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MATT. xiii. 8.——But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold.
[See the Gospel for the Day.]
THE parable of the sower was designed by our Saviour to represent the different effects which his doctrine then had upon different persons, and which religion and the word of God hath and will have in all times and places.
In this parable our Saviour hath described four sorts of hearers of the word.
The first sort are thus described: 'some seeds fell by the way side, and they were trodden down, and the fowls came and devoured them up.' That is, says our Lord, when any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not,' (that is to say, regardeth it not,) then cometh the Wicked One, the Devil, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart, lest he should believe and be saved; this is he which received the seed by the way-side.'
'When any one heareth the word, and understandeth it not. Our Saviour cannot here intend to signify, that his word ever becomes unprofitable to any persons, either through the natural weakness of their understanding, which renders them unable to discern his mind; or through the darkness or obscurity of the word preached: since then the blame would fall, not upon the hearers, whose ignorance would be unavoidable and invincible; but upon the Preacher, who delivered it so darkly, or who offered it to men incapable of receiving it. But the word which we translate, to understand,' means in this, and in some other places, to consider a thing, and lay it to heart, with an intention to make a right use of it.'
The Devil is here said to snatch the word away from such persons, lest they should profit by it. The entrance of evil into the world is ascribed to the Devil, as to the first cause of it; and he is called the Evil One, by way of eminence, as being the first rebel against God and goodness. When it is said,
that the Devil enters into the heart of a sinner, it is a Hebrew way of speaking, which is not to be taken too rigorously, and pressed too far; for the Devil is said to do whatsoever is executed and performed by the unruly lusts of men, which are accounted as his instruments. But the Gospel takes care to ascribe no such power and prevalence to the Devil, as shall lay the tempted person under a necessity of sinning; and it always supposes, that the inducements and the assistances to well-doing are far stronger than the incentives and instigations to evil, if a man will act like a rational creature, and use his best endeavours, and exert his own powers.
"When a man heareth the word, and regardeth it not, then cometh the Evil One and taketh it away.' The meaning seems to be no more than this; He who hath no consideration, no sober and serious and settled respect for religion, when his duty is propounded to him, gives no attention to it; it makes no impression upon him; his own vicious habits, and the bad example and the contagious society of wicked persons, who are the children of the Wicked One, are more prevalent than the word of God, and soon blot out the faint and floating remembrance of it; the man goes on in his thoughtless iniquity, and steadily pursues his evil courses. This is he who received sced by the way-side.
Seed, falling upon the hard highway, cannot possibly take root, and bring forth fruit. It lies exposed and unguarded; the sun burns it; the frost kills it; the wind disperses it; the rain washes it away; the foot of the passenger and of the beast tramples and crushes it; the birds of the air pick it up and eat it. Sad image and melancholy representation of the worst sort of sinners! These are the persons, who, as our Saviour says, have eyes, and see not; ears and hear not;' and whose hearts are hardened like a rock. These are they, to whom he would not explain his parables, because they were unworthy of it; and because instruction would have been thrown away upon them. These are they, who, when John the Baptist made his appearance with austere severity, said he was mad; and when Christ conversed, and taught with mild condescension, said he was a drunkard, a glutton, and a keeper of bad company :they disliked the doctrines; and therefore they were resolved to find fault with the teachers. Such are those who have entered betimes, and continued long, in the service of the Devil;
who are slaves to vices and to bad habits; who have extinguished all reason, reflection, and natural conscience; and whom no ordinary methods can reclaim. The word is preached to them; and they trample it under foot; treat it with the utmost scorn and contempt; and revile and ridicule those who offer them good advice. They lie out of the reach of persuasion and instruction; and nothing less than some grievous calamity can awaken them. But from their deplorable condition, others may take due warning, lest, by departing from their duty, and neglecting a timely reformation, they should, through the deceitfulness of sin, arrive to such a hardened state: and this seems to be the only use, for which these incorrigible offenders serve in this world: they stand forth, not as marks and friendly lights to guide and direct the passenger, but as examples to be shunned, and signals of danger and death to those who shall approach them.
The Second sort of hearers, as they are less wicked, so they are more frequent, and are set forth to us, in the parable, under the image of stony ground. Some seed fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth, and forthwith they sprang up; but because they had no deepness of earth, when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Now he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it, and for a time believeth. Yet he hath not root in himself, but dureth for a while; for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.'
