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In the second, the word is received with joy, and the hearer believes for a while. But because he has no root in himself, when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word he immediately falls away. This person’s religion rests on feelings, lacks adequate understanding and commitment, and doesn’t penetrate the heart. Thus it is only temporary. America is awash in this feel-good religion. It offers the benefits of salvation without repentance, commitment, or the possibility of suffering; it offers what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”17 It begins with a bang of excitement but soon ends with a whimper.
In the third hearer, also common today, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt.13:22). The parallel passages in Mark and Luke add: “the desire for other things” (Mark 4:19) and the “pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). This person appears to be growing in response to the word of God and bearing at least some fruit. But then the word is smothered out by money, pleasures, the cares of the world, and other desires. (What is included in the latter two causes is unspecified, perhaps because there are so many possibilities, including unbridled pursuit of success, achievement, power, or fame.) This hearer is a graphic example of the seductive power of money, pleasures, the worries of life, and other worldly desires and their corrupting effects on hearts. How easy it is amid the narcissism, hedonism, and materialism of contemporary culture to be drawn away from wholehearted devotion to Christ! And how easy it is to rationalize our embrace of the world by clever arguments and subtle movements of the soul that blunt the conscience and quench the Spirit.
The deceitfulness of wealth is a good example to explore further. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned His disciples (and thus you and me) very pointedly not to lay up treasures on earth. Instead we are to lay them up in heaven, because where one’s treasure is, there one’s heart will be also (Matt. 6:21). It is impossible to give our hearts to two masters; we cannot serve God and mammon (Matt. 6:22–24). However, most believers pass right over this, assuming that it doesn’t apply to them, since they are not as wealthy as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. They don’t have a million dollars or even a hundred thousand. But this is to miss the point. We may love money without having it (Judas), just as we may have money without loving it (Abraham, Job). The issue is not what we have but what we love, and whatever we love, our hearts will cling to. If we love money and material possessions, they will become idols that displace God in our hearts and destroy our souls.
The fourth hearer in this parable is held up as the true convert and faithful disciple, the model for us to emulate. This disciple hears, understands, and accepts the word of God (Matt. 13:23; Mark 4:20); this disciple holds “it fast in an honest and good heart,” bearing “fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). His or her obedient response to God’s word is the fruit of faith and love and demonstrates saving grace.
Additional insight into worldliness comes from the apostle John. Worldliness was a concern in congregations with which he was familiar in Asia Minor. John warned them,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)18
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