READ : Matthew 13:10-17
You know why Jesus told so many stories, don’t you? It was to engage and entertain his audience (unlike so many boring sermons); it was to make his teaching clear and memorable (unlike so many obscure lectures). Or was it?
“And he told them many things in parables.” So Matthew introduces the 13th chapter of his gospel, a chapter full of parables. Perhaps you learned the definition of a parable long ago in Sunday school, as I did: it’s “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus’ stories do have common-place settings. They are about familiar subjects and experiences: farming, trade, family life. But through these simple stories about ordinary people and everyday life Jesus communicates deep truths about God and salvation. They seem so simple, but are they? Why did Jesus use so many parables?
Well, as I said, Matthew 13 is a whole chapter of parables and they are about the kingdom of God, that is, about the presence, power, and authority of God breaking into our world. Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God because he was the King. God’s reign came into people’s lives through Jesus. Wherever people accepted him and began to follow him, the kingdom began to be visible. Whenever people heard his Word and believed it, they were brought into the kingdom.
The Sower, the Seed and the Soils
Matthew 13 opens with the famous parable of the sower, or as it’s sometimes called, “the Parable of the Soils.” It’s about the farmer who went out to plant his fields by broadcasting the seed over the ground. (By the way, did you know that’s the original meaning of the term? Broadcasting literally means to cast the seed broadly over the ground.) But broadcasting is an inefficient method of planting. As the seed is scattered some of it falls on bad ground – on the hard-beaten path, where the birds come along and eat the seed; some falls in stoney, shallow soil, where it doesn’t really take root and quickly dies out; some falls among the thorn- and weed-infested patches where the life of the plants is choked out. Much of the farmer’s seed seems to be wasted. Only the seeds that happen to land on the good soil spring up, flourish, and produce a harvest.
But what does Jesus mean by this story? That’s what his disciples want to know (see Luke 8:9). And they come and ask him. And Jesus very helpfully provides them (and us) with an explanation. The parable of the sower and the soils is one of the few stories Jesus told where he also explained what he meant. It’s all about God’s Word and how people hear it. The seed represents the Word (Matthew 13:19); the different soils show different ways of responding or of hearing. So the hard-packed soil stands for someone who hears the Word but “does not understand it,” and rejects it: the response of no response.
The shallow soil represents an enthusiastic but shallow response. This is the person who hears the gospel and makes an initial profession of faith, but who doesn’t persevere and endure through hardships and trials.
Then there’s the soil thick with thorns and thistles, which picture the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” (v. 22) – all the things that can crowd God out of our lives. Finally, says Jesus, some of the seed fell on good, rich, productive soil, where it took root, grew to healthy maturity, and produced an abundant harvest.
As we saw last week in our study of this parable, Jesus uses the metaphor of the Sower and the different soils to challenge everyone who hears the Word of God – the gospel – to respond to it with repentance, faith, and obedience. It’s not enough just to listen politely or respond superficially. The Word needs to bear lasting fruit. It must transform our lives from beginning to end.
But Why Parables?
Though the parable of the Sower may seem straightforward to us, it mystified Jesus’ disciples. They not only wanted to know what this parable meant, they wanted to know why Jesus told so many parables in the first place. “Then the disciples came,” writes Matthew, “and said to him, ‘Why do you speak in parables?'” (v. 10). Now listen to Jesus’ strange reply.
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
We all know the reason Jesus told so many parables, don’t we? It was to illustrate his message, drive the point home to his audience, make the truth come alive, help everyone to understand and remember his teaching, right? Abraham Lincoln, himself a great story-teller, said that God told the truth in parables “because they are easier for the common folk to understand and recollect.” But that’s not what Jesus says. In response to the disciples’ question Jesus says, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (v. 13). Then he quotes Isaiah’s words about people who hear but don’t understand, who see but don’t perceive, whose eyes and ears are closed, whose hearts are dull:
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them. (v. 15)
It sounds as if Jesus is saying that he teaches with parables not to help people understand the truth but to keep them from understanding. How can that be?
We may be sure that Jesus does not mean he wants to be intentionally confusing, or that he hopes no one will understand him, or open their hearts to his message, and repent and be saved. John the evangelist speaks for all the New Testament writers when he says near the end of his gospel that these words “are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The purpose of the whole Bible is to bring about saving faith in Jesus.
But the purpose of the parables is to teach us another fundamental truth about such faith. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom,” Jesus says to his disciples. In other words, faith is a gift! If you are a believer, don’t pat yourself on the back thinking, “I’m so glad that I’m the good soil that Jesus talks about. I am producing such fruit.” The power of salvation, the life-giving miracle, isn’t in the soil, it’s in the seed. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear,” Jesus tells them. If our eyes do see him and love him, if our ears do hear and believe, it’s not because we’re so clever, it’s because we’re so blessed. And the only thing to do is thank God for it.
Hearing and Speaking
This truth about faith is something we must remember whenever we hear God’s Word. We all have a tendency to listen to a preacher or a Bible teacher and pass judgment: Is the message interesting? Does it move me? But the fact is, we don’t judge the Word; the Word judges us. Every time you hear or read the Word of God your life is coming under scrutiny. And the great question is this: Is there any fruit?
The tendency for Christians reading the parable of the Sower is to think it describes four different kinds of people – three bad ones, and then us. But Jesus tells the story to us because we are each of those soils, at one time or another. Isn’t it true? Sometimes we hear the word and it just bounces off; sometimes we respond with temporary enthusiasm but no lasting obedience; oftentimes we allow the world to distract us and stunt our spiritual growth.
If we want the word to produce results in us we need to approach it with the psalmist’s prayer: “Lord, open my eyes, that I may see wonderful things in your Law” (Psalm 119:). We ought to be praying every time we open the Bible, every time we go to church, for seeing eyes and listening ears and responsive hearts, saying, “Lord, let your word do its work in my life. Make of me good soil.”
We also need to remember this lesson whenever we have an opportunity of speaking to someone about Jesus, or sharing God’s word with others. Though many, or even most, may reject our message, some will believe. There will be good soil for the word – God will see to that. You know, I think about this every week in our ministry at Words of Hope. After all, what do we do? We broadcast the seed of God’s word – literally. We have no idea where all it goes, or into what kind of soil it falls. But we know this: the word has power to save, and it will most certainly do that for those who hear it with faith. It will have results. So let’s keep on sowing, and be encouraged.