Sowing isn’t easy

Matthew 13:1-23 (NIV): The Parable of the Sower


13 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. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 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.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”


Mark 4:33-34


With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.


As lockdown eases, some of us are going to have to get out of our comfy clothing.  The leggings and T-shirt.  The flip-flops.  The zoom business meetings wearing a jacket and tie and Hawaiian shorts below the desk!  Most of us have an inbuilt disposition to comfy.  Not least because most of us have had a diet crisis at the same time.


Those who have had the benefit of being Christians for a number of years know some of the Bible stories very well.  They are familiar, we have heard sermons on them and they are like that comfy well-worn sweatshirt.  We glide over the surface as we hear it read again.  No sweat.  Heard it before.  And then just suddenly some words pull us up short.  Ears prick up.  We reread the verses.  Why haven’t I seen that before?


This was my experience when reading the parable of the sower.  And then suddenly, two verses in the middle which I had never, knowingly, read before and I could hardly believe them.  They just made no sense, no correlation with everything I understood about the Christian gospel.  Then I looked again at the selected readings.  I take my hat off to those at HQ who prepare the readings.  Without being unkind, I think they did so whilst wearing their comfy leggings.  Because the reading was Matthew 13 1-8 and then 18 – 23.  They miss out the difficult bit in the middle.  Perhaps that is why I had never seen it before.


I have been brought up in the tradition of methodical exposition in preaching.  A church takes a book or a series of chapters and methodically works their way through them.  Not pick and mix.  Not just the easy stuff.  Specifically not playing to the preacher’s agendas or hobby horses.  Methodical exposition means the preacher has no choice but to face the difficult stuff.


So I asked Richard to have the complete run from the beginning to end of the parable of the sower and include the difficult stuff in the middle.  Because if we are going to grow individually and together it will be by facing the difficult stuff, understanding and learning and thereby knowing our God better.  And because if we who are kindly disposed to the Bible can’t deal with it, how can we deal with those who are cynically critical?


What is a parable


But before then, what is a parable?  None of us use that word.  Matthew 13 is the start of a number of parables.  They don’t feature previously, for example the sermon on the Mount.  But now we have the sower, then the weeds, the mustard seed, the hidden treasure and the pearl.  He tells stories to crowds listening to him, huge numbers, thousands because we also have the story of their miraculous feeding in the same period.  But he doesn’t tell them what it means.  And this is odd.


It’s like a puzzle.  Indeed a parable might better be understood as a puzzling story.  People like a puzzle.  During lockdown some of us have been dug out our jigsaws.  I remember many years ago somebody wrote a beautiful book called masquerade, a series of successive picturesque clues leading to a golden hare buried somewhere in Britain and it took more than a decade for it to be found.  Far more highbrow is the second Paddington bear film with Paddington following a series of clues around London pursued by Hugh Grant, a variation on the well-known Shakespearean stage direction


Perhaps some of the crowd listening to these puzzling stories would have understood, got it, immediately.  Specifically he told his disciples the meaning of the clues.  So these are not puzzling stories which we will only know the answer in heaven, which is how I view the book of Revelation.  And he didn’t say don’t tell anyone the meaning.  To the contrary, in the following chapter in Mark he sent out the disciples to spread the word and I’m pretty certain they would have used these parables and the explanation.


So why these puzzling stories?  I added to our readings the short passage in Mark because Jesus told them as much as they could understand.  This is an important clue.  Jesus came with a message of which there had been some forecasting from the old Testament but which was so countercultural, so different to every expectation even to those who had read the forecasts in the old Testament, still so different to everything today, that it is hard to comprehend.  Yet it is immensely simple at the same time.  A God who loves us for who we are, despite ourselves, forgives us for our failings, paid the ultimate sacrifice in doing so and wants us to love him.  Simple and yet so profound that theologians over 2000 years are still arguing.  He could not say everything all at once.  It was then a gradual revelation.


He knew the people could not take the entire message all in one go.


Jesus was also more savvy than any scheming politician.  He had a three-year ministry.  If he had not spoken in parables in the earlier years of his ministry, the persecution, trial and crucifixion would have happened earlier.  That was not God’s timing.  The people then, and we now, needed to have all that is set out in the Gospels, the life and teaching and healing ministry of Jesus.  So he did not allow them to convict him on these parables.  He was not allowing them the opportunity to stop his ministry then.  If we follow the chronology, we see that his teaching and his words become far more explicit towards the end of those three years.  One gains the impression that the parables were the earlier period.


Parables, puzzling stories, are a quite limited device.  We shouldn’t expect to find every allegorical meaning to the universe.  They are short and to the point.


There’s also something about the human mind which is far more adapt at remembering stories than underlying messages.  On a Thursday afternoon you may reflect on the sermon of the previous Sunday.  I suspect that if the preacher told an interesting story, that is what you will remember and hopefully what the story meant.  But, hey, who am I kidding.  Thursday afternoon?  Sunday lunchtime might be more often the life expectancy!  Not much has changed in 2000 years.


So we have these puzzling stories and we do remember them.  The really caring Shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for the lost one.  The person who sells all they have to buy a field which they know will produce much riches.  The mustard seed which is the smallest seed and yet produces such abundant growth.  And then the parable of the sower.  Spoken to a mostly agricultural community.  In terms they understood.  An activity in which they had engaged even that morning.  A frustration with the lack of growth from some seeds.  A harvest economy affecting the entire community.  It’s difficult to think of a more pertinent story.


The sower


A farmer goes out to sow.  Often the habit at the time, would have been to sow very widely.  No combine harvesters planting seed in narrow rows.  This seed is scattered all around, for which the farmer knew there would be different opportunities of a harvest.  The Christian gospel is not just for some communities, some countries, some people.  It is spread throughout the world and around the world.  Jesus got diversity before anyone thought of it.


And some fell on the path and the birds came and ate it.  My wife has been planting fruit and vegetable in the garden and found the strawberries had been eaten by the birds and we promptly invested in a fruit cage.  Palestinian farmers didn’t have this option.


Some fell on rocky places where there wasn’t much soil.  It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow.  No putting down roots.  The sun came, the plants were scorched and withered.


Some fell among thorns.  It grew up but was choked.  The thorns cut out the light and stopped the growth.  In any event it was impossible to harvest.


And some fell on good soil and produced a crop


And as they say, the answers will be given after the commercial break.


Most difficult verses in the Gospels


And so we come to verses 10-17, specifically 13-15.  Jesus directly quotes from Isaiah chapter 6:9-10.  Matthew refers to it as a fulfilment of Scripture and we must remember that Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish readership who would find evidence of the Messiah through old Testament writings.  I quote from the Mark version.  They may be ever seeing and never perceiving, and ever hearing and never understanding otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.


What?  Isn’t there a “not” missing?  You would have heard of the adultery Bible.  In mediaeval times a monk spent his life beautifully hand writing the entire Bible only at the end in the proofreading was it discovered that in the relevant commandment, thou shall not commit adultery, one word was unfortunately missing!


Isn’t the whole gospel exactly the opposite?  Have I missed a memo somewhere?  I thought the whole point of the gospel is that people should see and hear and understand in order that they might turn from their ways and be forgiven.  How can these verses be?  It sounds as if Jesus is deliberately excluding some people from the kingdom of God by hiding the meaning of his words


You will see why the easy comfortable way would be to miss these verses and go straight to the answer to the parable.  But we must grapple with it


The whole Bible commentaries don’t really help.  They admit the difficulty of these verses, come out with a couple of sentences and then move swiftly on.


We need to turn to more complex analysis.  Immediately there should be a danger sign.  We are entering the realm of theological study.  And theologians are a profession under themselves and apologies for any theologians in our congregation this morning.  Their writing is so dense.  You thought lawyers could write long sentences without any syntax.  Try theologians.  No one has told them about subheadings.  There are 10 and more pages without a single break of a subheading or similar.  Unfortunately in the third century or someone, theologians discovered footnotes and they adore them.  A chief prize for a theologian is to have more lines on a page within footnotes that within the text itself.  So beware.


Theologians do agree that these verses in Matthew and Mark are some of the most, probably the most, difficult pronouncements and verses in the Gospels.  It is impossible in this short time and for me to do any sort of justice to their opinions but I will try


Some cop out altogether by saying that it was added separately and Jesus did not say this.  I can’t accept this.  It appears in two different Gospels which we know came from different sources.


Some analyse the context in which Isaiah wrote from which Jesus is quoting.  That doesn’t hold up in my opinion.  We know quoting a text out of context is a pretext.  I do not believe a God of integrity would do that


Some argue about concealment and Revelation found in the Gospels.  I think that is getting somewhere.  Parables, puzzling stories, are all about gradual revelation.  I think there may be something in this.


Some look at the reference to the so-called secrets of the kingdom of God in both Matthew and Mark.  We know the kingdom of God is a phrase used meaningfully by Jesus.  But secrets of the kingdom of God don’t really appear much.  It reeks of Indiana Jones.  Secrets is the word in the new international version.  Other versions use mystery.  Now we are getting somewhere.  This word appears in the old Testament and in the writings of Paul.  Mystery here is God’s divine plan for mankind’s salvation hidden since the fall of man but now revealed in Jesus Christ.  Concealment and revelation.  When Isaiah wrote, the salvation through Christ was still concealed.  But now in Jesus it finds its revelation.


I don’t say this is the complete answer to this set of difficult verses.  We cannot ignore the difficulty.  On their face these words are contrary to everything else we read in the Gospels and what Paul wrote.  I believe that in these post-resurrection times, today and the last 2000 years, the Isaiah passage no longer applies.  It was a puzzle without an answer..  Now, post-resurrection and arrival of the Holy Spirit and having his word in the Bible, everyone can be seeing and perceiving, hearing and understanding, turn and be forgiven.


And for this they need the seed.  So we turn to the puzzle


The meaning


Before we get to the sowing itself, what is the seed?  It is the word of God.  It is the message of salvation.  It why Jesus came, was born, lived, died and was born again.  It’s the message of the universe of our creation.  This is the seed.  And the sower is Jesus.


