Matthew 13:1-17, Having Ears to Hear

The Setup (Matthew 13:1-2)

[July 15, 2012] We come now to the seven parables of Matthew 13. Jesus deliberately takes on the medium of parables as the only means by which He will now communicate with the crowd; in other words, He will no longer speak plainly to them through teaching and proclamation. The first four parables Jesus gives to an outdoor crowd while sitting in a boat; then He withdraws into a house and explains the parables only to His disciples and tells them three more parables. He seems to be sharply distinguishing His disciples from the crowds. This distinction is what these parables are about: who really is in the sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens (the sphere of Jesus’ own Person), and who is not, though they may deceptively appear to be. The first parable is foundational for it teaches us where that distinction actually lies.

We saw Jesus making this distinction at the end of chapter 12. His mother and siblings came looking for Him and He asks, “Who is My mother, and who are My siblings?” Stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My siblings! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in the heavens, that one is My brother and sister and mother.” Then Matthew tells us that it was on that day that Jesus “went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”

The movement from house to the sea, and again, when He leaves the crowds, from the sea to the house, in 13:36, is significant. The house is private and intimate; it was where Jesus lived and where He taught His disciples. The sea represents the Gentile world. Such “great crowds were gathered to Him that He stepped into a boat and sat; and all the crowd stood on the shore.” Though Jesus is alone (as far as we are told) in the boat, the boat represents His called and gathered community, the church, which is cast out upon the waters. The crowd standing on the shore, then, represents Israel. Before Jesus identified who His real family was, the scribes and Pharisees demanded a sign from Him and He told them that they would be given no sign but the sign of Jonah. He went on to speak of how the Gentile Ninevites would condemn their kind (or “generation”) because they repented at the preaching of Jonah and “something more than Jonah is here,” and the Gentile African Queen would also condemn them for “she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something more than Solomon is here” (12:38-42). The conversion of Gentiles to the Messiah of Israel, and the coming to Him of Gentiles in search of wisdom will stand as a sign to Israel “to provoke them to jealousy”—as the apostle Paul says in Romans 11:11 and 14. Yet Jesus is alone in the boat, unlike at other instances (8:23-27; 14:22-33). It is Israel’s Messiah among His Gentile believers who will speak to Israel, not the Gentile believers themselves. Notice that?

I hesitate, I tremble, at the idea of uncomprehending Christian Gentiles shoving the Gospel down the throats of Jews, Gentiles who typically do not recognize God’s continuing relationship to Israel, and His provisional mercy to Gentiles. In the New Testament it is Jewish believers (who have not given up Judaism, by the way) who speak to their fellow Jews. We do not see Gentiles attempting to “convert” Jews. Typically Gentiles despise the Halakah. They despise the continuation of God’s covenant with His people. They look down on Judaism as the inferior rejected predecessor of their own possession. They are Marcionites at heart. Moreover, the history between Israel and the Gentile church has been appalling. How can Gentiles speak, except in humiliation and shame? Yet Jesus does speak to Israel and, in spite of the Gentiles, has always done so and will continue to do so.

Jesus sits (kathēmai), first on the beach, and then in the boat (notice the typological sequence). Jesus sat as He did when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5—7 and when He delivered His apocalyptic sermon in chapters 24—25. The word often gives the one seated the connotation of being worthy of honor and reverence. Jesus depicts Himself as seated when He will act as the Judge of Israel (19:28) and the Gentiles (25:31), and when He will act as the Ruler (20:21; 26:64). God also is pictured as seated on a throne (5:34). In the Book of the Revelation 7:9-12, God is depicted as sitting upon the throne and before Him a great crowd of worshipers are standing, just as in Matthew 13:2: a dignified Jesus sits apart from the crowd and the crowd stands before Him.

We will see in verses 10-17 that there is an unspoken tension between the crowds and Jesus, and that He makes a sharp distinction between His disciples and the crowd. This follows after He identifies His true family as “whoever does the will of My Father who is in the heavens.” From the previous chapter we might have expected the tension to be between Jesus and those Pharisees who were harassing Him. After all, the crowds are still flocking to Him, still in awe of His words, still hoping for miracles of healing and deliverance. Jesus is no doubt still popular, and will continue to be. However, His conflict with the Pharisees is not so much directly with them but over the hearts of the people. The people are also under the spell of these others. This school of Pharisees directly oppose Him (12:2, 14, 24, 38); the people do not. Instead, they “were amazed and said, ‘Is this not the Son of David [the Messiah]?’” (12:23; see 12:15). But the people are under the influence of these Pharisees. Who after all are the ‘they” of 12:10? It is as though the reason the people do not really “get it” is because of how this influence works on them.

The issue in chapter 11 is about the hearts of the people. Jesus is frustrated, not with the Pharisees but with the people. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” “And you, Capernaum, who have been exalted to heaven!” “For if the works of power which took place in you had taken place in [Gentile] Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (11:20-24). He was still popular in these towns, but He was not getting through to them. He says to the Father, “You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent,” not meaning the highly educated (like the Pharisees), but the practical villager with his or her “common sense.” What Jesus needed in His hearers was that they be like infants, those not preoccupied with “real” concerns and conditioned by the norms and expectations of society (11:25). When we see the crowds standing on the shore listening to Jesus, we are back here with these people in chapter 11.

