Female disciples of Jesus are introduced. Parables are explained as revealing truth to those seeking and hiding the truth from those who are opposed.
Female disciples of Jesus are introduced. Parables are explained as revealing truth to those seeking and hiding the truth from those who are opposed.
Hello and welcome to Series 5 Episode 8 and this is ‘The Parable of the Sower.’ Our main text is going to be in Matthew 13: 1 - 23 but we're also going to look, briefly, at one of the parallel accounts at the beginning of Luke 8.
Introduction and Recap
We're now well established in Series 5, which is the second tour of Galilee that Jesus undertook, and before then, of course, we saw the Sermon on the Mount, in Series 4, and before that, in Series 3, the first tour of Galilee. This time in Series 5, with a second tour of Galilee, there are a number of key themes that are emerging. One is the significance of the fact that he's now appointed twelve Apostles; he's training them and he's shortly going to release them to work as partners with him, but separate from him - he's going to send them out in pairs. We see this in the texts coming up in forthcoming episodes.
A second theme that has emerged which we've been looking at in recent episodes, is the increasing and intense conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. In the last two episodes, this came to a head with a major confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees when they accused him of being a false messiah and operating with demonic power rather than through the Spirit of the Living God. This provoked a really strong reaction from Jesus and he warned them (and all who followed them) that there was a terrible danger of them resisting his Messiahship that would lead to judgement, not just on them but on the nation of Israel as well. It's been quite a challenging part of the narrative to consider. Conflict is in the air, tension is in the air and the crowds are confused, not really sure which way to go: many people keen to follow Jesus; many of them loyal to their religious teachers and leaders like the Pharisees. Jesus is travelling around with his twelve Apostles and we get a glimpse of the wider group of people with whom he travels in this particular episode.
We're, in fact, going to read the account of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew, which has slightly more detail, but we want to capture something about the context which is recorded beautifully in Luke's account and not recorded elsewhere. I'm going to read the Luke 8: 1-3
‘After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.’Luke 8:1-3, NIV
It's a very interesting example of female discipleship. Obviously, the central disciples are the twelve male Apostles but there are many other men and women who are considering themselves, by this time, as followers of Jesus and are sometimes on the road with him as he's travelling around. The particular focus that Luke makes here is on a number of women who have devoted their time, and also their financial resources, to support the travelling group of disciples. Where are they going to stay? What are they going to eat? How are they going to live? How are they going to buy the necessities that they need? These are very important and everyday questions for Jesus' disciples as they're on the move and, although many people were hospitable to them, they often had to make their own arrangements and they incurred costs. This is something not often discussed but it's a fairly obvious point. We find out from John's Gospel that Judas Iscariot had the responsibility for managing the finances of the group - which he didn't do very well because he stole from that corporate financial fund - but the women here are notable for the fact that they sacrificially invested their own resources. They must have been women who had some strong financial resources to be able to do that and also the freedom to travel.
We don't know all their personal circumstances, but it's worth pausing for a moment and commenting on a couple of them. We've got here, for example, Mary Magdalene who had experienced Jesus setting her free from evil oppression. In popular mythology, Mary Magdalene is sometimes described as a prostitute and sometimes described as having some kind of a special relationship with Jesus. None of this appears in the New Testament - let's be very clear about that - and so we should really stick to the picture of her given in the New Testament which is much simpler than that, and doesn't have those sinister overtones that have sometimes been added in much later on. Mary Magdalene was a sincere follower of Jesus, who'd experienced a remarkable deliverance and healing and who, very sacrificially, gave her time and finance to support the travelling group of Apostles (and she appears later on in the story, as we will find out).
The second person of interest here is ‘Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household.’ This is a very interesting description. The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Herod Antipas lived (as I've mentioned in previous episodes) by the Sea of Galilee in a large town called Tiberias, which is further south of Capernaum where Jesus based his ministry and from where he went around the country. Herod Antipas hasn't, at this point, met Jesus as far as we know but we do know (from John 4), that a royal official in the Capernaum area experiences a remarkable miracle in his wider family; we know that a centurion (a soldier) in the Capernaum area experiences a remarkable miracle in his wider family and household. Both of those men would have been directly connected to Herod's household. They were living fairly close to Herod's headquarters in Tiberias. We already have two indicators of people associated with King Herod Antipas who were beginning to follow Jesus because of the incredible miracles that he was doing. We have a third and very definitive example here and that is this lady, Joanna, who is so convinced about Jesus that she's willing to leave Herod's palace, and leave her husband temporarily, and travel around with Jesus' followers for a time in order to support them - and her husband is the manager of Herod's household, so a very senior man. We have three different strands of evidence which suggest that Herod Antipas has people close to him who are following Christ as disciples, even at this early stage. The presence of these women here also indicates Jesus' affirmation of female discipleship, something that comes over very strongly also in his relationship with Mary and Martha as recorded in Luke and John's Gospels.
