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A Fertile Heart: Matthew 13
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 13. We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for either one or twelve weeks, depending upon your perspective.
Last week Jesus was talking about our need for forgiveness. Every last one of us needs forgiveness daily. We don’t like to admit it, we tend to lean on legalism instead and belittle our own need for forgiveness, but none of us are who we need to be for our kids, for our families, for our neighbors. Sometimes we know exactly what’s wrong. We drink too much, or eat too much, or work too much, or whatever. We know what’s wrong, we just feel like there’s no hope to change. Or else we have no idea what’s wrong, and we start looking, trying things out, cutting things and people out, just to see. Was that it? Now am I ok?
Oftentimes, if we can’t find forgiveness, we settle for acceptance, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference between forgiveness and acceptance. Forgiveness is a friend who knows your faults and loves you anyway, who helps you grow in all the ways you most need to change. Acceptance is a friend who sees your faults and decides they aren’t really faults, and the real problem is all of those people who would tell you you’re wrong. Forgiveness grows and bends, acceptance is completely rigid. Forgiveness is a plant; acceptance is a mirror. Not only will acceptance not help you change, it will demand you never change. It’s important to be able to tell the difference because without forgiveness we can never really trust.
Forgiveness is like a man who grows old with his wife, and embraces every stage of life, every change of body and mood. Acceptance is like a man who constantly marries the same type, the same age over and over again. With acceptance, you might one day say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, change in the wrong way. If you change your mind or change your direction, you risk losing your crowd. Forgiveness is rest and letting go. Acceptance is constant striving.
We talked about how in all of this acceptance, this choosing of sides, oftentimes we lose sight of what’s real. In reality, Matthew insists over and over again, there are only two sides: the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Are you doing the works of the kingdom of God, or of this world? Are your ways the ways of God or of men? Don’t get so wrapped up in the groups you’re in, in the things you’ve embraced, that you forget what’s real.
Our passage this morning begins a large section of parables in the book of Matthew, and Jesus begins the section by talking about our ability to hear and really take in what’s true. Go with me, and please stand, if you will as we read. Matthew, chapter 13, starting in vs.1.
This parable of the sower, at its core, is about truth and how we receive it; wisdom and the places it is to be found. When trying to understand this parable, we have the great benefit of having Jesus explain it to us, but still I think we often miss some of the points.
Do you know truth when you hear it? A lot of people I know are convinced of their ability to discern truth from falsehood, and that would be great if those people agreed with each other. I’ve noticed people tend to depend on either their gut or their head for this near infallable truthoscope, aleithiometer, that we all think we own. The gut-driven folks talk a lot about convictions. They start sentences with, “I know this for sure,” and then they build off of their core convictions. These are the folks who repeat a lot of the same phrases over and over again, and have trouble even understanding where people are coming from who don’t share their core convictions, so they’ll say, “I don’t even understand,” this or that position or person. They build their ideas of truth the way one builds buildings, setting a firm foundation which never moves, and working up from there so they can eventually go in, lock the door, and live happily enough.
The head-driven folks are the types who like to sit in coffee shops and bars and talk about the “real” things of the world. They read interesting articles and trade in ideas. They love taking in new ideas so they can take them apart and see how they work. They’re always seeing through things and trying to find a new perspective. In fact, they seem to see through so much of life that you might begin to wonder what they’re actually trying to see. They build their ideas of truth like they’re writing a science fiction novel—it doesn’t necessarily have to work for them in real life, but it has to cohere. Normally in our time, we would talk about such people having an open mind. Jesus used a different analogy.
I would ask you this morning to diagnose yourself, either head or gut driven, because most of us need to do some work in the other direction. If you tend to be head-driven, you need to get in touch with your gut, and if you tend to be gut-driven, you need to get in touch with your head. And by now, you may be thinking I’m very far from talking about a sower going out to sow, but I would argue this is at the core of it, though it gets lost in translation and overuse of metaphor. For example, the word heart is used over and over again in the passage, but we miss the way it’s being used.
All of the people who wrote the Bible and were its original hearers would have believed the soul to be in three parts: your head, your guts, and your heart. Like I was just talking about, your gut was your deep emotion and intuition, your head was your notion, your intellect. The heart was the balance of the head and the gut, and you would nourish your heart through experiencing the beauty of the world—nature, art, literature, music, and especially the beauty of God, himself.
