Day 125: Matthew 13:3-9 and 13:18-23

Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty. Listen, then, if you have ears! (Matthew 13:3-9)

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Listen, then, and learn what the parable of the sower means.

Those who hear the message about the Kingdom but do not understand it are like the seeds that fell along the path. The Evil One comes and snatches away what was sown in them.

The seeds that fell on rocky ground stand for those who receive the message gladly as soon as they hear it. But it does not sink deep into them, and they don’t last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once.

The seeds that fell among thorn bushes stand for those who hear the message; but the worries about this life and the love for riches choke the message, and they don’t bear fruit.

And the seeds sown in the good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it: they bear fruit, some as much as one hundred, others sixty, and others thirty. (Matthew 13:18-23)

Here Jesus offers a large crowd one of his most famous parables.  In the next scriptures (tomorrow and the next day), he explains to his disciples why he uses parables.  After that he offers a full explanation of this particular parable. I sort of struggled about how to deal with this discontinuity, so I’ve decided whenever there is a parable with an explanation, but the explanation is separated by other text, I will put the two related pieces together and deal with them on the same day.  So today I will look at both the parable and the explanation.

The parable itself is pretty simple and easy to understand, and Jesus further clarifies it by providing the interpretation.  All of the people in this parable all hear the message of Jesus (unlike the people like those on Day 106 who have stopped up their ears because don’t want to hear what he has to say).  They are receptive to the message and are initially enthused about it, but they don’t persevere.  They don’t bear fruit.  In this parable he addresses three major reasons why people fail to bear good fruit in their lives, even though they have heard the message of Jesus:

#1 – They really don’t get it.

Not everybody who claims to follow Jesus really accepts his teachings.  Many think it’s too idealistic, too un-American, too radical, or too communist.  Even those who have been sowing seeds for a long time, like pastors and church leaders, may have never really understood or accepted the message in the first place.  They just don’t get it, so the Evil One moves in and takes over, like it says in the parable. The result is that they lead others down a path that leads to false religion, secularism, pride, legalism or a multitude of other things.  They are then baffled when their ministry doesn’t seem to be bearing very much good fruit.  This is kind of like what Jesus says has happened to the Pharisees (see Day 123). No God, no fruit.

#2 – They get disillusioned.

According to Jesus, you don’t have to worry about any of your material needs and you can ask God for anything (See Days 48-53, 57-58).  When people first hear about this they get pretty excited.  They think it’s like magic or something and that they won’t ever suffer from hardship again.  Sometimes prayers go unanswered and people lose their faith.  Those unanswered prayers may lead people to believe that God doesn’t care about them.  And then there all those people who feel compelled to dampen the enthusiasm of new believers.  If not persecution, many experience ridicule or rejection because of their newfound faith.  Life can be hard, even with the Holy Spirit leading you along.  I know that I certainly get worn down pretty quickly when I’m sick, grieving, stressed, or suffering from harassment.  It’s really hard to keep your mind on loving God and loving other people.  It’s hard to do anything.  It’s even hard to go to church.  Yes, people definitely get discouraged by troubles and persecutions and the cares of the world. So true.

#3 – They get distracted by money.

We are supposed to put God first and put others ahead of ourselves, but there can be problems if you are either too poor or too rich.  Either one is a burden that can prevent people from developing their spiritual lives.

Poor people have to work.  We often found that people came to church because they were desperate to get a job.  Very often they would get that miraculous job offer – only to find out that they had to work on Sundays.  That pretty well put an end to their church participation and spiritual growth.  Also, poor people don’t like to come to churches or participate in small groups because they feel that don’t have anything to offer – no money for the collection plate; not enough money to feed others; no home in which to entertain a small group.

As for rich people, they usually amass and retain their wealth by paying close attention to their money and their business.  They don’t have a lot of time left for prayer or spiritual refreshment.  Money can be a terrible distraction.  The more money, the more worries.   They want to participate, but usually just end up writing checks.  So either too poor or too rich, money can distract people away from Kingdom life.

Here’s a “mind map” of this parable:

Image

Managing Expectations

Ultimately this parable is a great encouragement to pastors, church leaders, and anyone else who wants to see God’s Kingdom increase.  It’s not at all uncommon for someone to come into a church or a small group and be super excited about it.  They say they want to step up their spiritual lives or turn their lives around.  They just love the service and the people.  They say it’s just what they have been looking for! They say they will definitely be back.  And then you never see them ever again. This parable helps those pastors and church leaders cope with their disappointment.  Jesus says, stuff happens.

The fact is that most churches these days are small.  There aren’t any “official” statistics on the average number of people attending each week, but according to Christianity Today, the average weekly attendance for Protestant churches is 109 and the average for all churches is 162.  Small.  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/april/32.85.html)

While there are some huge mega churches with tens of thousands, most churches will never reach 200. Despite these discouraging statistics, most pastors and church leaders wish their churches were bigger.  Churches with only 150 people in attendance struggle to have the financial resources and the talent pool to provide the services most people expect to find.  So when churches see new people come in they get their hopes up, and when those same people drift off it makes them really sad.  They are always praying that there will be some fruit, which they usually measure in terms of financial viability, missions, and ministries.  They want to make a difference in people’s lives.

On the other hand, there is another school of thought that says you have to choose between going broad and going deep.  In other words, you can either have a big uninvolved group or a small committed group.  Smaller groups are more like true communities and they do a better job encouraging each other to go deeper into the spiritual life.  Smaller groups are always healthier, so the only way to make a big church healthy is to try to push people into small groups.

Anyway, in this scripture Jesus says, “no worries.”  People will always be drifting off because they are unclear on the concept, disillusioned, or distracted.  He says that’s just the way it is. Jesus says not to get discouraged when others don’t want to travel through life on that love boat, that peace train that Jesus invites us to board.  One thing for sure, if people want to be his followers, Jesus would prefer that they understand what he’s all about.  He would insist on it.

One thing about seeds like those in this parable is that they keep moving around.  They are driven by the wind, swept away by the rain, eaten by birds and re-deposited somewhere else.  Maybe the ones who are clueless will eventually understand the concept.  Maybe those difficult life situations some people are suffering from will pass.  Maybe the poor will get promoted so they don’t have to work so hard and they will feel like they can properly contribute.  Maybe the rich will lose either their money or their passion for it. Maybe all these people will eventually dive in.  You never know, you just have to keep sowing those seeds.  That’s the way it works in nature.  If you throw enough of them out there something will eventually take root.  We have to keep trying.  We need that kinder, gentler, more inclusive, more intentional world that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

What does this scripture say to you?

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