Our main topic today is the Parable of the Sower and for that we are returning to Matthew 13. This is the point when Jesus begins to teach in parables for the first time and so we're going to make a few introductory comments about parables. They can be described as a story with a symbolic meaning. Generally speaking, a parable is a story with one major point, theme, or meaning. Occasionally, as in this case, the individual details can be linked very precisely in an allegorical way that one thing represents another, and another thing represents another - there's an element of that in this parable. Generally speaking, you can't go down to that much detail and the parables are best understood as having one central meaning. These stories had two effects: one is they helped the people who were seeking to follow Jesus, to understand things better; and secondly, to the contrary, they made it a little bit harder for people who were resisting Jesus, to understand because the truths Jesus was conveying were slightly hidden in the symbols. They acted as a kind of point of division between those who are genuinely seeking after Jesus and those who were opposing him. It's interesting that parables start to be used immediately after this major argument with the Pharisees and the major moment when they denounced him as a false messiah (which is indicative of what the whole religious establishment was doing) and from then onwards Jesus began to teach in parables. It was a deliberate strategy.
Let's read a few verses to indicate this. At the beginning of Matthew 13: 1 to 2 and the beginning of verse 3:
‘That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, (and) while all the people stood on the shore. 3 ... he told them many things in parables,’Matthew 13:1-3, NIV
and, in verse 34 and 35:
‘34Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “(I'll) open my mouth in parables, (I'll) utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”’Matthew 13:34-35, NIV
From this we find that the use of parables is quite deliberate. Jesus is now making people think; these things aren't said entirely plainly; they're said in a symbolic story and you've got to work out the significance of that story. Your ability to do that indicates, to some extent, your attitude. The seekers find the stories helpful and, of course, they're memorable. Jews loved telling stories and parables were something that they used in their religious teaching.
The Parable of the Sower
This is a very well-known parable if you're familiar with Christian teaching, or the New Testament, or the Gospels. You may be familiar with this particular parable but maybe you're not and, even if you are, we're going to look at it closely and see what more we can learn about this story. Matthew 13: 3 - 9,
‘3Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9Whoever has ears, let them hear.”’Matthew 13:3-9, NIV
Jesus is describing a common agricultural scene here. Everybody would be familiar with what he's talking about. After all, he is in an agricultural area and, by the way, Galilee was one of the most fertile parts of the country and many parts of Galilee were well irrigated. The River Jordan coming into the Sea of Galilee and then to the south, moving south, was the main source of water and the lake had an abundance of water and so it was a fairly rich agricultural area. People were smallholding farmers; in Jewish society land was generally broken up into smaller units (there weren't so many commercial farms, although there were some) and everyone tried to have their own smallholding. In Galilee, there was a great effort to use the land to the maximum effect and so this story would be very familiar: you sow the seed by hand; there are paths; there are rocky places; there's always the problem with weeds; and some soil is very fertile and some seed reproduces very effectively.
When I first visited Galilee, many years ago on a visit to Israel, I made a point when I was in Galilee, of going out into the fields and into the hilly areas and having a look at the soil, taking photographs and looking at the vegetation and the cultivation. Obviously in the modern age (this was in the late 20th century) the cultivation and the irrigation is vastly developed, and very effective but if you go away from those areas and look at other areas you can see in the soil all the thorns; you can see how rocky sometimes it is; you can see sometimes how rich the soil is; you can pick up the soil and feel the richness of the soil. There it is, the land is still much as it was then and this story would resonate - people would understand: this is our job! Most people were smallholding farmers; it was an agricultural society. It wasn't a very heavily urbanised society and in Galilee there were very few towns of any huge size. People lived in the country, they farmed and they kept their animals and that was the primary livelihood, for the majority of people. Also to note, this can be a hot climate too. My first visit to Israel was in August and it was a very hot month. I spent four weeks there and I remember constantly facing the heat and the dryness which has a significant impact on the agriculture.
Why does Jesus use these parables? The disciples were a bit puzzled. They'd heard him for many months speaking very plainly about things and they wanted to know why he was using these stories. The next section (from verse 10 to verse 17) is very important and a little hard to understand but once you understand what Jesus is saying, it's very interesting and explains the use of parables very effectively. Let's read it. Matthew 13: 10 - 17,
‘10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” 11He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, ... they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken (away) from them. 13This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15For 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.’ 16But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17For 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.”’Matthew 13:10-17, NIV
This is a challenging passage. When we first look at it, you wonder, as I did when I first read it, what is Jesus really saying here? It looks like he's trying to be obscure so that people can't actually see the truth. Basically, the point I made earlier about parables is made very strongly here. Parables illustrate the division between those who understand, and those who don't understand - and both of these groups are in this story. The disciples are there, verse 16: ‘blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear,’and the other people are in the story“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”’ There are two groups in mind: those who are open to the kingdom and those who are closed; those who are heading towards judgement and those who are heading towards salvation.
