This is an exposition of Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, my sermon today.
The heart of Matthew’s Gospel
Now that we’ve reached chapter 13, we are now in the heart of St. Matthew’s Gospel book. Each of the four gospels are different, with their own perspective, emphases, and writing style. Matthew’s book is a thoughtfully-arranged literary work, loosely forming a chiasm. A chiasm is a pattern that could be visualized like a mountain: it starts at the bottom, works its way up to the top, and then proceeds back down in reverse order. The beginning and end correspond to each other, the second section and the second-to-last sections correspond to each other, and so on all the way until you get to the center. This is especially common in Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament, but sometimes, like in the Gospel of Matthew, it is a literary feature in prose writings. The thing about chiasms in the Bible, though, is that sometimes authors use them for sake of elegance and beauty, and sometimes to highlight what’s in the center of the chiasm. It’s not a guarantee that the center of the pattern is the most important part of the whole thing, so you have to study the text to make sure you’re not getting carried away with literary analysis.
In this case, though, there does seem to be a purposeful center to Matthew’s writing. Throughout the book are alternating sections of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ ministry, and right in the center of it all is chapter 13: a compilation of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. Throughout the book, the Kingdom of God is prominently featured in Jesus’ teachings and the author’s narration, so to find a compilation of seven parables in the very center of the structure of the book, we must take notice that we have reached the very heart of what Matthew wants us to know about Jesus. Thankfully, our lectionary slows down again to make sure that we get all of the parables in chapter 13 over the course of three Sundays.
What is a Parable?
Today we have just one parable: that of the Sower and the Four Soils. Most of you are familiar with parables, I expect, but let’s first refresh our memories: what is a parable? The Hebrew word for parable is mashal, and it actually takes several different translations, revealing a somewhat broad definition. I’ll give you six examples from the Old Testament of how mashal or parable is translated into English, and how it functions in the Bible.
- Psalm 78 is introduced as a parable, and then proceeds to recount historical events with a spiritual lesson attached to it.
- Ezekiel 24:2-5 is introduced as an allegory, using the description of the proper preparation of an animal for sacrifice as a picture of ritual cleanness in contrast to the sinfulness of God’s people at that time.
- Judges 9:7-15 contains a fable in which the trees try to choose a king for themselves, in mockery of what the Israelites were trying to do at that time.
- 1 Samuel 24:13 uses mashal as a proverb: “out of the wicked comes forth wickedness.”
- Isaiah 14:4-21 has a taunt song, using cosmic imagery to describe the fall of the wicked king of Babylon.
- And Ezekiel 17:2-8 is a riddle, using the image of eagles transplanting vines to point towards God’s work of recreating his people.
This all comes together in the idea that a mashal or parable is something with a double meaning which is memorable, but often hides its true meaning from the casual hearer. The Orthodox Study Bible explains,
“The Scriptures, especially the Gospels, are filled with parables – images drawn from daily life in the world to represent and communicate the deep things of God. Parables give us glimpses of him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Is 55:8,9). The truth communicated by Jesus’ parables, however, is not evident to all who hear them. The listener must have spiritual ears to hear, and even then not all have the same degree of understanding.
“Thus, Jesus’ statement that “to those who are outside, all things come in parables,” may be translated “…all things come in riddles.” [This] does not mean He used parables to blind the people or to lead them to punishment. On the contrary, it demonstrates that the people are responsible for their own lack of receptivity: having grown dull and insensitive, they are unwilling to accept the message of the parables. As the mission of Isaiah in the Old Testament was to open the eyes of Israel to see the acts of God, so the parables of Jesus are intended to open the eyes of his hearers to the truth and lead them to produce the fruit of righteousness.
“Parables challenge the hearer and call for faith to perceive the mysteries of the Kingdom. Insight into God’s Kingdom does not come simply through an intellectual understanding of the parables. Spiritual enlightenment is essentially a communication of faith in the Person, words, and deeds of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So the goal of these parables isn’t give us an unnecessary hurdle on the way to understanding God’s Word, but to challenge us to wrestle with the faith and get to know Him who spoke them. And then, once we begin to understand these parables, they become easy-to-remember pictures of deep spiritual teachings. You are probably not able to memorize a whole sermon, but you can memorize a quick parable. Study, learn, and understand them, and they will unfold entire sermons to you with moment’s thought!
The Sower & the Seed
So let us now turn to the parable itself. It begins with a farmer sowing seeds. We’ve heard from Isaiah already that God is sower and his Word is his seed. This is a pertinent connection, and why the lectionary has paired Isaiah 55 with this parable: Jesus is the Great Sower, and his Word is the Seed. Jesus traveled about teaching, and his disciples also traveled about teaching. The analogy continues to this day: the Word of God taught and preached is like seed being scattered abroad in the hearts of all who hear.
