Not-so-great expectations when evangelising
Should he have gone to Specsavers? Surely the farmer could see it was a path? He must have seen the rock and the thorns, and yet he apparently threw that seed pretty indiscriminately.
Parables are funny beasts, and we’re given plenty of warnings by expert exegetes about how to (or how not to) interpret them. Casting all those warnings to one side for a moment, I want to suggest Jesus might have had more than one purpose in teaching this parable.
The most obvious purpose is to entreat the “great crowd” (v. 4) to hear the word of God, “hold it fast”, listen to it carefully, and do what it says (vv. 8, 15, 18, 21). Whatever else we say about the parable, this is the big theme and so I’d label it as the primary purpose.
The second purpose is also obvious, but only because Jesus specifically identifies it for us—it would otherwise never have occurred to us. Jesus explains to his disciples in verse 10 that one of the purposes of his parables is to prevent some people from understanding and coming to faith. That’s a big, mind-blowing, Romans 9:18 idea. But it’s not a new idea, as Jesus’ quote from Isaiah 6 makes clear.
But I also think there may be a third purpose of this parable, one aimed more at his disciples than the general crowd.
Jesus is currently going “through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom” (8:1). At this point, he is the farmer. But very soon Jesus is going to send his disciples out to do the same (9:2).
In articulating the different responses to the sowing of the seed, Jesus seems to be setting some realistic expectations for his disciples about the reactions they are likely to get: the large majority of their work is going to have disappointing results.
In other words, nobody who goes out proclaiming the word of God should expect most of their audience to come to faith. Of course, God can bring—and at times in the past seems to have done so—enormous rates of gospel fruit from a specific context of gospel preaching. But the expectation from this parable is that proclamation is more normally going to see lots of rejection.
It’s not all negative though. When the seed does grow in good soil and a life is changed, a really good and encouraging crop can result. More people becoming gospel spreaders means more gospel spreading.
But why does the farmer scatter so indiscriminately? Why is the farmer’s strategy to scatter seed everywhere?
Verses 16-18—which should be considered as part of Jesus’ explanation of the parable, even though the ESV puts them under a new subheading—help us in our search for an answer. Jesus points out that if you’re in the dark, you lift a light up high to cast it as broadly as possible. You don’t cover the light to stop it going in certain directions. By letting it shine unobstructed, more hidden things are made manifest and more secrets become known.
As the word of God shines, it reveals truth—the truth about God, the truth about us and our sin, the truth about God’s plan for salvation through Jesus, and the truth about the nature of our hearts (seen in our response to God’s truth). That’s why, when we hear the word of God, Jesus says we should “take care then how you hear”. That word is critical: it can enlighten us, or condemn us to remaining in darkness (v. 18).
So the light of the word of God should be held up high; the seed should be spread as widely as possible so that it can have its maximum effect. That’s the farmer’s strategy.
But you don’t have to go too far these days to hear experts in evangelism tell us that evangelistic method X and its like don’t work any longer. “The world has changed”, we’re told. “People don’t respond to those old-school gospelling methods these days. We need to be more nuanced, get to know people, understand their way of thinking, tailor to them a gospel presentation that recognises where they are at and that is more likely to get a positive response.” It’s like the farmer needs to first do a soil analysis to find the really good soil, poke an individual hole in that soil with his finger, then carefully drop a single seed in. Surely that’s just farming best-practice?
But that’s a long way from the indiscriminate scattering of seed, or the lifting of the light high so that it’s cast as widely as possible so that more people come into it. It’s also a long way from putting a large share of the responsibility on the hearer to “take care then how you hear”.
I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for friendship evangelism that represents more targeted seed planting. But surely we need to hold our nerve in terms of some of the broader ‘scattergun’ evangelism strategies that might seem to get the poor results the parable predicts. I say that because in God’s sovereignty the gospel seed might just land on some good soil too. And even if it doesn’t, it is still doing what God intends (Isa 55:10-11; John 12:48; Heb 4:12). I’m thinking of strategies like neighbourhood door-knocking, cold-turkey evangelism in shopping centres, putting Bibles in hotel bedside tables, widespread distribution of gospel tracts, evangelistic rallies, and so on—things that we don’t seem to see happening much these days.
The plain message of the gospel is indeed “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). Let’s not lose our confidence in it. Let’s get back to sowing it a bit more indiscriminately. Even if our expectations of success are modest rather than great, there will be rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7-10).