Genesis 25:19-34 – Jacob and Esau, the twins are born, two nations contending. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob.
Isaiah 55:10-13 – For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…
Psalm 119:105-112 – Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path.
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13 – You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.
Romans 8:1-11 – There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER. Listen! A sower went out to sow… and some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns and some on good soil.
Path, Rocks, Thorns, Good Soil
Isaiah 55 reminds us that the Word of God has incredible power. It accomplishes what it sets out to do with or without our help. We are only invited to get on board.
Romans 8 is a powerhouse gospel message. Christ appeared in sinful flesh. The Spirit of life in Christ therefore sets us free from sin and death.
As has been pointed out previously, Matthew is divided into five sections like the Pentateuch. Each section has a narrative in a discourse. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7 was a discourse. Matthew 10 held the Missionary Discourse. Matthew 13 would best be described as Parables of the Kingdom.
According to Stanley Hauerwas, in Matthew, (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), Jesus redefines family in the text immediately preceding this. Who are my mother, sister, brother? Those who do the will of my God in heaven (Matthew 12:47-50). One does not become part of Christ’s family by birth. The parables are teachings, ways Jesus instructs his followers to become disciples, part of the family.
Matthew is the church’s gospel. Written half a century after the crucifixion, the author of Matthew is likely addressing issues the church is facing in that time. We now wade into three consecutive Sundays of Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13, though in a jumbled fashion:
- The Parable of the Sower ( 13:1-9, 18-23)
- The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds ( 13:24-30, 36-43)
- The Parables of the Mustard Seed, Leaven, Treasure, Pearl, Net ( 13:31-33, 44-52)
Unlike the Sermon on the Mount, here Jesus leaves the house, goes down by the sea, and sits down in a boat to teach these lessons. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going to teach the disciples, but a large crowd will listen in.
In Matthew 8:20, we get the clear sense that Jesus is not a home owner. Looking back through Matthew 12, the narrative doesn’t help us much. 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 Peter’s house is their home base. (By the way, I’m stumped as to what those who hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, and thus the proposition that Jesus had no siblings, do with this text that so clearly indicates otherwise).
Jesus has to get in a boat; as usual, he has attracted a large number of people, because the Word is powerful; it always accomplishes what it sets out to do. In the theme verse (propositio in rhetoric), Romans 1:16-17, Paul uses the word dunamis, from which we get our word dynamite. The Word has explosive power:
Οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν
παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ελληνι:
δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται,
Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,
“The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Matthew 13:1-23 is an inclusio, that is, it has a lesson with in the lesson. Jesus tells the parable, then he teaches a little bit about the purpose of parables, and then he explains the parable to the disciples. There are three parts, like an Oreo 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. Matthew will do the same thing with the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.
Unfortunately, the lectionary leaves out the second section, as if Matthew’s purpose in structuring it like this is irrelevant:
- Matthew 13:1-9 — The Parable of the Sower
- Matthew 13:10-17 — The Purpose of Parables
- Matthew 13:18-23 — The Parable of the Sower explained
Whether you consider these parables, similes, or metaphors, Jesus has employed this method earlier in the gospel. In Matthew 7, those who hear the Word, and act on it are like (simile) a wise man who built his house upon the rock. The message in this parable will travel along the same lines.
So, let’s get into the parable. A sower went out to sow. The seeds fell in four places:
- Path – eaten by birds
- Rocky ground – sprang up quickly, shallow roots, withered by the sun
- Thorns – choked
- Good soil – great harvest
Coming soon after the Matthew 10 missionary discourse, it seems likely that the story might have been used to process the experience of some churches growing/others not, some people growing/others not, some hearers responding to the gospel/others not.
