Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! The Shocking Extravagance of Jesus’ Gospel Opened Up in His Parables
Jesus Speaks In Parables To Make Us Think!
Jesus speaks in parables to get us to think. In the process, He gives us a whole new perspective on life. His perspective.The parables are not just little Sunday School lessons, with a little moral to take home to try to apply. They are stories designed to unsettle us, to challenge us, and sometimes, to even offend us.
To challenge our understanding of the ways things are and should be. They are creative stories through which Jesus intentional dis-orients our thinking in order to re-orient our thinking around the Kingdom of God and the God of the Kingdom.
The First Parable with An Explanation
The parable we just read is the first parable Jesus is asked to explain. It is not, as many think, His first parable. Before speaking this parable, He spoke two others. As He began to free people from the grip of the demonic, He spoke the parable of the Stronger Man.
Mark 3:27 “But no man can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house.” And at the dinner party in the home of Simon the Pharisee, a woman who had been deeply moved by Jesus’ compassion crashed the party. She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and then wiped his feet with her hair.
In response, to this scandalous behavior, Jesus spoke the parable of the two debtors. Luke 7:41-42 “A certain money lender had two debtors: one owed five hundred days wages, the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. Which of them, therefore, will love him more?”
So although it is not the first parable, the parable of the sower, or seed, or soils is the first parable Jesus is asked to explain. In the parable Jesus is clearly speaking about His own ministry in the world. He is the Sower who is sowing the seed in the soil. The seed is the word of God, the “tao” of God, the word about the Kingdom of God and the God of the Kingdom.
Luke tells us, chapter 8:1, that Jesus was going about from city to city “proclaiming and preaching the Kingdom of God.” Proclaiming and preaching. The word “proclaiming” can be translated “heralding”. The picture is of a great leader, an emperor, for instance, sending a spokesman, a herald, into the cities of the empire, crying out, “Hear ye, hear ye!”.
We are to imagine Jesus, going from one city after another, crying out, “Hear ye, hear ye… The Kingdom of God has come near”.
God’s Good News
The word “preaching” is the word that is translated in other places “evangelizing”. Evangelizing comes from the word ‘evangel’, which means “Good News”. The picture is of a great leader, having won a great battle, sending a spokesperson, an evangelist, into the cities of the empire, joyfully announcing the good news.
Caesar Augustus had his “evangelists” who he sent throughout the empire announcing his “good news” that he, as “a son of god”, that’s what Caesar Augustus called himself, “a son of god,” had now established a new world order, a new and glorious reign of peace.
So Luke wants us to imagine Jesus, going from city and village, after one another announcing this good news, God’s good news. The good news that in Jesus, and because of Jesus, God’s New World Order, God’s Glorious Reign, is breaking into the world.
The sower was sowing his seeds into the soil of the world. Now the soils are the hearts of those who are hearing Jesus herald and evangelize. The soils are the hearts of those who are hearing Jesus announce His Good News. Some are responding - big time! Some are not. Some are even angry.
So the parable is about Jesus’ ministry in the world. Pretty straightforward, right? Then why do the disciples ask Jesus to explain it? Later in His earthly ministry, they will ask Him to explain another parable. It’s the one about the two sowings in the same field: the parable of the Wheat and the Tares. And I understand why they ask Jesus to explain that parable.
Questions On The Parable
But the parable of the sower? Of the seed? Of the soil? Why do the disciples ask Jesus to explain it? Because this seemingly simple parable raises all kinds of questions. Questions about “the mysteries of the kingdom” as Jesus says. Luke 8:10 “the mysteries of the kingdom”. So this morning, I want to ask a number of questions about Jesus’ parable that raises for me. Questions I am sure many of you bring to this story. So, five questions.
Q.1 Who or what is the subject of this parable?
Is it the parable of the sower? Is it the parable of the seed? Is it the parable of the soils? I have heard it refer to in all three of those ways.
