds. She added compost to the topsoil. And it worked! The seed sprouted.
For the next year or two, my mom kept great care of that tree. We watched it grow about ten feet tall and grow thicker, stronger. The leaves extended and even gave a little shade to that section of our yard.
And when the first flowers bloomed on the tree, we were excited. Our neighbors had a papaya tree as well, and so we knew the next step was delicious fruit. But while our neighbor’s tree did produce fruit, ours didn’t.
Maybe it’s still too early. Bummer. Well, next year.
We waited another year. Flowers bloomed again, even bigger this time. Delicious papaya was on it’s way to us!
But still no fruit. What gives?
When our neighbor came over to take a closer look, they checked the leaves, the trunk, the flowers that had started to wilt. Maybe this tree had a disease? The neighbor was quiet for a long moment. Then they turned to us with a wry smile.
“You have a male tree. No fruit.”
Turns out that papaya trees in that part of the world come in male and female varieties. We had the one that pollinated the other. Our neighbor had all the fruit, and we had nothing!
My mom was really disappointed. What’s the point of a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit? The whole purpose of the endeavor was to get papaya fruit at the end, but no fruit meant that the tree was a waste of space, water, and time. And it attracted awful insects that we wanted to get rid of too. So the tree was gone.
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced something like that? Have you ever worked really hard on something that didn’t produce the fruit you expected? Have you ever had something you were working on get choked out before it could blossom the way you hoped?
In today’s story, Jesus is going to talk about how faith and fruitfulness are connected, and what things to watch out for that stop our faith from producing the fruit he is looking for. So let’s read Luke 8:4-15.
While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” 9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’[a] 11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
Our passage starts with the arrival of a large crowd. And Luke makes it clear these people are coming from lots of different towns. The renown of Jesus has spread far and wide because of his continued miracles, his grace and compassion across societal lines, and his incredible teaching.
Now, you could read this as a singular event, where there was a large crowd of people that all gathered around Jesus, hailing from every corner of the surrounding area. Jesus realized this was a big, diverse group, and decides to share this important teaching to the largest reach.
Or, you could read this as Luke recounting many different instances, where everytime Jesus was met by the gathering of a large crowd, in every town he visited, he would share this repeated important teaching.
In either case, this teaching is important, so we should pay special attention.
Jesus talks about a farmer sowing seed, a very familiar image to his agrarian audience. But the way that the farmer is scattering the seed, indiscriminately, seemingly WASTING some by letting it fall on the path next to the field, or putting it where birds and weeds are, might have alarmed some of his poorer listeners.
Oh no! There goes a very precious resource. His investment in the seed might not be returned if the harvest isn’t very good, or if he lets more of the seed get compromised by birds and weeds.
But I wonder if Jesus is being intentional with this. I wonder if he’s making a point of characterizing his farmer as someone isn’t too worried about “wasting” seeds, because they know there is more where that came from. Afterall, a God of Abundance doesn’t need to be overly concerned with strategically planting perfectly or conserving resources.
And, by the end of the short parable, we see that the farmer’s generous scattering of the seed panned out, because the harvest is a hundred times more than he planted.
Okay, now you definitely got the attention of everyone listening. What’s the secret to increasing our harvest size? Do you have a special seed you’re selling? Do you have tilling tips that can help my family this next season? We’ve been living paycheck to paycheck for a while, and if you can give me a windfall, I’m all ears.
And with everyone on the edge of their seat, Jesus leans in and delivers the final line: “Let the hearer understand.”
What are you talking about, Jesus? Anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear? Why are you being so cryptic? Just tell us!
Well, the disciples are closest to him, and they apparently know him well enough to not be shy about asking. What was the parable supposed to mean? Help us out here.
And Jesus confirms that he was being cryptic on purpose. He was intentionally being a bit vague, following along with one of the prophecies from Isaiah about how not everyone would be willing to accept the message of the Kingdom of God. “Though seeing, some won’t see. Though hearing, some won’t understand.”
And this isn’t talking about putting firm boundaries around the Kingdom of God and trying to keep some people out, but rather it’s just a description of why some people follow him and why some people don’t. And so Jesus speaks in these parables in order to invite those who are listening to lean closer, to ask good questions, to go deeper in relationship with him.
And then he gives the explanation of his parable. And Luke doesn’t say this was a private conversation, so we can assume that Jesus is speaking for the benefit of everyone listening, not just his disciples.
