The third type of ground takes us to a third stage. This time there seems to be clear growth. The seed is not trampled and the birds don’t snatch it away. Nor does it wither in the heat. But it is still not the outcome that the farmer has in mind. This time the seed grows, but the plants are choked by the thorns that grow up around them. As Jesus goes on to explain in verse 14, this third type of ground represents listeners who hear without producing fruit.
And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
With these people, something clearly happens when they hear the word. There is a response and there are signs of growth. But their lives are full of other things that clamor for attention: sadly, those other things choke out the spiritual life. Spiritual fruitfulness never happens because there are too many distractions.
Jesus gives three specific examples of these distractions: cares, riches and pleasures.
The cares of life. These are the worries that often fill our minds.
And there is plenty of cause for concern. Many of the world’s economies are in the middle of severe difficulties. Prices of everyday goods are on the rise. The spectre of unemployment looms. For those with work, there are nagging questions about the adequacy of pension funds. We worry about health: what if cancer strikes? What if a stroke leaves us unable to fend for ourselves? We worry about care for ageing relatives. We worry about our children and what kind of world they will live in when they reach adulthood. There is the lurking threat of international terrorism, of organised crime. Our world is changing. Old ways of thinking and doing are being jettisoned: there are plenty of ways to argue yourself into a state of anxious insecurity.
The point is not that concerns around these areas are illegitimate: the point is that as the volume of anxieties increases, our spiritual vitality is put at risk.
Riches. We would be wrong to read this as a condemnation of riches in and of themselves. The fact is that God blesses some people with wealth and material resources. At the beginning of Luke 8, he mentions women who supported Jesus out of their own means: presumably these were relatively wealthy women. Jesus talked about how hard it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom: it is not impossible, but hard.
Although being wealthy is not intrinsically wrong, Jesus wants us to recognise that issues around wealth and possessions have the ability to squeeze the life out of us – spiritually. They can so dominate us that our lives become unfruitful.
In Mark’s account of this parable, he adds the detail that Jesus mentioned the deceitfulness of riches. Riches play tricks with us. They tell us that we can depend on them. They tell us that we will be more fulfilled if we have more of them. They promise us more than they can deliver.
Could it be that the reason your spiritual life is not thriving the way it did in the early years of your faith journey is that the acquisition of wealth has choked it? You have become wealthy but getting there has cost you your ability to produce fruit of spiritual significance.
And then there are the pleasures of life. To add a little insight from Mark’s account, he refers to them as the desires for other things.
What makes pleasures difficult to handle is that they are pleasurable. That’s why they distract us. But it is God who gives us everything richly to enjoy. Adam and Eve started life in an amazingly pleasant garden. It was wonderful, until the day that they decided to enjoy the pleasures and fruits of the garden on their own terms, without any reference to God. It is possible for us to allow even God-given pleasures to become a distraction to us. A good thing can become a bad thing when we allow it to have too much place. It is one thing to enjoy a superb dinner as a gift from God’s hand; it is something else to descend to gluttony where food becomes an obsession.
Jesus is talking here about a divided heart. It is the hard heart that hears without hearing. It is the shallow heart that hears without lasting. The divided heart hears without producing.
I have a small transmitter in my car that allows me to play music from an mp3 player through a frequency on my radio. It will only work when I tune it into a clear, unused frequency. I cannot compete with strong signals that are already using frequency.
That’s another way to think of the point that Jesus is making. Various kinds of signals compete for bandwidth. If we don’t learn to tune them out, the danger is that God’s voice is drowned out. Of course God’s voice has the potential to be louder than any background noise, but sometimes he speaks in a gentle whisper. Jesus is comparing the word of God to seed. For all the power and potential of a seed, it remains surprisingly vulnerable. Birds can snatch it and thorns can choke it.
Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest, pastor and author, wrote about the way our hearts are so easily distracted. Writing about the importance of solitude in our relationship with God he said,
The trouble is, as soon as you sit and become quiet, you think, ‘Oh, I forgot this, I should call my friend. Later on I’m going to see him.’ Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down.
In the introduction to his new book, Sanctuary of the Soul, Richard Foster writes about the problem of distraction.
Today, distraction is one of the deepest problems we face. All of the visual stimuli, all the chatter of the blogosphere, all of the confusion of doublespeak prevent us from being attentive to the present moment.
This is a serious problem in all our relationships, but never more so that in our relationship with God. Simply put, we have lost the ability to attend to God in the inner sanctuary of the soul. Listening, quiet and still.
All of us need to take an honest look at what is competing for our attention. What are the things that are distracting us and preventing us from being spiritually effective and fruitful? If no real growth is happening, why is that? What is going on that means that we listen without producing?