Genesis 25:19-34 | Matthew 13:1-9
Following through Matthew’s gospel, chapters 12 and 13 mark a key moment in the story. In the opening chapters we have the birth of Jesus, his baptism and temptation; the calling of the first disciples and the start of his ministry, proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Then we had the sermon on the mount; a block of teaching, describing the life of the kingdom, the upside down rules, loving your enemy, going the extra mile, doing to other as you would have them do to you. By this point, Jesus is speaking to crowds – word of his teaching has spread, and many come to hear.
After the sermon on the mount, chapters 8 and 9 describe a number of healings, which serve to further increase Jesus’ fame and popularity, to increase further the number of people wanting to hear him speak, and so in Chapter 10 we have the 12 disciples sent out to spread the word more widely.
To this point, the story of Jesus’ ministry is basically forwards all the way, growing spreading, reaching more and more people, welcomed by those who heard.
But in Chapter 12, we start to get the first hint of opposition – as I mentioned last week, stories of the Pharisees starting to be critical of Jesus and his disciples; challenging them for picking and eating corn on the Sabbath, and then attacking Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. And Jesus’ answer “the son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath” isn’t exactly one designed to calm them down. The whole chapter is about opposition, argument. And then at the end of Chapter 12, Jesus family show up, trying to take him home.
You get the sense that Jesus’ ministry which, up to this point, had been popular but generally uncontroversial, has suddenly reached some sort of tipping point; attracted the attention of those who have influence; and that attention is not all favourable.
And so Chapter 13 begins “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake”. Perhaps he needed a break. Perhaps he needed to think. For the first time, his message was being met with concerted, organised, opposition. But if he wanted time to himself, it didn’t happen. Such a crowd gathered that he had to take a boat out on the lake to speak. And when he spoke, he spoke, for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, in parables.
I guess we’re so used to hearing the parables of Jesus that it’s easy to miss the change: up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching has been plain: difficult, for sure, controversial, perhaps, but plain language. But now he changes style, and teaches in parables.
Now if someone were to ask my “why did Jesus use parables in his teaching?”, I guess two main reasons would come to my mind. Firstly, as any good teacher knows well, when we discover something for ourselves, it is far more significant and memorable than when we are just told the answer – so the wrapping of eternal truth in a parable, by making it a little harder to see and understand, makes it more likely that those willing to make the effort to seek will internalise what they find.
And secondly, stories can speak truths about the human nature in a way that simple propositions cannot: as has been very truly said, if you want to learn about people, a good novel will teach far more than a psychology text…
But when the disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables, as they do in the very next verse, he doesn’t give either of these answers. His answer, instead, is both cryptic and disturbing. Let me read the next few verses of Matthew 13:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘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 those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”
It’s a strange reply, more cryptic in itself than the parable was. But the message seems to be that part of the purpose of parables is that some who hear will not understand: seeing they will not perceive, hearing they do not listen, nor understand… And Jesus continues by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
By speaking in parables, Jesus tells his followers, the prophecy is fulfilled: the truth will be hidden.
But not from all; not from them. The truth is hidden from those who have shut their eyes, chosen not to hear, those who have chosen not to receive the secrets of the kingdom, who will listen but not hear, look but not see.
Now think back to the parable itself, and something else emerges: The parable, as Jesus will go on to explain it, is all about the way that people respond to hearing the word of God, the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. The meaning of the parable is exactly the same as the reason Jesus gives for using parables: that different people, hearing the same words, can end up with very different outcomes.
In other words, in this, Jesus’ first parable in Matthew’s gospel, he’s actually describing the effect that parables have. It is a parable about hearing parables.
So as, over the next few weeks, we hear more of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, we need to keep the sower and the seed – and the soil – in mind.
For some will always be the path – they won’t even notice the seed, won’t take the trouble to listen, to hear what Jesus has to say.
And others will respond with enthusiasm but no depth, and no perseverance; they’ll hear, and they’ll get it, but it won’t last. Come hardship, they’ll decide the words of Jesus are too hard to live by.
Others will also initially respond to Jesus’ teaching, but for them the words will be driven out by other alternatives; by temptation, by opportunity; Jesus’ way will be rejected simply because it is inconvenient, it gets in the way.
And of course, this is exactly what happened in the ministry of Jesus – many heard him speak, some walked away, some followed for a while, some left when the going got tough.
But some – perhaps not many – but enough – heard, took it in, and chose to stick with the way of the kingdom.
And those were the ones who made a difference.
All of which is to say: be good soil. As we explore the parables of Jesus and the teaching of the kingdom, don’t just listen: hear. And I don’t mean “hear me” – I wouldn’t dare to so presume. I mean hear the voice of God, the creative, empowering, challenging, correcting, living word of God as we read the scriptures and reflect upon them. Take the time, the trouble, to listen for God. And act upon what you hear: don’t be the man who, as James described it, looks in the mirror and then forgets what he looks like – take what you hear, what you learn, and do something with it. Put it into practice.
And then stick with it. Even if it gets hard, even if newer and shinier alternatives present themselves.
Be bountiful. You will grow a great harvest for the kingdom of God.