According to Jesus, this wasn’t just a farming tip on how to increase your actual harvest of grain. The seed is the word of God. And now we know why the farmer is so generous with sowing the seed. He’s spreading out the word of God to everyone. He’s not being “strategic” and “only” speaking the word to those he deems “ready.” Everyone can hear the word of God. God broadcasts it widely.
But, not all who hear will believe and be saved. Sometimes, there isn’t even any growth from that initial seed before the birds take it away. For some, there’s a LITTLE bit of growth on the rock. But when trials or testing come, they fall away. This is when people who have received the word of God and have committed to following God enter into some hardship and have to decide whether or not they’ll stick with God’s purpose for their life.
“Oh wow, following Jesus is a lot harder than I thought. It COSTS a lot more than I thought. There are these OTHER things in my life that I don’t want to give up. These other goals and priorities that I want to keep pursuing. Maybe I don’t have to fully commit EVERYTHING in my life to God…”
So their faith shrivels in heat.
For others, there’s a little bit of growth from the seed, but then it’s choked out by weeds and thorns. It’s choked out by life’s worries, by riches, by pleasures. It’s choked out by the drive we have to find security in things that aren’t God. It’s choked out when we try to provide for ourselves through anxious fretting, or through our own anxious pursuit of wealth, or through our anxious distraction with temporary pleasures in order to not put our trust in our provider God.
These people don’t bear fruit. They don’t mature. And what’s the point of a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit? None.
But finally, there is one group that is highlighted as the ones that produce the bumper crop, the abundant harvest of faith. These people are the ones who truly HEAR the word. They have a noble and good heart, or in other words a humble and sincere heart. They HEAR the word. They hold fast to the word. They cling to it. Depend on it. And they BEAR FRUIT by enduring, PERSERVERING in the word.
Did we notice all the emphasis on “hearing”? Jesus calls to those with ears to hear, to listen! V10 shows us the Isaiah passage that refers to those who try to listen, but even though they are hearing, they don’t understand. Vv12-13 talk about the connection between hearing and believing. V14 talks about hearing but being choked before producing fruit, and v15 talks about hearing that DOES produce fruit, the hearing that holds fast with patient perserverance.
Notice that the goal isn’t just “hearing.” All of the people heard the word of God. But not all produced the fruit of faith that comes from hearing. Jesus is saying that his point isn’t for everyone to merely HEAR the word of God. There is no such thing as a PASSIVE recipient of the word of God.
Based on this parable, it’s not an option to just hear the word of God and not respond. You either produce fruit, or you fail to produce fruit.
The point of this parable is fruitfulness.
And the natural question for us to ask is, “How do we ensure to be fruitful? What do we need to DO to bear fruit?”
We like to look at stories like this and focus on OUR response. We focus on the human responsibilities we can be in control of. We focus on the things that we can accomplish on our own power.
But, unfortunately, if we only focus on that, we fall into the trap of making Jesus a self-help guru, intent on helping us change our behaviors in order to achieve the best life, in order to ascend to a higher level of piety, in order to become God’s beloved.
When we do that, we make our faith about our works. We make our relationship with God about whether or not we’re acting correctly. And when things go wrong, or when we encounter hardships, we blame ourselves, shaming ourselves, assuming that we are bad, assuming that we are being punished by God or separated from him.
But that’s the law, not the gospel.
No, Jesus says very clearly that the focus is on the seed. It’s about the miracle that is found in every single seed.
Seeds? Miraculous? Well, have you ever stopped to consider a seed? Do you know what the purpose of a seed is? It sprouts. That’s what seeds do. That’s what God designed them for.
Jesus uses this seed metaphor because it points to the fact that God’s power is the driving force of every bountiful harvest.
Just think about a flower for a second. What is a flower designed to do? Well, first it has leaves to perform photosynthesis to turn sunlight into energy and growth for the flower. Then the flower is actually designed to be pretty. Not just for humans, but for other animals. The beauty of the flower attracts insects like bees so that it can spread its pollen. Some flowers have actual seeds, and the flower needs to be fragile enough that it can be blown by the wind to easily release seeds to spread.
Or think about a berry, like a strawberry. Did you know the average strawberry has 200 seeds? So what is a berry designed to do? First, it’s designed to be sweet in order to entice animals to eat it. It’s designed to carry the seeds so that when it’s eaten, the seeds can be spread. And if it’s not eaten, it’s designed to fall to the ground and then decompose, giving the seeds a fertile environment to sprout.
