To Reject or Receive God’s Reign
To Reject or Receive God’s Reign
Matthew 13:1-30, 36-43
In July, Time magazine published The 100 Most Influential People Who Never Lived. Editors drew up this list of fictional characters with some help from “contributors” such as F. Murray Abraham, Jodie Foster and Chris Colfer. The public then voted for its top choices from the list. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus ranked No. 1. But James Bond was No. 2? Sherlock Holmes followed him. No. 4 was The Dude. The Dude? Jeff Bridges as The Big Lebowski. The Good Samaritan was fifth. The Prodigal Son ranked farther down the list, getting about a third as many votes as did The Good Samaritan. The Prodigal Son was ranked just ahead of Dorothy Gale but far ahead of Jay Gatsby, Tarzan and Pollyanna.
In his Prodigal Son essay, a sports writer for Time misses the point of the parable. He hails the Prodigal as a “designer of daydreams” and says the older brother “needs to take a few more risks to earn his rewards, just like Baby Bro.” (Sean Gregory) But, the anonymous comments on The Good Samaritan are on point. The character’s function as archetype of folks who come to the aid of needy strangers is recognized and the writer says that Jesus asks us “to practice the most demanding act of the Christian faith: to love and help even our enemies in an age in which so many voices urge us to demonize.” Some get a parable’s point and others don’t.
Well, this weekend we’ll be looking at some of Jesus’ other parables. But before that, and since Jesus is so poorly stereotyped in the public mind, I’d like to quote from a letter I have in which C. S. Lewis responds to an enquirer, addressing the misconception that was popular in Lewis’ day as it still is in our day.
Lewis wrote: “Of course, ‘Gentle Jesus’ my elbow! The most striking thing about our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness. … Add to this that He is also a supreme ironist, dialectician, and (occasionally) humourist. So go on: You are on the right track now: getting to the real Man behind all the plaster dolls that have been substituted for Him. This is the appearance in Human form of the God who made the tiger and the lamb, the avalanche and the rose. He’ll frighten and puzzle you; but the real Christ can be loved and admired as the doll can’t.”
Let’s hear God’s word.
“Jesus went outside and was sitting by the Sea of Galilee. So many people were coming to see him that he got into a boat and sat down there. The people then gathered around him on the shore.
He told them many parables. He said: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and birds ate it up. Other seed fell on stony ground where it quickly sprang up, but under the scorching sun, quickly withered for the roots were not deep enough. Other seed fell among thorns that choked the tender plants. But other seed took root in good ground and produced plenty of grain – even a hundred, sixty, or thirty times as much as was planted. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus would begin to tell a parable to curious onlookers by inviting them to listen. When he finished, he’d say to them, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What did he mean by, “ears to hear”? He didn’t mean, “to whom it may concern”. The listeners, themselves, are in his parables. By “ears to hear”, Jesus meant what we mean when we say and mean it: “I’m all ears!” “All ears” really wants to hear. Jesus meant the opposite of what we mean when we say that words “fell on deaf ears”. Such “deaf ears” don’t want to hear. Jesus preached to “all ears” folks as well as to the “deaf ears”. Tragically, when it comes to the Good News of God’s revolutionary reign coming to earth in the coming of Jesus – many still refuse to listen. They don’t want to hear and they couldn’t care less. So, they respond carelessly.
David Livingstone was scorned for having had so few – if any – African converts during his life as a missionary. Yet, in a sermon six months before he died, Robert Murray M’Cheyne told his congregation: “There is nothing more surprising to an attentive reader of the gospel than to notice the little success Christ had in the conversion of sinners.” M’Cheyne applied this lesson: “O brethren! Is it to be wondered at, then, that there are so few believers among us, when there were so few converted under Christ? We are always to expect this, then. Observe still further that the more that Christ opened out his mind to them, they seemed to hate him the more.”
