“He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:9)
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9)
This is the hallmark of all the parables. Its important for 2 reasons: it his first parable and Jesus interprets this one for us, and when he does he calls it, “The Parable of the Sower.” Now the parable of the Sower rolls out in 3 steps – and it’s is important that we note each of the three steps. (1) Jesus tells the parable, (2) Jesus explains why he talks in parables, (3) Jesus explains the meaning of the parable. That sequence is important if we want to understand the parable.
Step 1: Jesus tells the parable. Now, as I mentioned last week, over familiarization is our biggest road block to understanding most of Jesus’ parables.
“As a result of 2000 years of familiarity, We find it oddly redundant. We assume the disciples must of been pretty stupid to not understand such a simple story. And to us the parable seems so obvious that the interpretation sounds like nothing but a belaboring of the obvious.” Capon
Try to imagine what it would be like to have heard this parable for the first time, without already knowing the interpretation. Jesus tells a story using themes that everyone present would have been very familiar with. Farmers, seeds, soil, and sowing. I bet there might have even been a few farmers in the crowd with a bag of seed thrown over there shoulders. So there they all are, gathered around Jesus, and he randomly launches into this story. “The sower sows his seed and some fell here, and some fell there, and the weeds choked, and the birds ate, but some seeds grew and produced lots of fruit. The end.” Don’t you see that this parable would make no sense at all without Jesus’ interpretation. Clearly the people and the disciples would have been completely lost.
Step 2. Now, the disciples know that Jesus doesn’t normal say things just for the sake of saying things, so they’re certain there’s more going on here. This must mean something. What does it all mean? So they ask him, “Why are you talking in riddles?” And Jesus answers in, what seems like, more riddles.
“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… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11-17 ESV)
Step 3: Jesus interprets the parable for them.
“Hear then the parable of the sower: 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. 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. 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. 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.” (Matthew 13:18-23)
Now I don’t know if you noticed this, but even though Jesus explained the meaning, his explanation doesn’t erase all of our questions. In fact, I now have more questions. So now – it feel like we need Jesus to explain the meaning of the meaning.
DISCUSSION: Explain the meaning. What element of the story most troubles you?
Descriptive not Prescriptive
Now the way we normally discuss this parable is to organize and categorize these 4 types of soils. We put the 4 types up on the board and then ask something like, “Which one are you?” And our inclination is to ask, “Now how can I try harder to be the good soil?” But may I suggest that soil can do nothing to make itself better? There are two ways to interpret the parable: prescriptive or descriptive. Is this parable prescriptive or descriptive?
A prescriptive interpretation means that Jesus is prescribing something for you to do. Here is your prescription: “Don’t let the birds eat you, don’t let the weeds choke you. Make sure your soil is good. Don’t be a road.” If the parable is prescriptive, it will naturally lead us to ask questions about who’s saved and who’s not. That’s always fun. If you look at these 4 categories of soil, I think, it’s pretty obvious that the first is not saved and the last is for sure saved. But – what about the middle two? It’s not so clear is it? I mean, if they received the message, if they accepted it, then doesn’t that mean that they must be saved? Then we will say something like, “Well, maybe the third category (those choked by the cares of the world), they could still be saved, maybe their just carnal Christians. After all – Jesus simply says they “bear no fruit.” But what about the 2nd category? No way. they cant be saved, (those who wilt in the face of persecution), clearly they where never saved to begin with.”
