Following the Way of Jesus - Series on Matthew's Gospel (3)
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Parables of the Kingdom - The Parable of the Sower.
Parables of the Kingdom - The Parable of the Sower.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
What's your hearing like?
We need to hear correctly if we are to assimilate correct information! (c/f Jacob’s missionary friend who was “embarisado” rather than “embarisimo” - pregnant rather than embarrassed!).
I laughed when I read this story of a concerned husband who went to a doctor to talk to him about his wife. “Doctor, I think my wife is deaf because she never hears me the first time and always asks me to repeat things.” “Well,” the doctor replied, “go home and tonight stand about 15 feet from her and say something to her. If she doesn’t reply move about 5 feet closer and say it again. Keep doing this so that we’ll get an idea about the severity of her deafness.” So, the husband goes home and does exactly as instructed. He starts off standing about 15 feet from his wife in the kitchen as she is chopping some vegetables and says, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” He hears no response. He moves about 5 feet closer and asks again. No reply. He moves 5 feet closer. Still no reply. He gets fed up and moves right behind her, about an inch away, and asks loudly, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She replies, “For the fourth time, vegetable stew!”
Jesus is talking to us today about our hearing!
It was another large crowd on another day by 'the lake' in Galilee. So great was the press 'that He got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the. shore at the water's edge. He taught then many things by parables(vs 1,2).
Now, this is interesting. Undoubtedly the majority of the people who came to see Jesus, wanted to see and even experience a miracle. They were full of Messianic expectations or to perform a miracle, seeking “a sign”, just like the Pharisees did, but the sign was not here given, instread he told them a story - something called “a parable”!
I. THE PARABLE - A Strange Way of Sowing
1. Parable is a Literary, Storytellers Device:
So far in Matthew, the word ‘parable’ has not so far occurred, though several short sayings are in effect little parables (e.g. Matt 5:25–26; 11:16–19; 12:43–45).
The word, ‘parable' from the Grk: parabolais, combines two words, para “beside” and ballo, “to throw”. A parable is a form of teaching in which one thing is placed beside another for the sake of comparison.
The Greek word implies something more that the narrow definition of ‘parable’ as a story with one main purpose or meaning. It is a translation of the Hebrew, māšāl, which includes proverbs, riddles and wise sayings as well as parables. Matthew uses it for instance for Jesus’ speaking about defilement (Matt 15:10–11, 15), and in Matthew 24:32 ‘lesson of the fig tree’. it indicates a comparison. So speaking in parables is enigmatic, and requires careful interpretation.
Matthew brings together 8 parables, with detailed interpretations of 3 of them and some teaching on the purpose of parables, to make up the third of his great collections of Jesus’ teaching.
A parable may be a brief saying (Mtt 15:15;Lk 6:39; Lk 5:36; Lk 14:7,11;Mtt 24:32;Lk 13:28) or a lengthy narrative: “A narrative moving within the sphere of physical or human life; not professing to describe an event which actually took place, but expressly imagined for the purpose of representing, in pictorial figure, a truth belonging to the sphere of religion, and therefore referring to the relation of mankind to God” (Goebel).
2. Parables act as a kind of filter.
Many came to listen for a variety of reasons, but only those who genuinely sought God would really take on board what was being said.
The fact that some did not understand proves that these parables were designed not to test the intelligence of the hearer but the spiritual responsiveness of the heart adn this is so important as it serves to connects what has gone before in chapter 12 where Jesus distinguishes true disciples from false disciples. True disciples are not those who look religious on the outside but remain unchanged on the inside, like the Pharisees. Neither are true disciples, those who have some kind of biological relationship with Jesus, like his “his mother and brothers” for though, Matthew does not tell us how Jesus’ family responded to his teaching, at this stage Mark tells us that his family thought he “is out of His mind”(Mark 3:21); and certainly for his brothers, the contrast between their standing outside and the inner circle of his ‘true’ family suggests their lack of whole-hearted response to Jesus. They stand in contrast with true disciples to whom Jesus is “pointing” and saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”(Matt 12:49-50). - “Jesus was not renouncing His family. He loved them even more than they loved Him. His last request from the cross was for John to care for His mother (John 19:26–27), and through His gracious love His brothers eventually came to believe in Him as their Lord and Savior (Acts 1:14). The Lord’s purpose in referring to His disciples as His mother and brothers was to teach that He invites the entire world into His intimate and divine family. Anyone can enter His spiritual family by trusting in Him, and the family of God is the only family that ultimately matters.”(John MacArthur jr).
