Figure That One Out, If You Can, or: Listen Much? (Luke 8:1-21)

Ever since Chapter 4 in the Book of Luke, Jesus has been at war with the devil, the ancient dragon, who took mankind captive. He has been casting out demons, healing the sick, forgiving sins: setting the prisoners free. He has collected some disciples; he has made some enemies.

Now here we are in Chapter 8; and we are actually coming to the major turning point in Luke’s gospel. Over the next couple of chapters, we are going to see the war grow suddenly more intense — and then it will be over. Four Sundays from today, when we get to Chapter 10, we are going to see Satan’s army fall apart. After that, we’ll see that Luke only records one more exorcism, and only four more healing miracles until the end of the book: that part of the war is basically over.

But we’re also going to see that, even as Satan’s army melts away, the damage he has done to mankind remains. The prison gates are all standing open. The prisoners are all free to leave. But will they?

Are they going to follow the voice of their king, and trust him to bring them safely into God’s Kingdom?

Or are they going to remain crouched in the darkness, clinging to their desire for health, wealth and power in this world?

That is going to be the question that dominates the next few chapters.

So when we last saw Jesus, he was having dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house. And remember how a woman came in to anoint him with precious oil? She wanted to pour it on his head, but failing that she poured it on his feet: an act of love and gratitude; an act of sacrifice, thanksgiving. Why? Because her sins — which were many! — had been completely and freely forgiven.

This was Jesus’ lesson: those who have been forgiven much, love much. The external proof of internal forgiveness is…acts of love.

And just in case we are having a little trouble remembering that lesson, Luke begins Chapter 8 with a short list of people who have been forgiven much, and who love much:

[1] After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, [2] and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; [3] Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Now, this list of women disciples is really quite unusual. I think we all know that, at that time, women were, generally, second-class citizens at best. So for Luke to boast about how these women are Jesus’ disciples…well, that would have struck the people of that time as a little pathetic. Jesus is supposed to be this very famous preacher and miracle worker — and these are the best kind of followers he can attract: a bunch of women? To those who judge by external appearances, Jesus does not look like a very successful teacher.

But Jesus has a different standard. He doesn’t care about externals. He doesn’t care if his disciples are men or women, rich or poor, tax collectors or prostitutes, policemen or small business owners. What matters to Jesus is that “Your faith has saved you,” and “Those who have been forgiven much, love much.” He doesn’t care what his disciples were in their former life; he only cares that they respond to his love for them by loving him back!

And these women have much to love Jesus for. Mary Magdalene has been delivered from demon possession. Joanna, the wife of Cuza (an important government minister) must have been healed of some disease. Another woman, Susanna, is mentioned; we don’t know anything else about her, but Luke mentions her by name probably because she was still around thirty years later when he was writing this book.

And how did these women love Jesus in return? Luke says, “These women were helping to support him out of their own means.” So, first we learn that these were wealthy women. Second, we learn that they were humble. Because that phrase “helping to support him” is really one word in the Greek, and that word means that they were acting as servants, specifically in matters of providing food.

So these were powerful women in that society; the wives of powerful men; managers of their own households — what we in Asia would call “Tiger Moms”. And yet, out of their love and gratitude for Jesus’ forgiveness, they were willing to leave their elevated positions and follow him around, helping to feed him and his twelve rather scruffy male disciples.

And some people look at this and say, “oh, well, that’s typical: make the women do the cooking and serving, of course!” But let’s not judge by external appearances just yet! Because later on in Luke, Jesus is going to say that greatest people in his kingdom are the ones who serve just like this.

So Luke is actually paying these women a huge compliment. He is saying, “look, readers, these women have already figured out the values of Jesus’ kingdom.” And have you noticed that Jesus’ male disciples aren’t quite there yet? Have you noticed that for the last few chapters, they have been present with Jesus, but silent? The only times they’ve been mentioned is when they were being attacked by the Pharisees and Jesus had to come to their rescue. Basically, the men have been pretty useless to this point…and Luke is rather unusual as a writer for pointing this out.

And in fact it gets better. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but on the day that Jesus is crucified, guess which disciples remain faithful to him to the very bitter end?

These women. These very same women. They were the first to figure it out; they will be last to remain faithful.

Right. Moving on:

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: [5] “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. [6] Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. [7] Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. [8] Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

Then, when he is finished, Jesus shouts to the whole crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Basically what that means is, “figure that one out, if you can!”

Which is a funny thing for a teacher to say, right? I mean, we would all expect a teacher to speak plainly. But here it seems like Jesus has just told everyone a riddle, and then challenged them to solve it!