In particular, it's interesting to try and work out what Jesus is doing by quoting from the prophet Isaiah. He quotes from Isaiah 6; 9 - 10, and you have that quotation fully there before you. Let's think about the original context: the prophet Isaiah was speaking to the people of Judah (the southern kingdom) at a time when they were very disobedient to God and they were heading towards judgement (and ultimately exile) at the hands of the Babylonian nation. That's the context. Isaiah anticipated this exile prophetically; he was called upon to speak to the people but God said to him, “As you speak to them it's not going to produce a result of the nation turning round.” They're going to continue in their negative views, apart from just a remnant which is described in that passage as a ‘holy seed’ in the land. Basically, this prophecy suggests that Isaiah's words to them won't be received; they won't receive the grace of God and they'll end up in judgement. In what sense is this being fulfilled in Jesus' day? I think Jesus is drawing a comparison between the experience of Isaiah's listeners and his listeners. Isaiah's listeners were a decadent Jewish nation who were spiritually in a bad place, who were unbelieving, who were hostile to the God of Israel. The listeners in Jesus' case, those influenced by the Pharisees and by scepticism in Israel, were likewise hardening their hearts towards Jesus' message - as we have seen in the previous two episodes very clearly demonstrated. We need to connect this parable very clearly with what's just happened beforehand. Jesus has warned, “If you harden your heart, you're going to end up in judgement.” This prophecy here is saying that, like the people of Judah in the time of Isaiah and afterwards, so the people of Israel in the time of Jesus are going to harden their hearts and head towards judgement if they don't respond to his message.
The parable merely illustrates the states of people's hearts when they say, “What did that parable mean? We don't understand that parable.” Well, why don't you understand it? - Not just because there's a mental or intellectual problem but because there's a spiritual problem; because you've got a blockage inside you and you don't want to see the truth that is being expressed. That's the purpose of parables: it opens the door for the people who are seeking and it confirms the negative situation of those who are already hostile.
In verses 18 to 23, we have the conclusion of this parable which is Jesus' explanation of its meaning:
‘18“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When 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 (that is) sown along the path. 20The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they last only (for) a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22The 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. 23But 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.”’Matthew 13:18-23, NIV
It's very rare for Jesus to explain in detail the references in his parables and create an allegorical framework but it happens here and we can follow the lead. The seed refers to the message of the Kingdom (the Gospel message); the sower can refer to God or Jesus; and the different seeds are the different life circumstances. The seed on the path is the person who, when they hear something, it never really gets into their consciousness because the enemy takes it away - it's hidden from them from the very beginning. The seed on the rocky places, which grows up quickly but doesn't have any root, represents to us what we might describe as nominal Christians - people who make a response and they seem to have faith but they don't have any real roots and the sign of that is that when the pressure comes they drift away and they disappear, or they change their minds. The seed amongst the thorns represents the people who genuinely believe but who find it difficult to deal with the pressures of this life - particularly materialism and all the distractions that come from other goals in life. I wonder whether you know people like that? Who say, “Yes, I'm a Christian but I'm too busy to be involved in the Christian faith, or the Christian community. I'm just getting on and doing my own thing.” It appears they're motivated by other things, other than their faith, so that's a very immature position. Some seed falls on the good soil: that's the person who receives with sincerity the message and follows Christ with determination, putting him first in their life. Look how productive such a person can be.
What reflections do we have on this, as we draw this episode to a conclusion? We've been looking at the purpose of parables (and that's taken us a little bit of time) but now we're going to think about the significance of this parable. I think the first and overwhelming lesson that comes over to me is that the mandate from Jesus Christ for us as believers, if we are believers, is to share the faith or, so to speak, to sow the seed. That mandate is very strong. Jesus says, “Sow, sow, sow. Share, share, share your faith in all circumstances where you have the opportunity. Don't just look for results, look for opportunities to share.” Opportunities to share our faith vary enormously from different nation to nation, and different regions of the world. I'm extremely aware of this. Sometimes it's hard to speak publicly; sometimes that's easy. Sometimes there is strong resistance from other religions, or from the state, or from our family culture, or other forces. There is a big variety but there's always an opportunity to share your faith in any culture. The faith is being shared; the Christian Gospel is being shared, around the world: through television, through satellite, through the Internet, through preaching, through literature, through books, through the translation of Bibles, through personal testimony, one-to-one, in writing or communicated in other ways. There are many ways that the faith is being shared.
Jesus is encouraging us to keep sowing but to expect that evangelism is a form of spiritual warfare - there's an enemy who opposes it - and not to be surprised when this is the case. We need to be aware that there's going to be a mixed response to the Christian Gospel: you never know who's going to respond well, who's going to be indifferent and who's going to be hostile. We need to be aware, also, that materialism and the pressures of a busy life are a big distraction for many people. However, we will always find, in every culture, in every place, fruitful disciples of Jesus who've made him their Lord, given him their lives and given him the opportunity to make them fruitful and effective - a hundred times, sixty times, thirty times, however many times - they have multiplied; they have been very effective. My hope for you and for myself is that we are in that last category - those who have wholly dedicated ourselves to following Christ and therefore we are going to be fruitful and produce results in our lives that demonstrate his grace to us. Thanks for following this.