July 12, 2020 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Matthew 13:3-9 (NRSV)
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
For the context for this passage, read Matthew 13:1-23.
Let us not offer Christ the rocky soil of partisanship and the stony path of greed and self-preservation, but let us be good soil into which the words and the stories and the actions of grace can fall, and take root, and grow.
Many of us have known this story from Sunday School onwards. Perhaps we even acted it out in Vacation Bible School, pretending to sow seed in different kinds of soil. Like many of Jesus’s parables, it is brief, memorable, and extremely visual—all characteristics that would have served Jesus well with his original audience, who had no way to record his stories and teachings on the spot.
In the passage following this one (Matthew 13:10-23), Jesus explains the parable to the disciples at more length. In fact, he even tells the disciples that his parables are almost a kind of code. The disciples will get the explanation, he says, because “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11a). But the parables will remain a mystery to many of the people who hear them: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’” (Matthew 13:13, quoting Isaiah 6:9).
That may strike us as unfair. Why tell the parables to people who would not understand them? Why reserve the meaning for a secret few?
As scholars have debated this passage, many have come to believe that it is not that the crowds were not allowed to hear the message of the parables; the problem is that they were not ready to hear the message. Like the people Jesus recalls from Isaiah 6,
“This people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes” (Matthew 13:15a).
The people, in fact, illustrate the very parable Jesus tells them. For a number of reasons—some historical, some political, some psychological—much of Jesus’s audience had already decided against his message. They were the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns of the story—and they did not even realize it.
C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew illustrates this concept memorably. Uncle Andrew, a minor magician who has proved himself to this point to be a greedy and selfish villain, brings the two children who are the heroes of the story—Polly and Digory—to the new and magical land of Narnia. But as Aslan, the great lion whom Lewis meant as a type of Christ, sings the new world into being, Uncle Andrew becomes convinced that Aslan cannot be doing any such thing—because lions don’t talk. Aslan creates beautiful music, and marvelous scenery and magical creatures spring out of the ground from every direction; and all the time Uncle Andrew hears only the roars and growls his small, selfish heart expects. His heart has grown dull, and he has shut his eyes.
Despite all this, Aslan has mercy on Uncle Andrew: he calls even Uncle Andrew to set his mind on the things that bring life, not death Jesus offers this same call to us. In a polarized world where we are unable to truly hear the things we are saying to each other, and often unable even to hear the words that the great Lion of Judah speaks to us, we would do well to remember this story. Let us not offer Christ the rocky soil of partisanship and the stony path of greed and self-preservation, but let us be good soil into which the words and the stories and the actions of grace can fall, and take root, and grow.
When have you been rocky or dry or thorny soil?
When have you been good soil?
How can you allow the Kingdom to take root and grow in your soil?
Ponder the questions above in your small group or with a trusted friend or mentor. Pick one thing you can do to help the Kingdom take root in your life and in the world. Then do it.
Lord Jesus, thank you for your words of grace and life. Help us always be receptive to your call. When we are rocky soil, help us repent. When we are good soil, help your Word flourish in our lives. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13)
Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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