[June 14, 2009] In Luke 7:16-50, Luke contrasted three groups of people. The first is the crowds who thought Jesus was a great prophet. They do not “get it” because Jesus is greater than John the Baptist, and even John is “more than a prophet.” The second are the Pharisees who reject Jesus because they are “pretending” at their relationship with God like children in the marketplace. The third is shown by the woman who loved Jesus because she was “forgiven much.” This woman “gets it” and knows deep down inside who Jesus is.
Those with Jesus (Luke 8:1-3)
The beginning of chapter 8 shows the fruit of Jesus’ work so far. The Twelve are with Him. As we have seen, they are those whom Jesus called and whom Jesus also liberated in the “Jubilee” part of His ministry—His first tour of Galilee in 4:16—7:15. These Twelve were chosen to be with Jesus to be eyewitnesses of the Gospel.
Now we also see a group of women disciples who, it will turn out, are also special eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They are special because when the Twelve had fled and thus failed as eyewitnesses at the crucial moment, these women remained and were steadfast and faithful witnesses of His death (23:49) and resurrection (23:55).
These women are like the woman in Luke 7 who was forgiven much. For these women were “healed of evil spirits and infirmities.” They, like her, show Jesus their love by ministering to Him out of their possessions with what they have. They are the fruit of Jesus’ work, and in that way, they are a picture of the future church.
The Reason for the Difference (8:4-18)
The crowd comes to Jesus again in verse 4, and Jesus tells a parable to explain why some people get it and some do not. “To you—[my disciples]—it has been given to know” in contrast to the rest (verse 10). At the end He says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Verse 18 summarizes the teaching: “Take heed therefore how you hear.” The difference is in how we hear. Those who do not hear are like those in verse 10 who see but do not see, and who hear but do not understand. God tells Isaiah in 6:9-10, “However hard you listen, you will never understand. However hard you look, you will never perceive. This people’s wits are dulled; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes, so that they may not see with their eyes, nor listen with their ears, nor understand with their wits, and then turn and be healed.” This passage from Isaiah helps because the word translated “wits” is actually “heart” (Hebrew: leb), the word that Jesus uses in verse 12 and 15 (Greek: kardia). The reason for the different reception Jesus gets, the different reception that the Gospel gets today, is because some people are able to “hear” while most people do not, and the reason for this difference has to do with the condition of the heart.
The parable is about the seed and how it falls on four different kinds of ground, but only on one kind of ground does it actually bear any fruit. Jesus explains the parable. The seed, He says, is the word of God. That is very important. Jesus and later the apostles and the church sow the word of God. That is what Jesus has been doing since He came out of the wilderness after His baptism. It is what the church does. If we do not proclaim the word of God, we do not have any reason to exist. What is the word of God? Is it simply some ancient text? No, it is the revelation of God of which the words of the Bible are only the container, the shell. The word of God is what is living inside this husk. Jesus brings out this living kernel. The Gospel, in fact, shows us that Jesus is Himself the word of God, the revelation of God. The prophets pointed to Him. The apostles bear witness to Him. Their words point us to Him. But it takes a special act of God to open our eyes so that we may see, and to open our ears so we may hear.
The four kinds of ground are four kinds of hearts. These conditions almost describe different stages of life.
The first kind of ground is hardened from overuse. It has been trampled on too many times. These people pay the least attention to the word, for it barely touches them before the devil comes and takes it away. This describes the person who is old and has seen too much and has hardened themselves against that which is fresh and holds promise. They may be bitter or not, but whatever the reason, they are no longer open. For us to receive the word of God, we must be open to what is utterly new. The ground which is hard thinks everything is old and interprets everything it hears according to what it already knows. Everything can be categorized (labeled) and tamed. That way, nothing is ever threatening. Nothing shakes them up. The solution for them is to be plowed: “Break up your fallow ground” (Jeremiah 4:3). People become closed and narrow minded because they are terrified of confusion. But confusion is the way God breaks up the fallow ground. We need to become a stranger, a beginner.