And then think about a seed itself. A seed is literally designed to withstand ANYTHING. Some seeds are designed to be picked up by the wind and blown extremely far away. Some seeds are designed to withstand being eaten, passing through the digestive tract of an animal and coming out still intact and able to sprout wherever they were dropped. And if that wasn’t enough, a seed is designed to contain an ENTIRE tree inside itself. A tiny seed is designed to literally house an entire plant that can produce even more seeds.
God has built this incredible miracle of germination into the seeds of trees and flowers. And the hundrefold harvest isn’t the product of any human activity, but it’s directly due to God’s providential power.
The truth is that God WANTS to bring a hundredfold harvest in our lives. THAT’S the goal in this parable, to produce a harvest that is one hundred times larger than what was sown.
That’s what God wants for YOUR life. To bring a huge harvest…of what? A huge harvest of Gospel seeds to plant into the lives of others. It is God’s desire to have your faith grow to maturity, to produce the fruit of gospel seeds. This is so that we can join the work of the sower, scattering good news wherever we go, watching it sprout, trusting the Lord to bring his harvest in the lives of others.
God WANTS to bring a harvest in your life. So do you have an abundant harvest of the good news of Jesus to share? When you look at your life, is it overflowing with the good news of God’s work in your life that you can spread out to others you meet?
Or are you being choked?
Even though the focus of this passage isn’t on what WE do in order to earn the title of “good soil,” there are definitely still things we can learn from the parable when it talks about the soil that didn’t produce fruit.
Because, remember, seeds sprout. It’s what they do. Maybe you’ve even seen a shrub or a flower sprout up in the craziest locations, like the middle of a cement sidewalk. There’s one rain gutter at my house that has a living plant in it that took root in whatever twigs and dirt the birds brought for a nest.
Even the parable shows us that the seed the farmer is scattering is completely capable of sprouting pretty much anywhere. The farmer seems to know this about the seed. It’s almost as if the “good soil” isn’t something that can be determined until the sprout produces fruit.
I mean, even the different examples in the parable are overly simplified. Birds don’t only attack seeds on the path. Birds will go after any seeds they find, no matter where they are. So “good soil” doesn’t mean no birds.
And in the same way, weeds can sprout anywhere that other seeds can sprout. So “good soil” doesn’t mean no weeds. Good soil just means FRUITFUL.
And that’s why the farmer is able to be carefree with where he sows. Seeds can sprout anywhere, and good soil is recognized only when fruitfulness has become evident.
Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own yard or garden. I have this one patch of dirt that is next to our garage. The dirt is hard. It’s dry. It’s like clay, or cement. When I tried to get those little solar-powered path-lights to make the area a little more beautiful at night, I just about broke the plastic spike that I was trying to drive into the dirt to hold up the light, that’s how hard it was.
But every year in the spring, without fail, we have lilies sprout and bloom there. Tons of them. Many years, we’ve cut them and brought them to add to the Easter lily cross here at Grace. I thought that patch of dirt was dead and pointless. But the lilies prove that it is actually good soil to a certain extent.
In the same way, our lives are proven as good soil when we demonstrate the evidence of fruitful faith that produces the seeds of good news to plant into others around us.
But that doesn’t mean we just sit back and throw up our hands, or wait passively either! Jesus makes it clear in his parable that there are threats to our fruitfulness.
And that’s the part that stuck out the most to me as I was reflecting on this passage. The seed that grows up along with the thorns, and is choked by the worries of this life, by riches and pleasures, before it’s able to mature and produce fruit, how can we ensure that doesn’t happen to our faith?
What’s choking your faith today? As you look back over your life, what has been the main thing that has choked your faith?
Jesus mentions his three categories: the worries of life, riches, and pleasures. Earlier, I declared that these are indicative of the times that we seek out placing our security in things other than God. Does that ring true for you like it does for me? Have you ever put your trust in something other than God? Have you ever placed your hope in something else? Expecting something else to be your security, your assurance, your strength?
I think we have all done that. We’ve gotten overwhelmed by the worries of life, the cares of this world. We’ve put our identity and standing in how others see us. How others perceive us becomes the strongest force in our lives, and soon we are swung wildly through emotions based on whether or not our reputation is secure.
Or we place our hope in our ability to “get ahead.” As long as we’re climbing the corporate ladder, as long as we’re keeping up with the Jones’s, as long as we’re experiencing the dream vacations, then our life is good. Our life is secure. We might even feel close to God. But as soon as something goes wrong, as soon as there is an issue with our job, or we can’t afford that thing we want, or as soon as inflation jumps quickly, everything that WAS secure feels weak and fragile now, including our faith in God.
