Matthew 13:1-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 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.”

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.

What is a “parable?” We should know at least something about what they are since Jesus uses quite of number of them. Some are as short as a sentence; some are rather long stories (about 27 in the four Gospel accounts).[1] some parables, like the cursing of the fig tree, are acted out. This parable of the sower is the first and one of the longest, appearing in both Mark and Luke’s gospel accounts as well.

We could say 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.

Perhaps you have heard the claim that Jesus told stories because stories are a wonderful teaching tool and Jesus wanted everyone to understand what he was saying. BUT you, being good students of the Bible, know that is simply not true!

In fact, if Jesus used parables to help everyone understand his message, then this passage shows Jesus failed. Not even his disciples knew what he was saying. And teachers today vary quite a bit about the meaning of Jesus’ parables because they try to teach them as allegories – where every word has a higher, us-focused (not Jesus-focused) meaning, stripping them of their Messianic context.

“So the parables are not like Aesop’s Fables. It’s not a nice little story with a moral at the end. It’s not about timeless principles, but about the ‘new thing’ that God is doing in Jesus Christ [at that moment in history], under everyone’s nose. The parables aren’t even doctrinal propositions about how we are saved or about life after death. For example, as tempting as it may be to interpret the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a window into the intermediate state, it is actually about what is happening [then and there] as Jesus is judging the religious leaders (the rich man) for rejecting him—even if [Jesus] were to rise from the dead.”[2]

If we’re going to get a grasp Jesus’ parables, we need to get a grip on how God ordinarily chooses to work in the world and how upside-down is our natural human perspective. When we have that general understanding, we can approach Jesus’ parables as much more than mere coded moral directives for how you and I can live a better life.


Left-Handed Power

What is the Bible about? The Bible is about the mystery [spiritual force] by which the power of God works to form a Kingdom, a Holy City, the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband.[3] 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 we can call “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. But keeping one death-deserving family alive and promising to never again flush the world and its people seems strange. Stranger still, God set down his war bow and left it pointing upward in his direction – left-handed. Indirect. That action is WAY outside of our human concept of power.

Left-handed power looks like weakness and inaction to fallen humans. Choosing a childless pagan named Abram and promising to make of him a great world-wide kingdom, promising him a new land and new home while making him wander homeless all his days is left-handed power.

Forcing the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and raise illegitimate children is left-handed power.  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.

A seemingly-illegitimate and uneducated day-laborer living in a tiny Hicksville 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 but doesn’t show himself to anyone but a few hundred followers. He then disappears with a promise to return at some unspecified time. Indirect, unexpected, left-handed power is at work.

The context of the parables that we find in the Gospels is the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom. The old age of sin and death, including the old covenant theocracy of Israel, has passed away. The typology is fulfilled. The reality is standing before these 1st-century Israelites. 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 Temple; he personally forgives sins without animal sacrifice; he is both man and God, AND the sacrificial Lamb! The kingdom has come! It is not here in its consummated form, but it is present wherever the King is present in judgment and grace. The religious leaders, who had cast themselves as the defenders of God’s righteous reign, are rewritten now 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.

Israel’s religious leaders believed Messiah would come only when Israel purified the Temple, removing from its surrounding neighborhoods anyone who was ceremonially “unclean” or morally offensive. But Messiah Jesus is bringing these outcasts to his feast, while the distinguished guests are left out in the cold. This is the left-handed power of God of which Jesus’ parables speak.

Setting the Scene

Our normally-right-handed, human observation-based outlook on life strives to make Jesus’ parables into stories about us – nice, tidy morality plays about how you and I can have a holy life by following certain steps.Here’s the problem: Jesus’ parables are not spoken to explain things to people’s satisfaction; they call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of human explanations and understandings about God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s King.

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, such as 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). 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.” All of Jesus’ parables are in substantial agreement; they show Jesus as Messiah that fits no expected messianic mold and they set the stage for the utter shattering of the mold to come upon Mount Calvary.[4]


Prophetic Plantings

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 response.

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 were baffled by the story. They didn’t even know why Jesus had 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 says he 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 done speaking plainly and has begun judging his enemies by confounding them with 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. He forgives sins directly, by-passing the Temple, provoking the charge of blasphemy. He says he IS the Temple. He pronounces ‘woes’ on the Pharisees, curses the fig tree [a symbol of Israel], judges the Temple, and tells the disciples that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could say to …the Temple Mount, ‘Go jump into the sea!’ and it would be done.”[5]

Word, Jesus, Seed

You can look deeper into this “Parable of the Sower” to see how 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. But for now, we want to focus on how Jesus presents God in this parable.  Notice v. 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.

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….

Who’s scattering the seed and what exactly IS the seed being scattered? Who do we usually identify as the sower? We think it’s Jesus, don’t we? We have a picture of Jesus preaching and then, of the church, going around sprinkling something called “the Word of God” on places that haven’t yet received it.

As Robert Farrar Capon argues in his book on the parables, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, “…that [view], on any fair reading of Jesus’ words, makes no sense at all.”[6] 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. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 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 has to mean 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 turns out to be 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 strange, left-handed power, this seemingly upside-down Messiah, will have nothing. Even the great Temple building where their sins are atoned for 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”). But Jesus’ explanation of his parable makes the Parable of the Sower profoundly complex. He “has kicked the whole mystery of the Kingdom so far upstairs that many Christians, for most of the church’s history, have missed his point … and chosen instead to busy themselves with downright contradictions of it.”[7]

The power of God is absolutely present in his church. The power of God is present in even the most-poorly-preached sermon you’ve ever heard that was faithful to scripture. The power of God is present in crackers and tiny cup of wine, and in the waters of baptism (be they mere drops, a pitcher, 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’ ministry. 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 in him 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, the Word of God, 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 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] Id., 53.

[5] Horton, op. cit.

[6] Capon, 60.

[7] Id, 61.