Luke 8:4-21, Take Care How You Listen

[June 23, 2013] We find Luke’s message to us in 8:4-21 summarized in 8:18, “So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.” In these verses Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower (8:4-15; see Matthew 13:1-23) and the Parable of the Lamp (8:16-18; see Matthew 5:15 and 10:26) and identifies His true relatives (8:19-21; see Matthew 12:46-50). The sower, Jesus tells us in Luke, sows the “word of God” and those who truly hear it are those who do so with “an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance”; these are truly His mother and siblings for they “hear the word of God and do it.” That is the gist of the passage.

Context (Luke 7:16—9:62)

Luke places this within a larger context (Luke 7:16—9:36) in which the question is being raised, “Who is Jesus?” and also answered. The disciples answer, when asked, that He is “the Christ of God,” that is, the expected Messiah, the “Anointed One.” From Jesus’ response, however, it is not clear that they “get it,” for Jesus then tells them that the glorious “Son of Man” must suffer being killed (though He will be raised) and that they too must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him. The answer really comes from heaven: “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” Notice the final, “Listen to Him!”

This sh’ma (listen) has to do with Jesus, namely Who He is. This larger context also has a subordinate theme concerning the disciples, and in particular, the Twelve. During Jesus’ first apostolic tour of Galilee (Luke 4:42—7:1), He called His disciples together and chose twelve from among them to be His apostles (6:12-16). Now we are told He is on another tour, “going around from one city and village to another,” and has taken the Twelve with Him along with an entourage of women, who not only are disciples but are supporting the work (8:1-40). It is during this round that our current passage about listening takes place. We may think of this tour as a training circuit in which Jesus is teaching the Twelve “the ropes” for in 9:1-6 Jesus sends them out on their own. This is when they become apostles, “sent ones” (compare 6:13 and 9:2), but it is only a practice run. They return to Jesus in 9:10 where they give an account of what they had done.

We spoke of this section stretching from 7:16 to 9:36 when we spoke of it being about Who Jesus is. If we include the subordinate theme of the disciples, we have to include the following transitional section of 9:37-62 which in eight examples shows the failure or shortcoming of the disciples before Jesus chooses seventy others in 10:1-12. The shortcomings of the disciples are already being seen on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Peter spoke “not realizing what he was saying.”

If we put this together, we see that the question is rising up and being raised, “Who is Jesus?” and at the same time it is being answered again and again until finally heaven itself identifies Him. But are the disciples listening? In 7:18-23 John the Baptist sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Coming One. Jesus answers: “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard”; and in 8:4-18 Jesus warns His own disciples, “Take care how you listen.” Not only must they hear the word of God, but they must do it (8:21; the seed of the word fell on four kinds of soil, but only on one was it effective). Finally, the voice from heaven says, “Listen to Him!” The failure of the disciples to “get it” was the result of not listening. Jesus’ warning in 8:4-21 corresponds to the failure in 9:37-62 (and 9:32-33).

The Parable of the Sower (8:4-15)

The parable of the sower, of course, is not itself directed to the disciples but to the crowd. It is instructive to compare Luke’s version of the parable and its interpretation to Matthew’s. They both have a large crowd coming together but in Matthew’s gospel they gather beside the sea and Jesus teaches them from a boat while they stand on the shore. In Luke we are told that they come to Him from the various towns (probably the towns that Jesus had visited and the others that heard about Him from these visits). When Jesus gave His earlier sermon, which was directed at His disciples, a larger and different kind of crowd had gathered (see 6:17-19). In any case, this parable describes the response to His apostolate and what will be the response to the apostolate of His disciples (and the church). In Matthew’s gospel the Parables Discourse follows a narrative section about the people’s ambivalent reaction to the drawing near of the kingdom in Jesus, and to some people’s rejection of the kingdom. The Parables Discourse addresses this. After that, Jesus turns begins to turn away from the crowd as He takes His disciples aside. In Luke, that is not the case. The parable is a warning to the crowd and the disciples, and an explanation to the disciples (8:10-15) of how people will respond; it is not an explanation of a turning point that has taken place.

