“Four Kinds of Hearers”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. Luke 8.4-15
12 February 2023
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
Many years ago in this sanctuary these words of Jesus were painted on the large arch of the chancel:
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” [Luke 11.28]
Just a few verses after our Gospel reading concludes people told Jesus that his mother and brothers were standing outside the house waiting to see him. Jesus replied:
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” [Luke 11.21]
All of this fits in nicely with the parable of the sower and its explanation. It’s all about the Word of God and its effect on those who hear it. In the parable Jesus warns us that not everyone who hears the Word of God will continue to believe it. This echoes what last week’s Epistle said, that all of the Israelites were under the cloud, all were baptized the cloud and the sea, all ate the manna and drank from the rock, which was Christ. Yet, not all of them were allowed into the Promised Land. In fact, only two went in from that generation, Joshua and Caleb. The rest died in the wilderness.
Not all parables are understood. In Matthew’s account Jesus tells us why he spoke in parables.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [Matt. 13.13]
Parables are for the ears of believers. The Pharisees and other religious leaders did not understand them, except, perhaps, the parable of the wicked wicked tenants, because Luke records, “they perceived that he had told this parable against them.” [Luke 20.19] Yet, they did not have hearing ears to discern the mystery of how God deals with man.
A fatal error in understanding this parable is in focusing upon the soil as the main item. It isn’t about the soil at all; it’s about how the seed—the Word of God—is received and used. The error lies in thinking that one can change the soil, which a person cannot do. Only the Holy Spirit prepares hearts to receive the Word. You cannot change yourself. You cannot make yourself receptive. Luther’s clear teaching on the Third Article of the Creed reinforces that:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. [SC Creed, Third Article]
The parable shows us what happens once the seed has been sown. How is it received and used? It isn’t about how unbelievers treat the Word of God, but those who are considered followers of Jesus.
God the Holy Spirit is the One who speaks by the prophets [Nicene Creed]. He is a careless sower from our point of view. He scatters his seed, and it falls wherever he wants it to fall. So much of the good seed seems wasted, but He creates faith in his word when and where he wills. Article V of the Augsburg Confession lays it out for us in these words:
V. [The Office of the Ministry]
1 To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments.
2 Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.
3 And the Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this.
4 Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that the Holy Spirit comes to us through our own preparations, thoughts, and works without the external word of the Gospel. Tappert, T. G., ed. (1959). The Book of Concord the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (p. 31). Mühlenberg Press.
There are four kinds of hearers, or as Luther says, “disciples.” The first group are those who hear, but don’t pay close attention to the Word. To use an expression that is the same in German as it is in English, “It goes in one ear and out the other.” Empty space in between! They are those who are disciples but never take it seriously. It’s like a messy room where the Bible sits on the shelf and gathers dust. Its words are never read. Prayers are seldom prayed. Jesus explains that these disciples allow the devil to snatch the good seed of the Word from them. These hearers treat it carelessly.
Recently, a man contacted me about burying his mother. More than 30 years ago they had claimed membership in a sister Lutheran congregation. When I asked who was caring for their spiritual needs, he was surprised and stammered that no one had. When I inquired as to why that was, he gave the excuse that they “had been busy.” “For 30 years?” I asked. These are those who treat it so carelessly that the birds of the air snatch it away from them. The Word gets treated with malignant neglect.
I’ve had indoor plants that I have forgotten to water. I forgot to water the Christmas poinsettia that was one of the plants that decorated our sanctuary. I noticed that it still looked good. The leaves were still red. Then I picked it up and those bright red leaves just fell off! It looked like it was living but it was dead. Faith seldom dies at once. It atrophies due to lack of nourishment.
During the distribution today you’ll sing Martin Franzmann’s hymn, Preach You the Word, often sung at the ordinations and installations of pastors. He speaks of the seed of the Word.
Though some be snatched and some be scorched
And some be choked and matted flat,
The sower sows; his heart cries out,
“Oh, what of that, and what of that?” [LSB 586.4]
Only 25% of the crop brings a yield. The devil, God’s enemy, is the one who snatches the good seed from the disciple. He does it so that they lose the faith and are not saved. Satan is the enemy in another parable about the weeds in the wheat. There he also wants to destroy the Word of God so that people lose the faith. The cares and worries of life often choke the Word out of these hearers. What they once received with joy is now disregarded and cast aside. “We’ve been busy” is an excuse every pastor has heard from those who have not bothered to hear the Word of God. I think that pastors must be some of the most lied to people in the world, except maybe the IRS.
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” [Luke 11.28]. Catechumens, pay close attention here! We recently studied the first and second petitions of the Our Father. We pray that God’s Name be kept holy and that God’s kingdom come among us. That happens when God’s Word is taught in its truth and purity, and that God gives us his Holy Spirit to believe his Word and live according to it. Common to each of the four hearers is the sowing of the Word, but common to the first three is their failure to keep hearing the Word for the reasons Jesus gives. Excuses really. Excuses are not reasons.
Catechumens, I hope you remember what I said about the words “keep it.” In Medieval times the most secure room in a castle was called the keep. In that room the most valuable things were kept secure so that they would not be stolen or lost. The keep was the safest place in the castle. The castle keep was a place for that which was most important. You can go to the Tower of London and see the keep where the crown jewels of the British Empire are stored. You can see the crown worn by the king as well as many other invaluable things. It is one of the most secure places in the United Kingdom.
To keep, as Jesus says of his Word, is not to hide it or stash it away and never use it; it is to treat it as the most valuable thing God has given you. God wants you to use his holy Word and Sacraments! He doesn’t want you to put them away on a shelf and never use them!. To “hold it fast in an honest and good heart” [Luke 8.15] is the only way that the Holy Spirit can produce fruit in the life of Christ’s disciples. Luther says that those in this fourth group are
“ . . . those who hear the Word and continually cling to it, so that they would risk everything and leave everything for it. The devil does not take it away from them or mislead them; the heat of persecution does not do away with them; the thorns of pleasure and the greed of this age do not hinder them. Rather, they produce fruit; teaching others the same thing, increasing the kingdom of God, and then also doing good to their neighbor in love.” [AE 76.333].
God alone gives growth and success but he does it through means. That’s Word and Sacrament! There’s our nourishment! Here in this sanctuary God the Holy Spirit nourishes your faith!
So, we shouldn’t ask ourselves “what kind of soil am I?” But “what kind of hearer am I?” When Jesus concluded the parable he shouted out loudly for emphasis:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Listen to God’s Word while you still have it because a time may come when you want to hear but you will not find it because the devil will have stolen it from you.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord Jesus Christ, continue to send Your Holy Spirit so that we will treasure Your gracious Word as our most precious gift. Let us use your Word with pure hearts so that we may bring forth precious fruit a hundredfold, to your glory and the good of our neighbors.
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.