It’s almost like a pop quiz, isn’t it?

Well, actually, that’s exactly what this is.

See, up until now, Jesus’ teaching has been…free. He has spoken plainly, for anyone to hear and understand. He has suggested, more than once, that he is a preacher first, a miracle-worker second, and that those who come to him should value him more for his healing words than for his healing miracles.

So this parable, this riddle, is a test of his audience. Those who are there just for the miracles and the spectacle, they’re going to hear the parable and go, “huh…well, that was weird!”

But those who are there to actually learn from Jesus, they’re going to say, “what a minute…what did he say? What does he mean?”

And that’s just what the disciples do in verse 9. They say, “wait a minute, Jesus…can you tell us what you just said?”

So Jesus says, “yeah! I’d be glad to! In fact, congratulations on passing the test! Because you asked for an explanation,” he says in verse 10, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to these others — who don’t seem to care what I’m saying — to these others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”

And that last sentence is a quotation from the Old Testament, actually. It comes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was commanded by God to write these words down as a curse against people who were refused to listen to God. And this is how that quotation ends: “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull, and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

See, just like the rest of us, Jesus doesn’t want to be used. He has something far more important than physical healing to offer. He doesn’t want people coming to him and saying, “hey, Jesus, can you heal me? No, I don’t need a sermon or anything, I’m not interested in a relationship with you, just a little healing would be nice…”

So Jesus telling his disciples here that from now on he will be speaking to the crowds in parables and riddles. And that is exactly what he does! From this point on in the book of Luke, we find that Jesus speaks plainly to his disciples and to anyone who comes and asks for an explanation — but to the crowds he speaks in code.

Remember, the people have a choice to make. The prison gates are all standing open. The prisoners are all free to leave, if they want to. They can listen to the voice of the king who has set them free. Or they can remain caught up in their desire for health and wealth and power. So far, the overwhelming majority are choosing to remain in prison. They come to Jesus, but not because they want forgiveness, but just for the benefits he can give them in this life.

So, because they are refusing to hear him, Jesus is deliberately making it more difficult for them to understand what he is saying at all. Like all of us, he doesn’t want pretenders who hang out just because they get a free lunch; he wants friends who are actually interested in what he has to say.

The disciples, by asking Jesus to explain, are proving that they are truly Jesus’ friends. So Jesus does explain it to them, starting in verse 11:

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. [12] Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. [13] Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. [14] The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. [15] But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

Pretty clear, right? The seed is the Word of God. The Word of God is preached. But there are different kinds of listeners:

The first kind of listener is like the crowds who have come to see Jesus put on a show. He says, “Friends, your sins are forgiven!” But they say, “uh, okay. That’s nice. But do another miracle for us, yeah?” The devil has fully brainwashed them to be obsessed with health and wealth and power, and they don’t even bother to listen properly.

The second kind of listener hears Jesus say, “Friend, your sins are forgiven!” and they think, “wonderful! I want to be this guy’s disciple!” But they don’t develop a proper root system; they don’t connect properly with the people of God; their faith remains shallow, and when they get resistance from their family members they don’t have the strength to continue on with Jesus.

The third kind of listener accepts Jesus’ forgiveness; they join God’s people, they put down roots, they grow. But as they grow, their old desires for health and wealth and power also continue to grow, and when the time comes that they have to make a choice between trusting Jesus to care for them or trusting themselves — they make the wrong decision, and their faith is choked by life’s worries. They may continue to claim to be Jesus’ disciples, but they will never produce proper fruit.

But the fourth kind of listener hears Jesus say, “Friend, your sins are forgiven!” and they never forget it. They realize that health, wealth and power all fade away, but the Kingdom of God stands forever. No matter what trials may come they continue to believe that Jesus loves them, that his forgiveness is complete, and that one day they will wake up in that garden-city at the end of time. These are the listeners who produce a crop: these are the ones who love much.

So: there we go. The parable is a warning. Basically, Jesus is saying, “make sure you produce fruit. If you don’t…well, you know what the farmer does with weeds and weak plants, right? He cuts them down and throws them in the fire.”

Really, this is the same message John the Baptist was preaching at the beginning. Remember how he used to say, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance…because every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”? He was a pretty scary preacher! And then, when people freaked out and said, “John, what do we do to produce this fruit?” John said, “repent of your greed. Repent of your power lust. Do the opposite of what you have been doing.”

And then, when the people were looking at John and thinking, “so, how can ah?” he basically said, “well, I can tell you what to do. But I can’t actually help you with the how. But, there is a man coming who will baptize you with God’s Holy Spirit. And when that happens, when God’s Spirit makes you Holy, then you will produce good fruit.”