Believe me, there has been a lot of ink spilled on who’s in and who not. But… don’t you see how distracting all of that is. Jesus never said anything about salvation. He is not talking about who’s in and who’s not. He doesn’t even give a single command. No prescription. That is why I don’t think this parable should be interpreted prescriptively. It’s not prescriptive, its descriptive. What does that mean? Jesus is not giving us a prescription of what we should do. He is describing the way things are. He is describing what happens when the word is sown and how it is heard. And believe me — it’s all about hearing. Hearing is believing. How do we hear the message? You know, Jesus is fond of saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear.” He said that at the end of this parable as well. That is why it is important to keep this parable in its context with the 3 steps. Step 1: Jesus told the parable, step 2: Jesus explains why he talks in parables, and Step 3: Jesus explains the parable. Notice the repetition of the concept of hearing in step 2:
“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… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:11-17)
Do you see the emphasis? Did you hear it? Seeing and hearing is clearly emphasized in the telling of parables. Then, in step 3, he explains the parable, not by saying, “Let me explain it to you,” but by saying, “HEAR THEN THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER…” It’s all about hearing.
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not understand it… (Matthew 13:18)
Hearing is Believing
So, we need to hear this parable. Do we hear it? The first thing we are told is that there is a sower. Jesus does not tell us who that is. Next, we are told that this sower has seed and very specifically Jesus tells us that the seed is “the word.” Here in Matthew he calls it the word of the Kingdom, in Luke it is the “word of God,” and in Mark it is simply “the word.” Do you hear that? What do you hear when you hear “THE WORD?” We often say that Jesus is the sower, and the thing that he is sowing is the message, or the Gospel, or the bible. But – what if, when we hear “the word” instead of hearing the Gospel we heard Jesus the Word. Jesus is the Word, right? The term Jesus uses is Logos, the same term John uses when he describes Jesus as the Word made flesh.
“Do you see what that says? It says, first of all, that the sower is God the Father, not Jesus. What Jesus turns out to be– since he is the word– is the seed sown.” Capon
If you think about that, it is actually a better fit because, like the seed, Jesus will die and be buried and it is in his dying and resurrecting that the Kingdom comes. Jesus at other instances actually likens himself to a seed that must die and be buried.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
So what does that do to our parable? The purpose of this parable, then, is to prepare hearers that the Messiah, and his Kingdom, is not at all what they have been expecting. The Messiah is not a warrior riding in on a swift steed to destroy all of our enemies and set up his new, perfect, complete Kingdom. Instead the Messiah is a seed. A seed who’s primary purpose is simply to die and be buried in the field. He will not bring in his Kingdom by force. The Kingdom is already here. It is hidden and camouflaged in the guise of a tiny little seed that disappears in the earth. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.
How should we respond to this parable? Let me start by stepping away from the parable for a minute to talk about the Kingdom of God. It is very clear that one of the primary things that Jesus is trying to teach us through the parables is that the Kingdom of God is a hidden paradoxical Mystery. So, what is the Kingdom of God? It is the reign of God on the earth, where he makes all the wrongs right and he puts all the baddies in their place. In God’s Kingdom the lion will lay down with the lamb and the weapons of war will be beat into plowshares. Why is that a mystery? Well, because the assumption goes:
If the Bible is about an almighty, all-smart God, why is it so full of divine indirection and delay? Or to say it flat out: if God wants to turn this messed-up world into a city or a Kingdom, why doesn’t he just knock some heads together, put all the baddies under a large, flat rock, and get on with the job? Capon
Thats a great question. The answer, simply put, is this – that is just not how God is going to do it. We will talk more about that in the weeks to come, as we look at the other parables of the Kingdom, but for today let me just say that God has decidedly taken a hands off approach. He is not going to knock heads together. Instead he is going to accomplish his mission and establish his Kingdom through small, underwhelming, paradoxical ways. Which is why Jesus tells us over and over and over again that the Kingdom is hidden, it’s small, and it’s paradoxical. Up is down and down is up and the only way to get up is to go down and the only way to live is to die and the way to first place is to be last.
The Kingdom of God will not be establish the way most Kingdoms are established with armies and an iron fist. Rather, Jesus the Messiah will establish his Kingdom through the hidden mysterious paradoxical act of dying. This watershed parable is instructing us how we should hear all the parables of the Kingdom, specifically, that Jesus’ Kingdom is hidden in a mysterious and paradoxical way.
My mother used to tell me that I only hear what I want to hear. That is also true when it comes to the message of the Kingdom. Jesus describes how different people hear what they want. Some hear it with a hard heart, some with a shallow heart, some with a divided heart and some with an open heart.
Some people hear the message of the Kingdom with a hard heart. They may hear it on a very intellectual level and just can’t wrap their minds around this hidden paradoxical mystery. The hard hearted can not receive the message so the birds eat it. Satan does not want Jesus’ Kingdom to be established and he certainly doesn’t want you to be a part of it. Others hear it with a shallow heart. They hear what they want to hear. Jesus is going to bless them.
“They wanted a blesser not a savior. A sugar daddy not a king. They never transferred their trust from self to Jesus.” Keller
So when troubles and persecutions come, when the wind blows and the sun gets hot, there is not enough root to sustain the shallow hearted. You might say, “They can’t take the heat.” Then there are those with a divided heart. They do have root and there is some growth, but worries and, Jesus says, “the deceitfulness of riches” make it impossible for them to bear fruit. They know too much, they have root, so they get it, which means there’s no going back, but it is clear that they are not moving forward. Finally some hear the hidden paradoxical mystery of the Kingdom with an open heart. They receive the message, they are not divided, so they move forward and produce fruit.
You see, this parable is not so much a prescription on how you should bear fruit it’s a description of how different people hear what they want to hear. Specifically its a warning to not hear what you want to hear but to hear what you need to hear. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.
Hostility and Response
But, it is also very obvious that you can not read this parable and not immediately think of yourself and how you should respond. There is a definite feeling that we are supposed to hear something and therefore respond in someway. Of course, all the parables are told for that purpose. They do require a response. The Kingdom of God requires a response. So, how should we respond.
Well, first – it seems that most of the world will respond with hostility. 3 out of 4 to be precise. But here is the fascinating thing about that. All the hostility in the world does not shake the Sower. He just goes on sowing, and by and by, through it all, the Word (Jesus) is sown (dies) and he accomplish his mission to establish his Kingdom. For instance, lets talk about those birds. When the seed lands on the road, it can not take root and the birds eat it. The Bible often reminds us that even the demons know who Jesus is. They recognize Jesus for who he really is even when no one else does.
So he eats it and snatches it away – thinking that his hostility has in someway hindered the Kingdom. But…
“Animal indigestion and excretion of seeds is one of nature’s way of ensuring their distribution. So – the effective power of the word is not lessened even though the devil may try to digest it for his own purposes and turn it into offal. The Word, like the seed, still works on its own terms.” Capon
In fact, if I can push this where I believe Jesus is going to continue to push it in the parables that follow, even when the religious good guys go so far as to kill him, thinking they have in some way managed to shut up this so called King of the Jews, they in fact, like the birds, actually serve his cause. By killing him, they actually aid in his mysterious plan to be buried. I love this! Robert Capon says that all the hostility is “aced out” by Jesus.
“Whatever needs to be said about hostility to the Word– about its power and function in the Gospels or about the presumed menace it poses in our own day – the first thing to be insisted on is that all the antagonism in the world has already been aced out by Jesus. Not overcome by force as we would have done– not bludgeoned into submission or out of existence– but precisely aced out: finessed, tricked into doing God’s thing when all the while it thought it was doing it’s own thing.” Capon
So, the bottom line is that Jesus, the Word, is sown by dying, and it is in his death that the Kingdom is made manifest. And… it is in his death that you and I come to believe what we have heard, specifically, that God has so loved the word that he gave his only Son, so that who every believes should have everlasting life. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.
The Parable of the Sower is a warning to take heed how you hear. How will you hear? Listen to what Jesus is saying. He is telling us that his Kingdom comes through the mystery of dying. He says, don’t hear what you want to hear. Will you listen and enter into my Kingdom through the paradoxical mystery of dying or are you just trying to get me to enter into your Kingdom. Jesus says,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28 ESV)
He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.