Exactly a century before this sermon, revivalist George Whitefield wrote: “It is a very uncommon thing to be rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus. I find persons may have the idea, but are far from having the real substance.”
Jesus addressed such negative and negligent responses when his disciples inquired: “Why do you speak to those people in parables?” He told them:
“Because the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.”
Jesus uses the divine passive – “has been given” – another of those Jewish idioms for saying, indirectly, that, what is given – or not – is up to God.
Jesus notes that some, such as his disciples, are open to the truth of God’s gift in his teaching, but others are not. Others look at Jesus, but they don’t look to him. They look right through him without recognizing who he is. They hear his words, but they’re not open to receive his meaning. Unreceptive to the truth of his teaching, they fail to receive the truth he is. As a biblical theologian puts it: “Jesus deliberately concealed the Word in parable lest men, against their will, should be forced to acknowledge the Kingdom, and yet, He allowed them enough light to convict them and to convince them.” (T. F. Torrance)
So, Jesus went on to explain:
“Whoever has will be given more, and he will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
Jesus is expressing something like “use-it-or-lose-it” or “one-step-at-a- time.” Those who’ve taken the first steps into receptivity and faithfully follow through on what they’ve gotten are prepared for gaining yet more ground as they persevere. But, those who don’t follow through and who neglect what’s already been given them and drift into indifference, will forsake and forget even what they’d gained to begin with. Isn’t that the way things do go? Pray it’s not the way we go in dealing with Jesus.
Jesus puts this into historical context by recalling the unbelief of earlier Israelites. The same unbelief was there in his day. And it’s here in ours.
We don’t like to be disturbed by what we sense is too true to listen to. But, in that defensive refusal to hear, whether by indifference or outright rejection, we fail to detect God’s loving presence in the very disturbance we endeavor to evade or escape. So, wills that are set to resist undesired truth are both cause and consequence of the obscurity in Jesus’ parables. To put it quite plainly to his disciples, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6, as Paul would later do with Roman Jews who hardened themselves to his preaching of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (Acts 28)
“Here’s why I speak to them in parables:
They see, but they won’t take it in; they hear, but they won’t take hold of what they hear.
In them, Isaiah’s prophecy comes to pass. Isaiah said it all:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never taking hold;
You will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart is hardened;
They plug their ears, They shut their eyes,
Otherwise, they might see with their eyes,
They might hear with their ears,
They might understand with their hearts
And turn around. And I would heal them.’
Jesus observes that, unlike the intentionally hard of hearing and hard of heart, his disciples are intentionally open to hear and receive the truth.
Addressing them as separated from unbelievers, he says:
“You are the fortunate, for you see and hear. I’m telling you truly, so many prophets and righteous people longed to see in their day what you now see. But they didn’t get to see. They so longed to hear what you now hear. But they didn’t get to hear.”
Jesus unpacks the parable’s meaning for anyone ready to hear his perspective on what concerned Livingstone, M’Cheyne, Whitefield and others and what should concern us, too, when faced with how few come to a flourishing faith in Christ. An evangelical scholar notes that the parable is actually “a word of consolation for the sower”. Since Jesus identifies himself as the parable’s sower, he suggests that, Jesus, himself, might be called the “first audience” of this parable. (J. Ramsey Michaels)
In his typical, emphatic form of address, Jesus tells his disciples:
“You, therefore, listen to what the parable of the sower means: When people hear the message of the kingdom but do not welcome it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.”
The path in the parable was that hard, compacted margin of a field, where feet had trampled over it, over and over again. That hardened path stands for a hardened heart. How was the evil one so easily able to snatch the seed of the word? Well, hardened hearts don’t value that seed. They don’t want it. So, why would they resist the seed’s being snatched away from them? The hardened heart is oblivious to the seed’s value. “What seed?”, asks the hardened heart, and replies, “Oh, that! Nah.”