And now: here is Jesus, the man John promised. And from the very beginning of his ministry he has been answering the same two questions the people asked John, “what do we do to produce this fruit?” and “how do we get there?”

So, what do we do? 

Step 1: Repentance. Take an honest look at God; and then take an honest look at yourself. Once you realize that you carry a weight of sickness and shame that you cannot wash away…well, then you are going to long for cleansing. That is repentance.

Step 2: Faith. Take an honest look at Jesus, and realize that he actually has the power to forgive you, to wash you clean. That is faith.

Step 3: Love Much. In other words: “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” And Jesus has been giving us examples of what that looks like ever since Chapter 4; he preached a whole sermon about it in Chapter 6. The women that Luke just mentioned are merely the latest examples.

Those are the steps that lead to producing fruit. That much is clear. But still, we want to know: how does it happen? What is the engine, the power that makes it happen?

Well, John said the Holy Spirit would make people holy. Jesus has been saying, “listen to my preaching; have faith in my forgiveness; and my words will make you holy.”

Are we starting to see the connection? This is why Luke has been obsessed with Jesus’ preaching more than his miracles. Healing miracles are wonderful! but it is through Jesus’ Word that the Holy Spirit enters, and makes us Repentant, Faithful, and Loving. It is through the Holy Spirit that we are carried through these three steps, and produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

So if you are thinking, “okay, I know what to do. I know I’m supposed to Repent, have Faith, and Love Much. But I’m not very good at those things. I want to know how to accomplish them!” If this is what you are thinking, then here you go, in three simple steps:

Step 1: Listen to Jesus. Those who listen well receive God’s Holy Spirit, and the Spirit brings you to experience repentance.

Step 2: Listen to Jesus. Those who listen well receive God’s Holy Spirit, and the Spirit brings you to experience faith.

Step 3: Listen to Jesus. Those who listen well receive God’s Holy Spirit, and and the Spirit produces good fruit in your life.

In summary, then: good fruit is important, friends. Doing good works is part of our salvation: if we do not produce good fruit…we will be thrown into the fire.

But wait! Stop. I know what is happening in your heart right now, when you hear those words. I know because the same thing happens in my heart: I hear Jesus say, “produce good fruit, or else!” and instantly my internal Pharisee — the prison guard who stands at the door of my cell — steps up and says, “that’s right! So you had better work extra hard to be extra good! Don’t eat unclean food! Don’t eat with sinners! Make sure you keep the Sabbath Day perfectly! and you will be saved.”

Stop! Do not give way to fear! Do not let the Pharisees close the cell door on you again! Do not fall back into “religious rituals” as if doing good works can save you. You have to remember — I have to remember — that if we have accepted Jesus forgiveness, then we are already free, and we already have the Holy Spirit living within us.

Think about it, friends: we have already passed through Step 1: Repentance, and Step 2: Faith. And the only way to do that is through the Holy Spirit! Therefore, brothers and sisters, if you have accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, then you already have the Holy Spirit living within you.

Which means that Step 3 — Loving Much, Producing Fruit — will happen. It is happening. Now, do we wish it would happen faster? Yes. I do, anyway. I look at my life, I look at my sins, and I think, “oh, Jesus, I don’t want to be like that anymore! Why won’t you erase that part of my life?”

Well, here is Jesus’ answer to me, and to you, in verse 15: “Hear my word, retain it, persevere in it, and you will produce a crop.”

Our Christian faith is really a very simple faith. It was listening to the voice of our King that opened our prison gates. It is listening to the voice of our King that will lead us, baby step by baby step, out into the light of freedom and holiness.

Friends, if we listen to Jesus, and continue to listen to Jesus, we will produce fruit. Guaranteed.

And that’s basically what Jesus goes on to say in verse 16:

“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. [17] For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. [18] Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.”

If you put a flame into a jar and seal it up, it will suffocate, and burn out. If you put a flame under your bed it will set your bed on fire. So nobody does that! Instead, you put the flame on a stand so it can produce light.

“In the same way,” Jesus is saying, “the spirit that lives in you will produce fruit. If it is a Holy Spirit living within you, then you will produce good fruit. But if it is not a holy spirit that lives within you, then…guess what kind of fruit you are going to produce? You might try to conceal the spirit that lives within you, but you won’t be able to conceal the effects of that spirit. People will be able to see, by the effects of your life, what kind of spirit you are possessed by.

Therefore, consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more

— if you have repented, and accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, then continue to listen you will be given fruit —

But, “whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him”.