Again the sower is Jesus. The seed is His gospel, “the word of God”. God’s word about God’s Kingdom. The soils are human hearts to whom Jesus is speaking. As He is speaking to you and me right now. As He is speaking to every one on the street that we will meet later on whether they know it or not.
So which is it? Sower, seed or soil? Yes. All three. In dynamic interplay with one another.
Q.2 What does Jesus the sower expect of His seed in the soil?
“Fruit,” of course. “Mature fruit.” He expects His seed to bear mature fruit in the soil. The word “mature” comes from the word Jesus attaches to the verb bearing fruit. It is the word Teleios (Greek). Teleios is the inherit destiny of things. The teleios of any seed is the inherit destiny of the seed.
The teleios of a sunflower seed is the sunflower. The teleios of a grain of wheat is wheat. The teleios of a cherry blossom seed is a beautiful cherry blossom tree. This seed Jesus sows is the seed of the Kingdom of God. The teleios of the Kingdom is the life of the Kingdom. Makes sense? The teleios of the seed of the Kingdom is the life of the Kingdom.
As Jesus sows the seed of the Kingdom into human hearts through his heralding and evangelizing, He fully expects “Kingdom fruit” to emerge. It’s the fruit He develops in His Sermon on the Mount, which He had already preached before this parable. Jesus really expects “Sermon-on-the-Mount-fruit” to emerge in the hearts of those who hear Him preach. “Mature fruit.” The inherit destiny of the Word He sows into our hearts.
A number of New Testament authors seem to be referring to this note of the parable. James says, “Humbly accepts the word planted in you, which can save you”. Peter says, “You were born again, not of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God”. Paul rejoices that the Colossians have received the gospel, which he calls “the word of truth,” and which, he says, is “in constantly bearing fruit all over the world.”
By the time Jesus tells this parable, He is seeing such fruit emerge.
- Tax collectors are drawn to Him, and they are changing their ways.
- Prostitutes are drawn to Him, and they are finding a very different life.
- Fishermen are drawn to Him, and they become signs of the kingdom of the world. Jesus has been sowing extravagantly, and witnessing extravagant fruit.
Now what are the signs of the Kingdom is the women who were following Him? Luke seems to be taken by this, and even bothers to list the women’s names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna.
Luke is so taken by this fact that he has to tell us about it. These women heard the word of God, they were healed by it. All three, not just Mary Magdalene. And ‘they have done the unthinkable’, says N.T. Wright.
“They have left the well defined social space of home and family where they had a role and a duty. And they have chosen to accompany Jesus and His followers on the road from place to place, looking after their needs and doing so, out of their own pockets.
Then Wright writes this, “This is every bit as shocking, from the first century Palestinian point of view, as the story of a woman letting down her hair down and kissing Jesus’ feet.” One can only imagine the looks they would get, and the things people might say about such a company. But one can also imagine Jesus thinking of these women not least as people in whose hearts and lives the word have had its effect. People who were already bearing fruit. Putting life, reputation and property at the disposal of this extraordinary Kingdom movement. “
So these women represent what Jesus the sower, expects of His seed sown in the soil of the world.
Given who Jesus is, and given the performative power of His word, He simply speaks and things happen. It is right of Him to expect fruit in any heart into which He speaks. He rightly expects Kingdom life to emerge. He rightly expects His life to emerge in us.
He will later say, “you did not choose Me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain”. In that context, His fruit is His life in the world. He rightly expects the life of His Spirit to emerge in us. “The fruit of the Spirit:” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Then why is it not happening more? Why is the fruit not emerging in everyone who hears Jesus speaks His Good News? So Question 3.
Q.3 What does Jesus the sower see as obstacles to the seed maturing in the soils?
Here we meet Jesus the cardiologist. Jesus identifies 4 different human hearts. Four different “heart conditions.”