The second kind of ground has rocks. They entertain the word for a time. They even let themselves become enthusiastic for a while. They get “into it” for a period. But then trials come and the enthusiasm dies. This describes the person who is settled in the middle of life. They are searching, but nothing can hold their interest for too long. The problems of life keep “killing” it. Jesus says that the word can take no root. It never penetrates, and so even though the person appears to receive it, the word only lies just below the surface. The problem is that there are too many rocks. What are the rocks? Rocks can represent something positive: being strong and steadfast and immovable. Or something negative: being stubborn and inflexible. It seems to me that the rocks are the things that we are in denial of. Everyone denies things, and as you get older this denial catches up with you until you are incapable of letting certain things in. We may deny things about the world—about Wall Street, about our credit, about the state of our marriage or home, about the environmental crisis and our habits of consumption, about our educational system. These may be things of which we are finally becoming aware, or not. The most difficult things that we deny are things about ourselves. These are the things that we project onto other people. We are all very consistent about this: the things that bother us about other people are the things that we are guilty of but are in denial of. There are all sorts of things about ourselves that we cannot bear to face. These are all rocks. The fact that we are able to live with our eyes closed also prevents us from hearing the word of God. When we hear the word of God we think it is about everyone else, not me. It is hard and painful to remove these rocks, for it requires excruciating honesty about ourselves, but if we want to hear and to continue to respond to God’s word, we must.
The third kind of ground describes the career person. The word is sown among thorns and the thorns grow up with it. The thorns are the anxieties, riches and pleasures of life. It is all the worries about life, our attempt to accumulate and build some security for ourselves, and our coming home or going out to entertain ourselves. We are so busy and under so much pressure and so tired that we simply have no time or energy for the word. It is choked out. This describes the visible part of our society. The solution is to get this under control. If we cannot, then Jesus’ solution is that we should simply abandon the pursuit. We think this is ridiculous, but we only think that way because of how invested we are in it. We value our “life,” meaning our status and standard of living and security in this world, but we do not value the real life, the only life that really matters. Jesus says that we may need to cut off our finger, or hand or arm if it will save our life. We simply do not agree with Jesus that the spiritual life that He is talking about is that important. Until we do, however, we simply cannot “hear” the word.
The fourth kind of ground is the good earth that is soft and able to take in the word and hold it fast. There is no competition that chokes it out. There the seed can grow at its own pace and bear fruit. This represents a “young” heart that has not yet gotten preoccupied or filled with denials or become hardened by experience. It is open. Every heart can become like this if it is willing to have the weeds pulled and the soil broken up and the rocks removed. Then we are ready to hear and receive the word. Then it can bear fruit.
The disciple who has heard the word must not be afraid and hide it. They must let themselves shine so that those who enter their “home” may see their light. Do not be afraid to be open and honest with people. Do not be afraid to confess Jesus. We are afraid that we are not good enough; perhaps we are “sinful” like the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet. But what we hide will become manifest in any case. If we hide our love for Jesus from people, it only means we are ashamed of Him. If we love Him, we will let it shine.
“Take heed therefore how you hear” (verse 18). We can hear and yet not hear. That is the ultimate threat. Are we fooling ourselves? The only true hearing is with our spirit rather than with our mind or (moral) willfulness or emotionality. Only God can reveal Himself to our spirit. What opens our spirit, however, is the condition of our heart. That also is the work of God’s grace on us.
Who Is Jesus’ Family? (8:19-21)
Who is Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters? Not everyone. He is creating a new family, a new household, and that is the church. This family, made up of His disciples, is no longer made up of natural ties of blood or institution. Those who are part of this family are those “who hear the word of God and do it.”
We can think we are Christian because of our associations. We belong to a nation that calls itself Christian. We hold opinions about Jesus—opinions that apparently the devil agrees with!—and think that because of that, we are Christian. Our parents may have had us baptized as a child, or we may have had a “conversion” when we were young that left us enthusiastic for a little while. None of these make us Christian. Some people think that if they are decent people that makes them Christian, as if decent Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and atheists do not exist. Our relatives, how we were brought up, our service to our country or community, our morality, our “beliefs”—none of these make us Christians.
What makes us Christians is whether or not we have heard the word of God with a soft heart and hold it fast so that it can bear fruit with patience. Have we been touched by Jesus like the woman in 7:37 who wept at His feet because she has been forgiven much?