Doing the “will of my Father in Heaven” is the distinguishing mark of true discipleship(see Matt 7:21-23), in contrast with the various wrong responses to Jesus set out in Matthew 11–12, rejected by most of ‘this generation’, surrounded by the select group of the true family of his Father in heaven. And to add to this, having spiritual understanding as to the true meaning of these parables, is also a distinguishing mark as they reveal your spiritual receptivity - “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ - so far from these parables being moralising stories told to unsophisticated rural folk, they remind us that these insights are not dependant upon intellectual intelligence but spiritual receptivity!
To know the truth about the kingdom of heaven is to know secrets. The Greek mystērion, used only here in the Gospels, became important for Paul to indicate that God’s truth comes only by revelation, not by natural insight
3. The parable presents spiritual truths in earthly pictures.
They are generally simple in meaning, and thus within the capacity of any who would understand(Mark 4:9).
They are designed for personal application of a spiritual truth or truths.
Some parables are extended similies “the kingdom of God is like”(Mtt 13v44-47). Some parables are allegories designed to challenge people at the deepest level, packing an incredible punch line.
Just as every picture has details which provide the 'backcloth' so to press every detail would involve endless difficulties for the interpreter. We are not to form our theology from parables.
This parable then is the first to be told by Jeus and acts as the key that unlocks the door to all parables:
It tests whether or not the heart is receptive to the word of God for in order for that word to take root, and. bear fruit, it must be received into good and fertile soil and in this sense it continues one of the key themes of Matthew 11–12 which illustrated the growing divisions among people in their attitude to Jesus, culminating in the sharp contrast between true disciples and all others in Matthew 12:46–50.
Division, and the problem of how some could reject Jesus’ message while others responded is described here in this parable of the sower. It is seen in peoples response to the preaching of God’s kingdom; the division between fruitful soil and unproductive; between good grain and weeds; between good fish and bad, etc.
The kingdom of heaven, for all its growing power (Matt 13:31–33), is a ‘secret’ (Matt 13:11), and a secret is a secret only if not everyone is in the know!
II. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER - The Condition of the Heart, determines the Fruit in our Lives!
1. The Parable Expressed and Explained:
A familiar Picture for Jesus’ hearers - a sower scattering seed, dipping his hand into his open pouch strung around his shoulder and casting it on the prepared ground while he walks along the spaced out walkways or 'paths'.
A scene presupposes preparatory work - the field has been ploughed in order to provide for maximum yield. The time for sowing has been carefully selected so as to avoid the ravages of winter frost.
A farmer indiscriminately scattering seed - the scattering takes place indiscriminately and inevitably some of the seed will not yield the desired effect. Some falls on the 'paths” where the sower is walking; Some falls on a part of the field where shallow soil is covering layers of rock which does not allow the seed, once germinated to take root. Some falls on ground which is infested by the roots of 'thorns' which grow up more quickly than the seed and cut sibling plant from nourishment and sunlight thus choking the plant. Lastly some falls on 'good soil' where the field is good varying in proportion from 'thirty, sixty or even a hundred tines' the amount. This is not intentional waste, but a recognition that success lies in the condition of the soil!
So, we note that the parable of the Sower is perhaps better entitled, the Parable of the Soils because THE SOIL condition determines Success! And its really interesting how Jesus tells this parable and why and to whom He explains it:
The parable is delivered but purposely left unexplained or unapplied - Jesus shares this parable with eveyone in the crowd but he only explains its meaning to His disciples who ask him later. At first, He simply exhorts his hearers, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear"(v9). Those who have “ears to hear' will gradually understand the significance of this parable.
