The Bible isn’t an unduly optimistic book, but that’s not because it’s cynical about humanity or about God. It sees life as a challenge and a response: the challenge comes from God, who speaks his word, and the response comes from humanity which either listens to that word, or fails to listen. The Bible is quite clear that very often humanity fails to listen, but it is equally clear that God’s word is not just a sound that happens, but a reality which has an effect, and an effect which is more powerful than the obstinacy of humanity. Rain and snow have an effect on the earth: they cause things to grow; so God’s word, God’s promise and God’s challenge, have an effect -- they make a difference, in spite of all the deafness and disobedience which we human beings put in the way as obstacles.
Jesus, whom we have learned to call the Word of God, was well aware that humankind was adept at not listening: he knew, because he spoke to crowds of people, and many, especially those who should have listened most carefully, were unwilling to hear what he had to say. That’s why he often said things like: 'Listen, anyone who has ears'. We often say: 'I might as well talk to a brick wall'.
Jesus described four types of listeners, three of whom were not listeners. They were the hard-surface, the dusty-surface and the cluttered surface types. People who either failed to hear him at all, or those who heard him but had their hearts somewhere else. The hard-surface types were perhaps like the religious people who thought they had no need to listen to Jesus, because they already had the truth, and were not going to allow him or any prophet to change their minds, especially if it meant changing their privileged status.
Maybe the other two types were like the people who said they would follow Jesus, but got a rather negative response from him because he could tell that they were not really committed: to one, an enthusiast, he said that the foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head; to another, a morally earnest person who felt he had a duty first to care for his aged parents, he said something which sounds to us really hard: leave the dead to bury their dead. The thorns which entangle the sprouting seed of those who are trying to hear the word of God and follow it, are worries as well as the lure of riches: there are all sorts of highly moral reasons why we might not follow Jesus whole-heartedly. Jesus was on the side of the poor and the marginal people – and not just the deserving poor; it is very tempting to put respectability above our following of Jesus.
But for all the reasons why people might not hear the Word of God, there are those who do listen, and are transformed: for instance, the disciples of Jesus – people like Mary Magdalene, and impetuous, blundering Simon Peter. They may not look very good material for welcoming God’s kingdom, but they are used by God and they do far more than they seem capable of. And the reason is that the work of the kingdom is God’s work, not ours; when God speaks a word, that word is not just a sound – indeed, it’s not a sound at all; it is God’s purpose, and unlike ourselves, whose purpose often doesn’t happen, God’s purpose is fulfilled. So the Bible is quite clear about human disobedience, human refusal to hear the word of God, but it is also quite clear that God is at work in the world, and is not too fussy about the people he uses to do his work – you and me for instance.
And we do not have to be pessimistic about ourselves; we have all of the failings which are represented by the hard surface, the dusty surface and the cluttered surface, but we can have hope, because God who chooses to use us, is the miracle worker who even in our hearts’ poor soil can bring forth more good than we could ever have imagined.