Come Holy Spirit, both use and overrule my words, that your word alone might be heard. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I. Our Lord & the Purpose of His Parables (vs. 1-2, 10-17)
Well today, we begin a new series on the Parables of Jesus. You can pick our schedule of readings on the Welcome Table so that you can read and study along as we go. Weekly outlines will be provided as well right in your bulletin each week. We will be in and out of this series right through to Advent. And with that, we dive right in!
Let’s start with the obvious question what’s a parable? Well, in Matthew 13, we’ve got perfect passage to start with because it’s a parable’s parable. It’s about the parables. It’s about the preaching of Jesus. So just when you thought we were going to get away from sermons on sermons, we’ve got another one.
Look at the purpose of the parables given in verses 10-13. The disciples have the mysteries of the kingdom of God, (that is to say, the mystery of God’s love for sinners in Jesus) but not everyone listening in the crowd has embraced these mysteries – far from it. From now on, some will be given more, and others will be left empty. Some will have eyes wide open, and others will be made blind. Some will hear the truth shouted in their ears, while others will go deaf as the volume fades out. Some will understand and some will be brought to greater confusion.
So here’s what the parables of Jesus are: they are a subtle but sure dividing line, thrown down by Jesus himself. They are revelatory stories. They are intended to reveal and illuminate who Jesus is and where we are at in relation to him. They are meant to knock us off the fence onto one side or another. “There is the line” says Jesus. “Which side are you on?”
Secondly, the Parables are not what we would call good practical advice. They do not represent what we would think of as wise instruction for farming or finances or business management. That’s not their intended purpose. In the parables, something or someone is always a bit off and a bit odd. It’s been said that the parables are earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. But that doesn’t go far enough, because although many of the parables draw on everyday life, each of them an extraordinary, otherworldly, alien element to it.
There is something in each of the parables which, if a person were really listening, they could hear it and think, that’s utterly ridiculous. And they’d walk away because of it.
Listen to Jeffrey Gibbs’ words here: “Jesus tells parables to people who have been turning their hearts away from him and his message. In response to their refusal, he hides the message of the reign. Jesus tells parables to pull people up short, to force them to think, and then in some new way to bring them to the truth about God’s reign in the world.
Perhaps there will be greater joy and amazement at what God in Christ is doing and will do for his creation. Perhaps there will be shock, even anger, at the way that the parable challenges a cherished conviction or tradition. Perhaps, if God mysteriously has his way in hearts – in all our hearts – there will be a new beginning of faith and understanding because of the revelation that comes through Jesus’ parables.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34)
That’s because, lastly, the Parables are actually all about Jesus in one way or another. Jesus himself unlocks the parables. They are all about the audacious claims he makes as the kingdom of God comes into the world through him! Something interesting to note here is that the parables are actually very unique to Jesus, culturally speaking. This was not a primary teaching tool used by other rabbis. So in Matthew 13, when Jesus begins to teach in this way, the disciples are genuinely confused. “What’s with the parables?” they ask.
With all that in mind, we turn to the Parable of the Sower. Let’s work backwards through the parable, looking at the soil, then the seed, and then the sower.
II. Parable of the Sower (vs. 3-9, 18-23)
Here, we apply the parable first to ourselves as individuals.
First, there are four types of soil – that is, four types of people – mentioned in this parable: hard, shallow, strangled and open. The first lesson we learn here is that, when it comes to the Gospel of Christ, there are many ways to be bad soil, but there is only one way to be good soil. Just this: to receive and hold onto seed of God’s Word – the saving and forgiving message of Christ our Lord.
James Boice writes, “Is your heart an open heart? Are you receptive to God’s truth? Do you allow it to settle down into your life and thinking so that it turns you from sin, directs you to faith in Jesus, and produces the Holy Spirit’s fruit? You may say, “I’m afraid not. I wish my heart was like that, but I’m afraid it is hard or shallow or strangled by this world’s goods. What can I do?
The answer is that you can do nothing, any more than soil can change its nature. But although you can do nothing, there is one who can – the divine Gardener. He can break up the hard ground, uproot the rocks, and remove the thorns. That is your hope – not you, but the Gardener.” (The Parables of Jesus, James Boice)
Secondly, we notice, as Ken Bailey puts it, that even seed planted in good soil takes time to grow. Receiving the Gospel is pictured here not like an overthrow or revolution, but rather like a kernel quietly planted. What an encouragement for discipleship and growth in Christ that is!
