A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 17, 2011.
3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
Why people don’t respond to God’ grace and truth is a question that has vexed faithful people in one way or another across the ages and everywhere. So Jesus taught the parable of the sower to help his followers understand why God’ grace and truth doesn’t get better results and responses in the world and in the lives of people who come in contact with it.
Whenever Jesus used a parable, he was taking his listeners to divinity school. The parable of the sower is not only a wonderful example of the way Jesus taught. It’s also a powerful insight into the way Jesus would have his followers think about the different responses we receive as we live out God’s grace and truth. Jesus said that God’s message of redeeming love and truth is presented liberally, extravagantly, and indiscriminately. However, he described four different ways people respond to the message.
Jesus taught that some people never accept or understand the message and evidence that God is determined to redeem and restore humanity and the creation based on God’s holy love and truth. Despite all the preaching, singing, missionary efforts, acts of kindness and mercy, and everything else, some people simply don’t accept God’s invitation to redemption and restoration. In the parable of the sower, Jesus described these people as being like seed sown on a foot path.
These are precarious people. They are exposed to the gospel, but it never takes root in them. They see the evidence of divine love, hope, and the other influence of God’s redemptive purpose and activity in the world and in their own lives. But despite that evidence and exposure, some people choose to disregard or defy God’s redemptive influences.
Who are these people? Well, they are all of us to some extent. Yes, every person at some point in life is like a foot path. The gospel is sown in our lives in various ways and times, but at some point each person has ignored it, rejected it, or misunderstood it. Life begins the same way for each of us. We enter the world naïve about love, faith, hope, duty, trust, joy, sorrow, good, evil, life, death, and many other things. We come into the world full of moral potential, but also without moral insight and understanding.
And we are born into a morally active universe. Samuel DeWitt Proctor said it very well in My Moral Odyssey in these words:
All of us, of whatever race or class, must find answers to the same basic questions in life, and every one of us needs the same basic, minimal intellectual capability to deal with them: (1) At the center of this universe, is there a sponsorship friendly to the human condition, or is the world against our best interest? Can I assume that failure for me is not a foregone conclusion? Yes or no? No one escapes this question.
Proctor seems to agree with Jesus that every person enters the world with the same moral issue. At some point, each of us must determine whether to believe that there is a benevolent reality “at the center of the universe” that we are willing to make the center of our living. This is where the gospel of God’s grace first meets each soul. We are in the great pathway of humanity unsure whether there is a friendly sponsor at the center of the universe who is loving, purposeful, and determined to operate in our lives for redemptive ends.
This pedestrian existence is where we start life. However, we cannot mature in God’s grace and truth by staying there. And exposure to God’s grace and truth while on the path is not enough. There must be exposure with understanding. The gospel must take root in our lives.
We must not only recognize the pedestrian question that Proctor framed. We must recognize, understand, and embrace the divine answer to that question. Jesus said that some people never recognize, understand, and accept the divine evidence of redemptive love and truth that God has sown into the world and their very lives. You and I have been around these precarious people who somehow never get beyond entry-level morality.
Some of them are amoral. They lack any sense of morality, any apparent regard for right and wrong. They live as if they are gods unto themselves. If they understand that the creation can be better, should be better, and was intended to be better, they don’t appear to act like it. They’re “getting over” on their own terms and not interested in living a different way. They are precarious people to be around until they choose to move off the pedestrian path and affirm that yes, there is a redemptive purpose and reality to life that is bigger than their private ambition, glory, and desires. Amoral people are precarious people.
But some people who live with pathway morality immoral. Unlike amoral people who lack any apparent regard for right and wrong, immoral people deliberately violate principles of right and wrong. Truth, honor, justice, hope, love, mercy, and generosity aren’t values they affirm. They have decided to embrace the underside of life. They aren’t getting over on their own terms. They’ve decided to get over on terms they know to be wicked, unjust, unloving, and hurtful.
Immoral people are living pedestrian-level morality like amoral people. However, they’ve decided that the friendly sponsor at the center of the universe isn’t the sponsor they want. Or perhaps they’ve decided that they don’t want to live according to the principles of that friendly sponsor. They don’t want to be redemptive agents in the world. They’ve decided there’s a profit to gain elsewhere. Immoral people are precarious people.
Jesus taught that people who live with pedestrian-level morality are precarious because they are the most morally and spiritually vulnerable. Notice how he interpreted the seed that fell along the path—meaning how God’s grace and truth is received by amoral and immoral people. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. (Matthew 13:18)
Jesus identified a reality that is often dismissed by those who question whether religious efforts are useful. God’s grace and truth in the world and in our lives is actively opposed! And the most vulnerable targets of that active opposition to divine grace and truth are people living with pedestrian-level morality—living at the entry level of moral understanding and commitment.
Amoral and immoral people are people who, like you and me, began life at pedestrian-level morality. But unlike people who became faithful, they became satanic agents and captives. They have aligned themselves against the redemptive purposes, efforts, and will of God. The gospel of grace and truth doesn’t take root in their lives because they’ve never grown beyond pedestrian-level morality. All of us enter life on that level, but Jesus taught that some people choose to remain there—even after being exposed to God’s grace and truth—and become captives and agents of the force that opposes God’s redemptive purposes and acts.
People who live at the pedestrian level of morality can be religious! Amoral and immoral people don’t create evil things from nothing. Instead, they corrupt, misuse, distort, and pervert good things and situations. They take time, possessions, energies, skills, and even religious faith—all good things—and misuse, distort, corrupt, or pervert them for purposes that are un-redemptive. The gospel didn’t take root in their lives, but pedestrian level moralists—amoral and immoral alike—can be found in every religious group and setting. Jesus spoke about the challenge they present for the world and religion when he taught another parable about tares growing up with wheat at Matthew 13:24-30.
Yet there’s good news. God exposes every person to grace and truth, yes, including each person who enters life at the pedestrian level of morality. Each person is vulnerable to satanic influences, attacks, and capture. But we can move from the path! We can be led from the path! Parents, teachers, neighbors, and life itself can operate to nudge us off the path and onto different moral ground.
By God’s grace, you and I can be agents of redemptive re-direction to precarious people who are living pedestrian-level morality. With every breath and heartbeat we can declare and demonstrate that at the center of the universe there is a friendly sponsor to the condition of humanity and the creation. The gospel of divine grace and truth has touched us. We were once pedestrian-level moralists. The grace that claimed and redeemed and redirected us also can claim and redeem and redirect others.
Thank God for this wonderful grace! Thank God that we are agents of this redemptive love. Thank God that no matter how precarious the plight of people who live at the pedestrian level of morality may be, God has not abandoned us. God insists on loving us. God sent Jesus to be grace and truth walking around for us.
We each begin life at pedestrian morality. God calls us, woos us, and welcomes us to “higher ground” where grace and truth can take root, grow, mature, and become fruitful. What kind of moral ground are you?
 Samuel DeWitt Proctor, My Moral Odyssey, p. 38 (Judson Press, 1989).
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.