“Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favorable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth.”
There is power in words. Words convey ideas from one mind to another, they carry thoughts and emotions and vision from heart to heart.
The greatest idea in the history of human civilization is the gospel of Jesus, which began as a word in the mouth of one man and has since traveled across two thousands years of history and every border on the planet and changed the course of the human story.
This fall the teachings of Christ are our focus at Vintage Faith, specifically the teachings he presented in the form of Parables.
What is a parable?
If you look up the word at dictionary.com you will find this:
a short, simple story that teaches or explains an idea
The Greek word for parable is a compound of two words: para (alongside) & ballo (throw). The literal sense of the word: something thrown alongside.
In literature, a parable can be a riddle, story, allegory, or an extensive saying.
John MacArthur defines a Biblical parable as an “ingeniously simple word picture with profound spiritual lessons”
We should address what parables aren’t. Parables are not fables, there is no element of the fantastic in them. They are made of the very real stuff of everyday real life.
Neither are parables allegories. In an allegory, every detail tends to have meaning. In parables the meaning is typically found in one or two or three main points, but not in each detail.
Jesus taught around 40 parables that we are aware of. (Some, using a narrower definition of the word, find a number in the 20s).
There are no parables in John and just 6 in Mark. The bulk are in Matthew and Luke.
Today, we begin with one of the longest and best known parables – Matthew 13.
This one is unique because it is one of two which Jesus himself interpreted. It is also unique because Jesus explains why he spoke in parables.
Let’s read together, Matthew 13:1-23.
Parables can be illuminating. They can drive home concepts with great force. If you have read the parable of the good Samaritan you have felt the deep conviction of seeing yourself in the priest and the Levite who make excuses to avoid getting their hand dirty in someone else’s trouble. You have felt your heart warm at the thought of the outcast Samaritan who bends over backwards to help a fallen stranger. If you have read the parable the prodigal son you have been deeply moved by the example of the father’s gracious and longing love for his son and maybe even been brought tears by their reunion.
Parables illuminate and drive home spiritual truths. But that’s not all they do.
The parable of the sower did not seem to make truth plain, but instead conceal it.
The disciples asked, “why, Jesus”?
To answer, Jesus takes them back to the Old Testament, in Isaiah chapter 6. Jesus explains that there are two types of people – those who have and those who have not. Those who have ears to hear, and those who don’t.
This is a very important point. This is about who is on the inside and who is on the outside of the kingdom of God. This is about how you get on the inside of the kingdom of God. There cannot be anything more important.
To help us understand the distinction, we need to back up and see the context of this moment in Jesus’ ministry.
In the course of his short public ministry, Jesus had attracted the unhappy attention of the religious establishment of his day. In the first century, like many others, there was a group of men whose place as guardians of Jewish religion and tradition brought them a great amount of wealth and power. As a whole this group of leaders was poisoned with greed, pride and self-righteousness. Jesus referred to them as whitewashed tombs. Clean on the outside and rotten with the stench of hypocrisy and decay on the inside. You can imagine what they thought of him. The uneducated blue collar man from small town Nazareth was becoming a threat with his influence. It wasn’t long before annoyance became fear, fear became anger, and a plot was hatched to destroy Jesus. The battlefield they chose was the Sabbath.
The rabbinical tradition by this point in time had taken the one commandment to rest and do no work on the last day of the week and exploded it into layer upon layer of interpretive addition.
“The Sabbath became a vexing, taxing, legalistic work – a cumbersome ritual rather than a true day of rest. People lived in fear that if they accidentally violated or neglected some trivial Sabbath rule, the Pharisees would call them on the carpet and threaten them with excommunication or, in the worst cases, stoning.”
– John MacArthur
In Matthew 12, Jesus and the religious leaders enter the battlefield of the Sabbath. It is recorded that Jesus and his disciples, during a long day of work ministering to crowds of people, gather fresh grain from a field they have walked through. The religious leaders are indignant. Jesus reminds them that humanity was not made to serve the Sabbath, but the other way around. Then he says something extraordinary and refers to himself as the “Lord of the Sabbath”. To illustrate and prove what he said, he entered a synagogue and healed a man who had a disabled hand.
At this point, the enraged leaders could not deny what everyone had seen and heard, so they resorted to the lowdown and dirty tactic of accusing Jesus of being possessed by a demon. “Okay, maybe he is powerful, but where does his power come from? He is possessed by demons!” As you can guess, Jesus did not appreciate the accusation. From that point on his teaching took on an entirely different character.
Who is left on the outside of the kingdom of God? In this moment, it is those who are in the center of the religious institution which claims to represent God’s kingdom on earth. The very ones who are supposed to be the most careful and the most diligent to listen to and understand and then teach the words of God’s messengers. Hardness of hearing when it comes to the words of Jesus have a religious as well as a non-religious expression.
Jesus will no longer communicate directly with those hardened hearts, but use the form of parables.
So what is the relevance of this to my life?
The application of the parables is found in verse 9. “He who has an ear, let him hear.” In the parable of the sower, there are three examples of poor hearing.
- You can hear with the apathy and indifference of a stony heart.
- You can hear as long as it is convenient to hear, with a shallow heart.
- You can hear many voices with a distracted heart.
- You can hear the Word of Christ with a careful and eager heart.
What does it look like to receive the Word of God like good soil receives a seed? The New Testament gives us some explanation – those with ears to hear will hear with longing, humility and doing.
1. With a longing heart.
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation
1 Peter 2:2
2. With a humble heart.
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
3. With an active, doing heart.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
How are you hearing the Word these days?
If you are not a Christian – are you a seeker of truth? I have known more than a few men and women who had no taste for Christianity. You’re not interested in it, you’re turned off my the reputation of religion. The lives of your friends did not make sense, the Bible seems irrelevant. But for some reason or another, a friend gives you a Bible, a relative takes you to church, and for a short undistracted moment of time you actually listen. And suddenly it’s as if a light has been switched on and you see something you never suspected was there. Now you can’t get enough. You find that what you are hearing is entering your soul and taking root and there is new life everywhere inside and around you. This is the seed of the kingdom of God entering a receptive ear, an open mind.
For those of you who are Christians:
A practical question: do you have any undistracted space in your life set aside to receive the Word of God? Coming to church on a Sunday morning can do wonders, but it can’t keep you going. You must have your own relationship with Jesus, you must have a steady flow of the Word of God cleansing and inspiring your heart. You must bring your own doubts and struggles and hopes to your own Bible.
Christian, is there space in your life for careful, undistracted attention to the Word of God? Do you make time to purposefully shut out all distractions and gather your mental energy to study the Words of Christ, as the disciples whose desire to puzzle out the meaning of those Words led them to Christ with the question ‘What does this mean Lord?’ What should we do with this?
If not, what’s stopping you from doing that? What could you change today if you resolved that you were going to get serious about the Word of God?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown