One of the big questions in the history of Christianity and the ancient world is this: How did a tiny group of Messianic Jews in Judea who had no real political or material resources see their movement grow so prominent that it eventually Christianized the Roman Empire? In the midst of a demon-infested and problem plagued world how did those Jews have such a positive influence in their society?
There were many reasons why that influence occurred, but the way the early church valued women was an essential part. During the times of the early church, infanticide was widely practiced, but the early church rescued and adopted children. Widows were either forced to remarry or become prostitutes; the early church took care of them. Women could not hold formal political office in the empire, but the early church allowed them to serve as deaconess. Given all that, it's not surprising that Jesus valued women, but why does Luke mention Mary, Joanna, and Susanna by name? He mentions them because he's trying to show us something relevant and important for our lives. To see what that is, we need to see a story that Jesus told.
(Read Luke 8:4-8)
Jesus' call for us to hear
A lot of Jesus' ministry was done in rural areas, and that seems to be the setting where he told this story. If you live in a rural area where there is much farming, this probably sounds familiar to you. A farmer sows his seed; the seeds land on different soils with different results. I'm guessing that many of the people who knew about agriculture and heard Jesus tell the parable of the sower resonated with the parable.
I have some experience with rural areas, but I'm a city kid, not a farmer. I like concrete and freeways and Starbucks; I don't know much about planting, sowing, and soil. If like me you're from a city, you might not know what Jesus is trying to communicate in the parable. What's really significant, regardless of where we're from or where we live, is that after Jesus tells the story, he calls those in the crowd to hear what he's saying (see the end of Luke 8:8). Jesus is very emphatically calling us to hear what he's saying.
Most of us here have a cell phone, and we're pretty familiar with the ringtones that we can download to use. A few years back, there was a new ringtone that children younger than 18 were using. It was called the "Mosquito Tone." The reason young people used it was because it was too high for people over the age of 25 to hear, so individual's under 25 could text and call each other and any teacher, parent, or boss over 25 wouldn't know it.
Inside our ears, we have microscopic hairs that move with the impulses of sound waves, and those hair movements send electrical signals to our brains. As we age, those hairs get worn down and damaged, so our hearing becomes increasingly less sensitive, and we lose the ability to detect sounds of high frequencies. The highest note on a piano is 4 kilohertz, and people over 25 cannot hear over 16 kilohertz; the Mosquito Tone is 17 kilohertz. That means if you're over the age of 25, you can't hear the Mosquito Tone. Regardless of how old we are, are we open to hearing what Jesus has to say? How's our hearing when it comes to listening to God's Word?
As we read the Gospels, it's clear that sometimes the disciples didn't hear what Jesus was trying to say or they didn't understand his teaching. Here they intuitively know it's really important, and so in Luke 8:9, they ask Jesus what the parable means, and Jesus answers.
(Read Luke 8:11-15)
How responsive are we to God's Word?
Luke's already told us that Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God, so it's clear that the sower is a reference to him. The seed is God's Word, the good news that Jesus has come to rule and to reign in the lives of people, a coming that built upon and fulfilled the Old Testament Scripture the people possessed.
The soils represent different responses to God's Word; they represent four different conditions of the human heart. Here are what the soil types show:
The hard heart that is completely indifferent or opposed to God's Word
The superficial heart that believes for a time but when circumstances change or life gets tough (and it does), they fall away
The tangled heart that receives God's Word but other things (Jesus describes those things as "worries, riches, and pleasures") choke it out so the seed never grows
The open heart that grabs God's Word and grows to produce good things.
Let's pause and review what Jesus is saying in this passage because this is important:
The Sower (Jesus) is the same
The seed (message of God's kingdom)
The variable factor is the soil condition that symbolizes the condition of our hearts and how responsive we are to God's Word.
Here's a question we can ask ourselves: How responsive are we to God's Word?
Last spring, I flew to California and had to go through an airport security scanner to see if anything I was carrying could be used as a weapon. I wondered if it would be useful if we have a version of an airport security scanner at the door of the church that could reveal the conditions of our hearts. We don't need a scanner because the parable is a mirror that forces us to honestly grapple with our heart's condition. Jesus is telling us that we can always determine what that is by how receptive we are to his Word.
In the parable, the first soil is hard, but the second and third soils are initially receptive to the seed of God's Word. That raises a question: What allows the fourth soil and the fourth heart to be fruitful while the other types aren't? Because, let's be honest, there are times when we all get superficial, tangled, or hard-hearted.
There aren't perfect Christians; there aren't sinless disciples. There's no one whose heart is always pure or anyone who produces good fruit every moment.
The keys to a fruitful life
I would suggest that people who have open hearts are honest about how sometimes their hearts get tangled, superficial, or maybe even hard. They know they need God's grace to keep their hearts open to Jesus and his Word.
