That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 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, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 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.
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 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.
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. 23 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.”
Last summer, we began a summer series examining some of Jesus’ parables. It’s summer again, so we’re going to continue with our series, “What Jesus Really Said”.
A “parable” is a brief story of comparison. It sets one thing alongside another (παραβολή). Generally speaking, parables are not allegories. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are allegories. Every character and event in an allegory has a higher meaning. Not so with Jesus’ parables.
Like me, maybe you were taught Jesus used parables because stories are a wonderful teaching tool and he wanted everyone to understand what he was saying. If that were true, then this passage shows Jesus failed. Not even his disciples knew what he was saying. And teachers today vary quite a bit over the meaning of Jesus’ parables when they treat them as allegories – where every word has a higher, us-focused (not Jesus-focused) meaning.
Context: Left-Handed Power
What is particularly strange, seemingly upside down to us, is the kind of power God normally uses to reunite heaven and earth following their separation by the Adams’ rebellion. We humans are used to power as direct, immediate action, what Martin Luther called “the power of the right hand.”
God sometimes has used right-handed power. Flushing all of humanity except Noah’s family down the drain because of human evil was a good example of right-handed power. God took direct, right-handed, head-on action.
Left-handed power looks like weakness and inaction to fallen humans. God does a great many things we would naturally think of as “ungodly.” He chooses to forget our sins. More than that, he chooses to become sin for us! This is utterly upside down to our human way of thinking – left-handed.
Jesus lives a left-handed life: an allegedly-illegitimate and uneducated day-laborer from a tiny village of a backwater country of the mighty Roman Empire appears on the scene of history and claims to be both God and THE King of Everyone Everywhere. After three years, he is executed as a criminal after his few remaining followers have deserted him. He rises out of the grave and shows himself to only a few hundred followers, then disappears with a promise to return at some unspecified time. Indirect, unexpected, left-handed power is at work.
The context of the parables is the inauguration of Christ’s left-handed kingdom. The old age of sin and death, including the old covenant theocracy of Israel, has passed away. The typology is fulfilled in the reality of Jesus.
Christ is the Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the sacrifice—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In fact, he IS the real Temple; he personally forgives sins without animal sacrifice; he is the meeting place between man and God; he is the once-for-all sacrificial Lamb!
The kingdom has come! The religious leaders who had cast themselves as the defenders of God’s righteous reign, are rewritten in the parables as the opponents of God and his saving purposes. The tables have turned. Right-handed human religious power is giving way to left-handed spiritual power.
Setting the Scene
Matthew spends 12 chapters on Jesus’ life and ministry before recording this first parable. Jesus’ ministry has been going on for at least a year or more. He has performed miracles only Messiah was foretold to perform: restoring sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing lepers, giving voices to the mute, and raising the dead (Matt. 11:4).
Even his miracles are left-handed. The very kinds of people Jewish leaders forbid from living around or going anywhere near the Temple, Jesus has now made fit to enter into worship and fellowship. And for all these signs and wonders and all his very clear teachings up to this point, the religious leaders have rejected him.
The leaders of Israel call Jesus the devil. His own family has called him insane. And the great crowds that once followed him are beginning to thin (Jn. 6:66). So Jesus starts to hide his message in parables so that, “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
Up to this point, Jesus has been open about announcing the presence of God’s kingdom, about his Messianic miracles, even about his preaching. But the closer he moves to Calvary, the more his tone and message changes.
Jesus’ imagery of seed and sowing emphasizes this mysterious/spiritual/left-handedness. Jesus will use this imagery of seed, grain, and sowing in several of his parables. But this one is the first, and from the standpoint of development, the most significant.
The gospel writers clearly understand they have come to a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry as he uses these stories of comparison to show Israel that God’s kingdom is universal (not confined to the boarders of Israel), mysterious (spiritual, left-handed power), already present in their midst, and demands their repentance (Mk. 1:15).
Jesus’ story seems simple enough to us after 2,000 years of Christianity: someone scatters seed. Some of the seed lands on good soil and produces grain in varying amounts. But his disciples couldn’t understand why Jesus told such a confusing story.
Jesus explains the purpose of the parables: Mat 13:10-17: “Then the disciples came to [Jesus] and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets [mysteries] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
“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.”
Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. He is pronouncing judgment upon those who reject his Kingdom and his Kingship. He’s already proven that he is Messiah. Now, he’s finished speaking plainly; he’s pronouncing judgment on his enemies through his parables.
“In the Parables, the accent is on Christ’s office as prophet. The prophets of the LORD not only explain what will happen in the future, but actually bring it about by their Word. The same happens with Jesus, especially as he moves toward Jerusalem and it all intensifies in his last week, after the triumphal Entry.
