Matthew 13:1-23 – Listening that Leads to Living

I preached this sermon on April 25 at Bellingham Covenant Church, as part of a series on Jesus’ parables. These are my notes, and not necessarily exactly what I said.

We are spending Easter season this year focusing on Jesus’ parables. Today we will look at the Parable of the Sower, which is a parable about parables. Jesus here talks about why people respond the way they do to his teaching, and he does this by saying that there are four groups of people represented by four different kinds of dirt. Jesus goes through these dirts progressively, from least receptive to most receptive.

As I go through these kinds of dirt, I want you to recognize that we’re all one kind of dirt. The question to ask ourselves is, “What kind of dirt are we?”

Soil 1 – This is the soil along the path, on which the seed falls but birds take it away.

These are the people who don’t understand. Some people think that this is a passage about predestination. These people couldn’t understand because they had no choice but not to understand. God decided before they were born that some people would understand and some people wouldn’t, and too bad for the people who don’t. After all, Jesus says in verse 11, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to them,” doesn’t he?

But I don’t think this passage is about God condemning people unfairly. Jesus wants people to hear his message, and when we look at Jesus we see what God is like. I think we get a clue of what this parable is about based on where it is placed in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have this parable, and they put it in slightly different places, but they all have one thing in common: they start out talking about how everyone responded positively to Jesus’ teaching, then Jesus starts to encounter some opposition from religious leaders, and then – the parable of the sower.

This means, I think, that Jesus isn’t deliberately trying to keep people out. He is trying to explain why some people respond to his message and some don’t. The ones who don’t, the ones who are the first kind of dirt, are people who have hardened their own hearts. They decided that Jesus can’t teach them anything, so they don’t listen. The difference between the disciples and the people who didn’t understand isn’t that the disciples were so smart (If the gospels teach us anything about the disciples, it is that they were certainly not the smartest). It’s that the disciples cared enough to stick around for the explanation! Anybody could understand parables if they think they have something to learn. The focus here is not predestination, but revelation. God has revealed himself. How do people respond? Today, just like in Jesus’ day, some people are receptive to learning more, but others are just not interested. They think they have it all figured out. They trust their own wisdom, and don’t feel like they have anything to learn. The way to avoid being this first soil is to be receptive. You don’t have to have it all figured out. Just be receptive to Jesus and what he wants to teach you.

These next two kinds of dirt that end up responding negatively actually start out positively. We in the church need to pay close attention to them.

Soil 2 is the soil that is shallow. The seed springs up, but is quickly withered by the sun because of shallow roots. These people start out hearing the message with joy. But we find that hearing with joy is not enough. Trouble and persecution cause people to drop out if they have no roots. Fortunately we live in a place where there is no official government persecution of Christians. But it is still possible to be looked down on for being a Christian, and this can sometimes be the case. It’s not popular to believe that following Jesus is the only way for people to be saved. It’s also not popular to believe that there is even a need for people to be saved. This kind of persecution can happen to anyone, but I especially want to highlight those people who are raised in the church, but fall away once they move out of their parents’ house. I want to tell you my story, and contrast it with the story of others.

I grew up in a Christian home, and we went to church every Sunday. When I was 11, I accepted Jesus as my savior and was baptized. But as is the case with many people, my teenage years were difficult ones. My parents divorced when I was 13. I had a lot of the same problems many teenagers faced: I lacked self-confidence, I had acne. I didn’t have a great relationship with my parents because I had lost my trust in them. When I was 16 I got my first job. It was nice to have a little money, and the more I worked, the more money I got. At first I didn’t work on Sundays because I would go to church, but after a little while I started working on Sundays. They were between youth pastors at the church, and they had been for a couple of years. I didn’t feel like anyone would miss me there if I didn’t go, so I stopped and started working on Sundays instead.

But after several months, I came to a point where I felt I had to make a decision. I still considered myself a Christian, even though I didn’t go to church and rarely read my Bible. I decided that either I was going to give up on Christianity, or I was going to start living it – which meant going back to church, praying, trying to grow closer to God and find out what he wanted me to to with my life. And what it came down to for me was Jesus. I couldn’t give up on Jesus. I didn’t trust my parents anymore, and I didn’t feel that people at church cared about me all that much, but I had to stay a Christian because I loved Jesus and I knew that he loved me, even if I didn’t feel loved.

That was a turning point for me. I went back to church, got to know the new youth pastor, and when I went to college, I decided that I wanted to seek out a group of Christians on campus that I could be a part of. When I got to school, I found out that my RA was a Christian who was active in InterVarsity, so I joined InterVarsity, went on retreats, went to Bible studies, and eventually led a Bible study.

The more time I spent at college, the more I met people who had very similar backgrounds to mine. They were raised in Christian homes, going to church every Sunday. But when they got to college, they stopped going to church. In fact, they stopped having any sort of community with other Christians. They weren’t involved in InterVarsity or any of the other Christian student groups on campus. Some of them spent most weekends drunk at parties on Fraternity Row.

What’s the difference between them and me? Am I smarter? Did my parents work harder than theirs? Did my church work harder than theirs?


The only difference between us is that, for some reason, my roots went deeper. Does this mean that there’s no hope for them? Not at all. I still think that God is working on everyone. I still think that they can soften their hearts. I still pray that they do.

Soil 3 is the soil on which the seed grows up, but is eventually choked by thorn bushes. We’re moving farther up the ladder of accepting Jesus’ message. These people can make it through the persecution, no problem. In their early days they maybe go out evangelizing on street corners, and they go on mission trips – but then something happens. Maybe they get married; maybe they get a nice house; maybe they get a mortgage; maybe they have to save up to send their kids through college. They start to worry about the future. They try to get as much money as they can to ensure that bad things don’t happen to them.

In other words, they turn into respectable, middle class people. Worries and the deceitfulness of wealth trip them up and they become unfruitful.

Notice Jesus’ choice of words: unfruitful. He doesn’t say they stop going to church. He doesn’t say they stop calling themselves Christians. He says they stop producing fruit. Their faith doesn’t show itself in good works, which means they really don’t have faith at all.

Soil 4 is the soil that produces fruit. These are the people who don’t just hear, but understand. Hearing with understanding is enough, Jesus says in verse 23. What is hearing with understanding? Hearing that leads to action. Listening that leads to living. That is what Jesus wants from us.

New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass, whose book Stories with Intent is a wonderful resource on Jesus’ parables, says this: “Churches should not be complicit in allowing people to think an initial response unaccompanied by productive living is saving faith” (176).

This parable encourages us to internalize the seed so that it affects everything we do.

So what does the seed represent? Jesus says it is God’s Word. When we as Christians think of God’s Word, we think of the Bible – and rightly so, since we believe that it is inspired by God and that he still uses it to speak to us today. But in Jesus’ day the Bible didn’t exist yet. When Jesus uses the phrase “God’s Word,” he’s referring to revelation – not the last book of the Bible, but God revealing what he is like. Jesus’ person and message are the word that he is speaking about.

And Jesus’ message is that he is God in human form, and it is his job to set the world right. God has given him authority to teach, to work miracles, and to forgive people of what they have done wrong. When he was crucified, he served as a sacrifice that brought about forgiveness, the same way sacrifices worked in the Old Testament, only better. Because this time, God was sacrificing himself in order to forgive people. Because forgiveness always hurts. And when Jesus rose from the dead, God vindicated him. Jesus’ resurrection was God’s way of saying, “He was right. He really was speaking for me, and acting for me.” And if you listen to him, and trust him, and understand to the point of staking your whole life on him, you too will have life in the same way that Jesus now has life. That’s the seed.

There were a lot of people in Jesus’ day who heard his message with joy. But they never let their hearing turn to action. They didn’t let their roots go deep into God’s Word and a community of disciples. They let themselves get distracted. We run the same risk today. Pride, persecution and the deceitfulness and distractions of wealth can keep us from being fruitful.

I’ll close with another quote from Klyne Snodgrass, because he says it so well:

“The parable is about hearing that leads to productive living, and adapting the parable will mean enabling people to move past merely hearing words – even with joy – to hearing that captures the whole person. People think they can look like giant oaks without putting down deep roots. When they realize how much effort it takes to put down deep roots, they too often settle for being bramble bushes” (176).

In the words of Jesus: Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.