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054 Take Care How You Hear, part 1

Near the start of Jesus' public ministry, large crowds were coming to hear Him teach, but apparently only a few actually benefited from the lessons. In Luke 8 we hear Jesus explaining to His disciples how it was that so many could hear Him but not benefit from His teaching in any way. The entire incident, from verse 4 through verse 18, is about how we hear God--and why we often don't. 

The key to the lesson lies in the Old Testament passage from which Jesus was teaching, Isaiah 6; but you have to read Matthew's version of the event to find the whole quote. YHWH commissioned Isaiah to call Israel back to Him, but predicted that they would not hear him because "The heart of this people has grown fat." (Isaiah 6:10 in the Septuagint, see Matthew 13:13-15)

The parable therefore is about how people become "dull of hearing," as Matthew put it. 

We find this condition afflicting a group of believing Christians in Hebrews 5, where the author of Hebrews complained that he would like to teach them more about a certain topic but cannot because "you have become dull of hearing" (Hebrew 5:11). I mention it here to make this point: this isn't about them (whoever "they" are), it's about us. You and I need to beware of this happening to us. It can happen to anybody, even believers.

This is why Jesus warned His disciples at the end of the lesson:

"Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away." (Luke 8:18)

No, He was not saying "the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer." His topic was hearing God, and the principle He was explaining was that if one hears God and responds properly, it will be easier to hear Him the next time He speaks. Conversely, if one pushes away what God says, then it will be more difficult to hear Him the next time He speaks. So He warned His disciples--that's us--to be careful how they hear.

The same lesson appeared in Hebrews 5 after the writer accused the believers of becoming dull of hearing. "You need milk, not solid food...[which] is for the mature,
for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrew 5:12b,14b). Note the words, "constant practice." We need to work at this.

We're going to have to break a habit to interpret the next bit correctly. We Evangelicals have a bad habit of transposing the phrase "the word of God" into "Bible" whenever we hear it. That's a mistake when interpreting scripture. The writers of the New Testament did not use that phrase the way we do; "the Bible is the Word of God" became a common phrase much later. Luke's meaning in this case encompassed anything that God wants to communicate by any means. Luke generally used the phrase "the word of God" to denote the gospel message, but we know that he meant something wider in this case because Jesus was warning His disciples who had already decided to follow Him. So this is not just about the Bible, nor just about embracing the good news (though those things are certainly included), but about anything that God wants to get across to us.

In the parable, whatever God is trying to say gets represented as seed from which a crop will grow. The sower, who is God, spreads the seed broadly, and we're led to believe that each seed is as good as the next. However, only a fraction of the seeds actually produce a crop in the end. In Jesus' explanation, the crop gets produced "with patience" by those who hear "in an honest and good heart" (Luke 8:15). The rest bear no fruit for one of several reasons: 

  • they're too hard and the word can't penetrate; 
  • they're too shallow and can't withstand difficulty; or 
  • they're distracted by other agendas and the word gets choked out.

Let me list a few precepts that are available from this brief summary:

1) The word of the Lord is readily available. The sower scatters the seed everywhere. What God wants us to hear is available everywhere, and nobody gets to make the excuse, "I didn't know." For confirmation, you may go read Prov 1:20 and following where Wisdom gets represented as a woman standing on a street corner shouting so that anybody can hear her. Or, go read Prov 9, in which Wisdom sends servants to the highest points in the city to invite people to her banquet. Of what may be know about God, the Apostle Paul says of mankind, "God has shown it to them" (Romans 1:19). We all get communication from God.

You may correctly infer from this that if we're not hearing God, it's never God's fault. If there's a blockage, it's on our end. (We'll see next time that there are times when God's work in us requires that we experience silence for a time, and sometimes a very long time. So we need to ask for clarity, but then we need to trust God and wait patiently.)

2) The seed, being something that God plants, is not just information. It's something that grows up within a person over time. If it's permitted to settle, germinate, and grow, it will bear a big crop. He's not planting in our heads, He's planting in our souls and in our character. The word itself will produce fruit given the right conditions.

3) What determines whether a seed from God bears fruit or not occurs within us. If one receives the word in "an honest and good heart" and one perseveres, the seed does what it was intended to do. If one receives it in a soul that is busy, shallow, or distracted, the seed bears no fruit.

It follows that if we want to be the right sort of soil in which God can plant His word and produce a good crop, we need to be asking Him continually to make us ready for the seed. We should ask Him to:

  • break up our hard spots;
  • dig down deep within us so we'll last through hardship;
  • uproot any weeds and distractions.

And then, we need to live in such a way as to protect what God has done in us. "Keep your heart with all vigilance," says the writer of Proverbs, "for from it flow the springs of life" (Proverbs 4:23).

Next time I will go into what we can expect if we pray in this manner. For now, though, let me warn you: it's bound to produce hardship. But it's hardship that we need very badly.

There's a joke among Evangelicals that goes, "Never pray for patience, God will give you opportunities to practice!" I found that as funny as anyone else the first time I heard it. But if we actually behave like that, we'll never develop patience.

The attitude that says "I'd rather avoid the hardship than embrace it and become holy"--a perfectly natural attitude--is foolish. That's our flesh talking. If we're going to be students of Rabbi Jesus, we need to embrace the hardship that His training requires. We need to value it. We need to grab it and kiss it. What He sends us is never unnecessary. It's our salvation.

So, let's pray, and let's brace ourselves for the turbulence that is God's great grace, and I'll be back next time with the rest of the lesson.

Phil Weingart

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