The disciples had trouble, grasping the truth (Matt 13:10) - even though the disciples were blessed with “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” knowledge and understanding did not come all at once and Jesus accommodated their slowness to understand by explaining the lesson to them. They on this occasion, as in others, were “slow of heart to believe.” So, Jesus explains the parable:
(i). The Sower - According to Matthew 13:37 the Sower is Jesus 'the Son of Man' (c/f Mtt 16:13-15).
(ii), The seed - The word of God (Mtt 13:19:Lk 8:11).
(iii). The ground - is the human heart which represents the totality of the person or the centrality of his being. That which makes him tick (i.e, sustains his moral life as well as his physical). The word for “heart” - “kardia” is the chief organ of the physical life (c/f Lev 17:11). “by an easy transition the word came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and emotional elements” (Vine)
Jesus, here identifies 4 types of ground, represented to show four different types of response to the word of God...
(i).Some hearers are hard - Completely unresponsive. Defiant, cynical
The word does not penetrate and Satan comes and snatches it away (c/f Ezek 33v32;Mtt 7v26 c/f Pharaoh).
Some hear preaching but it does not penetrate. The Devil snatches it away because the heart is hard. The Word is gone before you get out the door.
Satan constantly uses thoughtlessness, indifference, pride and arrogance to blind people to their sinful condition and need of salvation. He makes them believe they are not really so bad, or that, if they do need improvement, they can improve themselves. He uses doubt, prejudice, stubbornness, procrastination, love of the world, love of sin, and every combination of those ploys to keep a person from hearing and receiving the Gospel.
The Gospel appeals to us, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts!”(Heb 2).
(ii). Some hearers are shallow - Impulsive full of shallow responses.
The second type of ground on which some of the seeds fell did not have much soil. The top surface looked good but it had underlying beds of solid rock deeper than the plow reached, mostly limestone, which did not have much soil covering them. The seeds that fell on such ground immediately … sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. When the seed began to germinate, its roots could not penetrate the rock that was just below the surface, and the little plant would instead start to spring up above ground much faster than it normally would.
This represents thsoe who hear the word and respond to it immediately but when pressure comes they 'quickly fall away'
To start well is not necessarily to finish well! The word may be “received with joy”, but joy without understanding and commitment cannot last! The impact may last for a while(lit: ‘is temporary’) but when “tribulation”, a general term for suffering which comes from outside; “persecution” deliberately inflicted mean that they “fall away” or are literallyin the Greek is “skandalizo” ‘is tripped up’ (cf. Matt 5:29–30); it is not a gradual loss of interest, but a collapse under pressure! Might this describe your lostt of faith? Or others loss of faith for whom you pray?
They may respond simply out of natural excitement which may wear off in time.
They have no 'root' to endure the storm of persecution and so are blown away. c/f The crowd who welcomed Jesus and then later shouted for his crucifixion!
“God and the doctor we both adore.
When in sickness and then no more
The trouble ended, the illness righted.
God is ignored and the doctor slighted”
(iii). Some hearers are easily distracted - Pre-occupied with 'the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things' (c/f 1 Jn 2:15-17).
There is a hearing that lasts until difficulties come and then the word of God is abandoned in favour of something else. As youths they can be caught up with educational goals, sporting achievements and teenage romance which can become the be-all and end-all of life. As middle-aged, they can be caught up with business ambitions and family concerns as the totality of life. As elderly people it van be the grandchildren or the garden, as the main thing in life. None of these things are wrong in themselves, they only become wrong if they become the MOST IMPORTANT THING! Christianity is for the committed not the half-hearted, We cannot put our hand to the plough and look back! c/f Isa 4:4
To start well is not necessarily to finish well! Even if the soil is good, it is already taken up with otehr things that choke it! . The weeds are probably darnel, a poisonous plant related to wheat and virtually indistinguishable from it until the ears form. To sow darnel among wheat as an act of revenge was punishable in Roman law. A light infestation of darnel could be tackled by careful weeding, but mistakes would easily be made. In the case of a heavy infestation the stronger roots of the darnel would be tangled with those of the wheat, making selective weeding impossible
The world (Grk: aiōn, the present age) can be the secular concerns of earth as opposed to the kingdom of God as well as materialism (see Matthew 6:25–34), the seductive effect of wealth, which offers what it cannot deliver, happiness, contentment and ultimate meaning!
