|Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,
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So let’s talk about path, rocks, thorns, good soil.
The next three weeks the lectionary has us reading Matthew 13, but a bit jumbled:
1. Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23
The Parable of the Sower. Birds, rocks, thorns, good soil.
2. Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43
The Parable of Wheat and Tares.
3. Mt. 13:31-33, 44-52
The Parables of Mustard Seed, Yeast, Treasure, Pearls, Net.
The last few verses of Matthew 13 do not appear in the lectionary at all.
The Parable of the Sower this week is an inclusio, which is kind of like a cookie sandwich. The top part of the cookie is the parable. The bottom part is the explanation of the parable. In between we get the cream filling: a change of subject, that often lends meaning to the parable. Writers of books and screen plays do this all the time of course. One character drops a shocking surprise on another character, and then suddenly the scene changes. You have to wait to see what happens. It builds suspense. Often the stuff in the middle has something to do with the surrounding story. More on that in a moment. (See? It works.)
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Weeds) does the same Oreo-thing. In between the parable and it’s explanation we get filling: the Parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast. The lectionary gives us the cream filling of these parables separately the following week. It makes sense we’d divide these up. It’s too much to tackle all at once: the parable, its explanation and the filling in between. But the information in that filling is helpful to understanding the text. It could call for some creative continuity between these three Sundays, sandwiched in the middle of July: 10, 17, 24.
Matthew 13 is the third of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel, the first being the Sermon on Mount (chapters 5-7) which we had earlier this year, and the second being the Missionary Discourse) Matthew 10. Let’s call Matthew 13 Parables of the Kingdom.
We start with Jesus stepping out of “the house” and sitting down by the lake. It’s a great image. Soak it in. But I wonder, “what house?” Whose house? In Matthew 8:20 we get the sense that Jesus is not a home owner. Looking back through Matthew 12 the narrative doesn’t help us much. It starts with Jesus and the disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath. They get in trouble for eating some of the grain – working on the Sabbath (harvesting?). Exasperated, he goes on to heal a man on the Sabbath, in the synagogue. After casting out an evil spirit, he is called a devil. Can a good tree produce bad fruit?
After a few other events, we end up with Jesus speaking to “the crowds.” His mother and brothers are standing “outside.” Outside what? Probably the house. The narrative is vague. The only three references to a house before this in Matthew’s gospel, other than parables, are Matthew 2:11, 8:14 and 9:23.
- In 2:11 the magi come into “the house,” where Jesus, Mary and Joseph are.
- 8:14 is Peter’s house, in Capernaum, where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.
- 9:23 is the synagogue leader’s house.
We read that Jesus’ family appears outside. So we can presume this is not Jesus’ house. I vote for Peter’s house. Perhaps it is their home base. Then Jesus finds out his mother and brothers are outside. By the way, for those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, that she had no other children, this mention of Jesus’ brothers presents a problem. Jesus asks, “Who is my mother? My brothers? Whoever does my will is my family…” Jesus expands the concept of family. At this point the crowds are so great that he is pushed into the sea. So he gets into a boat, and tells a story about farming.
So, let’s take a look at the parable. A sower went out to sow. The seeds fell in four places:
1. On the path
2. On rocky ground
3. Among thorns
4. On good soil
First, the seeds that fell on the path are eaten by birds. Second, the seeds that fell on rocky ground sprang up quickly, but were withered when the sun came out because they had no roots. The third group were choked by thorns. The fourth group brought forth a great harvest.
Coming soon after the missionary discourse, it seems likely that the story might have been used to process the reasons that some responded to the gospel, but not others. Expect a 25% return on investment. Expect one out of four people to respond, or one out of four towns? But when they do respond, expect results! One hundredfold, sixty, thirty.
Fortunately, Matthew includes an explanation of this parable, but first the cream filling of the cookie – a suspense-building foray into the purpose of parables. Unfortunately this explanation is more confusing than the parables themselves. Apparently most will “hear but not understand, see but not perceive.” It is like the parable itself: most won’t get it. Spiritual things are by nature nebulous, non-linear, not easy to grasp. If I may mix my gospels, the Spirit is like the wind, Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3, you don’t know which way it’s going to blow next. The things of the spirit are difficult to perceive. Parables help bring it down to earth a bit.
Then we get the explanation of the parable. The first seeds represent those who hear the word of the kingdom, but don’t understand it. The “word of the kingdom” (λόγον τnς βασιλείας) is a curious phrase. This is the only place I could find it. Given the fact that Jesus trained his disciples (Matthew 10) to go heal and then tell people the kingdom of God had come near, it may very well be that Jesus is referring to the content of his preaching, and that of his disciples. The word of the kingdom (or maybe more accurately translated, “news of the kingdom” is that good news that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world, and we witness is in the selfless acts of kindness, healing and casting out of spirits that the disciples themselves are doing.