While in Matthew 13 Jesus gave seven parables, Luke only repeats the first. The second parable in verse 16 Luke takes from Matthew 5. In Matthew 13 this is one of two parables that Jesus interprets. Luke does not tell the other six parables that are in Matthew 13, though he has other more story-like parables of his own (that is, in his repertoire).

In Matthew the disciples want to know why Jesus speaks in parables. In Luke they want to know what this particular parable means, though the answer is the same (in Matthew Jesus speaking of the kingdom of the heavens and in Luke of the kingdom of God). Luke displaces Matthews 8:12 to verse 18, skips Matthew’s reference to Deuteronomy 29:4, and keeps only Matthew’s citation of Isaiah 6:9, leaving out his citation of Isaiah 9:10. He skips over Matthew 13:16-17, using it later—and tellingly—in 10:23-24 when Jesus is speaking to the seventy. In other words, in place of Matthew 13:10-17, Luke retains only Matthew 13:11-12 (moving verse 12) and 14. This is because the role this whole passage plays in Luke is quite different than in Matthew. In Matthew the emphasis is on God’s judgment; in Luke it is simply on the difference between the disciples and “the rest”—the crowd does not “get it” but the disciples are those to whom “it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us the seed is the ‘word of the kingdom,” in Luke He tells us it is the “word of God.” In Matthew the emphasis is on the kingdom. Jesus’ own personal presence in the midst of Israel is the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens. In Luke the emphasis of the Gospel is on His coming, but at this point it is about people grasping its significance. As the Anointed One He is the Isaianic Servant of YHWH Who brings YHWH’s Jubilee. Who then is He? For we need to “believe and be saved” (8:11). When Jesus says “the word of God” He is referring not only to the words which He speaks but also to the fulfillment of the Scriptures which He embodies. The Old Testament Scriptures are, without a doubt, in Jesus’ mind, the word of God. As He told John the Baptist in 7:22 His actions embody what the Scriptures proclaimed. In this sense He is the word of God. This is why it is so important to recognize Who He is. To listen to the word of God, then, is to respond to Jesus with faith, meaning commitment, loyalty, fidelity and fealty. To “do” the word of God is to give ourselves to Jesus as His disciples and to follow Him. Doing the word of God cannot be separated from the Person of Jesus Himself as if it were simply a detached matter of practice and behavior, as if it were about an ethics that stood on its own. It is a matter of practice, but always in relation to Him.

The Seed Sown Beside the Road (8:5, 12)

The word is sown in the heart (8:12, 15). With respect to the seed that fell beside the road, Luke adds to Matthew’s version that “it was trampled underfoot.” What does it mean with this addition? The soil on the side of the road has been beaten down by a lot of traffic. The heart that traffics too much in the things of the world becomes hardened. Or let us not use the word “world” since that can be misunderstood. It is talking about business (or making a living) and buying and selling and perhaps just busy-ness. Of course we need to make a living, but it should not preoccupy our hearts. And our buying and selling: this manic trafficking hardens our heart—as serious as we may be (or frivolous), we become superficial—and the seed of the word never gets a chance to penetrate.

In Luke Jesus adds that the devil (Matthew has “the evil one”) takes away the word “so that they will not believe and be saved.” This tells us what the proper affect of the word ought to be: upon believing it, our salvation. It matters much then what we understand by the word of God.

The Seed Sown on Rocky Soil (8:6, 13)

Luke simplified the account of the seed falling on rocky soil. Jesus simply says it withered away as soon as it grew because it lacked moisture. In Matthew Jesus describes its lack of depth and root and the sun rising to scorch it. In Luke Jesus only mentions the lack of root in the interpretation. In Matthew Jesus emphasizes the immediacy of the seed’s growth which in Luke He does not.

Here the seed penetrates the surface, and then it hits rock. The rootlets can find no moisture (or nourishment) and cannot grow and take hold. So when the sprout shoots up, we are deceived, for nothing is really holding or sustaining it. It represents enthusiasm or sheer will-power, but won’t cut it.

Where in Matthew Jesus speaks of “suffering or persecution” that happens “on account of the word,” in Luke Jesus just speaks of the “time of temptation.” In Matthew they are scandalized (skandalizō) but in Luke they fall away (aphistēmi).