In other words: all those who have come to Jesus thinking they can just be healed and move on — well, they might be healed. Jesus is gracious, even to people who simply want to use him for their own benefit. But he is saying that those benefits will not last. It would be better to be paralyzed all your life with your sins forgiven, than to be healed and live a long, healthy life — and then die without hearing the voice of your King.

Meanwhile, as Jesus was saying all this, it turns out that his mother and his brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get into the house because the crowd was too thick. So in verse 20, Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”

And at this point Jesus should have said, “well, stand aside, everybody! My mom is here!”

Instead, verse 21, He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

And this is a shocking response. In that age — just as in this age — family comes first. And Jesus’ response is even more shocking because he is Mary’s oldest son; and since Joseph has probably died by this point, this means Jesus is directly responsible for his mom’s welfare. The people expect Jesus to bring Mary and his brothers in and give them seats of honor.

Instead, he re-defines what a true family is. In essence, he says, “my mom and my brothers are already here, listening to me!”

Now, Jesus is not saying that Mary is not listening to him. It is true his brothers are not listening to him at this point; they don’t believe him until after he comes back from the dead. But we know from Chapter 2 that Mary has been pondering Jesus’ words in her heart ever since he was twelve years old: she was, in a way, Jesus’ first disciple. But Jesus is saying that just because Mary is his biological mom doesn’t actually make her any more special than Peter, or John, or Joanna, or Susanna, or any of his disciples.

So as Luke closes this section, we see that he has returned to one of his favorite themes. As a writer, he loves to point out how Jesus keeps breaking society’s expectations. At the start of this passage, we saw Jesus travelling around with a bunch of women, and that those women are actually his star disciples. Here, at the end of the passage, we see him treating his mom like she’s not any more special than any of his other disciples. On one hand he gives honor to people who are not usually very honored in society; but on the other hand, he does not give special honor to people who usually would be honored in society.

And once we get over our shock at Jesus’ unexpected behaviour, we realize that this unexpected behaviour actually means hope for us. Jesus’ message is clear: it is how we listen that matters; not who we were born to, what race we come from, what religion we were raised in. Jesus doesn’t care if his disciples are men or women, rich or poor, tax collectors or prostitutes, policemen or small business owners. What matters to Jesus is that we hear his voice, that we listen to his words, that we accept his forgiveness, and that we live our lives as children of the King.

It is listening to Jesus’ voice that brought us to repentance and faith. It is listening that will produce fruit in us, fruit in keeping with repentance. It is listening that will keep us from being choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures. It is listening that will give us roots, and keep us safe when the time of testing comes.

And the time of testing will come, friends. The time of testing will come; but life’s worries, riches and pleasures are already here. Both are a danger to our faith. On the one hand, testing often means persecution, rejection, life as a second class citizen; sometimes this simply means sickness, or poverty. In those times, we are tempted to wonder if our faith in Jesus is worth it. But on the other hand, life’s worries are often linked to our riches and pleasures. The better off we become the more worried we become, because we have more to lose! The more health, wealth and power we enjoy in this life, the more we are tempted to think that maybe we really don’t need to take risks for Jesus’ name.

But once again, our greatest defense against both these dangers — whether testing, or riches — is listening to the voice of our king. Now, I will grant that it is getting harder to hear him through the clutter. Our age is an age of spectacle, sound and lights, a million different voices, all promising us fame or fortune or success. But all this, brothers and sisters, simply means that we must listen that much harder.

Jesus’ voice is a slow, small, simple voice; his message a slow, small, simple message. He does not promise us health and wealth and endless entertainment. In fact, as Luke shared with us today, he tends to hide his message from those who are obsessed with such things.

Listening to Jesus’ voice in this cluttered age takes concentration, diligence, discipline. We have to train our ears to hear the truth. Over these next chapters — starting especially in Chapter 10 — Jesus is going to start training us to listen. As we go, we will learn how to hear him better. It’s just like joining a fitness class: what is difficult at first quickly becomes easier as we build up our muscles and our endurance.

So don’t get discouraged. Remember, if you have accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, then you have already heard his voice at least once! Which means the Holy Spirit already lives within you. He will drive us onward! Like a personal trainer, he is not going to let us rest! All we have to do is keep coming back to the gym. We have to keep on putting that exercise gear into motion. If we do, we will grow, and we will produce fruit. That is his promise.

Therefore, let us consider carefully how we listen. Let us trust the Spirit that lives within us. Let us keep coming back to the source of life, “being confident of this: that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.


Scroll to top