The vulnerability of the seed is evident in the first of the four types of ground that Jesus talks about.
Some of the seeds that the sower scatters ends up on the path. It never makes it as far as the good, rich soil where it is likely to sprout. As it lies there, there are two hazards. People who are walking on the path trample the seed and what doesn’t get trampled gets gobbled up by the birds.
When we translate that into the point of Jesus’ teaching: God’s word does not make an impact on everyone who hears it. In terms of the profile of the hearers, it is possible to hear without hearing.
Jesus teaches us that there are some people who don’t get it; people who hear without hearing. During his own ministry there were people who heard without hearing.
As we have already noticed, at the end of the parable Jesus invited those with ears to listen. Only a small number of people – the disciples – chose to follow up and find out more.
Over the short course of his public ministry there were some hard hearted people (often religious people) who listened, not to be transformed by what they heard, but to criticise and find reasons to justify their resistance to Jesus.
Jesus says that is not simply an issue of the message washing over these people so they don’t get it. There is an enemy agent who does everything in his power to prevent the impact of the word. In his interpretation of his own story, what the birds are to the hard ground, the devil is to the people who hear without hearing.
One of Jesus’ most effective followers, Paul, was also aware of this malign influence. In 2 Corinthians 4 he wrote about how the devil – ‘the god of this world’ is what he calls him – has blinded the eyes of those who do not believe the gospel.
Many Christians who have sat in evangelistic events and listened to powerful and persuasive presentations of the good news of Jesus have wondered how it could be possible for their unbelieving friends to sit through the same presentation and remain unmoved. How could they listen to such clarity without being moved? Yet these friends seem to listen without hearing.
The seed is falling on the path.
C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters is an imaginary collection of correspondence between a senior devil (Screwtape) and a younger devil (Wormwood). The theory behind the story is that every person has a demon attached to them whose job is to hinder everything that God wants to do in that person’s life.
Early in the book, Screwtape is telling Wormwood about an experience he had with one of the people who had been allocated to him. The man (Screwtape called him his “patient”) was a confirmed atheist who used to spend time reading at the British museum. One day, Screwtape realised that his patient’s mind was starting to drift to thoughts of God (whom Screwtape refers to as ‘The Enemy’). If Screwtape failed to act quickly to stop him, twenty years’ work was about to be ruined. Here is how he described his strategy.
“If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion…that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been his line for when I said ‘Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning’, the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added ‘Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind’, he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all ‘that sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.”
As Jesus puts it, “The devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.”
Even if you are a follower of Jesus, you have probably experienced the same kind of thing going on in your own heart. Most of us probably know what it is to read a section of Scripture, say as part of our daily devotions, only to discover within an hour an almost complete inability to recall anything we read. How many faithful, church-going Christians have forgotten everything from the Sunday morning sermon by the time they reach lunch.
We become people who hear without hearing.