Being choked by the cares of this world is so closely related to being choked by riches. When we get caught up in the pursuit of “more,” or when we place our security in the wealth we’ve built, there’s not much room for us to have faith in God as our provider. Why would we ever need to trust that God can provide for us when we spend all our time providing for ourselves?
And so, like an arm in a plaster cast, our faith grows weak from misuse. And when the other things we’ve relied upon for our security fall apart, our weak and immature faith is unable to cling tightly to the word of God. We’re unable to cling to the promises of God. We’re unable to trust God.
And often when that happens, we spiral into another set of thorns: pleasures. Instead of clinging tightly to the word of God, allowing him to build up our faith, allowing him to strengthen our faith in him as our foundation, we turn to anything we can find that is “new”. We seek out the “interesting,” the “novel,” in order to distract from the gnawing hole in our lives. We’d rather spend our time chasing experiences, or new food, or fun times than spend time turning to God.
Maybe because we’re idolizing ourselves and our own pleasure above following God. Maybe because we’re too afraid that the sacrifices involved in following Jesus will hurt too much. So the weeds of temporary pleasures choke our faith, and we don’t produce fruit.
What’s choking you? As you look at your life, what is threatening to choke your faith? This can be a hard thing to think about, but here’s the good news: the farmer has shears.
Elsewhere, Jesus talks about his father as a gardener who PRUNES the plants in order to let them grow healthier.
So if you have been able to identify some things that might be choking your faith, all we have to do is ASK the gardener to free us from the thorns.
Ask Jesus to help prune the thorns of the cares of the world, of riches, of pleasures that we rely on for our security and purpose. Ask him to tend to the sprout of your faith in him as our provider, to strengthen it so that it can produce a harvest.
Because God WANTS to bring a hundredfold harvest in your lives. God WANTS to bring a huge harvest of good news seeds out of your life to be planted into the lives of others. But this isn’t an overnight process. Just like weeds don’t sprout up overnight but grow over time, faith that produces the fruit of the gospel takes time. It’s a process.
And our gardener is a master at his craft. He knows exactly how to carefully prune the thorns to allow our faith to grow. He knows how to till the soil of our heart so that it is humble and sincere. He knows how to dig out the rocks of our past hurts and grudges. He knows how to add the nutrient-rich topsoil of his word of grace. He knows how to water our hearts with mercy and forgiveness, softening any hard spots and nurturing our faith.
And as our faith matures and continually produces a harvest of the good news of how Jesus has been at work in our lives, we GET to share that good news with others. We GET to share about how we used to be overly concerned with climbing the ladder, but our humble master taught us that he loves us and cherishes us no matter what accolades we get.
We GET to share about how we used to be so afraid that our money wouldn’t last because of how we had been raised. We pinched every penny, and fretted every time we checked the bank account. But NOW we have been shown that Jesus’ providence is always enough for us, and we can sit back and REST in his arms.
We GET to share about how we used to flit from fun thing to fun thing, distracting ourselves from the fact that life felt meaningless. But NOW we have been able to join Jesus in his mission of restoration and reconciliation. We GET to be able help heal brokenness. We GET to be able to invite the lonely into the family of God. We GET to be able to fight for the dignity of everyone.
That’s the type of fruit that God builds up in our lives, and we GET to plant that into the lives of people around us.
Can you imagine what our church would be like if each of us reached into the store of our lives and brought out the seeds of the good news of how Jesus has worked in us and just…scattered it around?
Can you imagine how many cool conversations you could get into with your neighbors if you just asked Jesus to show you opportunities to point to his goodness in your own life? Not with the intent to MAKE a plant grow in their life, but to just scatter that seed and let it sprout wherever God wants it to?
What if we did that, church? What if you all committed to have this conversation at your next meal? Share stories of Jesus’ goodness with each other, not even with non-Christians or strangers. Just with each other? How much would our faith grow just to hear those stories!
And then, when we’ve had a chance to share them with each other, they’ll be on our mind as Jesus leads us throughout our week, showing us opportunities to scatter those stories with carefree abandon, trusting God to let the seeds take root.
Because God WANTS to bring a harvest in your life. He wants to bring a harvest in the lives of the people around you. And he’s got the gardening tools to clear the rocks, prune the weeds, and bring the growth. Isn’t that good news?