How many gracious seeds of Gospel truth have been planted in our hearts? How have we welcomed them? What gracious seeds of Gospel truth are being planted by God’s Spirit in our hearts and minds in this very meeting? How alert to the Spirit are we who’ll never again have this same opportunity to hear? The evil one is still hell bent on snatching away the seed of God’s Good News. Pray that we value it. Attend to it. Stick with it, lest it be so subtly, but ever so surely, snatched away and lost without recovery.
Jesus continues with the next illustration of the parable. He says:
“The seed falling on stony ground is about those who hear the word and, at least for a short time, they receive it, even with some excitement. But it doesn’t last, because it’s not firmly rooted. With any trouble or persecution around the word, they quickly fall away.”
Jesus describes the superficiality of some who are told the Good News. They seem glad to hear it – at least at first. Yet, they soon get distracted and their interest wanes. Finally, it disappears for all practical purposes. They didn’t go deep enough to really get it. So, without root, it withers and dies.
Why didn’t they go deeper so as to get it? Jesus points to their priorities. Some trouble came. And, they allowed that trouble to take over instead of allowing the seed of the word to take on the trouble and take it over. They allowed themselves to be preoccupied with the persecution and, in doing so, they never went deeper into the faith that would have given them even a sense of privilege under persecution and would have sustained them in persevering through even further and more severe persecution.
There was, already, some persecution during Jesus earthly ministry and, of course, he finally paid with his life. Any who were at all alert to what was going on could see that Jesus was running afoul of both the religious elite and the Roman authorities. There soon would be far worse persecution. But, even such as it was at the time, it was too much for a rootless faith to resist.
Throughout history, Christians have been persecuted and killed – as Jesus said his followers should expect. Christians were torn apart by starved lions and burned alive for pagan entertainments. Christians were tortured and killed under demonic despots who dominated in the distorted name of Christ. Christians suffered torture and execution under the Nazis and under the Communists of the USSR and Christians continue to suffer atrocities under the Communists in China, in Cuba and in North Korea. And, as we meet here in safety, Christian brothers and sisters around the world are demonized as “infidels” and, in the name of Allah, raped, beheaded or burned alive inside their torched churches.
We ourselves have been spared such trauma. All we’ve had to endure for Christ is, what, an arched eyebrow or sarcastic remark?
The General Social Survey finds that Americans who claim to be “born again” are almost three times as likely as others to think that they’ve been gossiped about and almost 80 percent more likely than others to say they’ve been the butt of jokes. The poor dears! Yet, even such minor slights may be all the threat it takes to shut us up and put us “in our place”.
What kind of “faith” is it that fails and falls flat at the slightest threat of the PC police when others faced up to the Gestapo, the Stasi and KGB? Where would our Christian witness be if we came face to face with the hysteria of Hezbollah (“Party of Allah”), or the atrocious Al-Qaeda or the brutes of Boko Haram? We must pray for a deeply rooted faith. Else, we’ll have no faith to speak of, much less a faith to live by or die for.
Jesus moves on to explain the seed among the thorns. He says:
“The seed falling among the thorns is of those who hear the word, but common, everyday worries and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
This seed is strangled by the all too ordinary distractions in this fallen world. Can allegiance to God’s reign be held hostage to this world’s worries, obsessions and preoccupations? Jesus warns it is. Yet, in the end, of course, there can be no accommodation between ultimate concerns at odds with each other. It’s God or the would-be god of self! Jesus warned: We cannot serve both. (Matt 6:24) Our call is not an integration of the infinitely significant with the insignificant. Trying to do so is the most outrageous of all conflicts of interest. What must be a Christian’s singleness of purpose must not get twisted up and entrapped in double-mindedness that’s utter self-delusion.
What are the thorns that ruin the good seed that falls to us? Are they anxieties that God’s perfect love can assuage? Are they complaints and discontentment with things the Good News can put into perspective? Are they resentments that haven’t been revised by realizing that there’s nothing to resent more than our resistance to God’s grace and our refusal to live it out and pass it on? Are they hurts that don’t heal for our being so wrapped up in ourselves that we’re blinded to how our self-obsession harms us, and others? Are they frustrations from trying to grunt up on our own, what only the sovereign power of God’s love can do in and through us?
