Understanding Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed is crucial if we want our lives to be fruitful for the Kingdom of God. Indeed, right in the middle of the parable, Jesus tells his disciples to listen carefully, for to them the secrets of the Kingdom of God have been entrusted (Luke 8:8b-10).
In this story, the seed being sown is always good, always of the best quality. It is God’s Word, and it comes to all of us. The difference in the four soils is simply how they respond to that Word, and that soil's character. Our lives a mixture of wheat and weeds--we are struggling to become the 4th type, the folk that produce fruit a hundred times more than was sown.
Wheat and Weeds
Jesus is pretty frank here about what stops us from living this productive, fruitful life. We accept his Word into our hearts. We even treasure it, water it, and long for it to grow. But there’s a problem. It’s a little bit crowded inside our hearts. Sure, we’ve invited the Word in there to do its stuff, but it has to compete with a whole lot of other things that keep choking it out. It’s like a glass-house with really high quality tomatoes planted in it, but they have to compete with docks and thistles and crab-grass which are sucking the nutrients out of the soil and stealing all the sunlight. Come harvest (if there’s any at all), the tomatoes will be tiny, withered and few.
And what are these weeds that are competing with the Word in our hearts? Again, Jesus doesn’t hold back from naming names. They are worry, riches and pleasure, or as Mark puts it, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things (Mark 4:19). Elsewhere, Jesus clearly tells us that there is only room in our hearts for one Lord: either God or money (and the things money can buy; together called mammon). Jesus is so up-front about how toxic these competing lords are, it’s staggering that so that many Christians are still falling for health, wealth and prosperity gospels!
Now before you start jumping on my back about how unbalanced I am, let me acknowledge that wealth and pleasure do have their place in our lives. It’s just that that place must never become central, or part of our core motivation for living, or our raison d’être.
You look puzzled. But doesn’t Jesus want us to be happy? Ah, no actually. As you read through the gospels you’ll see plenty of promises of joy, but none of happiness. And they are infinitely different things. Happiness comes from the Latin word hap, which means luck. Happiness is based on circumstances going well for us, things falling into place, the dice rolling luckily, our cards falling fortuitously. But what God promises us is far deeper than that.
Joy comes from knowing we are doing the right thing, from being who we were created to be and doing what we were created to do. Only the wealthy, healthy and well-fed can know happiness. But even the poverty stricken and the persecuted can know joy (Matthew 5:3, 11).
Wealth and pleasure are at best tools we can use in the service of God and others. But such is their spiritual power that if you give them more space than that, they start to become idols and competing lords. I’ve started referring to these as ‘weeds that will choke Jesus out of your life’, just so I won’t be so easily fooled by them.
The Five Mirages
Mirage is another word I like to use to keep these imposters in true perspective. When you were a kid, did you ever get fed those stories about rainbows having pots of gold at the end of them? That’s such an attractive little fable; I can remember a couple of times actually trying to find that gold! But it’s an extremely frustrating exercise. The closer you get to the rainbow, the further away the image retreats from you! It’s like that with all mirages-–they look beautiful from a distance, but really have no substance you can grab hold of. Happiness is a kind of rainbow. The harder you chase it, the further away it recedes. Real happiness (in its best sense) is always a by-product of something else we do, of being engaged in some purpose outside of or greater than ourselves.
The myth that "just a bit more money will make us happy" is a huge lie many of us have swallowed. Recently I saw the results of an Australian survey on life satisfaction, testing people’s self-perceptions against their incomes. One of the staggering findings was that over 20% of people pulling in 2 million dollars or more a year described themselves as “struggling” or “only just getting by”! How’s that for the kind of deception a mirage brings? You see, part of the deceitfulness of wealth is that it blinds us to how much we really have, and to how little the genuinely poor don’t have. It makes us hoarders instead of givers. The whole advertising–marketing business is built on these deceptions: (a) stir up in us needs that don’t really exist, and then (b) sell us toys that claim to be able to fill the longing they’ve just created. Meanwhile, back in the real world, 30,000 children starved to death today from lack of food, clean water and the most basic of medicines.
