Matthew 13:18-23 The Sower

Sun, 19/02/2017 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

If Jesus is so great, why do more people not follow him?

It’s a good question. The Jesus we read about in the Bible certainly is great. He could heal the sick. He could raise the dead. His teaching kept the crowds spellbound.

And yet, even in his own day, only a very small group were his genuine followers. And today, the number of Christians is growing all the time, but you’d expect more wouldn’t you, if Jesus was for real.

It could put you off sharing your faith with others. It could even make you question your own faith.

There’s a new political party about to form. The leader is a charismatic figure. A large conference venue is booked, and the crowds pack in to hear the leader speak. He lays out the policies of his new party, and invites everyone to come back the following week if they’re interested in hearing more, or even in joining the party.

The following week, the leader stands up to speak. The auditorium is almost empty. Sections of seating are filled, but huge swathes are empty. Photos in the media show row after row of empty seats. The message is clear. If this new movement was anything worth bothering about, they’d have more followers than this.

It happens in politics, and we draw the obvious conclusions. It happens with Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s hard not to feel unsettled, hard to keep sharing your faith with your friends.

That’s the subject that Matthew is addressing in chapter 13 of his gospel.

He does it with a whole lot of parables that Jesus taught. We thought about those a few weeks back, when we started to look at this chapter. A parable is any way of teaching where the meaning is below the surface. You have to dig a little. Mostly, they’re simple stories.

And through these parables, Jesus explains why he’s even more wonderful than we might hope for, and yet so many don’t follow him.

As we look at this, it gets personal. We can’t look at why other people don’t follow Jesus without starting to open up our own responses to Jesus. How do you and I respond to him? Why is that? And how might we respond in the future?

The first parable Jesus tells is the parable of the sower. We heard the parable last time. Today, we hear Jesus explain the parable, and it’s time to look at it.

The story is really simple. A sower went out to sow some seed in a field. Different seed landed in different places. As Jesus explains the parable, it’s clear that the seed is the message about Jesus. Verse 19: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom.”

Our lives are like the soil that the seed lands in. We hear the message about the kingdom. We hear the good news of Jesus. Then what? What happens next?

The answer is, one of four different things. And the chances are that all four of these things are happening in this room this morning.

Unreceptive path

First, there’s the unreceptive path.

Here’s the bit in the parable Verse 4: “As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.” Then verse 19: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in the their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.”

If you go walking, you know you need to be careful where you walk when you’re crossing a field. You either go around the edge, or you follow the same path through the middle of the field as all the other walkers. When you tread on the soil, you press it down. The soil becomes hard and compacted.

An ancient farmer would be careful where he walked. He’d always tread on the same bit of the field, so that the rest of the soil could stay loose and easy for plants to grow in. But invariably, as he scattered his seed, some would land on the compacted path. It wouldn’t go in. It would just sit on the surface, until the birds came and helped themselves.

Jesus says that this happens as we hear him speak as well. Sometimes, it just doesn’t go in at all. The message just sits on the surfaces, bounces off. Whatever our reason, the devil is the one behind it. He doesn’t want us to hear Jesus speak to us. So he makes sure, in one way or another, that the word glances off us. Like water off a ducks back, it just forms into beads and runs off.

That happens for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes we decide that what we’re about to hear will be boring. We switch off, and don’t even give Jesus a chance. Or we know exactly what we think about God, and we’re not going to hear anything we’ve not heard before, we’re certainly not going to risk Jesus disagreeing with us.

Or maybe our lives are stressful and busy, our heads full of things we need to do and worries we carry around. We just haven’t got the processing space to take on board anything God might wish to say to us.

There’s a new problem in our day and age, which is that we’re giving a tiny bit of our attention to so many things that we have forgotten the art of giving our full attention to anything. So we don’t allow the good news of Jesus to go in because we’re only giving it a tiny part of our attention. The rest of us our attention is still laughing at a joke from Facebook, listening out for incoming text messages and thinking about how to reply to that email.