- the hardened, trampled down heart;
- the shallow, rocky heart;
- the cluttered, pulled-in-a-thousand directions heart; and
- the receptive heart, what He calls “the good and honest heart.”
Each of us has met these different heart conditions. And would you agree that, to one degree or another, all four are true of each of us? That is, there is something about each of these heart conditions in each of us.
There are hard places where Jesus’ word has not yet seemed to bear fruit. There are shallow places. There are cluttered places. Oh mercy, so much cluttered! And thankfully, there are receptive places.
Consider each of these obstacles.
Soil One, the Obstacle of Hardness.
Verse 12, “and those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, and they do not believe and be saved”.
Jesus is warning us that hardened hearts are very vulnerable. Because the universe is not a neutral place. He tells us there is a real, personal, diabolical opposition to Him and His Kingdom. There is a personal power of evil afoot, doing everything in it’s power to prevent the Kingdom from breaking into our lives and transforming the world. And he especially preys on hardened hearts. He seeks to harden them against Jesus and His gospel.
Why? Because the gospel means the end of evil’s kingdom. So the evil one makes sure hardened hearts stay hard. Jesus is warning us. Whenever we hear the word of His Kingdom but do not embrace it, the evil one steals the news from us. But if we open up to His word, even a little bit, the evil one has no room to work, he cannot take away the seed.
Soil Two, the Obstacle of Shallowness
Verse 13, “and those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; but they have no root. They believe for a while but in the time of temptation, fall away”.
Jesus is telling us that when we welcome the news of the Kingdom we are going to find ourselves in trouble. Should I say that again. Jesus is saying that when we welcome the news of the Kingdom, we gonna find ourselves in trouble. And we are going to face the temptation to back away from all-out kingdom living.
Oh, there is blessing, much blessing. Forgiveness, peace, healing, freedom, joy, cleansing, intimacy and eternal life. But also trouble. How could it be otherwise?
The Kingdom of God is invading the world! Heaven is invading the world! If our hearts are shallow, when trouble comes, we will be tempted to back off.
Tribulation and Persecution
Now in Matthew’s recording of the parable, Jesus speaks of two kinds of trouble: tribulation and persecution. If we understand this, then when it happens we will not back off. Tribulation and persecution.
Tribulation, the Greek word is “thlipsis”. We meet it all over the New Testament -especially in Paul and in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. It is a technical word in the New Testament vocabulary. It means “pressure”. Sometimes “crushing pressure”. It is a kind of pressure experience when two forces come up against one another and began to exert their energy against one another. The simple illustration is rubbing your hands together. When you rub your hands together they are getting very very hot. That’s what Jesus means by tribulation.
And He is telling us when we get caught up in the in-breaking of Kingdom of God, and who would not want to be caught up, we will find ourselves experiencing pressure, sometimes even crushing pressure. As the Kingdom of Heaven comes up against the kingdom of this earth, the collision creates thlipsis.
How could it be otherwise? Paul encouraged new believers throughout the Roman empires saying, Acts 14:22 “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God”. This is encouragement? Yes, because it tells us the truth. There is no experiencing of the Kingdom of God without some degree of thlipsis. It cannot be otherwise. As the Kingdom invades a space, tension arises. To walk with Jesus in this world is to walk in that tension.
And persecution. “Because of the Word,” says Jesus, not “because of you,” but “because of the Word.”
For the simple reason that the Word of the in-breaking Kingdom disturbs the status quo. Which was what was happening wherever Jesus went. Not that He was a rabble-rouser, in fact, He shied away from public attention until Palm Sunday. It’s just that Jesus went around, preaching and living His Gospel. And His announcement and embodiment of His good news challenge everything not consistent with the Kingdom.
Mortimier Aires of Bolivia puts it this way., “The coming of the Kingdom means a permanent confrontation of worlds. The Kingdom is a question mark in the midst of this established ideas and answers developed by people and societies. “ Simply by living His good news, Jesus was experienced by the status quo as a problem. And was, therefore, persecuted. And He promises the same thing will happen to all who stands with Him. Blessings, yes, lots of blessings. But persecution of one sort or another.