So what’s it got to do with us?  Jesus sows.  It’s his message.  The response is what happens to different people when they receive his word.  We don’t seem to be involved.  Or are we?


One of the most amazing aspects, a truly amazing mystery, is that Christ wants to work with us, to share in the work of spreading the good news, to do it in partnership with us.  Jean spoke about it last week.  And God invites us to be fellow partners with him in the work of the gospel.


So I believe we have a fundamental role to play in how the seed responds.  To help people respond positively to the Christian message.  To make it more likely they will be receptive.  So how?


Seed falls on the path and is eaten up by the birds.  Jesus said any who did not understand the message or make the effort to embrace the truth would find the evil one snatches away what little they did hear.  I believe the challenge for us is how we communicate and then how we help Christians grow and so prevent being snatched away.  First communication.  We must communicate in the language of those who will be listening, in the style and in the manner in which they will be listening.  Otherwise it will be lost in translation even though the same language.  Because generations struggle to communicate between generations.  It has been ever thus but it is dramatically accentuated now.  Generation Z born before 1995 have quite different characteristics to millennial’s and in turn with generation X.  Then there are the baby boomers.  Different understandings, different use of language, different meanings of the same word.  Different platforms to receive.  This is a huge topic but vital for our mission.  We cannot communicate as if we were a first century sower or even a 1960s Billy Graham evangelist.  It is so hard now and we have to work hard for the sake of the gospel.  Secondly helping those who have heard to grow.  If they are at risk because they don’t understand the message then we need better to help understanding.  How are we teaching young Christians?  Particularly those, and most will be, without any prior Christian background or knowledge?  How do we get good understanding and early growth for those who are taking an interest in Christianity, coming along to our church whether a building or online?  I throw out that challenge to us.


The seed on rocky ground is the person who receives the word of God with joy but does not apply it to their life.  They don’t dig deep into a Christian understanding.  It might just be experience-based and some of us are critical of experience-based Christianity.  It might be, conversely, simple factual acknowledgement of Christianity without experiencing the joy and life of the Holy Spirit and that is far closer to home for many of us.  It’s all about putting down roots.  Creating stability.  Because Jesus says that when a time of difficulty arises, hardship or persecution or just the turmoil of ordinary everyday life, that person is at risk of abandoning their faith.  We all need to put down roots in our Christian life and experience.  We need to help each other do so.  Sharing is vital.  We become stronger Christians when we learn from each other.  We build each other up, put down greater roots for each other, when we talk about answered prayer, the Lord bringing us through a time of difficulty, of the encouragement from reading a word in the Bible or an inspiring book or maybe an encouraging social media posting.  Whatever it is for you, share it with the rest of us.


We planted a row of half a dozen small trees at home.  But they haven’t been growing very well.  So a week ago my wife dug half a dozen holes about 2 feet deep around each tree and put in some horrid smelling powder.  No idea what it contained.  But apparently it stimulates growth by reaching down right into the roots.  We need to do the same for ourselves and each other.  So that when difficult times come, the scorching sun, we will remain true and firm


Seed sown amongst the thorns.  The person hears and receives the word but doesn’t love God above all else.  The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word and makes it unfruitful.  The secular world pulls the person away from faith.  Oh what a challenge for our materialistic world.  In north-west Europe, in south-east England, in south-west Surrey.  How hard is it for a wealthy man and woman to go through the eye of the needle?  I mentioned generation Z.  Huge generalisation but one characteristic is they demand authenticity.  Greta Thunberg encapsulates this.  She says to world leaders it’s no use saying you are concerned about climate change unless you do something about it.  Be authentic.  Be true.  And generation Z and others are looking at us in this church, as Christians and asking if we are living authentic lives.  So I ask.  Are we putting our priorities into our materialism, our careers, our status and all that outwardly seems to protect us from the cares and worries of this life?  Because if that’s how it looks, we are not helping the seed sown amongst thorns, we are not helping authentic Christianity, and we are incidentally putting our own Christian lives at risk.  Review our priorities and how our lives look


And then the seed falls on good soil, a person hears and understands.  And what’s the evidence, the outward sign?  It bears fruit.  We will see the fruits of the spirit in our lives.  We will see changed lives.  Authentic lives.  We are not saved by works, by the good things we do.  But these good things, the fruit, is the outward sign and it will happen.


And please don’t get fussed by comparing yourself with others.  Look, it says seeds may produce a crop of 30 or of a hundred.  Both great.  Don’t compare.  Don’t let it get you down.  It’s your walk with God that matters to him, not comparing yourself with another.


So we have a vital role to play.  We may not be the sower of the seed.  But we are most definitely the fertiliser spreader, to help the seed to grow


And as we close, our work in the gospel partnership is to make possible every opportunity for everyone to hear the gospel in their own words in their own understanding and their own best way of receiving, to give them good understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to put roots down, to give encouragement when times are difficult and to live authentic lives putting God as our number one priority and not rely on the cares and materialism of this world.  And then we will bear fruit and God promises a wonderful harvest.

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