Why Did Jesus Teach in Parables?
Why did Jesus teach in parables?
That’s a question we probably feel like we have a solid answer for. I know I did. Before I studied this passage for this episode, it seemed like a question not even worth asking. Why did Jesus teach in parables? The same reason preachers use illustrations, right?
There’s a litany of answers that seem obvious to this question. Jesus used them to illustrate Kingdom truths. To make it easy for his audience to understand his teaching. He used them to entertain while he educated. As T.W. Manson once wrote, the parables are “the sugar-coating on the theological pill.” He taught in parables to democratize the knowledge of God and pry it away from the so-called experts and the scribes that lorded their status over everyone else.
But… what happens when you ask Jesus that question?
The disciples did exactly that. They asked Jesus flat out, “Why do you teach in parables?”
What was the answer Jesus gave? What it something like we’ve talked about so far?
No. Actually… it turns out, the answer Jesus gives… is the exact opposite.
Coded Messages, Part 1.
The Parable of the Sower
The Story So Far
Before we jump into this episode’s passage, Matthew 13:1-23, I want to zoom back a bit and get us all on the same page. I covered chapter 12 with a sermon series called The Boss at Lakeside (it was my last series there) and if you’d like to hear those messages, they’re all available on the Biblesplain website. For today, I’ll just give us a quick overview so we’re starting from the same place as we begin.
The Pharisees were the… hall monitors of their day. They acted almost like cops and lawyers of the Old Testament Law all at the same time. Finding people guilty of breaking not just the Law, but the oral tradition that had been built up around the Law and judging them there on the spot. Think Judge Dredd in sandals and he’s really concerned with how far you’ve been walking today.
At the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus gets into a clash with these guys over one of their pet issues, the Sabbath. Not that the Sabbath isn’t important, it is, but the Pharisees had disfigured it and morphed it into something it was never supposed to be. In their passion to make sure Israel held to God’s Law, they sort’ve missed the forest for the trees completely.
They knew that God’s judgment on Israel for breaking the covenant they had with him was the reason they were currently living under Roman rule. It was the reason Assyria came, it was the reason Babylon came, and it was the reason that they still were not yet fully restored. The Old Testament Law is an ancient contract and Israel had broken it. As a result, God was dishing out the penalties for doing so laid out in the contract.
The Pharisees’s plan was to build up regulations around the Law that would keep the Israelites from breaking it. The Sabbath is a perfect example of this. It says in the Law not to walk a mile on the Sabbath, so the Pharisees create a new rule. According to them now, you can’t walk a half mile on the Sabbath. The thought process was that even if people break the half mile rule, they’re still almost a full half mile away from breaking God’s Law.
This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but they took it too far. They held those regulations over people’s heads and created this complicated system that only they understood. It was a total mine field for the average Joseph to not run afoul of one of their regulations somewhere along the way.
It’s especially sad that this happened over the Sabbath because in doing so, they took something that was meant for human flourishing and turned it into a burden. Here was this wonderful gift that God had given his people and instead of it feeling like a gift, it felt like a curse. The Pharisees fashioned out of the Sabbath a club to beat people with.
The controversy that breaks out in Matthew chapter 12 starts when the disciples are walking along on the Sabbath and they’re hungry. They happen to be walking through a grain field, so they pick some heads of grain and start eating them as they walk. The Pharisees catch them doing this and run right to Jesus to ask him why he’s allowing this. (As their rabbi, Jesus was responsible for their actions.)
See, the Sabbath prohibited work on that day and to the Pharisees, the disciples were harvesting. That it was just a couple heads that they were plucking and eating didn’t matter to them. You could call it work if you wanted to and they did.
Jesus responds by declaring himself “Lord of the Sabbath”. He says they’ve totally got it backwards and that what God wanted was a gracious people that sought to honor him in all they did, not a group of lawyers picking nits and fishing for loopholes.
This… does not go over well. Especially so once they get to the synagogue and Jesus is confronted by a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees, rather than learning anything from this lecture on mercy they were just given, try to use the situation as a trap to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath. I mean, after all, the guy’s withered hand isn’t life threatening, it can wait until sundown, can’t it?
Jesus points out their flawed, hypocritical thinking and heals the guy anyway. It’s a miracle, Jesus goes far beyond what a doctor could have done or could even do today. The guy just reaches his arm out and it’s healed. Instead of marveling at this, the Pharisees become intent on destroying Jesus.
Later in the chapter, perhaps a later date, Jesus is healing again, but this time it’s different. There’s a man possessed by demons who is blind and mute. He’s brought to Jesus and Jesus heals him and the crowd is astonished. So much so, they start putting the pieces together and realizing that Jesus just might be the Messiah. This drives the Pharisees crazy and leads to a pivotal moment in Jesus’s ministry.
The Pharisees, seeking to explain Jesus away, publicly accuse him of being demon possessed. Jesus. They accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil. Jesus hears this and judges them right then and there. The one who will one day judge the living and the dead gives everyone in that home a preview, proclaiming their sin one that can never be forgiven. Knowingly, willfully ascribing the actions of God to the Devil is a step too far. This is a sin that they can never come back from.