These are persons, who have conscience, reason, and reflection; who can discern the amiable and the profitable nature of religion, and the folly and danger of vice; who can sometimes give attention to the word of God, approve it as right and fit, speak and think honourably of it, and of those who practise it, and even entertain purposes of acting suitably to it: but they have no steadiness, resolution, and perseverance; and so are not proof against trials and temptations. They are such as are elegantly described in the prophet Ezekiel: Son of man,' says God to the prophet, the children of thy people come unto thee, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth, they show much love; but their heart goeth after
their covetousness. And lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one, that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument; for they hear thy words, but they do them not.'-Moral precepts and religious arguments appear fair and lovely in idea, but are found grievous in practice and execution; and the paths of righteousness, which make a fine landscape in description, are rough, steep, and tedious to ascend. Such is the effect of religion upon those, who have some taste and natural discernment, but no steady love of goodness. They are such as our Saviour represents, in another place, under the image of the man, who built his house upon the sand; aud the rain and the wind beat upon it, and the storm blew it down, and the flood swept it away. They are like the young man, who came to Christ, offering to do any thing that should be required of him: but when Christ would have favoured and honoured him so far as even to take him for a companion and disciple, if he would relinquish his possessions, he went away sorrowful. Our Saviour and his Apostles had many such half disciples and imperfect converts, sincere perhaps at the first, but weak and unsteady; and he had such wavering persons in view, when he spake this parable of the sower. When the Gospel was first preached, many embraced it, and continued in it for a time, whilst the course of things ran tolerably smooth but when persecution was to be endured, they departed and fell away. In the morning, whilst the refreshing dew was upon the earth, the divine seed suffered no detriment, though lodged in stony ground; but when the heat increased, and the burning sun shone upon it, it withered and died.
We live not now in times of such kinds of distress, and so are not put to the same trial: but if we were in the very same condition, we may be morally certain, that a great apostasy would ensue, and that many nominal Christians would forsake their religion. To judge whether a man would be faithful under great trials, it is to be considered, whether he be found faithful under smaller experiments of his integrity and resolution. There are from without, two everlasting temptations in all times and places, namely, loss and gain; and by the behaviour of a person under trials of these kinds, a tolerable judgement may be formed of his disposition. If he will part with nothing, and endure no inconvenience to do that which he knows to be right; or if he will not scruple to obtain worldly
advantages by sordid, fraudulent, violent, and iniquitous methods he can be no true disciple of Christ.
The third sort of hearers, mentioned in the parable, who are by far the most numerous, are those gay, luxurious, dissipated, or worldly-minded persons, who are set forth to us under the image of ground over-run with weeds and thorns.
Some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up and choked them. He that received seed among the thorns, is he that heareth the word: and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the pleasures of this life, and the lusts of other things, entering in, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.'
To this class of people, religion is presented and propounded; and they assent to it, and receive it, and call themselves Christians: but many things arise between them and their duty; many avocations and impediments, which prevent the word of God from having a due effect upon their hearts;—and they áre here enumerated.
Such are, in the first place, the cares of this life,' which, when they are admitted and nourished and encouraged, seize
upon the whole man, and so fill the head, and so occupy the hours, that the attention is entirely fixed on worldly affairs, and no leisure is allowed for concerns of the spiritual kind: and as no person can bear the toil and fatigue of being always contriving, projecting, labouring, plodding, and some amusement must intervene, the times for recreation are, with such persons, the times when other Christians are attending the public worship of God, or meditating on things sacred and serious at home. And thus religious considerations are totally banished, and not permitted to have even the smallest intervals; and then the man may be pronounced to be dead to God and to Christ, and alive only to the world.
The deceitfulness of riches' is here represented as having the same bad effect. When the love of wealth is predominant and engrosses the affections, it produces an eagerness to acquire it; a proud trust and confidence in it; a settled resolution to preserve and increase it by any methods, and in defiance of honesty and humanity; and an esteem or contempt of other persons, according as they are rich or poor: and then Mammon alone is worshipped, and the love of God is expelled from the heart.
The pleasures of life' are another source of evil, another