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness," says 1 John 1:9.
People with open hearts regularly go to the Lord for a heart realignment and rely on his grace to help them live out what he says. Additionally, as Jesus emphasizes in the parable, those with open hearts grab God's Word and practice it throughout life (Luke 8:15). Those with open hearts retain God's teaching; they hold it fast by God's grace.
We saw the Broncos, in 2016, with the trophy after their Super Bowl victory; they couldn't wait to get their hands on the trophy and hold it, and some didn't want to let go. They retained the trophy.
Not only do those with open hearts hold tightly to the Bible and study it frequently, but, as Jesus says, they "persevere and doing so produce a good crop." That is not a commitment of a month, a year, or a decade. It is a commitment that says through thick and thin, through the ups and downs of life, through the good times and the bad times, we are going to be people whose lives are aligned with the Bible. Jesus wants us to be people who hear the Bible, and by God's grace, abide by it throughout life; if you grew up in the church or you've been in the church world for a while, that's not news to you. What we may not know is there are some important implications that flow out of the parable and its interpretation.
First implication The first implication is that over time, you can always see someone's open heart for God and the Bible.
(Read Luke 8:16-17)
Jesus switches metaphors and uses the image of light to characterize God's Word. In the ancient world, because they had no electricity, light was created by lighting a candle lamp and putting it on a stand to illumine a room. The point is, that's how God's Word acts in our lives.
Jesus says that if our hearts are good and are receptive to the Word of God and by his grace we persevere over time, it will shine from our lives. Some people say the Bible doesn't make any difference in the lives of people and that Christianity doesn't make a positive influence. Both of those sayings would be incorrect. If by God's grace we grasp the Word of God and live it throughout life, it will be seen and will have a positive effect.
Second implication (Read Luke 8:18)
Notice that Jesus again says to heed how we listen, because he gives both a promise and a warning about his Word. The promise is that if we receive the Word well and act on it, we will be given more of it. If we neglect God's Word, what we have of it will, in time, be taken away.
Third implication The third implication has to do with proving we are part of God's family.
(Read Luke 8:19-21)
Jewish culture in the first century was extremely family of origin and extended family oriented; in a very real sense, you were your family. So what Jesus says is incredibly radical in their family-focused society.
Those who hear the words of Jesus, respond to them, and live them out in their lives, are those who are part of Jesus' family. Those who belong to Jesus and are close to Jesus are those who hear his Word, grasp it, and live it out. That takes us back to the first three verses of the passage.
The disciples and the women who Luke mentions in verses one through three are the visible, personal illustrations of those who heard the seed of the Word, clung to it, and were beginning to bear fruit.
We're told that the 12 and a group of women were following Jesus and that those women were supporting—out of their own private means—13 young men, all of whom had huge appetites! That is actually quite shocking because women were not supposed to travel outdoors with men unless married to them, but Jesus welcomes them and encourages them to study and learn. He even allows them to finance his ministry staff
Luke wants us to know that our gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, degree of education, occupation, age, and spiritual and emotional issues are irrelevant when it comes to knowing Jesus and following him. What's important is that we have open hearts that are receptive to God's Word and that over time we persevere in living that out. That's what makes you a visible member of God's family and gives you more of his Word and empowers you to have a positive influence over the long haul of life.
I watch news on television, read newspapers, and sometimes go to CNN or MSN to find out what's going on in our city, our country, and our world. Like you, I've been caught up in the political drama of the last year and lots of that is negative and pessimistic. That is why I love Jesus and the Bible: In this passage, our Lord shows us a far better way to live our life.
He's telling us here that if we're receptive to him and his Word, and grasp his Word, living it out through life by God's grace, we will have a powerful, positive influence on those around us in many different aspects.
Imagine if every person at this church responded with a great heart to God's Word and over the next year by God's grace lived it out at home, at school, at work, and in the neighborhoods. Imagine if all husbands here loved their wives and all the wives respected their husbands. Imagine if all the parents here raised their children in the nurture and love of the Lord and the children responded because all hearts were attuned to God's Word.
What if all of us—regardless of marital or socioeconomic status—simply loved our neighbors as ourselves? What if all of us who work took Jesus into our jobs every single day? What if those of us who are retired, play on sports teams, or are involved in community groups showed those around us the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control that are the Fruits of the Spirit?
You know what would happen if all of our lives were transformed by God's Word and his grace? We'd be like those early Christians, like the early church, and we'd make a profoundly positive influence in our homes, with our neighbors, in our communities, and in our city all in the name of Christ. I know I want that, and I think you do, too. Let's open our hearts to Jesus and his Word. Let's grab it and, starting today, begin to live it out for the rest of our lives. If we do that, he'll produce many good things in us and through us that will influence everyone around us for good.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.