Jesus explains, when people hear the word and don’t understand it, the evil one snatches it away, like birds snatch away seeds on a path. The word for “understand” is συνιέντος (sunientos), which means “understand” or “perceive.” Why wouldn’t they understand the word, or be able to perceive its meaning? Jesus has just explained this in the cream filling. Spiritual things are by nature hard to grasp, especially if you have your head in materialistic things, and your heart set on them. It’s sad really. Some people will hear the good news and simply not “get it.”
Pay attention to what we learn about “the word” in verse 19: The word is heard. It is audible. And it is sown in the heart. In antiquity, the heart is the center of consciousness, your thoughts, your motives, your feelings, your will. The word can be understood or not understood. Perceived or not perceived.
The seed sown on rocky ground are those who hear the word, and receive it with joy, but they have no roots, so when persecution comes, they wither and fall away. How often have church leaders seen someone have a kind of conversion experience and respond with the unbridled enthusiasm of a convert, only to lose steam a year or two later when difficulties set in. We need to help people set roots through relationships, Bible study, prayer, worship and serving the poor. I also think it’s not good to rush new people into leadership positions too quickly. They come in bright and bushy-tailed, and run headlong into the dark underbelly of church politics, which sucks the life out of everyone. Protect new people from all of that, and help them set spiritual roots.
Pay attention to what we learn about “the word of the kingdom” in verses 20-21: It is powerful. It can cause great joy. But a person can lose it. Life’s trouble, or persecution can drive it away if we don’t set deep roots.
The seed that falls among the thorns, Jesus says, are like those who hear the word, and presumably even understand it, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke it, and the word bears no fruit. This is so consistent with what Jesus says in other places. Wealth, materialism, stuff, riches, are a threat to our spiritual life. This Spring in Africa I was once again astounded at how happy people with nothing can be. And here we are in the U.S, choking on our stuff, and people seem trapped in depression. Perhaps the key to the things of the spirit, is becoming a little less obsessed with stuff, and a little more focused on faith, on God, and on the things God cares about.
Pay attention to what we learn about the “word of the kingdom” in verse 22: Things choke the word.
Finally, the seed that falls on good soil, says Jesus, are those who hear the word, and they understand the word, and it bears much fruit in their lives.
Pay attention to what we learn about the “word” in verse 23: The word, when planted in the good soil of a heart that is ready, can bear much fruit.
What kind of fruit? I’ll leave it to the preachers and teachers to ferret this out in their own communities, but the comment about “joy” in verse 20 may give us a clue. Personally, I really resonate with Paul’s comment in Galatians 5:22. The fruits that the Holy Spirit produces in us are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Keep in mind as we march through Matthew’s gospel this year, that when Matthew uses the word “word,” “word of the kingdom,” or “word of heaven,” he is not talking about the Bible. It hadn’t been compiled yet. And he doesn’t mean Jesus as the Word of God, like John does when he says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Matthew’s talking about the content of Jesus’ preaching: that the kingdom (all God’s hopes and dreams for the world) are breaking into this world, right now, in quite tangible and visible ways.
So what’s the good news in all of this? It depends on your context. The beautiful thing about parables is that they have multiple layers of meaning. The story of the Prodigal Son meant one thing to me as the oldest son in my family. It has completely new shades of meaning now that I am a father. I don’t know what your congregation needs to hear right now in your place and context, but as I’m reflecting on the passage today here are some things that jump out at me:
1. God is at work in the world transforming lives and planting seeds in those whose hearts are prepared to receive it. One of the things that jazzes many church leaders I know, is seeing lives transformed. It’s an incredible rush when someone who is lost in life, find meaning and purpose. It is a joy when someone who is materialistic and self-centered discover the joy of giving, and becoming other-centered. The angels in heaven rejoice when someone who is slumped over finds joy and hope, and life in Christ.
2. It is good news that the work of evangelism, conversion, transformation is not dependent only on us. It doesn’t depend on this conversation I have with someone, or that one. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We can plant seeds, but God gives the growth. Because evangelism is a team sport, it doesn’t all rest on my abilities alone. Thank God.
3. It is good news that the gospel still has power in people’s lives. Seeds want to grow. It’s in their DNA to grow, and with the right soil, they will grow, even in an imperfect church, with imperfect leaders. And even though maybe ¾ of the seeds we plant will fall on inhospitable soil, ¼ of them are likely to bear fruit. Some people get discouraged because ¾ attempts at planting seeds bear no fruit. And they stop trying. But I can find hope that ¼ of my seeds will bear fruit! It encourages me to plant all the more. If you dream of a 30-fold harvest, plant 120 seeds.
The preacher might ask the congregation to pray about a few things:
1. What seeds are you planting right now with those relationships you have?
2. What seeds are being planted by your congregation?
3. Who is planting seeds in you, and what kind of soil would you say your heart is?