It happens in a thousand different ways but the effect is the same. When the seed, the word, the message, lands on us, it lands on hard earth, on the path, where it never actually goes in. It’s fleeting, flighty, and doesn’t even dent the surface of our lives.

The unreceptive path.

Shallow stones

Second, there’s the shallow stones.

Here’s the parable, verse 5: “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.” And Jesus explains it in verse 20: “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.”

Some seed might land in shallow soil with lots of stones and not a lot of depth. In spring, it’s a great place to be. As the sun starts to get hotter, that shallow soil will warm up quickly, the seed will germinate and grow fast. But there’s not enough depth of soil for deep roots. When summer comes, the sun gets really hot. The soil is dried to dust. The roots hadn’t gone down to any real depth. The water will dry up, and the plant will just wilt.

The contrast comes from the two times we get the word “immediately” in verses 20 and 21. Verse 20: This person “at once receives [the word] with joy.” But then, the end of verse 21, “they quickly fall away.”

There is nobody more enthusiastic in their new Christian faith than them. And then six months later, they’re gone and you never see them again.

There are two reasons why they conk out. One is to do with the way they responded to Jesus, and the other is the situation they then found themselves in.

Their response was shallow. Quick, yes. Enthusiastic, certainly. But shallow. Verse 21 says “since they have no root”. Literally, “since they have no root in themselves.” Something swept them along to respond to Jesus. A stirring talk. An enthusiastic friend. A holiday with space to think. And the heat of the moment was like the warm sun of spring – Jesus seemed so plausible, so true. But they had no real, deep inner conviction.

And then came the change of circumstances. Verse 21: “When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away”. Put simply life gets tough. Following Jesus doesn’t solve all your problems. In fact, sometimes it causes them. Notice that Jesus talks about trouble or persecution coming because of the word.

Maybe someone in your family isn’t pleased to see Jesus and his church taking over your life. Maybe your friends invite you round less. Maybe you’re passed over for promotion at work because you won’t take the Sunday shifts.

A superficial response to Jesus. The trials of life. Either could make you give up. The two together are a disaster. If your response is only shallow, why would you keep going if following Jesus is making life tougher?

We see this response from the crowds in Matthew’s gospel. In the early chapters, Jesus couldn’t shake them off. He hardly got a moment’s peace. By the time he was hanging on a cross and taking his last breaths, they’d all vanished.

One friend at university became a Christian just after Christmas in his first year. He joined every Christian society in town, attended every meeting, changed the posters in his room, the music he played, wore a cross round his neck, the lot. By Easter he was disenfranchised with protestant Christianity, and joined every Catholic church and society going. And by the summer he’d given up on that too, and decided Christianity wasn’t really relevant for him at all.

I never did quite get to the bottom of what went wrong. But it’s so tempting to be full of joy when someone responds like that. “At last,” we say, “some enthusiasm. This is wonderful!” At one level, that’s right. We mustn’t be cynical. Take their new faith at face value. But a rapid response is not necessarily a deep one.

And we need to remember this for ourselves as well. If you were here last week, you heard about how the Thessalonian Christians were marked out by “deep conviction”. The question is not how enthusiastic we are today. Jesus calls us to keep going with him, today, tomorrow, next year, for the rest of our lives. Even when the wind is blowing in the other direction.

Shallow stones.

Preoccupied thorns

Third, the preoccupied thorns. Preoccupied thorns.

Here’s the parable, verse 6: “Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.”. Jesus explains in verse 22: “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.”

Again, this seed gets off to a good start. But again it doesn’t produce fruit.

Why not? In the parable, it’s choked out by thorns.

In our previous garden, we tried a couple of times to clear a bit of a flower bed and plant some seeds – something that would flower and give a bit of colour. The trouble is, we didn’t have a lot of time for gardening, and our garden had a lot of brambles. It takes no time at all for those brambles to put out runners that take over your new flower bed, crowding out the light, using up the soil, shredding any plant that tries to grow through them.