Quantitatively, Jesus teaches them to expect a 25% ROI, return on investment. The Word accomplishes what it sets out to do, but there are external factors that impact how that Word will be received at any given time. Expect one out of four people to respond, or one out of four churches, or one our of four towns? Ah, but when they do respond, expect amazing results, like the crowds Jesus attracted – 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. Not so fortunately, this explanation is more confusing than the parables themselves. Apparently most will hear but not understand, see but not perceive. As he so often does, Matthew has borrowed once again from Isaiah (6):
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Both Isaiah and Jesus are being prophetically paradoxical and enigmatic. Louisville Presbyterian Seminary Professor Patricia Tull says Isaiah aims at “punchy irony.” Straightforward communication has not worked, so the pithy prophetic voice tries the back door: “The Lord has told me to tell you this, but you’re not gonna get it, probably because you don’t want to get it.”
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 gospels, the Spirit is like the wind, as 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. Listen, if you have ears to hear.
- 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 ʏῆς βασιλείας) is a curious phrase. This is the only place I could find it in the New Testament. 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, the news of the kingdom) is that the kingdom of God is breaking into our world, and the witness is in the selfless acts of kindness, healing, and casting out of spirits that the disciples themselves are doing. This passage (and a few others in Matthew) give us some more hints about the nature of the Word, which we’ll summarize in a minute.
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 are seeking them, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s sad really. Some people will hear the good news and simply not get it. Anyone who has ever been a church leader has seen this.
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. All church leaders have seen this phenomenon as well.
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 with the poor. Pastor Mindy Roll and a team in our synod are working on a curriculum to do just that. It will invite people to explore, in a 12-session group, the ways that they experience the Divine.
It’s not good to rush new people into leadership positions too quickly. I’ve seen them come in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They are enthusiastic, sparked by a new-found faith connection. They sprout up quickly, then run headlong into the dark underbelly of church politics, which sucks the life out of everyone. A spouse dissents, an addiction interrupts, or they discover what they are called to do isn’t easy, and might take a lifetime, rather than a weekend.
Protect new people from all of that, and help them set spiritual roots. I’m not saying to keep them from ministry. Just don’t throw them into the deep end of leadership, where they will be over their head, to mix metaphors. Tend to faith formation, which includes serving, but also praying, and studying and so on…
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.
Have you seen this in your context, or in previous parishes? Can you give unidentifiable examples without naming names? Have you seen wealthy people abandon the world-changing ministry to which they were uniquely gifted in order to pursue more wealth? It’s heart-breaking. Jesus is preparing his disciples (including us) for this eventuality.
This is so consistent with what Jesus says in other places. Wealth, materialism, stuff, and riches are the greatest threat to our spiritual life. Jesus says it is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. 1 Timothy 6:10 states it even more pointedly, “ The love of money is the root of all evil.”
After visiting five countries in Africa, I am again astounded at how happy people with very little material possessions can be. And here we are in the U.S, choking on our stuff, and people seem trapped in unhappiness. 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. 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? You need to seek this out in your own community. The Word is alive and working in your neck of the woods, somewhere. Can you identify it and point it out?
The comment about joy in verse 20 may also give us a clue. Personally, I resonate with Paul’s comment in Galatians 5:22. The harvest, the fruit that the Holy Spirit, produced 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 words, “word,” “word of the kingdom,” or “word of heaven,” he is not talking about the Bible. The Bible hadn’t been compiled yet. And he doesn’t mean Jesus as the Word of God, like John does when John 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. At the same time, the Greek word for word, Logos, has power for meaning in Greek language, culture mythology. It also has significance in Hebrew culture, as the word that God spoke at creation, and the word mentioned in Isaiah 55. For this reason, I have been capitalizing it. It may not yet be theological shorthand for Jesus in Matthew’s theology, but it means more than a few letters on the page. The word has power. .
So what’s the good news in all of this? It depends on your context. The beautiful thing about parables is 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. What does your congregation need to hear right now in your place and context?
Here are some things that jump out at me:
- 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 is an incredible rush when someone who is lost in life, finds meaning and purpose. It is a joy when someone who is materialistic and self-centered discovers the joy of giving and becoming other-centered. The angels in heaven rejoice when someone who is slumped over finds joy, hope, and life in Christ.
- It is good news that the work of evangelism, conversion, and 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.
- 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:
- What seeds are you planting right now with those relationships you have?
- What seeds are being planted by your congregation?
- Who is planting seeds in you, and what kind of soil would you say your heart is?