The question then is what are the rocks? The soil itself was hard in the first example, but here we have hidden rocks underneath the thin layer of soil. The consciousness is not so dull that the word never gets below the surface, but there is a hardness of the heart, things that are impenetrable, things that represent a barrier against what we fear. These may be psychological defenses against hurt, or projections of what we are ashamed, or denials. We may associate the Gospel with petty and judgmental or cruel people who have hurt us in the past. The Gospel may open old wounds. It may be too intimate and threaten to take us out of our fortress. It may promise things too good to be true and our fear of disappointment frightens us. We may realize that it would require that we change how we look at everything, it may threaten to upset our entire mental landscape, changing everything, and we are not prepared for that. We are attached to our view of life; its demolition threatens us with a yawning abyss. It may threaten healing when our wounds give us an excuse to be hard or withdrawn. We could go on until we are facing our own barriers, but those barriers are our hardness to the Gospel. If the Gospel is to set roots in us, it will have to search for cracks and spaces between the rocks, which may not be enough for it to take hold of us.

The Seed Sown among the Thorns (8:7, 14)

In Matthew Jesus describes this soil as the one in whom “the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth” choke the word so that it “becomes unfruitful” (akarpos ginetai) In Luke Jesus describes this soil as the one who “go on their way” and in whom the “worries and riches and pleasures of [this] life (bios)” choke the word so that it “brings no fruit to maturity” (telesphoreō).

We have received the Gospel and it has taken root and grown up, but that phrase Jesus uses, they “go on their way,” implies that we are attempting to live two lives, whether we know it or not. Rather than letting go and trusting in Providence (our Father), we worry, and our worry preoccupies us. We still “own” our riches and the desire to increase them, the fear of losing them, the worry of holding on to them, and all the responsibilities that they add to our life necessarily preoccupy our hearts (for where our treasure is, that is where our heart is) and the Gospel has no room to grow and take over our lives. Our wealth entangles us in the affairs of society and therefore the tentacles of the “world” find their way into our spinal column to paralyze us or just around our neck to choke us. There are also the pleasures of this life, the way we numb our consciousness with entertainments and desensitize ourselves through overstimulation. For the Gospel to grow and bring fruit to maturity, the consciousness needs to be awake to it. The soul cannot be only “into” itself as a self-contained bubble, but must be open to reality and aware of it—the reality of spirit and body and creation. “Worries, riches and pleasures” are all ideations that either we ourselves have created or are the product of the cultural matrix out of which our so-called awareness emerges and into which it contributes. Our immediate awareness of what is real bypasses these ideations and sees what is. And what is includes the reality of God as much as the reality of consciousness (the consciousness of all created things) and of the physical reality of the world around us. The Gospel comes to fruition when we are spiritual beings and not soulical only.

The Seed Sown into the Good Soil (8:8, 15)

When the seed fell on the good soil, Luke simply says it produced a crop a hundred times as great. In Matthew one seed yields a hundred, another sixty and another thirty. I imagine this refers to the head of grain which holds a hundred grains, grown from a single grain.

In the interpretation, in Matthew Jesus describes this soil as the one “who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and brings [it] forth” in different quantities. In Luke Jesus describes this soil as the ones “who have heard in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” In Matthew Jesus is speaking of the one who “gets it.” In Luke Jesus describes the moral quality of this one, what it takes to “get it.” The heart is honest and good, and perseveres. An honest and good heart that perseveres is the antithesis of the other three conditions of the heart.

The Parable of the Lamp (8:16-18)

Luke has woven together Matthew 5:15 from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 10:26 from the Mission Discourse, and Matthew 13:12 from the Parables Discourse. Matthew 13:12 is also repeated in Matthew 25:29, the Eschatological Discourse. Luke repeats 8:16 in 11:33; 8:17 in 12:2; and 8:18 in 19:26.

Jesus tells us how to use a lamp. We do not light it in order to cover it up, or put it under the bed (putting it under the bed is an addition to Matthew’s version). We put it up so that it shine on all who come into the house (Matthew’s version has the light shining on those who are already in the house, but Luke’s version has it shining on those who come in. When we hear the word and it is thus planted in our hearts, the seed needs to grow and thus become visible. It needs to shed its light on others. The lamp shining in a house gives us an image of a gathering of believers in a home, where the early church usually gathered. We shine on our fellow believers. Our home and the homes of our neighbors is also the place where we reach our neighbors. When they visit us (or we them), our light ought to be visible to them; we ought not to hide it. For “everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8-10). This point is perhaps more active than the point Jesus intended to make in 8:16. In any case, we should allow what we are to be visible to others to enable them to see and be enlightened.