Jesus tells us what the thorns represent. They are the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth. Money. Possessions. Ambitions. Houses. Careers. Cars.

Any of us can have the message of the kingdom crowded out by these thorns. Rich and poor alike. Jesus talks of worries and wealth. If you haven’t got enough of those things, worry. If you’ve got a lot, wealth.

Back in chapter 6, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus developed these same two pressures. If we follow him, we have his Father as our heavenly Father. That means he will provide for us. It means we live for him and his priorities. Which means there’s no need for worry. And we cannot serve both God and money.

The character in Matthew’s gospel who models this most clearly is the rich man, who came to see Jesus in chapter 19. He’d kept all of God’s commandments, or so he thinks. Chapter 19, verse 20: “What do I still lack?” “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

It’s the same for many today. We start well. We hear the good news of Jesus, and we start down the road of following him. But then we get derailed. Well, distracted, really. Preoccupied.

For some it’s the struggle to get by. Life and its struggles are tough. Just getting to the end of the week in one piece is about all we can manage. Whether it’s earning enough to put food on the table, or getting our kids through school, homework and clubs, or battling with the tiredness of health problems that go on and on. And gradually, Jesus just slips off the radar.

For others, it’s the distraction of the good things. So many friends to keep up with. Parties to go to. Social occasions. Meals out. Holidays abroad. Trips to the caravan in France. There’s so much fun to be had, so much to be fitted into life, that there just isn’t time for Jesus. Gradually, he becomes less important than those other things, and we drift.

Preoccupied thorns.

Fruitful soil

And then lastly, there’s the fruitful soil. Verse 8: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” And verse 23: “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.”

This is the response we want. The word of God goes deep into our lives. And there it takes root, changing and transforming us, making us new people, reshaping our priorities and our attitudes. The change is so deep that when life gets tough, we handle it as the new people we are becoming. Even when the difficulties come because of that word growing in our lives. It’s all-consuming. It’s what makes us who we are. The possessions, the money, the career that we do or don’t have is just the stage on which we live out our new life following Jesus. Those things don’t define us, they don’t take our eyes off him, they’re where our feet are standing as we do.

That’s the response. And it leads to fruit. The fruit of a transformed life, looking more and more like Jesus, treating others well, living for God and his ways. The fruit of useful service of others, putting our gifts and our talents to use.

There’s one really encouraging detail in this parable that’s worth drawing out. Not all the seed leads to the same level of crop. Some 30, some 60, some 100 times what was sown. That doesn’t matter. It’s all called good soil. It’s all the response that Jesus is looking for.

We’re all different. We’ve all got different talents, opportunities, time and energy. Jesus doesn’t call us to compare ourselves to the person we’re sitting next to. “Be as fruitful as they are.” He simply calls us to build our life on his word, to let that word go deep, and to keep doing that. We will be fruitful. That’s what he wants. And it’s not a competition.

Fruitful soil.


Jesus ends this parable with these words: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

It’s a parable that invites us to consider our own response to him. Our response this morning. Our response in life so far. How we will respond in the months and years to come.

But it’s called the parable of the sower. I often hear people suggest that it should really be called the “parable of the soils”. I know what people are saying when they suggest this, but there’s a big problem. In verse 18, Jesus calls this the parable of the sower. I favour calling it what he calls it.

This is really a story about sowing the seed. When we share the good news of Jesus we get a very mixed response. Then we see some who began well as Christians giving up, or losing focus. It can be very disheartening.

Jesus wants us to keep on sowing. To keep telling people about him. He’s such good news, we mustn’t give up. The danger is that we start to doubt the Jesus we talk about. This parable is designed to reassure us when we don’t get the response we were hoping for. It wasn’t a faulty batch of seed. There’s nothing wrong with the seed at all. It’s just that Jesus always gets these different responses.

Jesus never said that we will meet these responses in equal amounts. If we keep sowing, lots and lots of the seed will land on good soil.

So we keep following him. And we keep sharing him with others.

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