Turn to one another and say, “Do not be afraid”.
Let me come at it another way. The Gospel always, by necessity, messes with idols. And thus upsets the life built up on idols. And thus most of the time brings some sort of persecution on those who seek to live Jesus’ way. If we remember this, we will not back off when trouble comes, but we will go on to bear the Kingdom life.
Soil two is the heart, as David Wenham of England puts it, “gives up when things get hot.”
Soil Three, the Obstacles of Cluttered
“The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go their way, they are choked with worries and riches, and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. “ (v.14)
Oh, do I know this heart condition? Anybody else? This is why for all the preaching that takes place in the so-called first world of the 21st century, the first world so un-gospelized.
We hear but all around us is worries. Or as in Matthew’s version of the parable says, “the worry of the world”. Literally, the worry of the world and riches, says Jesus. Or as in Matthew, “the deceitfulness of the riches”. The problem is not “the age”, and is not the “riches’. The problem is “the worry” of the age and the “deceitfulness” of the riches.
The worry of the age. “THE” --a definite article. Jesus seems to have something specific in mind. Not just “worries” but “THE worry”. I think He is saying that the fundamental mark of the age, 1st century and 21st century - is worry, anxiety. Why? For all of our technological advancement and all of our riches, why is our days such an anxious day? Because the age, having excluded the Living God from its public life, rest on very insecure foundations. The age doesn’t think that way. It thinks the foundations are quite sure. We are the captains of our own ship. Then why, for all the bravado and anxiety? Because the human spirit implicit knows but will not admit that the foundations cannot hold. To be more blunt, when the age does not build on the living God, it builds on idols. Living God or idols, either or. Any age built on idols will be marked by profound worry. For the human spirit implicitly knows idols cannot finally hold it altogether.
If the foundation is shaky, the super-structure will wobble. And the wobbling sets up this state of anxiety. Now, because you and I, eat and drink and breathe the age, we get caught up in the worry of the age. And the good news of the Kingdom gets choked.
And like everybody else in our culture, we get caught up with the driving questions: “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? “ And the fruit of the Kingdom does not emerge as it ought.
And the deceitfulness of riches? Do we need any help with understanding of what Jesus is talking about? Riches trick us. Riches get us to think that they themselves are the source of our wholeness. Riches get us to think that the riches are our security against the uncertainties of the unknown future. And we are slowly dulled away from the things of the Kingdom.
Soil three reminds us of the tremendous influence of “the worry of the age” and “the deceitfulness of riches.” The worry and deceitfulness clutter our hearts and then neutralize us.
So question four.
Q.4 Who wins
Sower, seed or soils? In the end, who wins? It appears that the soils win. Oh, and the soil four, the sower and the seed win.
Verse 15,” the seed fell in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance”. Yeah, sower and seed. One hundred times the expected harvest! Extravagantly fruitful. But in soils 1 to 3, the soils win. The hardened heart, the shallow heart, the cluttered heart win. Or as it appears, it appears the devil win in soil 1. It appears that the fear of trouble wins in soil 2. It appears that worry, and riches and pleasures of life win in soil 3. I say “appear”, because given who the sower is, and given the life-giving power of the seed, I cannot see how the first 3 soils can possibly win.
Jesus is the greatest preacher and evangelist. When Jesus speaks something always happens. “Let there be light”, and there was tons of lights. “Be gone,” and the demons flee. “Lazarus, comes forth” and the dead man walked out of the tomb. “The Kingdom of God has come near” and all kinds of redemptive things began to happen.
So I do not want to accept the idea that Jesus does not win in all the soils. And maybe this is the scandal of the parable I have to accept. But I do not think it is.