It may be that the Scriptures are the lamp, and the coming of Jesus is the lighting of the lamp. The sower sowing the seed of the word of God is what God does with the lamp. The seed is not supposed to fall by the side of the road, nor on rocking soil nor among the thorns. Nor is the lamp once it is lit supposed to be covered over with a container or put under the bed. Just as the seed is supposed to produce a head full of grain (a hundredfold) by falling into the good soil, so the lamp is supposed to be put on a lampstand so that those who come in may see the light. In other words, here in Luke’s gospel this little parable is a parallel to the Parable of the Sower.

“For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” It is not enough just to hear the word and assent to it, or to come to church. God sees the heart and whether the seed has taken root and is growing. In the light of His presence (which is no different than His judgment), it will all become evident; no pretense can take place there, for all will become exposed. Indeed, time itself usually makes things evident, for a tree is known by its fruit. The seed is buried and therefore escapes the eyes of others. People look for the sprout. The seed that fell on the side of the road never sprouts. The seed that fell on rocky soil does, but it is short lived. The seed that fell among thorns also sprouts, but it gets choked. The seed that develops a head full of grain is the one that is truly visible. The point of the parable is not that we should “show off” but rather that we cannot be hid. The reality will be seen, even if it is only God who sees it for what it is.

“So take care how you listen!” This is the point. To those first hearers, it was Jesus’ own presence, and His words and deeds, that were before them. For us, Jesus is before us in the Gospel. Do we pay attention? Is our mind, really our heart, even awake? Do we see only on the surface or do we see (hear) existentially, with our whole being as it were? Does His Person address our own person (as a Face facing our face)? Or is all this just information?

“For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.” Jesus repeats this in the context of the coming judgment (19:26). Here it is more general. If we are awake and truly listen, we will receive more and more. If we are dull, we will soon know nothing at all, of which boredom (more so than doubt) is one of the signs. More than boredom, however, is a growing loss of compassion.

Jesus’ True Family (8:19-21)

The moral of this story (to “hear the word of God and do it”) corresponds to Luke 6:43-49, which corresponds to the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (7:13-27). It is not enough to hear only. The only way to really hear is to also do it.

When this scene occurs in Matthew, it is right before Jesus gives the Parable of the Sower and He is surrounded by His disciples (12:49). There He says, “Behold My mother and My siblings! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” In Luke it follow the Parable of the Sower and no mention is made of the disciples (though we assume they were there). Jesus just says, “My mother and My siblings are those who hear the word of God and do it.” In Matthew it is about—having heard it, now—doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven. In Luke it is about hearing the word of God—how one hears—and doing it, thus connecting it to the Parable of the Sower. And in Matthew Jesus identifies His disciples as those who are doing the will of His Father (presumably by being His disciples), but in Luke Jesus is not so quick to make that identification, for in Luke the failure of the disciples to really hear is coming up.

In the Gospel according to Luke the sending of the seventy takes place at the beginning of the long teaching section that takes place as Jesus journeys to Jerusalem (10:1-24). It is a repetition of the sending of the Twelve, but it follows the transitional section of 9:37-62 which show the shortcoming and failure of the disciples, and particularly the Twelve. It therefore seems to suggest a new beginning. (This is not found in the other gospels.) The Acts of the Apostles also suggests a new beginning with the sending of Paul and Barnabas in chapter 13 after focusing on the apostolate of Peter. These are not exactly parallel, since the Acts of the Apostles does not show Peter as having failed (even if he is a little slow), but there is a correspondence.

The point is that Luke had all of this in his mind when he composed his gospel, and the present passage on the importance of “taking care how you listen” is a preface. Disciples fail to launch, come to a tragic slowdown, halt in their tracks, or even turn back, because they fail to listen to the word of God as well as they could have. Jesus Himself is the fulfillment of the word of God that gives it content and life: not the “historical Jesus” or even the narrative Jesus but the Jesus that is revealed by the Holy Spirit through the witness of the Scriptures.

Leave a Reply