The Explanation of the Parable of the Sower; Short Sermon

It’s a good thing to learn how to preach short sermons.

At Wycliffe College, every third year student has to preach at least two 5-minute sermons at morning or evening prayer. This past month I was assigned to preach for 5 minutes on Matthew 13:18–23. The sermon would have benefitted from sticking with one main image/question from the outset that clearly and obviously related to the main point. I think I made the five minutes enjoyable, but that’s not the point of a sermon.

So, if you read this, please comment and summarize what you think the main message was in a sentence or two. After that, feel free to ask or comment anything 🙂


Read: Matthew 13:18–23

Prayer: Jesus, may our eyes be blessed and see and our ears be blessed and hear.

I love parables.

In my first tutorial for New Testament, here at Wycliffe, with Terry Donaldson, we were asked to introduce ourselves and to share what our favourite gospel was, and why. I said, “Luke,” because I like all the parables.

But why? What’s up with my fascination of parables?

I imagine that it is, in part, a holdover from my childhood. I can still picture myself in Sunday school, with my friends and teacher reading and teaching the parables of Jesus. The metaphors and similes from nature and common life, their vividness or strangeness drew my thoughts then as they do now.

A farmer went out to sow his seed…

What is the seed?

We read in Matthew: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom…”

We read in Mark: “A farmer sows the word.”

We read in Luke: “The seed is the word of God.”

Some falls on the path, some in shallow rocky soil, some among thorns, and some on good soil.

Our text today explains the meaning:

Some people hear and don’t understand: and the evil one (devil, or Satan) takes the seed away. Some people hear, embrace it, and grow: but once hard times or persecution come their way, the plant withers. Some people hear, receive it, and grow: but they grow alongside the desire for the pleasures of this life, alongside the deceitfulness of wealth, and worries of this life. This plant bears no fruit and never matures. Some people hear, receive, and flourish: they understand, keep it, persevere, and produce a crop a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.

The first three explanations make a whole lot of sense from an agricultural standpoint.

Nothing is going to grow on a path. Shallow, rocky soil will only support short-term plant life. Thorns can choke out a plant.

But the last one is simply ridiculous.

No farmer is going to believe that any seed will produce 100 times what was sown, let alone 60 times or 30 times.

Not in ancient Palestine. And not in modern mechanised industrial farming with high-yielding varieties with increased nitrogen absorbing potential. It’s just not possible.

When I was younger, I failed to grasp that parables are both prophetic and apocalyptic. That they witness to the new age begun in Jesus. That they offer both redemption and judgement at the same time.

It almost feels silly to ask the question that the parable begs us to ask:

“What kind of soil are we?”

The Apostle Peter’s responses to Jesus often make it seem like he is on the path or in shallow rocky soil. So often is Peter ready to jump ON a lake for Jesus or declare him Lord. We too can be so eager to follow Jesus, but are we, like Peter, really sure what kind of Messiah Jesus is? Are we ready for the things to come—even what Jesus warns us of?  Are we sure we know the cost of discipleship?

Jesus has already said in Matthew 6 that you cannot serve both God and money. Jesus is insistent on this point. Here he is reiterating the fact that the Word cannot flourish among those who continue to care for and are shaped by the things of this world. It’s not an easy lesson for his disciples and it’s not an easy lesson for us.

When I was younger, when I was ignorant about judgement in parables, I assumed I was in the good soil. I lived a moral life, I read my bible, and went to church with decent, kind, and hard-working people. But this is not just a thought from my youth. This is an assumption all Christians have to keep in check.

The good soil produces 100, 60, or 30 times what was sown. We can thank the disciples for being good soil—without them, there would be no church.

Do we believe the ridiculous claim that seed can flourish 100, 60, or 30 times in good soil? Do we see this fruit in our lives? Or, do we scoff at the idea… do we think it’s just not possible. Can the Word of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually work in our lives, in our relationships, in our churches, and in the world?

Maybe our church growth strategies simply have too much money—and so our imaginations are choked.

Maybe we’ve fallen into sentimentality, and crafted idols for ourselves.

Jesus, may we hear the message of your kingdom and receive your word and understand it.

May we be possessed by the joy of the kingdom, like the man who found a hidden treasure in a field or the merchant who found one pearl of great value, both sold everything they had.

Jesus, help us be good soil.

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When dealing with creationists…

I wouldn’t begin with scientific arguments. I’d start with the biblical text and with Christian interpreters of the past.

Listen to the words of Origen (185–254):

Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? And that the first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to believe that god, after the manner of a farmer, “planted a paradise eastward in Eden,” and set in it a visible and palpable “tree of life,” of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of “good and evil” by masticating the fruit from the tree of that name? And when God is said to “walk in the paradise in the cool of day” and Adam to hid himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not though actual event.

– Origen, On First Principles, ed. by G. W. Butterworth (New York, Harper and Row, 1966), p. 288

Reading in the Economy of Grace

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Much of John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch has been ridiculously dense for me to read through.  I might yet actually write something about what I’m reading, but I’ve found this chapter “Reading in the Economy of Grace” easier to read and beneficial.

In discussing the creaturely act of reading Holy Scripture (a.k.a. the Bible), Webster says:

We do not read well; and we do not read well, not only because of technical incompetence, cultural distance from the substance of the text or lack of readerly sophistication but also and most of all because in reading Scripture we are addressed by that which runs clean counter to our will.  Reading Scripture is thus a moral matter; it requires that we become certain kinds of readers, whose reading is take up into the history of reconciliation.  The separation of reason from virtue in modernity has made this acutely difficult for us to grasp.
Nevertheless, a Christian theological anthropology will envisage the act of reading Scripture as an instance of the fundamental patter of all Christian existence, which is dying and rising with Jesus Christ through the purging and quickening power of the Holy Spirit.  Reading Scripture is thus best understood as an aspect of mortification and vivification: to read Scripture is to be slain and made alive. And because of this, the rectitude of the will, its conformity to the matter of the gospel, is crucial, so that reading can only occur as a kind of brokenness, a relinquishment of willed mastery of the text, and through exegetical reason’s guidance towards that encounter with God of which the text is an instrument.

p. 87-88

“One ironic example is our talk of Scripture as ‘the Word of God’ … The scriptural word for Scripture is Scripture.”

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James Barr’s Fundamentalism contains its misapprehensions about evangelicalism but also its penetrating insights, and one of the latter is this criticism, that for evangelicalism the Bible often has the form of authority but not the reality.  Doctrinally we are committed to a theology of the Word, but precisely that commitment can hinder us from actually being a people of the Word, because the fact that we accept that theoretical commitment provides us with a false sense of security, as if it guaranteed a real commitment to scripture.  The result is that it does the opposite.  We love to tag texts onto things, as if that made them biblical.  One ironic example is our talk of Scripture as “the Word of God”; in Scripture, phrases such as “the word of God” or “the word of truth” are not used to refer to Scripture.  The scriptural word for Scripture is Scripture.

John Goldingay, Key Questions about Biblical Interpretation, pp. 104-105.