Jesus is too good a sower. His seed is just too powerful to finally be overcome by human heart conditions. So may be it will help if I change the question. From “who wins?” to “who gets the last word?”. The soils? or the seed, the word of God? The seed, the word of God gets the last word. Jesus gets the last word!
Look at all the hardened hearts Jesus has won. Right here in this room, starting with me. Look at all the shallow hearts He has deepened. Right here in this room as He is doing it for me. Look at all the cluttered hearts He has overcome. Right here in this room, and I am exhibit A.
So question 5.
Q5- What is the primary call of the parable?
What is Jesus asking us to do? “Understand”, verse 10, and “hold fast”, verse 15.
See, hear, understand, hold fast. “Understand” this is more fully brought out in Matthew’s version of the parable.
Soil 4, Matthew 13:23, “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the person who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty”.
Now understanding what Jesus means by “understand” helps us understand what He is getting at in all of His parable. “Understand” literally it means “put together”. Yes, in the sense of “make connection, mentally comprehend.’ But more in the sense of “get in line with,” or “yield to”.
The apostle Paul uses this word in that sense in Ephesians 5:17, “so then, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is”. Yes, understand in the sense of comprehend with the intellect, but in the sense of “get in line with”, “yield to”. Even if you do not yet fully comprehend it. Thus my friend, Dale Bruner suggests the most helpful translation of the verb “understand” is “stand under”. The way to “understand” is to “stand under”.
Soil 1: when anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not “stand under” it, the evil one snatches it.
Soil 4: “this is the one who hears the word and stands under it.” The problem is we stand alongside it. Or worse, yet, over it. Trying to make Jesus’ understanding fit our understanding of the ways things are and should be. It cannot work. His Word challenges our understanding of the way things are and should be. So the call of the parable is to move from standing over the Word, to “standing under” His Word. Even “under the Word” we do not even understand. Especially under the Word we do not yet understand. Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom life emerges when we stand under the Word of His Kingdom. His life emerges when we stand under the Word of His life.
Is it not the case, whether or not we choose to stand under the Word that we are “under” it anyway? Hebrews 1:3 “He upholds all things by the Word of His power.” The whole world is under His Word. The whole universe is under His Word. And “hold fast”, says Jesus.
Hold fast, the seed, the sower sows in the soil of our hearts. Cling to it. Stand under His Word, hold fast, and watch it break up the hardness, healing bitterness and resentment and disappointment. Stand under the Word, hold it fast and watch it move through the shallowness, taking you into the depths of the Kingdom. Stand under His Word, hold fast and watch it disentangle all the cluttered, and bring you into the freedom of the Kingdom. Stand under His Word, hold fast as the Word brings forth its fruit in us.
You see, it turns out that the seed, the sower sows in us, is His own life. When Jesus speaks, He gives us His life. He gives Himself to us. His Words are not mere words. After feeding of the 5000, He says, “ the Words spoken to you are Spirit and life”. Whenever He speaks, He is giving us His life. He is giving us Himself. And His life will have its inherit destiny. His life spoken to us will bear the extravagantly fruitful life. Isaiah 55:10-11: “as the rain and snow come down from Heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, making it bear and sprout, furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater. So shall My Word be which goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, without succeeding what I have sent it.”
As I was praying this morning, looking out of the window of my hotel room, over the city as it was waking up to a new day, I saw an umbrella. I imagined a huge umbrella over all the other umbrellas. Huge umbrella over all of Hong Kong and on this huge umbrella were the words “breaking news”. And I heard Jesus saying the Words that He said in the 1st century throughout the Holy Land. “Hear ye, hear ye, the Kingdom of God has come near”. Let us take our stand beneath that umbrella, that Word as never before, and watch what happens. Let us pray.
Lord Jesus you are so wise. You understand us so well. You are so good. We thank You for revealing Your passion. That the Kingdom of God come fully into the world. And so this morning, we freshly take our stand beneath this great news and trust You to make it all happen in our hearts and in this great city. Amen.