John warns us, “Do not love the world, nor 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 lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15–16).
A person may come to church but never becomes committed to serving Christ! We can be so continually preoccupied with making money, pursuing our career, or fashion or music or sport to the neglect of our souls! We can so easli , sports, and everything but the Lord’s work is a person with a weed-infested heart. A person who claims to love Christ but who cannot remain faithful in marriage has a weedy heart. The person who refuses to let go of his worldliness is a person in whom the seed of God’s saving gospel has not found root and is in danger of being choked out altogether.
(iv). Some hearers bear fruit - receptive and fertile, ready to hear and obey the word of God(c/f Gal 5;22).
Now at last hearing is matched by understanding (cf. on v. 19). The fruit is unspecified, but is presumably that practical acceptance of God’s sovereignty which is the goal of the ‘word of the kingdom’.
Every Christian is called to produce fruit (Jn 15:5) but the degrees of fruitfulness differ according to the unquestioning joy and obedience of the individual believer. It is only by 'fruit' that we recognise Christians (Mtt 7:16). This is the enduring and authenticating evidence!
There is a hearing that defeats the devil, endures trial, scorns riches and bears fruit for eternal life. That is the hearing we want and need!
2. The Parable’s Applied:
(a). Be Careful How You Listen!
In the context of Jesus’ ministry this parable serves to explain why it is that the ‘good news of the kingdom’ meets with such a varied response as we have seen in Matthew 11–12, from enthusiastic acceptance to outright rejection.
Jesus makes it clear here that the word of God will save some and harden others. He quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 where God tells Isaiah that his ministry to Israel will not only save some but will harden others - "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.' Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed." Isaiah’s ministry was almost universally ineffective for the salvation of Israel. It simply confirmed them in their hardness and unbelief.
John Piper points out that “this teaches us something very important about preaching. Even when preaching the Word of God does not soften and save and heal, it is not necessarily ineffective. This preaching of the Word may be doing God's terrible work of judgment. It may be hardening people, and making their ears so dull that they will never want to hear again…..take heed how you hear! Don't be cavalier in the hearing of God's Word week after week. If it is not softening and saving and healing and bearing fruit, it is probably hardening and blinding and dulling”
The fault lies not in the message, but in those who receive it. Unreceptiveness, shallowness, preoccupation with the world are problems of the heart so examine your hearts and pray that God will take away “the heart of stone” and a transplant it with a “heart of flesh” that loves God and beats for God!
So, “Be careful how you listen”!
Ears are designed for hearing, and God calls upon is to listen carefully and take to heart what He says to us so that we hear Him clearly - 'Today if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts' (Heb 3v15).
Preaching is vital but so is hearing! Have you heard the word of God? How have you responded to it? Are you hardening yourself against it? Are you ready to receive it:
Three out of four hearers in this parable heard the word of God but it did not save them! Two out of those three seemed to make positive responses to it, but it did not last! Only one heard for salvation and was saved!
There is a future harvest coming! The end of the age, is the ultimate turning-point when the period of the secret growth of God’s kingdom alongside the continued activity of the evil one will be brought to an end, and the new age which was inaugurated in principle in Jesus’ earthly ministry will be gloriously consummated.
Take care how you listen – Your eternal salvation hangs on it! - “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (Jn 5:24).
(b). Be Encouraged - The Gospel Will Produce Fruit – Gal 6:7
There is great encouragement in this parable for our evangelism. The world is a field and it is ripe for harvest! see Matt 9:35-38.
The parable’s encouragement both to Jesus’ followers then and to all who since then have preached this same gospel; not all will respond, but there will be some who do, and the harvest will be rich.
This month, Wycliffe are encouraging us to pray for the people of Central Asia and support their work of Bible translation among them
They mention the “Lenthomi” Bible, not a real language but one changed for security reasons. It was published in 2016 for the 25 million speakers of that language in Central Asia and across the world. The demand for God’s word in that language was so great that two further print runs took place in 2018. There are now over 5 million believers in the church of Central Asia. Ulzhan, a Christian worker in an undisclosed area, says: “So many people have come to faith. People of so many different backgrounds and social conditions. I see this movement of God in my life and in the lives of people around me. It’s incredible.”
However It’s really hard to be a Christian if you read the Bible in “Lenthomi”! Christians in Central Asia can be arrested for reading the Bible in a public place, such as a bus or a train, or for telling other people about Jesus. They have had their church registrations cancelled, forcing them to meet illegally in homes, where they are subject to police raids, arrests, beatings and fines.
But nothing can hinder the word of God spereading because it is seed made for the human heart! One such person is “Feruza”, converted over 20 years ago when she started reading the Bible to learn English, and was told by her Muslim father, “You can read the Bible,but don’t you dare become a Christian. If you do, I will kill you!”. Feruza, “knew he wasn’t joking” but she said, “the more I read the Bible, the more I found answers. Following Jesus would mean defying everything my family had taught me. Yet I knew I could not say no to the King of kings, no matter what the cost.” She goes on to describe how after she became a Christian she didn’t tell her dad straight away because “It wasn’t that I was afraid of dying - I was afraid of living and being cut off from my family. But God reminded me that anyone who has forsaken their mother and father for Him has received a hunderedfold in return. One night God gave me courage to talk to him…I told him about my relationship with Jesus. He burst into tears. He screamed at me. He yelled at me and pleaded, ‘Feruza you can’t do this to us! Our family will be ashamed forever!” When Feruza refused to turn her back on Jesus, her father threated her with a knife, holiding it against her throat and saying, ‘If I kill you now will this Jesus protect you?’ to which she replied ‘I don’t know Dad, but I do know this - If I die now, I wil see God face to face. But if you don;t kill me now, I get to live here on this earth and tell you about Him. It is a privelege either way!” Feruza has since led her mother, sisters a brother and her gandmother to Christ. She told her whole village about Jesus and is one of the first 100 “Lenthomi” believers. She has now spent over 20 years of her lfie translating the Bible into “Lenthomi” and there are now thousands of Christian believers, braving persecution in underground churches. In late 2014 it was reported that in the preceding year over 45,000 portions of the Lenthomi Scriptures had been downloaded from the Internet, including an average of 24 full Bibles every day!
God is working mightily in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. He is doing a marvelous work even in the face of persecution. In Kazakhstan, Presbyterian pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbaev, was jailed for nine months for proclaiming the gospel. In prison, he led nearly 100 of his fellow inmates to Christ. It is fantastic what God’s word does as the Spirit of God attends the word!
Because God's word is seed and the human heart is 'soil' we know the one is designed for the other. As the seed is sown we know it will interact with the soil and produce(Gal 6:9).
This means that we can EXPECT some of the soil to produce 'fruit that will last' (Jn 15v16).
We pray not just for the “Lenthomi” but for all people, everywhere that they may hear the word of God; the gospel of salvation and be saved!
(c). Be Eager To Cultivate The Word Of God In Your Heart:
We must learn the importance of cultivating the word of God as we spend time BEING WITH JESUS, listening to His vice and seeding and reading the word.
Part of the Lord’s ministry was to give understanding of His Word to those who trusted in Him. In his account of this occasion, Mark says Jesus “was explaining everything privately to His own disciples” (Mark 4:34). After His resurrection, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). As we read Scripture let us say with the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law” (Ps. 119:18).
If we neglect the word the soil may well deteriorate and become crowded with things that will choke the word and produce a hardening in our hearts.
Don Whitney in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life provided a number of very useful sayings and quotes to take on board:
The Bible is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions. (Deut 8:3, Mt 4:4)
When you open your Bible, ask the Author to open your heart. (Ps 119:18, Luke 24:45, Eph 1:17-18)
If a Christian is careless in Bible reading, he will care less about Christian living.
A well-read Bible is a sign of a well-fed soul.
“The Bible is a letter from God with our personal address on it...To read the Bible as God’s word one must read it with His heart in His mouth, on tip-toe, with eager expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as the Word of God.” - Soren Kierkegaard