I’m currently working my way through the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13 on Sunday mornings. The word parable comes from a verb which means to throw down or place side by side. You take a spiritual truth that is difficult to understand and you lay alongside of it a common, everyday story and the spiritual truth suddenly becomes real.
But only for some.
You see the purpose of Jesus’ parables is to both reveal and conceal truth. To those who are spiritual unresponsive – those who don’t care, the meaning remains hidden. But to those who are receptive, who want to understand, the meaning is made clear. This is why Jesus interpreted these parables in private, to his disciples alone. They were receptive to the truth of God. So Jesus explained their meaning.
That tells us something about how God values truth. He doesn’t like throwing it at people who don’t want it. In other words, he’s not one to cast pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). That also tell us we should value God’s truth and always be receptive to it. Otherwise its meaning may be hid from us.
Now what is unique about this set of parables is that they are tied together by one unifying theme: the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the sphere of God’s rule in the universe. It involves not only the church but also the world in which the church is placed. The disciples had a lot of misconceptions about what the kingdom of God was going to be like. They expected that the kingdom would come in glory and power. They expected cataclysmic events: the overthrow of the Roman Empire and a blazing display of God’s power and glory culminating with Jesus being crowned as King. But that’s not what they were seeing. Jesus says to them, “The kingdom is coming in a form you don’t understand. It’s not going to be in the way you are expecting. So let me explain it to you.”
The first parable he gives is the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23). It was a story his audience could easily identify with. Perhaps in the distance they saw, on the Galilean hillside, a farmer at work, sowing kernels of barley or wheat. They may even have walked past his field on the way to the lake shore. Israel was an agrarian society. Many in his audience were likely to be farmers themselves.
The farmer would have his grain in a bag slung around his neck. Then he would walk his field, in rhythmic steps and throw his seed in the air. Some would land on the path bordering the field. Some would fall in the shallow soil where rocks and stone protruded through the earth. And some would drop amidst thorns and weeds. And some would fall in good soil.
The people listening understood the scene. The seed gets flung everywhere. The farmer doesn’t have any control as to where it lands or whether or not it all takes root. He knows the birds will pick some of it up from the path, he knows the limestone rocks littering his field will prevent some of the seed taking root, and he knows later in spring time, the thorns and weeds would come to life and choke out the wheat. The farmer is not too concerned about any of this. He’s only looking forward to one thing: the harvest, when the wheat had grown and he could bring in his crop. An average yield in those days could be tenfold. A thirtyfold return would be considered a bumper crop. A sixtyfold return would be extremely rare. And a hundredfold return was unheard of.
Jesus had his hearer’s attention. This is an abundant harvest. Then he winds it all up in verse 9 with the words, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Now imagine you were part of that vast crowd. So far Jesus hasn’t said anything you don’t already know. And you’ve probably travelled a long way to hear him. He gets to the end and says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” And you’re left thinking, “Huh?”
Later, the disciples come to him privately. They want to know the meaning of the parable. So in verses 18-23 Jesus gives it to them.
The sower, we are told later in verse 37 is the Son of Man – it is the Lord Jesus Himself and by extension, all who faithfully proclaim the gospel.
The seed, we are told in verse 19 is the word of the kingdom. It is the Word of God, the gospel, divinely revealed and passed down to us by the Apostles.
The soils are human hearts. And they are described in four different ways:
The hard heart
“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.” (13:19)
The hard heart is like the path that is trampled on so many times by so many feet over the years it causes the soil to compact and become impenetrable. The seed falls on this soil, bounces, and just sits there. Then the birds come and take it away.
Some people are like this. They hear the gospel, and they hear about the love of God, and how Jesus suffered on the cross for them and bore their sin, but it means nothing to them. They are not moved by these things in the slightest. There is no feeling, no sense and no response. And then, before the Word can have any effect upon the soul, the devil, like a bird comes and snatches it away.
Maybe you are one of these hearts. The truth can’t penetrate because you won’t let it penetrate. You have hardened yourself against God and Christianity. You don’t want anything to do with it.
The shallow heart
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (13:20–21)
The shallow heart is represented by the rocky ground. When the seed fell there it sank in, but only to a shallow depth. It sprang up quickly, but faded just as fast. That is because it had no root.
This is the picture of the almost-Christian. Initially, when he first hears the message, he is really excited about what he hears. “This is great,” he exclaims, “I never understood the bible like this before. I feel so good when I come to church.” But then the enthusiasm begins to fade. Things in his life don’t go well. Opposition arises. Friends and family members begin questioning his newly found faith. His social life takes a hit. Who wants to hang-out with a Jesus-freak? The implications of putting Jesus first are beginning to be a little too radical. And so, like the plant under the hot sun in shallow soil, he withers and falls away. It’s a superficial profession of faith. It doesn’t last. It’s not real. It’s only temporary.
Beware: just being in the church or even being exciting about the Bible is not enough. It does not make you a Christian. Yours may be the shallow heart. Yours may be the rocky soil.
The strangled heart
The third kind of soil represents what I call the strangled or choked heart. Jesus describes this kind of heart in verse 22:
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (13:22)
The soil in which the seed is sown is not hard like the trodden path nor shallow like the rocky places. No, this is good soil – fertile and moisture retaining. The only drawback is the soil has other residents, other roots. It is amongst thorns. Later on, these thorns grow up around the newly planted seedling and choke it out.
So what are these ‘thorns’? Jesus says they are cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches – the relentless, parasitic, choking weeds of worldly pleasure and greed and materialism. There is nothing inherently sinful about a nice car or house or overseas trips. The problem is with the human heart. It is the love of these things over and above love for Jesus. The cares of this world are of more concern to this person than the cares of God’s church and lost souls. The heart becomes stifled, strangled, smothered so that it cannot grow. It cannot produce fruit. And eventually it withers and dies.
The receptive heart
There is another way. There is another way to respond to the Word of God and the good news of the Kingdom. That is found in verse 23. It’s the good soil.
“As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23)
This is the receptive heart. It receives the gospel like good soil receives seed. It understands the word. The implications of the gospel – of Christ’s death and resurrection, the grace and mercy of God, the forgiveness of sin, the need for the new birth, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit for holy living are fully grasped and internalized.
Do you see the application for us here? It is very plain isn’t it? Jesus has made it plain. Understand the gospel. Embrace the liberating power of forgiveness through faith in him. Be set free from love of sin, love of the world, and slavery to Satan. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t choose the fleeting pleasures of sin when deep and lasting joys are offered to you in Christ. Don’t respond superficially, unthinkingly or emotionally. You’ll have your first encounter with opposition or persecution and all that enthusiasm will leak out of your faster than a punctured tyre. Run to Jesus. Receive with gladness the implanted word. Believe in the Lord Jesus and trust him with all your heart. Don’t trust in the bankrupt riches of this world. Your riches will take wings and soon fly away. Earthly treasures never last. Trust instead in the immeasurable riches in Christ.
This is the way God works in this invisible Kingdom – by His Word. And these are the ways in which people respond – some with a hard heard, some with a shallow heart, some with a strangled heart and some with a receptive heart.
The question for you reader, is how do you respond to the Word – with belief or unbelief, a receptive ear or unreceptive ear, a hungry heart or a cold heart? Don’t underestimate the importance of hearing truth. Your eternal destiny depends upon it.
He who has ears, let him hear.