Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
A teacher was known for giving his students brain teasers, scenarios that contained puzzles to be solved. He did this before the final bell on Friday afternoons. “Think about that over the weekend and tell me what you’ve come up with on Monday morning,” he’d say.
Most of the students hated these puzzles and didn’t give them another thought once they walked out of the classroom. Some of the students thought about the little mysteries for awhile and then got distracted by other things or simply gave up.
But there were other students who jotted down the puzzles and worked them over, often discussing them with their parents and friends over the weekends. Not every kid in this last group solved the puzzle before Monday morning when the teacher revealed the answer, but they were the ones most rewarded for their attention to the teacher’s little mysteries: They gained new insights into how the world works, how their minds worked, how not everything is as it may seem when you just look at things surface-deep.
Jesus was the Great Puzzlemaster. Like the teacher who gave his students puzzles, Jesus was always using puzzles--we call them parables--to give us new insights, to teach.
Jesus told parables, stories that used everyday scenarios to convey truths about the Kingdom of God, not to confuse people, but to get them to think more deeply, to help them to see the truth, and to help them to own the truth for themselves.
Jesus didn’t make it a practice to spoon-feed truth; He invited people into it, to experience it (and so to learn it) for themselves.
Jesus never forces people into the Kingdom of God. Even now, after His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, Jesus will not force us to believe.
In His time on earth, He used parables, puzzles that incited people to think things through and consider their deeper meaning, in order to open that kingdom to them. Sometimes, Jesus would later explain the meanings of His parables.
But He usually did this only after He’d given His listeners the time to puzzle over them.
This morning, Jesus gives us another parable/puzzle to consider. In the latter half of our lesson, He reveals its meaning for His disciples, including we twenty-first century disciples. But even there, Jesus leaves us with things to ponder. As I said last week, Jesus doesn’t want us to check our brains in at the baptismal font; in fact, using our minds to discern how best to follow Christ and glorify God is the calling of every disciple of Jesus.
So, let’s take a look at what puzzle Jesus has for us this morning in our Gospel lesson, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. It begins: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around 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…”
Both in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s, almost any time you read about “the house,” it refers not just to a dwelling, but to the household of God, the disciples of Jesus who are part of the great house of faith. The Bible says elsewhere that Jesus is the cornerstone and that His disciples, those who trust and surrender to Jesus, are “living stones.” In our lesson, Jesus is stepping outside the household of faith to engage the world. Matthew calls the world, “the crowds.”
Jesus often speaks plainly to those who believe in Him. He can do that with believers, because believers understand that life doesn’t quite work the way most of the people of the world think it does. As Christians, we understand that the whole universe, including ourselves, are born imprisoned in sin and that we need a Savior Who, by His death on the cross, can pay the debt we owe for our sin and set us free to live with God in His kingdom.
We understand that the Word about Jesus--the Good News or the Gospel--and our faith in Jesus and the Word about Him is all that can save us from sin and death.
But Jesus used parables to tease the crowds into curiosity about the strange, wonderful, eternal Kingdom His parables talk about.
Jesus says: “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.”
It’s possible that many, if not most, of Jesus’ first hearers would have been baffled by this story.
Would a farmer be so foolish as to not cultivate and break up his ground before scattering seeds?
Would he be so haphazard in scattering the seed?
Would any seed yield crops as much as hundred times what was planted?
No matter how compelling and compassionate this miracle worker from Nazareth was, they might have thought, “That’s a weird story. And what’s it got to do with Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ?”
Most would have given up on trying to figure out the puzzle Jesus just gave them.
Others, especially the disciples of Jesus, may have thought the story was strange, but because they believed in Jesus, would have puzzled over what was Jesus was telling them.
Listen: Being a disciple of Jesus entails engaging God’s Word, thinking about it, praying about it, and discussing it with other Christians.
The Word of God gives life when it’s planted deep into our minds, wills, and consciences. And for that to happen, we must be open to God’s Word!
The Word of God has to be more than something we hear or read on Sunday mornings or in a Bible study. These aren't ways for God’s Word, the life-giving Word of new and everlasting life for all who trust in Jesus, to get planted in the core of our beings. These aren't the ways that God’s Word impacts our decision making, our attitudes, our parenting, our vocations, our careers, our relationships.
Christian faith is not a spectator sport; it’s an ongoing participatory event from the moment we are baptized to the moment we leave this life.
We must regularly let God speak to us through Bible reading.
We must be also involved in considering, thinking about God’s Word, with trusted Christian friends in small groups. (That’s why we have small groups at Living Water and why we’ll be forming more!)
Psalm 1 says: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”
Deciding whether to let God’s Word penetrate our lives is life and death business!
The disciples heard what Jesus said to the crowds in His parable and they were mystified too.
But instead of giving up, they puzzled over it. Then they asked Jesus to help them to understand it.
Folks, you and I will never fully understand everything about the Word of God before we leave this earth. The point of getting to know God’s Word isn’t so we can win a Bible trivia contest. The point is to let His truth change us from the inside out as we stand under its authority and its truth. That's what the word understand, which means to stand under the truth and authority of a word spoken to us, is all about. As believers in Jesus, we are committed to standing under the truth and authority of God's Word even as we seek to more fully understand it.
And when we’re confused by something in God’s Word, we can do the same thing that our Gospel lesson says the first disciples did: We can ask Jesus.
One of the things that the Navigators discipleship process has taught me is that before I read God’s Word during my quiet time, I can ask God in faith, “Lord, help me to see one truth I’ve never noticed before or never noticed in a particular way before.” And, “Lord, what is the thought for living today that You want to give to me through Your Word?” I find that almost always, God shows me things I need to know that day.
So, we come to the last part of our lesson, Matthew 13:18-23. It says: “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 their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Whenever I come to this Gospel lesson, I find myself praying, “Lord, make me good soil. Don’t let the devil distract me from pondering Your Word and claiming Your salvation for every part of my life. Don’t let the hassle the world may give me for following Jesus and seeking to walk away from sin turn me from You. Don’t let me get so caught up with the world’s measures of success that I forget that only You can give life with meaning here on earth and life forever with You. Let faith in You take such firm root in me that, that in everything I do--as a parent, a friend, a professional, a spouse, a child of God set free from sin and death by the cross and empty tomb of Jesus and my faith in Him, in everything I do and am--I will honor You and allow the world to see what a wonderful God You are.”
In the end, being good soil is about making ourselves available to God and His Word, pondering it, letting it soak us in God’s truth, life, and grace. Being good soil means taking the time to read God’s Word, ponder it, discuss it with trusted Christian friends, and being open to follow wherever Jesus leads. Let’s resolve, each of us, today, that we will be good soil! Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for yesterday morning. Thanks to Mark Brennan, our worship director, for delivering it for me at the first service.]