Jesus teaches some more in the house and then wraps up. This is where we pick up our story in chapter 13.
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.
– Matthew 13:1–3 (ESV)
Jesus leaves the house he’s been teaching in and goes to sit beside the sea. The crowd gathers around again, so he gets into a boat and sits down. What this does is put a little distance between him and the crowd. He can breathe a bit, surely the house was crowded. We know from other instances that at times the houses Jesus taught in could be so full that people were only able to enter through self-made holes in the roof!
He sits down in the boat, while the crowd stands around him. This was actually a rather common teaching position in that day. Sort of the opposite of what we’re used to now. The echo created by the water turned this into a natural amphitheater of sorts. Everyone is able to hear as he starts teaching them, but now he’s doing so in parables.
This entire chapter and this first series of Biblesplain, in fact, will be comprised of parables. I suppose the best place to start, then, is to ask the question, “What is a parable?”
John MacArthur puts a rather tidy bow on it thusly:
A parable is an ingeniously simple word picture illuminating a profound spiritual lesson.
– John MacArthur, Parables
In Hebrew, there’s a word for this kind of speech: mashal. Now, mashal has a wide range of meanings. It doesn’t just refer to the kinds of stories we’re going to look at today, it covers all sorts of illustrations and word pictures.
Proverbial sayings, fictitious stories, riddles, anecdotes, fables, allegories, these all fall under mashal. This was a technique that Jesus’s contemporaries used. There were many rabbis that used mashal to illustrate the legal points they were talking about. So, Jesus didn’t create mashal, but he did do a lot to increase its popularity.
The Greek word is much more familiar to us, parabolē. Parabolē is a compound word. It comes from two roots: para, which means “beside”, and ballō, which means to throw. So, you put those together and it literally means to throw alongside. You’re setting two things next to each other for comparison.
A parable takes a complex truth and lays it next to an everyday image for the sake of comparison and understanding. It represents reality in some metaphorical way. It illustrates the point you’re talking about.
When I went to Bible college, we learned in preaching class that illustrations should be “windows into the text”. The whole point is to help people see into what you’re talking about and uncover it. That’s what an illustration does and it’s what a parable does, as well. It helps illuminate something true.
Now, throughout history, there have been many different ideas about how to interpret the parables. The further you go back into Church history, ironically, the stranger the methods seem to be. The medieval Church fathers tended to favor fanciful allegorical interpretations of the parables that stretched them beyond anything reasonable. One commentator explains Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan and, well, it’s a doozy.
The wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he has fallen; the thieves, the devil who deprives Adam of his immortality; the priest and Levite, the Old Testament Law which could save no one; the Samaritan who binds the man’s wounds, Christ who forgives sin; the inn, the church; and the innkeeper, the apostle Paul!
– Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables
It’s one of those things where if you squint, you could almost see how it makes sense. The main problem is that Jesus’s audience could not possibly have conceived of this interpretation and he plainly expects at least some of them to understand. What you also see from that period is that someone will make an allegorical interpretation and, what do you know, it just so happens to support their pet theological issue. They see it everywhere, in every parable. Like Neo in The Matrix, only instead of green lines of code it’s Christus Victor.
The reaction to this was to clamp down and allow every parable only one point. You kids got too crazy with the chocolate sauce, now you’re only allowed one squeeze. Scholars ratcheted down on interpretations and swung the pendulum hard back in the other direction. It’s understandable, but they went perhaps a bit too far. There are clearly times when you can learn multiple things from a parable, but this view says, “Nuh uh, pick one thing and that’s it!”
Modern scholarship has opened it back up again, while trying to still reign in the wild west situation that has come before. One scholar talks about all the parables having mostly 3 points. That there’s sort of a triad thing going on in all of the parables and his book outlines the way you can see it in each. It’s an interesting read if you’re into scholarly works about narrow topics.
Parables as an Arrow
I like to think of the parables as an arrow. Brad Young uses this illustration in his book, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. I’ve adapted it a little bit for this. The same way you’ve got different parts to an arrow, parables have these different parts as well. It’s sort of a parable to explain the parables!
You fire an arrow at a target. In the same way, each of Jesus’s parables has a target. It’s seeking to elicit a response. There’s some decision his trying to provoke his audience to make, something he’s trying to get them to do.
The arrow has a head and likewise, there is one main thrust to the parable. There’s a point to it. (See what I did there?) The goal of the parable is to make one point. The drama flies in one direction.
On the back of the arrow, though, you have the fletching. Those are the arrows or vinyl pieces that guide the arrow and help it fly straight. These are the points of contact between the parable and the real world. There are multiple ways to connect with or view the general thrust of the parable.
Kenneth Bailey says this in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:
It is easy to think of a parable in the same way and understand it as a good way to “launch” an idea. Once the idea is “on its way” the parable can be discarded. But this is not so. If the parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence.
– Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
Think of the parables like a plane. It’s going in one direction and you’re faced with a decision, whether or not you want to get on board. Once you get on board, you’re traveling with the plane, but along the way, there are all sorts of windows. You can look out the windows and see the world slightly differently.
Out this window, you can see the water. Out this window, you can see the mountains. Out this window, you can see the wing and the engines. You’re in the same vessel, headed in the same direction, but you can get slightly different views from the vantage point of the plane. The parables are a lot like that.
Guidelines for Interpreting Parables
In interpreting the parables, it’s good to keep a few things in mind. These principles will guide us as we go through the parables in this chapter and the many to come.
1. Take into Account Jesus’s Context
While it’s true that there is a mysterious element to the parables, Jesus did not hide secret information in them that would only be unveiled centuries or millennia later. Everything he had to say was understandable to the audience he presented them to. When looking at the touchpoints, those feathers on the arrow, ask, “What did this mean to the people who lived back then?”
We’ll be looking this week at the Parable of the Sower. So, for instance, it wouldn’t be right to overlay modern farming conventions onto the parable. The way we know how to farm and the technology we have is irrelevant, that’s not the audience Jesus was talking to. What did sowing look like back then? That’s the question.
2. Don’t Mix Details
The sower in this parable might mean one thing, while the sower in another parable means something else. I saw even scholars make this mistake in the reading I did for this episode. “Oh, the sower in the Parable of the Weeds is Jesus, so he must be the sower here too.” Why? If he wanted to say that, he would have. Jesus isn’t Marvel, he’s not building an Extended Universe here. He’s just trying to illustrate the Kingdom. All of the stories of the parables are self-contained.
3. Look for the Response
Remember, these are mostly crafted to provoke the audience to do something. Once that’s uncovered, there may be other lessons we can take away or other connections we can make, but they have to be made in light of the overarching purpose of the parable. It’s important that we first figure out what action the parable is calling for.
Now that we have our bearings on what parables are, let’s take a look at the one on our plate this episode, The Parable of the Sower.
The Parable of the Sower
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 (ESV)
Before we get into the meaning of the parable, let’s first take a look at the parable itself.
We’ve got a sower out there just tossing seed around. The sower’s gonna sow. What they’d do is broadcast the seed in an arc as they walked along. This was not a particularly precise practice. They’re just out there tossing seeds.
Now, the way it would work is that you’d plow the field first to get it good and broken up, then you’d sow, just scattering your seed about all willy-nilly, then you’d go through and plow again. This second plowing would take the dirt and cover the seeds, thus putting them in the ground ready to go. They’re aiming for about 1-3 inches under the soil and this method would allow them to achieve that as quick as possible. We’ve got the same sower and the same seed in all four instances of the parable, the one variable here is the soil.
Fields there weren’t divided by fences and such. They were a little more wild and open. Paths would sometimes cut right in between the crops sometimes. This isn’t completely foreign to us now. If you live somewhere rural like we do now, you drive down roads that are flanked by crops on either side all the time.
The difference, I suppose, is that we’ve got ditches and stretches of grass in-between the road and the crops. You didn’t really have that there. There the travelers were walking on paths that were right up alongside the fields.
This would mean that some of that seed just getting tossed around would land on the hard paths that had been worn by travelers. Between the foot traffic and the arid climate, you’d end up with good, hard paths that could almost be as solid as concrete. When the seed hit these paths, they never even had a chance. The ground was too hard to penetrate and the seeds would get baked by the sun and eaten by the birds. That soil gave the seed no chance. It never even begins a journey of turning into a plant and producing fruit.
The second soil is called “rocky ground”. That doesn’t mean that it’s normal soil with rocks all over the place in some sort of soil/gravel mixture. No self-respecting farmer is going to allow his field to look like that. What it means is that you had a thin layer of soil on top of a solid rock bed.
When I was in high school, I worked for a summer doing construction plumbing. One day, I had a pretty simple (or so it seemed) job, dig the trenches for the large pipes in what would soon be the basement of a new house. There was one problem, though. I dug my shovel into the ground and quickly made it through the first inch or so, then abruptly hit heavy resistance. Turns out, I was on rocky ground. Directly underneath my feet was a solid layer of shale; hard sedimentary rock. Worse yet, the electricians hadn’t been to the site yet, so there was no power to plug in the jackhammer. My boss gave me a pickaxe and sent me on my way. It was a rough day to say the least.
That kind of soil will give you an inch or two where it seems pretty normal, but there’s nowhere for the roots of the plant to develop. This will cause it to grow pretty green at first, but it exhausts the water and nutrients in the soil quickly and the plant dies before you know it.
This is why it’s easy to grow microgreens on your countertop, but it’s much trickier to grow, say, garlic indoors. The microgreens are meant to burst out and get harvested quickly. They aren’t intended to put down serious roots and thrive for long.
The seed that hits this second soil will look like it’s growing well, but it doesn’t take long before it’s dead and gone.
The third soil is pretty good as far as soil goes, but there’s a bigger problem: it’s home to foreign invaders. Weeds and thorny plants have taken over the soil prevent anything else from growing. That’s the tricky thing about farming and gardening, if you wanted weeds to grow, they have no problem just taking over and bullying the nearby plants. The plants you actually want, though, are pushovers and you need to protect them. You have to get the weeds out otherwise they’ll choke the life out of your plants.
The seed the sower scatters that hits this soil will begin to take root. It’ll look like things are going well, but quickly it’s going to be overtaken and starved by the surrounding thorns.
The fourth soil is the most successful, but we get the least information about it.
No, seriously, that’s all we’re told about the soil. It’s good soil and when that good soil gets the good seed from the good sower, well as Carl Weathers would say, “Baby, you’ve got a stew goin!”
Now, some of the plants are more fruitful than others, but they all produce.
That’s all there is to it. Simple.
“He who has ears…”
Now, you might not even catch that Jesus is talking about spiritual matters until he finishes with, “He who has ears, let him hear.” This is the alert that something bigger is going on. It’s a road sign, flashing, that says, “Pay Attention!”
The way it’s phrased, it means one of two things is true. One, either not everyone has ears to hear. Or two, everyone has the ability, but not everyone chooses to use it.
Jesus tells this parable, ends with that statement, then we get the disciples coming up to Jesus and asking him the question we started with.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
– Matthew 13:10 (ESV)
Boom, yes, answer the question! We’re finally going to get our answer right from the Lion’s mouth. Why did Jesus teach in parables?
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. 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. 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.” 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.’
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)
I assumed that Jesus taught in parables to make it easier to understand. Remember, we talked about that? Parables are illustrations, they make it simple for people… don’t they? Isn’t that what they are? Isn’t that why Jesus taught with parables?
Jesus seems to say here, “Nah man, I speak in parables so no one knows what I’m talking about.”
That doesn’t really seem to jive with what we think about parables, does it? I mean, we think of parables and illustrations as helping people understand, but here Jesus is saying the purpose of parables is to keep people from understanding.
Parables Require Work
For one, parables do require a bit of work. I mean, look at the disciples’s response to this parable. They go ask Jesus why he’s talking to them in parables. “Hey boss, why are you speaking in riddles over here? Why not just spell it out for them?” There is a degree to which parables can be tricky.
And yes, we talked about how the rabbis used them, but there was a debate about their effectiveness. So, parables and the like were called “haggadah” and the legal exposition was called “halakah”. There’s actually a parable in the Talmud about the debate between haggadah and halakah.
Rabbi Abbahu answered him: “I will tell you a parable. To what may the matter be compared? It may be compared to two men. One of them was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom do the people rush? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?”
– b. Sota 40a
He’s saying halakah, the legal exposition, is more valuable. Breaking down the Law is like fine jewels. While telling stories is like trinkets and household items. Where do you shop more often, Tiffany’s or Target? Sure people flock to the haggadah, but halakah is var more valuable. Granted, this is just this Abbahu’s opinion.
There’s another parable in the Talmud about the need for balancing the two, though, that I think is way more insightful.
When Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi were sitting before Rabbi Isaac the Smith, one of them said to him: “Will the Master please tell us some legal points?” While the other said: “Will the Master please give us some homiletical instruction?” When he commenced a homiletical [haggadic] discourse he was prevented by the one, and when he commenced a legal discourse he was prevented by the other. He therefore said to them: I will tell you a parable: To what is this like? To a man who has had two wives, one young and the other old. The young one used to pluck out his white hair, whereas the old one used to pluck out his black hair. He thus finally remained bald on both sides.
– b. B. Kam. 60b
It’s a pretty funny story and it’s point is to illustrate the need to balance. Rabbi Isaac is saying, “You guys think it needs to be either/or, but you’re both wrong. There needs to be balance.”
I think what strikes the disciples here, and should strike us as readers, is that Jesus suddenly makes a big swing over to parable at the expense of the straightforward. He doesn’t seem to be using the parables to illuminate the legal discourse he’d been bringing on say, the Sermon on the Mount. Now, he’s diving head first into parable.
It’s true that a story can sometimes make truth sticky or relatable, but it’s far less effective at communicating simple truth. I mean, imagine if you saw me at the supermarket and we’re in produce and you ask for my insight into a recipe.
“Hey man, this recipe calls for lemons, but I’m wondering if I can swap limes in instead. What do you think?”
If I respond to that with a story, “A man went out from his hometown and…” you’re going to be pretty confused.
“What was the point of that story, man?”
“Hey, friend, citrus is citrus.”
“Well why didn’t you just say that????”
Parables and Movies
Film is a good example of this in our modern context. I’m a film enthusiast, I like movies, I enjoy the craft of it. I don’t just mean in the way that most people like movies. Those fancy pants movies that only critics seem to like, I’m all about it. I’ve sat through Terrence Malick movies on purpose, ok? I enjoy film.