We have recently returned from several weeks back in New Zealand, catching up with friends and family and speaking about Jesus’ call to mission among the poor. There was a lot of interest, and whenever we spoke about the poor's reality of life (i.e. 80% of the worlds population), people were stirred and wanted to do something. But tragically, not that many follow through-–not in any long-term, effective kind of way. Sometimes it feels like something else is in people’s hearts competing with the message, choking out God’s Word.
Each time we travel to an affluent Western country, I see at least five mirages shimmering away in our churches and among believers. They distract us and stop us from fulfilling the mission Jesus has set before us in this life: to share his love and liberation with the whole world, especially with the poorest and those who are suffering.1
This is the first and most obvious mirage, which is probably why Jesus spent so much time speaking against it. As mentioned above, marketers aim to create in us a sense of need, and eventually (they hope) an instable greed for more and more of whatever they’re selling. God forbid that we should ever be content with what we have! So the issues here is: who are we letting wash our brains? From where are we drawing our values? I read recently that the average Christian spends seven times as many hours per week watching TV as they do reading scripture, praying or worshipping.2
What?!? OK, this is what I mean. When I became a follower of Jesus during my second year at university, many of my peers had also just come to faith. We were so full of passion and determination to change the world (and perhaps go into world missions) that we thought fulfilling the Great Commission was just around the corner!
But then they went and fell in love, and then got married. No problem with that; in fact that would have been beautiful-–if it had been to someone who shared their vision of living radically for Christ. But often it wasn’t, and sometimes it wasn’t even someone who wanted to follow Jesus at all. So those friends all started to drop out of the race. Like Paul and Jesus, I reckon it’s better to remain single than marry someone who doesn’t share our passion for Jesus and his mission in the world. I mean, why settle for second-best?
After the marriage usually comes the mortgage: our own little piece of the NZ/Australian/American/Western dream. In itself there is nothing wrong with that. But in many places, housing is so expensive both partners have to work for years and years to pay off a figure much greater than the actual value of the house, due to interest rates. A waste of God’s money, really. And what if we become so emotionally attached that we couldn’t bear to leave it for somewhere less beautiful? Hello? Did anyone say the word idol?
Now once more, there’s nothing wrong with having kids—why, I even have a couple of my own. But when having them is more important than God’s call on our lives or his mission in the world, something is seriously out of whack. Again, it’s that little problem that the Bible refers to as idolatry—anything that takes the place of God in our lives.
I have met people in the West whose lives revolve so totally around their kids that there is hardly any room for anyone else, let alone the poor and the lost. I even know people who buy certain houses in certain suburbs so their kids can one day go to certain ‘good schools’. And this is even before the kids are born! Their lives are so mapped out and locked up; the Holy Spirit hasn’t got a hope of moving them out into mission across town, let alone across the globe!
Mediocre describes our lives once we’ve given our lives over to chasing these mirages. Jesus doesn’t want us to live mediocre lives, but extraordinary lives. Not extraordinary in terms of great achievements, but in terms of our passion, our compassion, and our love. Mother Teresa once said “I don’t set out to do great things, but small things with a great deal of love”. And that’s when miracles start occurring.
Personally, I don’t want to grow old and one day look back on my life with regret that I didn’t fulfill the call of Jesus on my life. I don’t want to be standing before Jesus one day, desperately trying to explain why I buried my life in the ground instead of multiplying it.3 No, I want to live passionately, adventurously, riskily! I am convinced, that with the right sense of perspective, these mirages needn’t be stumbling blocks. They can become beautiful resources, solid stepping stones and dynamic launching pads-–but only if we keep them fully surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.
Maybe the first step is to realize that it’s not really on Jesus’ agenda to make us all happy. He has far better plans than that.
The author, Kristin Jack, is happily married, with a small mortgage, two great kids and a cat; but along with his beautiful and adventurous wife Susan, has still managed to live the last 11 years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, pursuing Christ’s call to mission amongst the urban poor. For more information on Servants to Asia’s Urban poor, please visit their website.
1 e.g. Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 4: 18-19.
2 Ron Sider (2005). The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.
3 Matthew 25: 14-30.