That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, 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 brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
“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 is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on 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 such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately 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 lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)
The same day that Jesus has been frustrated with the response he’s gotten from his own people, he tells a parable about sowing seeds and the various kinds of results.
I put Jesus’ explanation of the parable next to the parable. In the narrative in Matthew, these are actually separated. Jesus does not initially explain the parable, but after his disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus answers them and goes on to explain it plainly.
Because Jesus explains his own parable, there’s not a whole lot else to add, but some context for this parable may help us to get a firmer grasp on what it means for the word of the kingdom to go out and what Jesus foresees will happen.
In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the imagery of “seed” represents God’s faithful remnant being sown in the world. This may go back to the “seed” of Abraham, but regardless, the agricultural version is a well-known image in Jesus’ day. A little later, for instance, Jesus will tell the parable of the wheat and the tares and explicitly identifies the good seed as “the children of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:38).
The idea is that God’s faithful remnant are a “seed” people who get sown in the world and grow into a rich harvest. How, then, does this image get connected to “the word of the kingdom?”
The latter chapters in Isaiah are chapters about the return of faithful Israel from exile. They have been captives, but God has kept His promise and liberated them, brought them back to the land, and the other nations will see what God has done and become worshippers, themselves. The seeds that were sown spring up in a rich harvest throughout the world.
In Isaiah 55, this image is pulled together with God’s word:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:10-11 (NRSV)
In the context of Isaiah 55, “my word that goes out from my mouth” refers to God’s promises to Israel. They are not just empty words; they are a covenant that causes Him to act. He made promises to Abraham, and He will see it through. If His people are captured, He will liberate them. If they are exiled, He will return them. If they are threatened with the sword, He will save them. If they are killed and dispersed, He will revive them and bring them back together.
The promise (word), the people, God’s actions, and the end result – these are the dynamics and expectations that get packed into an image of a sower sowing seed in the world.
This is what Jesus sees himself as doing.
He is proclaiming a restoration of the kingdom – a return from exile in the sense of uniting faithful Israel and liberating her from the curse that her sins have brought about. He proclaims what God is doing in word and validates it with deed. The expectation is the faithful remnant will be delivered and, although Jesus does not explicitly state this, it is quite possible he foresees that the Gentiles will see what God has done and respond by becoming worshippers, themselves.
But the hitch in Jesus’ parable is that the seed is not necessarily producing a harvest. There are some who hear the news of the kingdom and don’t understand what’s going on. There are others who are initially happy to hear the kingdom has arrived, but they cannot endure the persecution and trials they are about to experience. There are yet others who are actually well off under the present circumstances and prefer the known comforts of wealth and power in the present age under Rome than some hypothetical future under king Jesus and the kingdom of God in the next.
These are not hypothetical categories for Jesus. We have seen these very categories of people addressed elsewhere in Matthew. Some, like some of the scribes and Pharisees, do not perceive Jesus as the promised Messiah and his actions as ones of liberation and restoration. Others, such as the crowds who follow Jesus around temporarily or sort of flirt with following Jesus at a distance will not be able to abide the coming persecution and trials. And Jesus makes no bones about this – enduring to the end could mean losing one’s family or life. Others, such as Herod or the Sanhedrin or Temple officials, are benefitting from the present state of affairs and prefer that to the arrival of the kingdom of God.
Jesus doesn’t give us hard numbers, here. We don’t know what percentage of people fall into what categories, but we get the idea that it is far more common for the word of the kingdom not to produce a result than actually to produce the intended result, and this captures Jesus’ frustrations from chapter 12 – all Israel should be delighted that the kingdom has come and be ready to believe Jesus, repent, and weather the coming judgement, but the reality is that few are.
But then there is the seed on good ground. This seed is dispersed, but it takes root and grows into fruit far beyond a single seed. This is the faithful remnant of Israel. These are the people out of whom the kingdom will be made – a tiny seed that will grow into a harvest that fills the world – a miniature Israel that will be in the world what Israel was always meant to be – a harbinger of future glory that, in her present circumstances, is also an incarnate warning to the rich, the powerful, the self-righteous, the proud, the oppressor.
Yes, the effective response and growth may be smaller than Jesus was hoping, but he is no less convinced that God will deliver on His promises and this project will be successful.
- Jesus outlines a few different reasons why news of the kingdom does not have the desired effect. Do you struggle with some of the things Jesus outlines?
- It could be argued that the kingdom has filled the world, and we are in a sort of post-Christendom state of affairs. How does this affect our presentation of the news of the kingdom? Can we take some comfort from this parable as we look at the response around us?