I watched one the other night that has really been turning around in my mind ever since. It’s called Mother! (with an exclamation mark, so you really have to emphasize it like MOTHERRR!) and it’s… well, it’s super weird. It’s by Darren Aronofsky who is kind of a strange cat and has made a bunch of other strange, challenging films like Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream. He’s also the guy behind the Noah movie with Russell Crowe. I kinda had to laugh when people went into that expecting it to be this straightforward telling of the Noah story. That’s just not what you’re going to get from him.
Anyway, after watching Mother! I felt like I had a lot to think about. One of my thoughts about the movie is that I bet there’s a lot of pastor’s wives and pastor’s kids that would connect with the film on a deep level. If you were going to summarize the film, it’s the story of this poet who pours everything into his art and his fans at the expense of his wife.
That makes it sound so much more normal than it really is. Trust me, I am NOT recommending this film to you without knowing your taste in movies. Don’t watch this thing and leave a voicemail for the podcast mad at me. I’m warning you now. It’s real strange.
If I was teaching a class at a Bible college for future pastors and leaders and wanted to hammer home to them the importance of setting the proper priorities of God, family, ministry, for yourself… Mother! actually wouldn’t be a half bad way to get that message across. Here’s the problem, though, though it illustrates that idea wonderfully, it’s a weird, esoteric riddle of a film that you really kind of have to be a film buff to understand.
If you showed that to a group of college students, you’d maybe have a couple people connect with it and be moved by it. The rest would be trying to drop my class as fast as possible.
See, a parable requires that you be “on board” with it. Remember the plane analogy? You’ve got to get on the plane to be able to look out the windows and see what it has to show you.
Parables require a little bit of buy-in and a little bit of foreknowledge. You have to bring something to the table to take something away. Charles Spurgeon says this in his commentary on Matthew:
An ignorant man going into a museum, or hearing a learned lecture, only feels himself a greater fool. He learns nothing, because he is not able to comprehend the elementary terms of the science. It is just so with carnal men; spiritual truth rather blinds them than enlightens them.
– Charles Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Commentary on the Book of Matthew
The disciples ask Jesus why he’s speaking in parables because, though they can be very rewarding, they’re also simultaneously more demanding of the audience.
It’s no surprise then, that Jesus makes this shift in his teaching style after the Beelzebul controversy. He’s hiding his meaning from the Pharisees who have already hardened against him. They’re so hardened that they think Jesus is in league with demons. So, Jesus takes away any chance they had of understanding him. The parables are concealing from those who don’t want to listen just as much as they open up to those who do. They can now just write Jesus off as “telling stories”.
Meanwhile, the people who have already decided to respond to Jesus are just lapping this stuff up. This is good stuff he’s bringing here, but the Pharisees and others who are hardened to him just can’t see it.
So, Jesus’s use of parables is a blessing to his disciples, but it’s also judgment on his opponents. There’s a degree of mercy to that, John MacArthur points out in his book, Parables. The more truth you hear, the more accountable you are for it.
By disguising the truth from them, you could see how he’s keeping their judgment from growing. Sure, you could say, “Who cares? They’re already written off forever!” Which is true, but “to whom much is given, much is required” and Jesus is specifically giving them less.
Those Who Have Get More
The ones who “have,” as Jesus puts it, have because they’ve made the decision to listen to Jesus. They’re not just hearing him, they’re listening. See, hearing is a passive activity. You can hear things on accident. Listening is an active verb; it’s a choice. You have to decide to listen.
Those who decide to listen to Jesus, to follow him, they’re going to keep growing and benefiting. They’ll keep learning. If you make the decision to write him off, you’re left with nothing. Even the things you think you understand about him will be taken away. Indeed, even your ability to perceive what he’s saying will be stripped.
Understanding the Parables is a Choice
That leads to this important point: understanding the parables is a choice. It’s the choice to follow Jesus. When that choice has been made, it opens us the parables to you. You’re able to grow and learn and understand more and more.
It’s an experiential knowledge. Some things you can only know by doing them. I do a small amount of street magic and card tricks. I can read how a trick works or listen to someone describe it and even demonstrate it, but I still don’t know the trick. You never really know it until you perform it. As you begin to practice it, you start to learn little knacks about it. You understand it more.
The parables are kind of like that. As you walk along with Jesus, he teaches you, the Holy Spirit teaches you. You make the decision to jump on board the parable and follow Jesus and he’ll show you the rest.
The parables are a test. You pass the test by responding to them and searching for the answers. You fail by rejecting the message and the messenger.
Jesus is saying that the majority, specifically the Pharisees, have failed the test. They’ve made the decision to not understand. See, for Matthew, understanding and obedience are synonyms. Are you willing to “stand under” Jesus’s teaching or not?
Pointing Back to Isaiah
Part of Jesus’s explanation shows us that this is not new. He reaches back to Isaiah chapter 6 to show how he’s re-fulfilling the mission of Isaiah. Isaiah 6 is the famous, “Here I am, send me!” passage. But, as we see from Jesus here, the mission he’s sent on isn’t exactly wine and roses.