So, the dichotomy is not between the “Jews” and the “Christians” as many commentaries represent it. Jesus withdraws from the crowd, and puts this barrier of “parables” between Him and them, but here, at this point, all are Jews. The distinction is not between “the Jews” and the disciples because the disciples are Jews. Nor does Jesus withdraw His disciples from Judaism or from their membership in Israel, any more than He withdraws Himself from such. Historically it would be literally inconceivable in any case. If they withdrew from Judaism, to what would they be withdrawing? The only alternative is paganism. They all remain Jews; they all continue to uphold the Torah (every yod and serif); they all follow the Halakah. The distinction that Jesus draws for them is within Israel, as for others later it will be among the Gentiles as well (they will be set apart within their Gentile environment), but that distinction will be around His own Person (whether in Israel or among the nations), and He is situated within Israel. Those Gentile who will later come to believe into Him—even though they will be free of the Halakah, except the Noahide covenant—will be believing in the Messiah of Israel. So this idea that Jesus makes a break with Israel and sets up His followers as an entirely new group distinct from Israel, as if He rejected Israel (along the line that Marcion conceived) is a false distinction.

The distinction that the parables will bring out relates to the frustration of Jesus in chapter 11. The crowds are spiritually inert (Augustine Stock, The Method and Message of Matthew [Liturgical Press, 1994], page 209), or as B. Gerhardsson says, “The problem under review is … why so few of the people are spiritually alive” (quoted by Stock on the same page). The problem is not with the Jews but with humanity. “Those who have ears to hear”—for they are few—“let them hear” (13:9).

The Parable of the Sower (13:3-9)

There need be little confusion here. The explanation is given in verses 18-23. The sower is Jesus, whether in the days of His incarnation or through the Gospel as delivered by the church in the days of His resurrection. The field is the world. It is an anomaly. A farmer would not normally be sowing in a field that was in such ill repair. It is in very bad shape; this is Jesus’ frustration. As the farmer sows His seed, in three out of four cases the seedlings fail. The failure is not due to external causes, such as rain (which would normally be the cause for crop failure). The failure is due strictly to the poor condition of the soil. This means that the people have themselves to blame for their failure to “hear the word and understand” (13:23).

The pattern of the four cases follows the Shema: “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The soil “beside the way” has a failure of heart. The “rocky places” has a failure of soul (they are incapable of losing their soul in order to save it). The soil beneath the thorns has a failure of might (might is associated with one’s possessions: they are wrapped up in their service to mammon). The “good earth” bears “one a hundredfold, and one sixtyfold, and one thirtyfold.” Those who bear a hundredfold have such a heart that they lose not only their might (worldly wealth) but their (insular constructed) soul. Those who bear sixtyfold have such a heart that they give up their wealth for the sake of the Gospel but do not go so far as to lose their soul. Those who bear thirtyfold also love the Lord from their heart but they do not go so far as to forsake either their wealth or their soul.

The heart can be good or bad. Some people speak as if doing something from the heart were automatically good. But the heart can be a reservoir of evil (see 12:34-35). About the seed sown beside the way, Jesus says that the seed was sown in the heart, but because the person “does not understand, the evil one comes and snatches [it] away.” “For the heart of this people has become fat, and [consequently] with their ears they have heard heavily, and with their eyes they have closed, lest they perceive with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, and they turn around” (13:15). The heart needs to understand, but because it does not, the seed of the word does not stick. It is gone. But the reason the heart does not understand is because it has become dull (fat), or hardened. Nothing penetrates it. The heart is one’s center, and at one’s center are one’s loves and desires. We do not understand because we do not want to. With our understanding we rationalize what we desire. Our attachments and fears also prevent us from understanding. We become blind, or we do “understand” but our fear plucks away our “understanding” and we enter a state of denial. The birds represent the evil one, which speaks of the power of the world-gestalt, the power that enslaves, imprisons and dominates our thinking and drives our fears and empowers our desperate attachments.

The aim of many evangelism strategies is to bait people with “joy.” People are so happy becoming Christians, which is certainly the case when conversion really takes place—but in the case of a real conversion it is qualitatively different than what we usually see in America. So many of those who become Christians have never been introduced to the demands of discipleship. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “in America … Christians cannot imagine how being a Christian might put them in tension with the American way of life. This is as true for Christians on the left as it is for Christians on the right” (Matthew [Brazos Press, 2006], page 130). He goes on to say, “The church in America simply is not a soil capable of growing deep roots,” and he rightly attributes this to our wealth and obsession with wealth, whether rich or poor. “Wealth makes it impossible to grow the word.” “Possessed by possessions, we desire to act in the world, often on behalf of the poor, without having to lose our possessions.” As a result, we cannot even submit to discipleship, well before we even consider the possibility of surviving persecution. Yes, we rally to our churches and are entertained by the music and preaching, and feel ecstatic rapture for “Jesus” as we are caught up in “praise,” but it is all a form of self-infatuation, isn’t it? The emotions are moved, but the spirit is untouched, and the heart consequently unchanged. The heart’s center is still the petty constructed self, the darling or the slave of the world, though with a Christian tint.

Surely our obsession with our standard of living, our material wellbeing, is not the only reason for shallow roots. It may also be an obsession with appearance, however that guise may take. Many people live their lives before an internet audience. The inability to be alone raises the question concerning our personal integrity—are we always performing on a stage before others. If we are stripped of an audience, where would we be? Roots, after all, are underground.

We will have to continue this discussion in the next blog, including a discussion of:

Why Jesus Uses Parables (13:10-17)

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