That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
The words at first seem unimportant—ostensibly just some contextual color to connect the previous episode in Jesus’ ministry to this His first parable. But upon closer inspection, Matthew’s reasons for inserting this introductory sentence reveal grander intentions.
That Jesus told His parable of the sower on the “same day” as His encounter with the Pharisees and the incident with his mother and brothers (Matthew 12:22-50) was no mere coincidence. What He had disclosed to a few who were more versed in the Law He also intended to disclose to the crowds who would soon gather around Him on the beach. He had no partiality for the doctrinally-informed.
That Matthew tells us Jesus “went out” to the sea as a prelude to His telling the parable of the sower who “went out” to sow his seed likely intends to draw a tighter connection between the protagonist of the parable and the One who tells it. The biographical becomes subtly autobiographical.
Lastly, that Jesus went out of “the house” to address the crowds, only to return “into the house” (13:36) to share deeper insight with those whose interest had been piqued signifies His overarching interest: not merely to speak truth but to draw people to it—to Him. Jesus employed metaphor to accentuate His point but also to induce attentiveness. Only by the Son of Man shall such truth be revealed; but only through attentiveness to His words—even the seemingly insignificant ones—shall that truth bear much fruit.
Our pastor challenged us to consider the condition of our own souls last Sunday. He asked us to inventory our hearts for the fruitfulness which Jesus intends by His words. Such fruitfulness comes through understanding God’s Word, but that understanding derives from attentiveness.
In an essay entitled, “Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God,” Simone Weil argues attentiveness to anything has great benefit to our spiritual lives. “If we concentrate our attention,” she says by way of example, “on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if, at the end of an hour, we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer.” The focused effort exerted to understand something enriches our capacity to pray because we learn to give our minds to something that may not immediately yield its essence.
Furthermore, she adds, not only does such attentiveness teach us to pray; it also teaches us to love: to learn to inquire of another’s condition, to set aside our own concerns for a moment and to hear, consider, and empathize with another’s concerns. Such is love, and it is love borne of attentiveness.
You might say attentiveness is what distinguishes the four soils of Jesus’ parable. Those who give no attention to His Word have it snatched from them. Those who give attention only in pleasant times prevent the emergence of rooted steadfastness. Those whose attention is endlessly diverted to various and sundry concerns lose what follows from patient devotion to His truth, while those who remain attentive find the fruitfulness His Word intends.
So how is attentiveness that graciously finds new capacity for fruitfulness nurtured?
Time must be made for it. It will never take root in an unremittingly harried and hurried existence. Perhaps that means you make a plan to set aside some moments in the morning and evening or to schedule some extended time on a monthly or quarterly basis to give attention to His Word and your own heart.
Part and parcel of making time for it, there must be faith in His power to bless it. Weil assures that “every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” The satisfaction is not in having been attentive but in knowing that such attentiveness eventually yields, by the grace of God, the fruitfulness that provides satisfaction. Faith in His promise to bless it, Weil says, is the precondition for ever experiencing that blessing.
Lastly and most importantly, the cross must be at the center of our attention. No other truth can sustain our attention like the cross; in it we see most captivatingly God’s attentiveness to His own glory, our good, our need, and His love. If we take our pastor’s challenge and indeed find a lack of fruitfulness—in contentment, in love, in hope—our task begins with giving our attention anew to the cross. We’re to hold it in view regularly that it might hold us increasingly.
As you come these next few Sundays to hear the parable of the sower unpacked, may you take one of George Whitefield’s suggestions from his sermon on how to listen to sermons: “If you would receive a blessing from the Lord, when you hear His Word preached, pray to Him, both before, in, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak, and to grant you a will and ability to put in practice, what he shall show from the book of God to be your duty.” That’s attentiveness, and it will be the seedbed for fruitfulness.