Jesus finally turns his attention to seed that falls into good ground. He says:
“But the seed falling on good ground refers to someone who hears the word and receives it seriously. This one then produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
As Jesus’ followers live faithfully under God’s rule of the world, God will “give the increase”, as Paul put it. (I Cor 3:6) The yield in different cases will look different, yet the yield is always God’s part. The reign is God’s doing, God’s gift. Our part is to receive the word with gratitude and tend to it faithfully, no matter how the results appear to us. Our vantage point is not God’s vantage point.
Matthew’s gospel goes on to include a related parable – the parable of the weeds. Jesus tells the crowd:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, the weeds became obvious.’
In this parable, the good seed is wheat. But, an evil intruder sows weeds among the wheat. The weed Jesus may have had in mind could have been a poisonous plant called darnel. At early stages, darnel resembles wheat. That it’s not wheat becomes evident only later. Wheat actually is life giving but that weed actually is deadly. And the difference between the wheat and that weed is not a matter of spin. It’s a matter of life or death.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did these weeds come from?” “The owner replied: ‘An enemy did this!’
The servants asked, ‘Do you want us to pull them up?’ ‘No, for in pulling up the weeds now, you might root up the wheat also. Let them grow together until harvest. Then I’ll tell the harvesters to collect the weeds and tie them into bundles to be burned; and gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ”
A well-intended remedy can be counterproductive if applied recklessly and impatiently. Few know the wisdom of patience like a sower of seed knows it. But the street smarts of sowing seed are hardly the point of the parable. So, Matthew moves beyond the surface story. He reports:
“Jesus left the crowd and went into the house. There, his disciples asked him to explain the parable of the weeds. Jesus answered: ‘The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world. The good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one. The enemy who sows the weeds is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age and the harvesters are angels.”
Well, indeed, there’s more to a parable than mere parable. Here, Jesus specifically reveals himself to be The Good Sower of Good News. He’s The Good Shepard, The Light of the World and he’s The Good Sower, too. Furthermore, he invokes a seldom-used Messianic reference and applies it to himself – the Hebrew vision of “one like a son of man, coming down with the clouds of heaven”. (Daniel 7:13) That “son of humanity”, coming from God’s Presence, is the representative human for the restored reign of God. It follows that the good seed represents the offspring of the kingdom and weeds represent the offspring of evil, sown by the Satan himself.
But it’s not our place to pass the final judgment, to separate out the children of God’s reign from the children of this world’s evil system. It’s for us to be patient and wait for God’s harvesters. Jesus was patient with even Judas, wasn’t he? It is for us to await the coming judgment of the Lord God, to whom Abraham, faced with the prospect of Sodom’s destruction, asked rhetorically: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what’s right?!” (Gen 18:25).
The parable’s harvest is the just and final judgment by God. Says Jesus:
“ ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his harvesting heralds, and they will weed out everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be wails of rage. Then the just and righteous ones will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.’ ”
Jesus presents this in the metaphorical language of his day. Some of it is hard to hear. But, as an Oxford Bible scholar admits, “there is no doubt that Jesus had such a belief, and that for him, the revolutionary message of God’s love was good news and urgent good news precisely because he believed that a time would come for the destruction of all the works and workers of ‘the evil one’.” (David Wenham) And it’s not for us to explain any of it away – and certainly not in the terms of a narrow-minded provincialism or our own era’s secular sensibilities. We, ourselves, cannot improve on Abraham’s rhetorical prayer and leave the judging to God.
It’s for us, in awe of God’s mighty mercy at Calvary, to be “all ears” to hear and to receive Jesus’ “urgent good news” of God’s revolution and God’s reign in Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord.