Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Do You See? What Do You Hear?

Text:  Matthew 13:1-23

    WHY DID JESUS TEACH IN parables?  The answer may surprise you.

    I'd say we're all familiar with what's called "The Parable of the Sower."  It begins with Jesus saying, "A sower went out to sow . . . ," or, as the NIV puts it, "A farmer went out to sow his seed."  We know all about the four kinds of soil and what happened to the seed when it fell on them.  We've heard various interpretations on what the seed is, and we've been taught to examine ourselves to determine what kind of soil we might be.

    But if we only look there, even with the parable's interpretation Jesus gives in verses 18 through 23, we'll cut ourselves off from true spiritual understanding.  Even worse, we'll get ourselves into real spiritual trouble.  The parables of Jesus aren't like Aesop's fables: they're not little moral tales that stand on their own to teach us how to live.  No, they have a greater purpose than that and they're part of a bigger story which is part of a bigger story still.  We-- you and I-- are all part of that biggest story of all, and we need to keep our eyes and ears open if we want it to finish up in joy and blessing for us, instead of taking us down to judgement and woe.

    The parables of our Lord Jesus Christ fit into the larger story of Jesus' earthly ministry.  And the story-- or, I should say, the history-- of Jesus' ministry is crucial to the cosmic story of God the Father's mighty act of rescuing lost humanity from our sins.  Our salvation is tied up with the establishment of God's kingdom on earth and the parables of Jesus are crucial to its coming.  They serve to include us in the great story of salvation-- at least, they do if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

    Did Jesus always teach in parables?  Actually, no.  This parable of the sower is the first Matthew records, and the second one reported by St. Mark.  Interestingly, both Matthew and Mark record Jesus first teaching in parables on one particular day.  Luke has one or two parables from Jesus before this, but the vast majority of them come after.  When you look at the timeline of Jesus' ministry, He doesn't start teaching in parables till nearly two years after His baptism by John.  So for nearly two years Jesus has mostly been doing straightforward, ordinary teaching.  He's used figures of speech, sure, but not parables.  So what changed?

    From the very beginning, Our Lord's purpose in ministry was to inaugurate the kingdom of God.  More than that, He was making it clear that He was the Lord and King of the kingdom.  It was all about Him.  The Pharisees recognized what He was doing and hated Him for it.  How dared He?  How dared He claim the authority of God and pass judgment on their rules and practices?  The crowds, on the other hand, loved what Jesus was doing.  They loved the miracles, especially the healings.   They loved the way His teaching stuck in the craw of the pompous, self-righteous religious authorities.  But did they see Jesus?  Did they truly hear what He was telling them about the kingdom of heaven and His kingship over it?  For the most part, the answer was no.

    The defining moment came one day when Jesus was talking in the house, most likely the home of Peter and his family in Capernaum.  People are crowding inside and trampling all over the yard, eager to hear what this wonderful Rabbi has to say.  As Matthew records at the end of the twelfth chapter, Jesus' mother Mary and His brothers pick that time to show up from Nazareth and insist on talking to Him.  St. Mark reports that they'd decided to take charge of Him.  They'd decided He was out of His mind and needed to be brought home for His own good.  Jesus refuses to go out to them, and in Matthew 12:48-50 He lays down His rules for who can be a citizen of the kingdom of God and a member of the royal household.  He says,

    "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"  Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

    Jesus points to His disciples.  Not to the crowd in general, but to those He'd called and who followed Him. Then, Matthew records, that same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the Lake of Galilee.  Due to the press of the crowds, He got into a boat to teach, and began to tell them many things-- in parables.   He spoke of a farmer who went out to sow, and what happened to the seed on each of the types of soil it fell upon.  And He concluded the parable with these words, "He who has ears, let him hear."

    That struck the disciples as unusual.  They came to Him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"  You can visualize them standing in the shallows next to the boat, bringing Him a drink of water maybe, and taking the opportunity to have a private word with their Teacher.  Master, what's going on here?
    What Jesus replied may shock you.  We've often heard it said that Jesus taught in parables so the people could better understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God.  Not at all.  Just the opposite. 

    He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
        "Though seeing, they do not see;
                   though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

What, Lord?  You mean You tell parables to reveal who's ready and willing to enter the kingdom of God and who's not?

    That's exactly what He's saying.  It was two years into His ministry.  The religious leaders claimed to be champions of God's kingdom but they rejected God's King.  The crowds wanted the King and the kingdom only for what they could get out of them on this earth.  Only to a few, to the called and dedicated disciples, was it given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. 

    Nobody can know the mysteries of the kingdom of God naturally.  Not you, not I, not the first disciples.  They have to be given to us by divine revelation.  None of us deserve to know these secrets: it's by the sovereign will and grace of God that we come to understand them.  God chose to open those secrets to Jesus' chosen disciples, and now, to us whom He has called to faith in His name.

    Jesus said, "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."  That doesn't sound fair!  But that's the way it works in economics and how it works in gaining wisdom and understanding.  The disciples had some idea of who Jesus was and what His message was about.  They knew enough to know they wanted to know more what this parable was about.  They brought the little bit of spiritual insight they had and came to Jesus and asked Him to add to it.  But the Pharisees would hear a parable like this and scoff, "This Jesus is a babbler and a fool.  We'll keep on pleasing God the way we see fit."  The crowds would think they knew what the parable meant, but they didn't understand what Jesus was saying about the kingdom of heaven at all.  They thought they understood, but unless they truly had ears to hear, all their understanding would turn out to be nothing.  It'd be hauled away like garbage. 

    Jesus had been declaring the secrets of the kingdom of heaven since He first began His ministry, but only a few gained intimate knowledge of them.  He claimed to be the divine Bridegroom that Israel has been waiting for.  He said He was Lord of the Sabbath.  Jesus centered the hope of salvation and favor with God in His own Person, and He taught that He would rise from the grave after three days.  He said that those who wouldn't repent in response to His preaching will be condemned in the last judgement.  All this He spoke openly, without using parables or figures of speech, but only a few responded in faith.  So from now on He will use parables, to make a distinction between those who truly long to see, and those who think they see enough already or who have blinded themselves and just don't care.

    This includes us.  What do we see?  What do we hear?  Jesus says in John 12, "I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.  There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him on the last day."  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the word of God as being "Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."  The parables of Jesus reveal our attitudes towards Him and towards the kingdom He establishes in this world and the world to come.

    The Parable of the Sower itself is a parable about the dividing and revealing effect of the Word of God.  Jesus tells us that the seed that is sown is the message about the kingdom.  It's not the message of our own good works, or our love for others, or anything to do with sinful humans at all.  It's the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified for our sins, risen for our eternal life, ascended to the right hand of the Father, coming again to judge the living and the dead, and reigning forever in glory.  It's about that state of affairs where God Almighty is Lord and King, starting in each of our hearts, here and now.  This message of the kingdom was proclaimed by Jesus Himself and it has been proclaimed by faithful ministers of His church down through the centuries.  It is declared to all, whether they have ears to hear or not.

    So hear what the parable of the sower means.  You can sit in your pew Lord's Day after Lord's Day, and hear Christ faithfully  preached as died and risen again for you-- for you!-- and you can think, "That means nothing to me.  I'm good enough without Jesus on the cross.  What do I need a bloody sacrifice for?  That's so barbarian and out of date!"  You have no understanding, and the evil one is right there, snatching away what was sown in your heart. 

    Or you might hear and think, "Oh, this is so wonderful!  Jesus died to redeem me and all sinners!  He's the only way to salvation!"  But then your daughter moves in with her boyfriend and you tell her Jesus accepts it because you don't want her to hate you. Or you find yourself saying to unbelieving friends, "Well, there's lots of different ways to get to God, I just happen to believe in Jesus, I guess . . . " Beware!  You have no understanding, no root.  Persecution has come and your faith is getting scorched and withered.

    Or maybe you receive the good news of the kingdom, and you believe, you really believe you do.  But then you lose your job.  Your son gets arrested for possession of illegal drugs.  Your beloved spouse is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  And you start wondering, "What's this Christianity thing good for, anyway?  I thought Jesus was going to give me the abundant life.  I guess He hates me.  Or God just doesn't care."  Or maybe it's the opposite of that.  Maybe you get a big fat raise and now you can afford a cabin up on Lake Erie.  Or season tickets to all the Steelers' games.  You get attracted and distracted and Jesus and His kingdom seem to pale in comparison.  What do you need church and Jesus for, you might wonder.  Things are going just fine!  You have no understanding of the message of Christ's kingdom, the worries and desires of this life are choking out the good seed, and it ends up unfruitful.

    But suppose you hear Christ faithfully proclaimed as crucified for your sins; yes, yours.  Suppose your spiritual eyes are opened to see Him gloriously risen to give you new life; suppose you joyfully receive God's gracious gift of Christ in you and for you.  God has made you good soil, He has granted you true understanding, and by His grace you will be fruitful as a child of His kingdom.  Even if you feel you don't quite understand, still you desire to hear more about Jesus Christ and what He has done to save you.  That is a sign of good soil, which His Holy Spirit will cultivate in you day by day.

    Jesus spoke in parables to reveal the difference between those who truly desired the kingdom of God and its King, and those who wanted the kingdom to serve their own purposes or who rejected Him altogether.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  Will you accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour and King and joyfully submit to His loving rule?  If so, "Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear."  Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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