Similarly, the idea of a teacher and his teaching being depicted as a sower with seed was also commonplace in Jewish writings. In a book of visions attributed to Ezra, we read:
My mouth was opened, and I began to speak before the Most High, and said,  “O Lord, thou didst show thyself among us, to our fathers in the wilderness when they came out from Egypt and when they came into the untrodden and unfruitful wilderness;  and thou didst say, `Hear me, O Israel, and give heed to my words, O descendants of Jacob.  For behold, I sow my law in you, and it shall bring forth fruit in you and you shall be glorified through it for ever.’  But though our fathers received the law, they did not keep it, and did not observe the statutes; yet the fruit of the law did not perish — for it could not, because it was thine.  Yet those who received it perished, because they did not keep what had been sown in them.  And behold, it is the rule that, when the ground has received seed, or the sea a ship, or any dish food or drink, and when it happens that what was sown or what was launched or what was put in is destroyed,  they are destroyed, but the things that held them remain; yet with us it has not been so.  For we who have received the law and sinned will perish, as well as our heart which received it;  the law, however, does not perish but remains in its glory“ (2 Esdras 9:28-37).
Note especially what was said in the middle of that quote: God sows his Law in his people, they didn’t keep that Law, yet the fruit of that Law didn’t perish. This is like an echo of Isaiah’s words that God’s Word never returns empty, but always accomplishes its purpose. This also prepares the way for Jesus’ parable which describes three different ways that the sown seed of God’s Word can apparently “fail” to transform the hearer. In the previous vision attributed to Ezra, he observes this more clearly:
“For just as the farmer sows many seeds upon the ground and plants a multitude of seedlings, and yet not all that have been sown will come up in due season, and not all that were planted will take root; so also those who have been sown in the world will not all be saved” (2 Esdras 8:41).
These visions, being written before Christ as far as we know, primarily understand God’s Word as the Law of Moses. What we find in the preaching of Jesus, however, is much more than just a rehash of the Law, but its fulfilment: the Gospel, the good news of the final and perfect redemption of our sins!
The Four Soils
Now turn to the four soils themselves. It should be noted at the outset that God has the power to change hearts. So don’t fall into the trap of imagining that every person is one and only one type of soil in this parable: by God’s grace and his ministering through his Church peoples hearts can be cultivated and cured of its diseases and drawbacks. When Jesus speaks of the final result of each of these four soils, he’s speaking of their final result – what happens on the Day of Harvest at the end of the age. If you or someone you know has a heart in a bad place right now, that doesn’t mean they’re fated to that forever. God can change hearts and minds, and we must both seek that daily for ourselves and others. You could say that we are called to nurture the seeded Word within us, so it can grow and propagate. So let’s keep that in mind as we examine these four types of soil that our Lord describes.
First, the Path is one who’s so set on evil that the Devil’s myriad distractions snatch the Word from his ears and mind. Like the flattened ground, this person’s heart is intentionally solidified against the Gospel. This is Saint Paul before his conversion, utterly convinced that Jesus was the enemy of God. This is also a hearer who couldn’t care less – someone who attends church but lets the Word go in one ear and out the other. We must overcome the Devil’s distractions by focusing our attention on Christ and his Word.
Second, the Rocky Soil is one who is superficially interested in the Word and flees at the first sign of trouble. He receives the Gospel with real joy and enthusiasm at first, but his faith is shallow – joy and enthusiasm are all this person wants or expects from God. When potential suffering for the faith comes up, he doesn’t just fall away, as the ESV translation puts it, but rather, he’s offended. “How dare God do this to me! This is not what I signed up for! Jesus is supposed to be a religion of love! I’m off.” He blames the scorching sun for withering up his faith, but he forget that the sun is the normal light needed for growth; the real culprit is the shallow soil of his heart. We must overcome this superficiality by learning that suffering yields growth, and by deepening our knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Third, the Thorny ground is one whose worldly commitments override (choke out) the Word. The worries of this age (or life or world) become an idolatrous focus for this person. This might not even be a bad thing in itself; inordinate love of luxury, or fellowship, or work, or a hobby can be an idol that eats up his time and money at the expense of his faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus singles out money as a usual culprit, and again this applies equally whether one is poor or rich. We must overcome this by evaluating our real priorities in our lives.
Finally, the Good Soil is one who truly understands (or hears & receives) the Word. Even here Jesus notes that there is a difference of yield – there is a range of fruitfulness among God’s people as we pass the Word to others: some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. The good news is that despite the apparent losses of the other three types of soil, there remains an abundant harvest here. The tough news is that a person’s conversion to Christ only counts when it’s confirmed by a life of discipleship.
To be good soil, you must hear, receive, and understand God’s Word! Identify the distractions in your life; make the effort to go deeper in knowing and loving God; evaluate the priorities of where your time and energy go. There is much evil in world and within ourselves that draws us away from Christ, and there is much good in the world and within ourselves that become idols when we focus on them above Christ. To nurture the Word of God implanted in our hearts, we must be attentive to what else is in our hearts, and how we’re treating those things compared with how we treat our Lord who has redeemed us from the nethermost hell, and raised us up to the promise of eternal life with Him. As we said earlier, in Psalm 65,
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.