Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Secret of the Parables

Thursday 21 July – Holy Communion at St Giles

Gospel Matthew 13

When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

   “Though seeing, they do not see;
   though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

   “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
   you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
   they hardly hear with their ears,
   and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
   hear with their ears,
   understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


A commentary on this chapter starts remarkably: this discourse is not a solution to the problem of evil in general, but a solution to the rejection of Christ in particular.

Striking – I thought this part of Matthew as all about Jesus’ teaching in parables. The heading is “Explaining Israel’s Response.”

I started sermon a fortnight ago with the words ‘Parables are so stupid.’ This from the lips of a teenager. It was about Parable of Sower. Why did sower broadcast his seed all over the path, rocks, shallow, choked and thorny soils with same abandon he use for good soil? Reason: it’s not about agriculture. It’s about spreading the Word. It’s about God’s grace, and how he treats all of us just the same, regardless of what soil type we are.

The Sower is one of only 2 parables with a clear explanation. Why doesn’t Jesus explain all his parables, so we can be sure to understand? Why does he use this form of teaching at all? Is it just so the memorable images stick in our mind? Or is it more than that?

The Sower is also all about rejection. It was told as opposition to Jesus’ message was growing. Even his own family rejected him. Only the crowds hung on his every word, and they would shortly turn and cry for his blood.

Rejection was illustrated by the poor soil types. They get just as much chance as anyone else to hear and accept the Word leading to God’s Kingdom, but for one of many reasons they do not receive it and accept it.

So when Jesus answers the disciples’ question and says: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” – he’s not saying the message has been deliberately concealed, but that for those hearers who are distracted, or who ignore it, or are too worldly, or for whatever other reason they reject it, - to them it is a secret.

When my mother used to teach me there were jolly unfair bits in the gospels, taking them out of context they were a secret to her because she had not fully understood what they meant. For her, the workers in the vineyard were treated unfairly and should be unionised. For her, it was wrong that: 12 Those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” – but that was a literal interpretation, and not an explanation about the revelation of God’s word through parables.

What is all means is this. Only those who hear the word and do the will of God will understand Jesus’ parables. The so-called mysteries of the Kingdom are given by God’s grace through the parables, which is why the teaching they contain falls on closed as well as open ears. The one who has ears to hear, let him hear. Amen

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Sower

trinity 3 – Sunday 10 July 2011 at Cheddington

Gospel Matthew 13.1-9,18-23

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.

All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.

All Praise to you, O Christ.


It would be a mistake to think of the Parable of the Sower as teaching us anything about agriculture. Like all parables, the narrative contains messages for each of us. Teaching that applies to each of us individually. Messages that vary according to when we hear the parable, how old we are, and what is our state of mind when we engage with them. That makes the preacher’s job very hard indeed, because what I learn from this parable, here and now, will be different from what you do, and what you learn from it may be very different next week or next month.

Perhaps I can help a little with the background to the telling of this parable, without saying too much about what it means for me.

Hostility to Jesus at this point in the gospel is increasing. Here we are in chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel. Chapter 12 contains accounts of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are now plotting to destroy him. They claim Jesus is working on behalf of Satan. By the end of chapter 12 we hear that Jesus is at odds with his own family. By the end of chapter 13, he will be rejected by his own native people in his hometown.

So we have this picture of almost universal hostility. Only his own followers support him, together with the poor, outcast, sinners and those on the margins of society.

The authorities and those who matter might have turned against Jesus, but the masses are still interested in his message. Large crowds follow him. So many people that he has to climb into a boat and teach them from the lake.

Jesus dresses up his message in pictures, allusions and allegory. Still, his teaching is literally down-to-earth. It’s all about seeds, growing conditions and farming. He speaks in a language that ordinary people can relate to. Most of them till the soil. Most of them are sowers of seeds themselves.

For the time being, these crowds are interested in hearing what he has to say, but we must remember that all this hostility from everywhere else is preying on his mind. So it’s not surprising the story he tells is about hostility to his words, and the many ways in which the message of the Kingdom can be neglected, misunderstood and opposed.

Did the message get through? We can’t be sure, but if the disciples didn’t understand, it’s likely many of the crowds didn’t get it either. Jesus’ immediate followers had the chance to ask for an explanation, but the crowds at large didn’t.

The clear explanation Jesus gives seems to leave little room for interpretation, unlike most of the parables which have never been interpreted definitively. But there are still questions left unanswered.

The seed is the word of God. That’s very clear. But what is the meaning of the different types of soil? Who qualifies as good soil? Soil cannot change in character, so if a person represents rocky, thin, hard or thorny soil, how can they become good soil? No amount of composting of stony ground will ever make it rich, dark and productive.

So, for example, take those who hear but don’t understand. Let’s say they are the Pharisees. They hear the word of the Kingdom but are antagonistic towards it. How can they change soil, and become receptive? Or how about the crowds? The rejoice in the Word. Through faith they respond positively, only to reject it shortly afterwards when they call for Jesus’ crucifixion. Let’s say their soil is shallow so they put down no roots, or maybe thorns sown by the Pharisees choke their immature shoots and destroy them before they have a chance to mature. How can their soil type change?

Don’t forget even the disciples themselves are shallow soil. After 3 years of hearing the Word and witnessing miracle after miracle, they fall away and desert their master when danger threatens and at his time of greatest need. So where is the rich soil? Who is faithful to the end? Are we? Is anyone?

When Jesus explains the parable, he asks the disciples whether they have understood the Word? They say ‘Yes’ but subsequent events witness to how shallow that undertaking was, and how quickly they all melted away to save their own skins. We might think we are rich soil, but in our heart of hearts wouldn’t we have done the same?

So this is where God’s grace comes in. It is unmerited. Undeserved. Unearned. The one character in the parable who says nothing and seems to play little part is the Sower. He is God. He is Jesus. She is Holy Spirit. The sower broadcasts the seed over a wide area. The sower sows much more than is required, and throws the same amount on all soil types regardless.

God, being outside of time, already knew the disciples would fail in their promises. Peter will not become a Rock until after he has denied Christ three times and repented. The other disciples will fail by making themselves scarce, so Jesus says “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee" (26:32). Jesus does meet them in Galilee as promised, and with all authority in heaven and on earth given to him, turns them loose on the world to carry out his mission (28:16-20). So through grace, and not by any of their own efforts does the thin, shallow and rocky soil of the disciples become deep, rich and productive. 30, 60 and even 100-fold.

It’s not hard to find modern parallels. We can be distracted from hearing the Word by the cares of the world. Wealth. Possessions. Activities. Busy-ness. Responsibilities. The pursuit of goals. Providing for a comfortable future. Building barns. Making investments. Buying and selling cars. Improving what we own. Wanting more. Feathering our nest. Playing it safe.

The Parable of the Sower invites us to look again at our lives. Jesus invited us to seek his freedom. Freedom to take risks for the gospel. Emulating the Sower in his extravagant provision of seed, regardless of the likely outcome. Sowing the word in perilous places.

Our worldly assessment is that this is a waste of time. Unproductive. Inefficient. Unwise. But the Sower promises in the end a bumper crop against all the odds. 30-fold, 60-fold, even 100-fold.

51 Have you understood all these things? Jesus asked. Yes, they replied. May we, asked the same question, answer likewise and grasp the grace of God, in all its extravagant abundance, becoming good soil conditions for His Kingdom. Amen