Like many of you, Brooke and I anxiously awaiting fruit from our spring garden. As demonstrated by the size of Phyllis’s cabbage she recently gave us, some of you are apparently much better gardeners then we are! But no gardener that I know of plants their seeds expecting a mature harvest the very next day.
A month or more later, we’re still watching for ripe tomatoes. Some plants are bigger than others, but all are in the garden. As believers, we are all in the garden of Christ. He is tending his garden and His work will bear abundant fruit. So entrust yourself to the gardener!
Thirdly though, we are taught to be on guard in our faith. I don’t think we want to picture ourselves as containing some of all the different soils mentioned here, but the different soils surely teach us that we must guard our heart but never trust it.
The three unfruitful soils display the work of that unholy trinity: what John would later call the world, the flesh and devil. Each one of these will seek to kill, steal, and destroy God’s work in our lives.
Secondly, let’s focus on the seed.
Notice where it’s sown. Where? Everywhere possible! In verse 19 the seed is explicitly identified as the gospel of the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. So the seed, representing the gospel, is the indiscriminate love of God, cast out into world, even in places where no one expects it to grow! Our Father, who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, casts forth the seed of his Word in all kinds of places, even downtown Hagerstown!
Shhh! If you listen carefully in this passage, if you have ears to hear, you can actually hear the sound of manuals on church marketing being slowly shredded. Here I go back to what I said earlier about the parables: this parable does not make good practical sense from a farming standpoint! Now, some have actually argued that this parable is in line with farming practicing in the first century, where fields would ploughed once, seeded, and then ploughed again, with the seed ploughed in. But notice what’s absent in the parable: ploughing of any kind! The seed is thrown everywhere. God wants to the seed of Christ go everywhere. That’s why we’re here today, in this place, in this time. And we can be confident that the Lord stands behind that. That he has sent us with his seed. The way the seed is cast tells us so.
Lastly, let’s the look at the sower (though the sower and his seed go together). The sower is, first and foremost, Jesus himself. Jesus spoke this parable (and all the parables) at a time of increasing hostility and rejection. The parable explains that reality. You see, there is a tension here in relation to the sower and his seed. Did you notice that only 25% of the seed bears good fruit (teaching us that the sower is not out for his own profit – he sows the seed at his own expense!)? BUT, in contrast, the 25% that does, bears abundant fruit (one hundred, sixty, and thirty-fold!). The sower and his message will meet opposition, there will be resistance, but his seed will absolutely without a doubt bear good fruit. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Church, in Christ, we sow, too. Listen to the words of Jeffrey Gibbs: “The ministry of the Son of God himself met with widespread rejection, animosity, and lethal opposition. That same Son of God calls his disciples to carry the cross and suffer rejection for the sake of his name as they carry out the mission until the end of the age. The Sower teaches us a sobering reality. You can be right, you can do right, and you can get it right in your participation in the ministry of Jesus, who is present as baptizing and the teaching of his Word continues – and still for many, many people to whom you minister, there will be no faith, no understanding, no discipleship. God has to give the revelation to the people, and they have to stop closing their eyes.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34) Jeffrey Gibbs
We sow in hope because we sow with good seed and have a good gardener. Sometimes it will seem like there is no grow at all. Sometimes it feel as though all we meet are plugged ears and blind eyes. Sometimes, as we might feel right now, it will seem like we’re walking backwards. But we are assured by the great Lord of the Harvest that where his seed takes root, there will be a great harvest.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Let me leave you with the encouragement given us in the hymn “Preach You the Word” by Martin Franzmann:
1. Preach you the Word and plant it home
To men who like or like it not,
The Word that shall endure and stand
When flow’rs and men shall be forgot.
2. We know how hard, O Lord, the task
Your servant bade us undertake:
To preach Your Word and never ask
What prideful profit it may make.
3. The sower sows his reckless love
Scatters abroad the goodly seed,
Intent alone that all may have
The wholesome loaves that all men need.
4. Though some be snatched and some be scorched
And some be choked and matted flat,
The sower sows; his heart cries out,
“Oh, what of that, and what of that?”
5. Of all his scattered plenteousness
One-fourth waves ripe on hill and flat,
And bears a harvest hundredfold:
“Ah, what of that, Lord, what of that!”
6. Preach you the Word and plant it home
And never faint; the Harvest Lord
Who gave the sower seed to sow
Will watch and tend His planted Word.
And so, all praise and glory be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and evermore. Amen!