Background Matthew 13:1-23
Of the 37 parables that Jesus taught, he only clarified the meaning of three, and this is one of the stories he took the time to explain. It would appear that it was important to Jesus to ensure that those who were seeking to follow him understood the depth and breadth of the message he was bringing. He wanted them to ‘open their ears and open their eyes’ and truly hear, and see, and understand, all that the new, radical, revolutionary, paradoxical Kingdom of God entailed.
Whilst some people have assumed that this parable is simply about ‘how a person becomes a Christian’, it is probably more accurate to read the parable from the vantage point of the original listeners, who were most likely followers of Jesus or at least interested in hearing what he had to say. This parable is more about how to live within the Kingdom, and how to understand Kingdom principles, than as an example of how people get into the Kingdom. Fundamentally, this parable is about each one of us putting aside our preconceived thoughts, beliefs and expectations, and really hearing the truth of what Jesus is saying with fresh ears.
The parable falls into three logical sections: Verses 1-13 records the actual telling of the parable and why Jesus uses Parables; Verses 16-23 is Jesus explanation of the parable; and right in the middle of those two sections are Verses 14-15 in which Jesus quotes Isaiah and compares the people he is speaking to, with God’s rebellious people in past generations.
The Hardened Heart - 13:19
The path that the sower walked along every day would become hard and pressed down under foot. He had walked that path so many times, that any seed that did happen to drop on it, would simply bounce off its impenetrable surface. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and, like the religious leaders of Jesus day, sometimes our well-worn spiritual paths can actually stop us from experiencing a fresh new move of God in our lives. Sometimes, when we are so very certain that we have it completely right, and that we know everything we need to know about God, it stops us from embracing change or moving with the gentle shift or the wind of the Spirit. We run the risk of replacing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Father, Son and Holy Bible, or Father, Son and Holy Tradition, and we lose the grace and compassion of the Spirit, which breathes life to the Scriptures and grace to our faith traditions.
Jesus is saying “don’t harden your hearts – don’t think you know it all – keep your hearts open and fresh – stay open in the moment, and don’t quickly judge, dismiss, or attack what does not fit your neat little box, because you just might be dismissing Me!”
The Shallow Heart - 13:20-21
Much of the land in Palestine has only a thin layer of soil covering a rock base. In the heat, the rock would warm the soil and any seed that landed there would quickly germinate, even though there was not sufficient soil to sustain it, causing it to die just as quickly as it grew. Jesus was surrounded by people who resembled this fast-growing-seed. There were many who were really interested in the idea of being a follower of Jesus, but when persecution came their way, Jesus knew their faith wasn’t strong enough to survive. He knew that although they had received his message with enthusiasm, it wouldn’t be long before the cost of their decision would make them uncomfortable.
Jesus wanted these followers to fully understand what the kingdom was all about and the cost that was involved. And Jesus is saying to his followers, “Listen carefully to the message -- it isn’t all sitting at my feet and eating free loaves and fishes -- you are going to encounter some tough times -- the cost of following me is not a small one – if you let the seed of my kingdom germinate in your heart you will need to love and forgive and put others before yourself -- You will need to turn the other cheek when you least feel like it --you will need to sow grace when you want to sow judgement --you will need to sow kindness and forgiveness when your heart is screaming out for revenge – My Kingdom isn’t for the faint-hearted – this is going to cost you – in fact, if you’re truly committed to this Kingdom, it will kill you!
The Compromised Heart - 13:22
The thorns that Jesus talks about here would not have originally been visible to the human eye. The ground would have been prepared for sowing and the thorns would have been cut off, burned, and the roots ploughed back into the soil. However, as the new seed took root in the rich soil, so too would the old weeds begin to renew their roots and both the wheat and the weeds would grow together. The two kingdoms would begin to compete for sun and soil and water and light. Two kingdoms at war with each other:
1. The kingdom of this world – the kingdom of ‘me’
2. And the kingdom of God – the kingdom of love, peace, patience, justice, kindness and generosity.
When we decide to become Christ-followers, we plough the field and we do our best to get rid of the thorns. However, just because we cant see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Right alongside the seed of our new values, begins to secretly grow our old selfish desires. It’s hard to escape the constant pressures to give-in to the dominant culture in which we live and our desire to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of the world can often lead to us compromising our Kingdom values.
The Abundant/Listening Heart - 13:23
Jesus’ teaching comes to a climax in this verse and it all hinges on one small Greek word that means “understanding”. Jesus is saying, “If you want to see my Kingdom-seed harvested in your life, then you must listen, understand, and then embrace the ‘upside-down-ness’ of this new revolutionary way of living life. You’ll need hearts that are “Open”, hearts that “Count the Cost” and hearts that “Reject Worldly Values.”
Questions for Reflection
1. How do you think that being absolutely certain about the “rightness” of your view of God could stop the Holy Spirit from planting Kingdom seeds in your life? Give personal examples if you have any.
2. What do you think it means to “stay open in the moment”?
3. How did you feel when the seed of the Kingdom first began to grow in your life? And when did you first realise that this new life came at a cost? How did you feel then?
4. Have you ever experienced a time when you thought ‘the cost’ was too high? Explain.
5. The old Cherokee Indian told his grandson that there is a terrible fight going on within each human life. The fight is between two wolves: One wolf is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego; The other wolf is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Discuss this story and talk about how it relates to Jesus’ parable about the “Compromised Heart” in verse 22.
6. If you feel able, share with the group some of the ‘thorns’ that you struggle with, and then pray for one another.
7. What are some of the practical ways that you keep your heart-soil ploughed and watered and ready to receive the seed of the Kingdom?