They would have thought allowing yourself to get out of balance, to go either entirely head-driven or entirely gut-driven, would be like losing a part of your soul, tragic. They would have also believed that, just as the head was the organ or thought and the gut was the organ of passion, the heart was the organ of wisdom, balancing passion and thought.
I know it’s easy to think about this passage as being a parable and its interpretation being interrupted by Jesus talking about why he speaks in parables. It’s not. Again, this passage as a whole is about how we hear and receive truth and wisdom. I would argue the form of the passage is structured in such a way as to put emphasis on this part in the center that we often see as an interruption. If you know the word chiasm, I’m not going to explain, but this passage is chiastic. Isaiah six is really the focus of Jesus’ teaching here, and that’s significant because Isaiah six would have been the one of the passages everyone Jesus is talking to would have grown up memorizing—the old testament version of “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
If you remember, this passage is Isaiah’s call, and the emergence of a key image throughout the prophetic writings, of a tree being destroyed and growing up by its root. In the part Jesus is quoting, God tells Isaiah, you’re going to go speak the truth and wisdom of God, and most of the people won’t believe you. Their eyes have become dim, and their hearing is failing. In essence, it’s like they’ve sinned and grown old. They can’t hear or see the truth anymore.
And against that backdrop, we have the parable of the sower. Do you see how the two are connected? Jesus is using Isaiah to help interpret his own parable. He says, a sower went out to sow, scattering seed, and later he tells them the seed is the word of the kingdom, and the ground is the hearts of the people. God giving out wisdom generously to all, wisdom calling in the streets and in the market, but then what happens? How do we receive it?
Have you ever allowed yourself to laugh at how terrible this farmer is? I know it’s the Bible, but come on. This is funny. Y’all are going to make me explain it, and it’s not going to be as funny. Why is this dude sowing his seed in the road? Why is he throwing seed on rocks and among thorns? I know probably very few of us have worked on a farm, but just so you know, this is not how you do it. You painstakingly clear the field of thorns and rocks. You stay far away from any paths, and you’re careful to drop your seed in the ground, otherwise you loose your crops, and your crops are your livelihood.
But not this guy. I imagine Jesus acting this out as he’s sitting there in his boat—throw some seed over here, some in the road. The kids are laughing, and the mom’s are looking at them and smiling, themselves, at the free and abounding joy. This farmer is an image of God’s incredible magnanimity, his incredible disregard for fault in his giving out of wisdom. Our God is giving the words of his kingdom to everyone, even to those who are most hardened. Through the past couple of weeks we’ve seen him pleading with even the sadducees and the Pharisees, knowing that very few of them will turn.
Going back to Isaiah, we see God sending Isaiah out to a people who largely won’t believe him. We see the same thing in Jeremiah and many of the other prophets. God gives his words, his wisdom generously to all without finding fault. But not everyone receives it.
Working as a pastor for the past six years, I’ve seen the truth of this parable played out over and over again in the lives of the people in my church and community. I’ve shared the gospel with a lot of people who have ears but can’t seem to hear me. They are either in their head or in their gut.
I know a man who will happily sit and talk about God all day long, but he won’t accept any kind of historic tradition or practice. He’s had some bad church experiences, to be sure, but it’s not really that. He doesn’t want to see God. He wants to see through God. He loves shows and stories about how Christians have got all of their history wrong, and the texts have been changed, and powers at be all want us to believe this and that because it benefits them. Again, he sees through so much, I worry he’s not actually looking at anything. Lewis points out, the reason we have transparent windows in our homes is so we can see the garden and trees outside. But what if we see through all of that, too? What would be left to see? “A wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” He is too much in his head. Like seed scattered on the path, no wisdom ever really gets in.
One woman I knew longed so deeply for community and meaning she started her own church, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe in God. Brilliant thinker, and I very much enjoyed talking with her. But her grandparents had been in Auchwits. She knew, convictionally, that such things are so evil God could not allow them. That was the cornerstone of her house, and she could not be moved from it. She knew it in her gut. Like seed in the thorns, strangled.
And I want you to notice, this parable isn’t only about the gospel and evangelism. The passage is about sharing the gospel, but it’s also about any kind of teaching or preaching of the word of God. As a pastor, I’ve seen all of these same patterns in believers while trying to teach people the word, and what it means to live life as a Christian. People with so many convictions they can’t think, and people with so many thoughts they can’t believe anything. In short, people who trust themselves more than they trust God—or their pastors for that matter, even if the pastors have put in the work, and only want to see them grow.
Generally, I would say, as a teaching pastor now, and a discipleship pastor for many years in the past, the hardest person to teach anything about God is the person who thinks he knows already, before you open your mouth, the right questions and the right answers. Usually their answers are correct, but their questions are wrong. You go out to sow in the field of their lives, and it’s filled with roads going to useless arguments, and weeds filled with culture and stubbornness, and there’s almost nothing you can give them to help them grow. People who will sit in your church for years without ever asking a question. I would tell my small group leaders, with those folks, almost before you start discipling them, you have to clear the field.
But others are eager to learn the things of God. They show up in small group and ask question after question, not trying to stump you, but trying to learn. They go home and read for themselves and come in with more questions from their reading, things they struggled with and didn’t understand, things they doubted and disagreed with. Those are the people who grow the most.
Sometimes, it’s true, the people who are most eager fall away. Young folks, usually. Working at the association, I have grave concerns with how we’re sending young people out into cities to plant churches. And I’ve seen this a lot with addiction and recovery. They get all wrapped up in a faith that isn’t theirs trying to please family or pastors, and as soon as something shakes them, they fall, usually pretty disillusioned, because everyone had told them how well they were doing and how proud they were. But they never really owned it. Like seed in the rocks.
But, coming back to the main point a bit, we so often allow either our gut or our head to tell us what’s true and good and wise. But Christ tells us in the parable, it’s our hearts where the words of God need to root themselves. Believing in our gut or in our head is just two different ways of believing in ourselves. I would much rather believe in God than in myself. Because in the end, as I’m building my worldview and what I think of as truth, I don’t really want to build a building to lock myself into. And I don’t want to live in a science fiction book, always thinking about what’s next instead of noticing the beauty of what already is. Rather than building a foundation or a cohesive narrative within myself, I want to know this person in Christianity who is outside of myself and is, himself, truth.
I want to wrap up just by pointing out one thing about the parable itself, and hopefully dispelling a common myth. Let’s start with the myth. People use this passage all the time to say that Jesus taught with stories in order to obscure the truth and harden people’s hearts. That’s not what Jesus says, though, and that’s not what God is saying to Isaiah. He’s saying that God is giving his truth and his wisdom out generously. Again, wisdom calls in the streets and in the market. But we as the people of God should prepare to meet with people who have grown so old, spiritually, who have become so much hardened, like an idol, that nothing we say to them will get through.
Jesus so desperately loves the whole world that he gave his life to ransom ours. His desire as the sower in this field is that each and every person would grow and live a fruitful life. But he also knows that many people will reject his word.
I would encourage you, in those circumstances, don’t despair. God doesn’t ask us to save people, to change hearts and minds—that’s the Holy Spirit’s work. You aren’t a failure as a Christian if no one believes you. Very few people believed Christ, himself. What matters is not success, what matters is faithfulness. God is so in love with the whole world, that he will sow his seed at times and in places where everyone knows it probably won’t grow, but every once in a while some heart does change, and what if God wants to send you out on the roads or among thorns? That only shows how wide his arms are in salvation. Glory at the heart of our savior instead of growing bitter at the hardness of the field.
Lastly, I my invitation for today is related to Jesus’ choice of metaphor: cultivate a fertile heart. It’s brilliant, this metaphor of green and growing things. In our time, we always say, keep an open mind, but open to what? My experience with leaving things open is that they get filled with all kinds of things that damage them and rob them. I wouldn’t leave my front door open in New Orleans at night, and I would leave my gate open except when someone I love is coming over. Do we really want to open our minds for anyone to place anything they would like in them?
Much better to open our hearts, and not just to anyone, but to people who mean us well and to God, himself, whom we first knew as a gardener back when the world was still young. Allow them to cultivate good things in you, so you might grow and have good things to eat and nourish you.
We also say to trust your gut, follow your passions, but I think each of us knows, if we were ever to follow our passions to their utter ends, it would be a bitter and a lonely end. Trust and follow Christ, instead, because he is the one thing we can never get too much of.
For those of us who are too much in our heads, allow the beauty of Christ and his creation to draw you into a life of passion and deep meaning. For those of us who are too much in our guts, allow the beauty of Christ and his creation to draw your faith into understanding, that “your love would abound more and more will all knowledge and depth of insight.” I would invite each and every one of you to allow the word of God a place in your core, that your life might be one that grows deep and bears fruit.