Isaiah responds enthusiastically, but he then learns that he’s doomed to preach to people who won’t even respond. With Isaiah’s preaching, they heard and heard, but they never understood. They knew what to do, they just didn’t want to.
Even in English, we’ll sometimes say that someone doesn’t understand us, when what we really mean is that they don’t agree with us. Israel didn’t understand Isaiah because they didn’t want to.
Just as the Pharisees were cursed by Jesus, he shows the disciples how blessed they are. They obey, they have ears to hear, and for it they are blessed. They’re the stump, the holy seed that remains that Isaiah prophesied about in chapter 6.
There were all these prophets and people of God who came before Jesus that longed for his arrival, could not wait to see it, but died before they could. The disciples are privileged and blessed to actually see it! They not only get to see Jesus, they get to walk with him, talk with him, learn directly from him.
To a degree, we’re included in that. We don’t get to see Jesus firsthand with our own eyes, but the richness of the witness to him in the New Testament allows us to share in this blessing. Jesus points this out after showing Thomas his wounds.
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
– John 20:29 (ESV)
The Parable Explained
“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 (ESV)
Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. This is kind of important, don’t miss this. Yes, the disciples have ears to hear, but Jesus still has to explain this parable to them. They don’t have all the answers. What separates the disciples is that they go to Jesus for them!
Understanding is the willingness to “stand under” Jesus’s teaching. Once you do that, you will continue to learn and grow.
Jesus explains that the four types of soil are referring to four different types of hearers. Four different types of disciples or would-be disciples. This was a common motif in Jewish sources, the four types. Here’s an example from the Mishnah:
A There are four types of disciples: B (1) quick to grasp, quick to forget—he loses what he gains; C (2) slow to grasp, slow to forget—what he loses he gains; D (3) quick to grasp, slow to forget—a sage; E (4) slow to grasp, quick to forget—a bad lot indeed.
– m. Pirqe Abot 5:12
You want to be slow to forget. It’s better to also be quick to grasp. Then you’re a sage. You’re killing it. But at minimum, you want to be slow to grasp and slow to forget. Then at least you’re still gaining.
Sometimes with these parables, there’s one disciple you want to be, sometimes there’s one you really don’t want to be, like in this next example a couple chunks down.
A There are four sorts among those who go to the study house: B he who goes but does not carry out [what he learns]— he has at least the reward for the going. C He who practices but does not go [to study]—he has at least the reward for the doing. D He who both goes and practices—he is truly pious. E He who neither goes nor practices—he is truly wicked.
– m. Pirqe Abot 5:14
This is an instance where two carry at least some reward, but there’s only one who’s truly pious. That also means there’s one who is truly wicked.
Jesus is using this in a way where there’s four types, but only one you want to be, like in this example:
A There are four traits among those who sit before the sages: B a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sifter. C A sponge—because he sponges everything up; D a funnel—because he takes in on one side and lets out on the other; E a strainer—for he lets out the wine and keeps in the lees; F and a sifter—for he lets out the flour and keeps in the finest flour.
– m. Pirqe Abot 5:15
This is a fun one. The sponge is no good, it just grabs everything. The funnel doesn’t hold any of it. The strainer keeps the stuff you don’t want and lets out all the stuff you do. The sifter, that’s the one you want to be, it keeps the good stuff and lets out the bad. Or, as it’s sometimes said, “Eat the fish and leave the bones.”
In verse 9, Jesus told the disciples that there are different kinds of hearers. He’s making that explicit here. This is about farming only on the surface. It’s really about people. There are four kinds of hearers of his word.
Let’s break it down piece by piece.
The seed is the word of God. That’s the key that unlocks the rest of the parable. Honestly, I think if Jesus had only told them this much, they might’ve worked out the rest on their own. Once you know what the seed is, the rest of the parable begins to fall into place. The focus then becomes on the four different kinds of soil.
The First Soil
The first soil is someone who is so hardened that they never even give the seed a chance. Preaching the Gospel to this person has no affect on them. They are dead set against it. This is where the Pharisees were. They had dug in their heels against Jesus and there was no changing their minds. The seed never even had a chance to penetrate their heart.
The Second Soil
The second soil, the shallow, rocky ground, that’s someone who never puts roots down. They hear the Gospel and it excites them, but they never grow deep. They never really dive in. There’s a joyful buzz at first, but that joy doesn’t always mean there’s a conversion.
As soon as tribulation comes or persecution comes, they can’t withstand it. Without the roots, without digging in, they have nothing holding them to Jesus. Their allegiance was only ever superficial to begin with.
Mind you, it’s not a matter of IF persecution comes, it’s WHEN. That doesn’t have to look like external forces against you. That could just be an affliction that you are enduring because life is heard and following Jesus can be messy. We don’t get to share in Christ’s resurrection without sharing in his sufferings and for this second soil, the second that suffering comes, they’re out.
My chronic migraine has been one of these “sun rising” situations in my life. Thankfully, I’ve put down roots, so it hasn’t taken me out. I’m connected to the True Vine and Jesus is holding on to me. I’m still trying to be fruitful, this podcast is just one aspect of that.
See, this second soil is the “Cultural Christian”. They only think they’re a Christian because it’s just what you do. They grew up around people who went to church, so they go to church once a week and then it made no difference on the rest of their life. They produce no fruit, they just suck dry the shallow ground they’re planted in.
This is a dying breed in the West. A lot of the reduction in Church attendance that we’re seeing, I think can be pointed directly to this. It’s no longer culturally helpful to be a Christian. It’s no longer a given. It seems like the en vogue spiritual status is to be vaguely spiritual, but never define that too sharply in any way. Like Oprah. Oprah’s the best example of this. What does Oprah believe? Everything. You want a culturally acceptable spiritual position, that’s it now. It’s not Christianity.
This second soil is the people who check the cultural temperature and are quick to jump off the plane as soon as it hits turbulence.
The Third Soil
The thorny soil is the person who wants to be fruitful, but not as much as they want other things. They get distracted in one of two directions: they either focus on the negative or on their idea of success.
The focus on the negative looks like being wrapped up in their own issues or the issues around them. Either the cares of their own life or the cares of the world around them. They’re so concerned with other things, they have no time for Jesus.
The other direction is someone who’s been deceived by worldly wealth and success. They’re so interested in being fruitful with the world’s seed that they don’t give proper attention to the Word’s. They’re lead sideways by wealth believe it can deliver on its false promises.
It’s a soil of compromise. The Good Seed deserves their full attention, but the thorny soil person refuses to give it. Their values are all mixed up.
The Fourth Soil
Lastly, the fourth soil. They hear the word and understand it. They embrace it and put it into practice. They’re the builder who builds their house on the solid ground of obedience to Jesus. This creates fruit and from that fruit we can see that it’s good soil.
The soil doesn’t always produce the same amount of fruit. But the fruitfulness doesn’t really seem to be the soil’s concern. All that’s important is that there is fruit. It’s a binary yes or no.
When you step back, having had it explained to us by Jesus, something becomes clear about this parable. It’s a parable… about the parables!
Will Jesus’s hearers listen to him and put his words into practice? Or will they be bad soil that shuts him out completely, embraces him superficially, or embraces him half-heartedly?
What Kind of Soil Are You?
In trying to nail down the application here, we first have to look for the call to action. Remember the arrow. What is the main thrust of this parable?
It really all boils down to one question: What kind of soil are you?
Properly understood, this parable is calling the hearer to make a decision about how they will receive the word when it is given to them. That’s the point on the arrow. Jesus is demanding a decision, as he always does. What kind of soil will you be?
Are You the First Soil?
Are you the first soil? Have you closed yourself off from Jesus altogether? Have you set yourself against him and refused to allow his word to penetrate your heart?
Are You the Second Soil?
Are you the second soil? Have you put down roots? Are you going to be able to withstand testing? How committed are you? Why do you want to follow Jesus? Is it because you think Jesus is going to make all your worldly problems go away? Is it just an emotional thing for you? How deeply are you committed?
Are You the Third Soil?
Are you the third soil? Are you willing to give Jesus the central position in your life? Or will you relegate him to being one thing amongst many things that are important to you? Does Jesus come before your pet issue?
Certainly, Jesus will motivate us to be involved in our communities and care about our neighbors. There used to be, though, this image talked about reading the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That’s complete rubbish. As if they deserved equal status! They absolutely do not.
What is your primary motivation?
Are You the Fourth Soil?
Finally, are you the fourth soil? Are you receptive to the Word of God and cultivating yourself to let it grow? Are you asking him, as David did, to “Create in [you] a clean heart?” Are you depending on Jesus alone?
These are the kinds of questions we all have to ask ourselves in the wake of this parable. The point is not for us to use the first three categories to identify those around us and view ourselves, perhaps undeservedly, alone as the good soil. The point is for us to look inward and determine what kind of soil we really are. The parable is not a club to beat others with.
We all have a duty to seek to have prepared hearts for the Gospel. And this is a continuous, daily activity. Only God can truly plow and prepare our hearts. When we embrace Jesus, the Holy Spirit goes to town and works on our hearts. When we decide to stand under the teachings of Jesus and truly follow and obey him, that’s when the Holy Spirit gets to work.
Sure, even the best soil will still have some rocks and some thorns, but the difference is that they are allowed to choke out the good seed. We will still struggle with sin. But the person who is cultivating their heart as good soil will look for rocks and thorns and try to remove them.
Fruit is the Difference
That was the main thrust of the parable, but there are some feathers to notice as well. Some windows to look out, as it were. One of them is this: the difference between the three unfruitful soils and the good soils is just that, fruit.
Either you bear fruit or you don’t. Either you hold or you don’t. That is the measure of your faith. It’s not exuberance or volume. It’s fruit over time.
I grew up around a lot of nebulous talk about being “on fire for God.” And I’ve been in conversations with other church leaders lamenting the reserved nature of some in their congregations. The fact of the matter is, volume and energy are not Biblical measurements of discipleship. Fruit and endurance are the only ones I see Jesus employ.
What does that fruit look like?
Well, obviously, it looks like the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians chapter 5.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
– Galatians 5:22–23 (ESV)
It also looks like Godly deeds and actions.
…so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
– Philippians 1:10–11 (ESV)
Of course, it looks like worship, as well.
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
– Hebrews 13:15 (ESV)
It also looks like endurance. The way we truly know we are disciples of Jesus is that we remain disciples of Jesus.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,
– John 8:31 (ESV)
Here is what this parable show us, temporary faith is no faith at all.
There’s a music community that calls themselves Straight Edge. They don’t believe in using drugs or drinking and they like hardcore punk music. They’ve had a slogan since the 90’s that I think would fit in well with Jesus’s teaching.
If you’re not now, you never were.
It’s hard, but that does jive with exactly what Jesus is saying in this parable. My whole life I’ve heard people talk about “backsliding”, this idea that someone follows Jesus and then falls away a bit, but then they come back (and then they fall away again and on and on…) One of my professors pointed out in college that, yeah, the whole Christian yo-yo thing… isn’t really in the Bible.
There’s no language in the Bible for “coming back” to faith. There’s talk of being in. There’s talk of falling away. There’s no talk of “coming back.” It’s not that people won’t grow up around the faith and drift, then come back to it later or something. That’s a pretty common story. One of my closest friends has a rather dramatic version of that story. But what the Bible seems to be saying, what Jesus seems to be saying here is that if you’re out, it’s because you were never truly in to begin with.
Good Soil Produces Varying Amounts of Fruit
Another thing we can see through the lens of this parable is that good soil produces a variable amount of fruit. Sometimes hundredfold, sometimes sixty, sometimes thirty. This is an encouragement to all of us who are following Jesus. He’s looking for fruitfulness, period.
If we’re doing our thing, following Jesus, and it seems like other people are blowing past us or are more successful, we can know that we have no reason to be jealous. The Good Sower rejoices at the crop, regardless of its size.
Other people might be more gifted than you. They might know more than you. They might seem closer to God than you are. But if you’re producing fruit, Jesus rejoices over you. Away with the comparison trap. Just focus on producing fruit, don’t waste time measuring bushels with the fields next door.
The Harvest is the Result of the Soil
Lastly, the harvest is dependent not on the sower, not on the seed, but on the soil.
There’s nothing wrong with the seed. There’s all kinds of nonsense that people do because they think they’re going to make people respond to the Gospel. “If we only did it this way or that way. If only we perform better, or have the right gameplan, or put the right bait on the hook, then people will accept the message.”
Look, there is no improving the good seed!
Do not alter the seed. Don’t water down the message or hack it to pieces. Don’t leave things out because they’re hard or uncomfortable so you don’t upset the soil. There is nothing wrong with that seed. Let the Gospel be the Gospel.
Don’t swap the seed out for something else. There is only one Gospel to sow. If you’re not sowing that, you’re not making disciples of Jesus. Jared C. Wilson says often, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Don’t add anything to the seed. Any time you put a word in front of Gospel, you’ve changed the Gospel and now it is no Gospel at all. The Prosperity Gospel, the Social Gospel, you name it. Anything you tack on to the Gospel causes it to cease to be the Gospel.
Not only is there nothing wrong with the seed, there is great encouragement here for sowers, as well. The harvest or lack of harvest is not the sower’s fault. We shouldn’t take credit or blame for the harvest. Our responsibility is simple to sow and trust God.
If we’re sowing the good seed and the soil isn’t responding, it’s the soil’s fault. There are people who go into ministry and go years without seeing a single convert. We’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful. God will worry about the results. We just have to trust him and sow. If you’re faithful long enough, some of your seed will find good ground.
The Parable of the Sower is a great look at the responses to Jesus and the reasons for them. It gives us an opportunity to do a little self-inventory, as well as some encouragement as we look to sow the word of God to the world around us. Let’s listen Jesus and decide to stand under his teaching, trust in his finished work on the cross, and act upon his word.
Stay tuned after the following for a quick tease of next episode.
Thanks for listening to Biblesplain. You can find show notes, references, and all sorts of other goodies on the website at Biblesplain.com. If you’re a social media kinda person, you can find us all over, on Twitter and Instagram @Biblesplain, and on Facebook at Facebook.com/Biblesplain.
If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, please head on over to iTunes, Stitcher, or your podcast platform of choice and leave us a 5-star review. Those reviews help other folks find the show and help us rise through the rankings.
If you’d like to contribute financially to Biblesplain, head over to Patreon.com/Biblesplain where for as little as $1/month you can give to help keep this thing going.
Next time on Biblesplain we look at the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus is telling another parable about sowing seed and the disciples need help figuring it out again. What else is new?
Thanks for listening. God bless, we’ll catch ya in 2 weeks.