Word, Jesus, Seed
In the parables, Jesus presents the Kingdom of God as universal (not confined to the boarders of Israel), mysterious (spiritual, left-handed power), already present in their midst, and demanding of their response.
Notice how Jesus presents God in vs. 12 of this parable. “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Jesus says it exactly that way six times in his parables (Matt. 13:12; 25:29; Mk. 4:24, 25; Lk. 8:18; 19:26). But he’s NOT talking about money management. He’s NOT talking about earning heavenly rewards.
So, what is it that “the one who has” possesses? What is the “more” that is given? Look at Jesus’ explanation in v. 19, “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….”
But, the primary meaning of “Word” in the New Testament is a reference to Christ himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:1-5).
Above everything else in this parable, the Word is the eternal Son – God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God – the Second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
Do you see the significance of that? The one who scatters and gathers is the Great Triune God. Jesus is the Word, the Seed sown. Those who have Jesus will have more and more of Him, his Kingdom, and His glory.
Those who reject this left-handed, seemingly upside-down, Messiah will have nothing. Even the great Temple building where they offer sin sacrifices will be destroyed – what they have will be taken away.
Jesus’ parable tells us that the Great Triune God has already scattered the Seed. We don’t need to bring what’s already been sown to people; we simply need to tell them the Good News of what, Jesus, the Word of God has already done.
Sometimes, maybe most of the time, we act as if the Word of God is precisely what is NOT sown, and the Kingdom of God is something we ourselves need to be busy building by means of all the right-handed power we can muster “Write your congressmen and demand they support Jesus; boycott this corporation and demand they act ‘Christianly.’”
Jesus is the Promised Seed. Seeds are disproportionally small compared to what they eventually produce. Jesus mentions herb seeds in some parables, which are maddeningly small (have you ever tried to sprout celery seeds, much less mustard seeds?).
Left to our own imaginations, we would have pictured Jesus’ advent and ministry as a thunderclap or a giant fireworks display, or anything spectacular that would confirm our idea of a pushy, totally right-handed God.
We wouldn’t have chosen the picture of a tiny seed growing a perfectly ordinary-looking stalk of wheat, or a simple herb plant. As it is, we’re not satisfied with ordinary.
Too often, we think church should be spectacular; and, above all, it should be successful at projecting our idea of a right-handed kingdom. For us, it’s about the grandeur of the potting shed, not the humility of the ordinary seed.
The power of God is absolutely present in his church; but it’s left-handed power. The power of God is present in even the most-poorly-preached sermon that’s faithful to scripture. The power of God is present in crackers and tiny cup of wine (or pre-wine), and in the waters of baptism (be they mere drops, a pitcher-full, a tubful, a running river, or an ocean; the amount is “right-handed”).
The power of God is even present in the death of his martyrs who would rather die than proclaim that “there is no god but Allah and Mohamed is his prophet.”
A mystery—as Paul puts it, “the mystery of the ages”— was being revealed in Jesus’ parables. At its heart is the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one new nation (new Kingdom; New Jerusalem) with Christ as the prophet, priest, and king. Christ is the Seed who divides the human race—even Israel, indeed, even families—and reunites people from every race and language into his body through his saving work.
Christ is the one who seeks and saves that which is lost. Christ is the one who claims us as his subjects, citizens, and co-heirs, with an urgent responsibility in this time between his two comings.
And finally, Christ, the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the Word of God (Jn. 1:1 ff.), now makes himself the sacrificial meal, but one day the Lord’s Supper will yield to an everlasting feast where the best wine never runs out and the delight of uninterrupted fellowship and joy with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—as well as our fellow saints—never ends when the Kingdom comes in all its eternal and glorious fullness.
Messiah came in left-handed power, born as the Seed of the woman promised to the Adams’ as the One to re-unite heaven and earth, God and man. He was like no King humans could imagine with their upside-down ideas. In Christ God and man unite.
His sinless life of left-handed humility fulfilled God’s demands for human perfection. His death on a cross satisfied God’s holy wrath against Adam’s sin and our sins. His resurrection declared that God accepted the work of the Seed, the Word of God.
The Seed, the Word of God, HAS been sown! He has brought his Kingdom into this world he sovereignly rules with left-handed power. He demands a response. The response he demands is trust:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through trust in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by trust. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has trust in Jesus (Rom.3:21-26).
1 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 230.
2 Horton, Michael. The Parables of Jesus, Part 1. White Horse Inn Discussion Questions. Oct. 10, 2010.
3 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. Eerdmans, 2002. P. 15.
4 Horton, op. cit.
5 Id., 53.
6 Horton, op. cit.
7 Capon, 60.
8 Id, 61.