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Riddle Me This

Let the parables begin!

Written by Mike Biolsi on .

Notes

Let’s just jump right into Matthew 13. If you are new with us you will need to go back and watch the videos online. 

Matthew 13:1–2 CSB
1 On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore.

The shift, as David mentioned, changed from just the Pharisees and Scribes to the crowds, which could have included them as well. We are not told if his mother and brothers were still there or if they gave up and went home. Again, as was custom, the teacher sat down and the students stood up. 

It is interesting that the place where this took place is called the “Cove of the Sower” or the “Cove of Parables”:

Fact: Cove of the Parables

The place where Jesus sat beside the sea (13:1–2) is traditionally called the Cove of the Parables. It was a horseshoe-shaped cove that had remarkable acoustics. Anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people could fit just along the beach, while twice that many could easily fill the entire hillside. A person sitting at the very top of the hill could hear a speaker standing on the beach, even though they could hardly see him!

[https://www.holylandsite.com/sowers-cove-parables]

Matthew 13:3a (CSB)
3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying, ...

Starting in chapter 13, Jesus began speaking to the crowds in parables. 

ask: What IS a parable? [get feedback but do NOT answer that question yet]

I want you to hold those ideas for a bit. Let’s read the parable together, without trying to interpret it. Let’s imagine we are part of the crowd, standing on the shore listening to Jesus who is sitting in a boat with his disciples. ⚡He starts speaking so everyone gets quiet and Jesus says:

Matthew 13:3–9 (CSB)
3 ... “Consider the sower who went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it didn’t have much soil, and it grew up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it. 8 Still other seed fell on good ground and produced fruit: some a hundred, some sixty, and some thirty times what was sown. 9 Let anyone who has ears listen.”

Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people who are part of an agrarian regions where crops are a big part of the economy and the land was very fertile and good for growing.  

Can anyone tell me what crop they were planting?

Obviously, the crop they were planting was corn, right? How can you know this? Because anyone who had “ears” could listen! 😁 I know, that was pretty corny. 🥸

We do not know what the crop was. Possibly wheat, but that detail is left out because it is not significant for the parable. We also do not know anything about the one planting the seed - were they Jewish? Did they do this a lot?

My Bible calls this section “The Parable of the Sower”. How many of you have heard that before? Can anyone think of a different name they might want to call this teaching?

the Parable of the Seeds - because it is about what happens to the seed

the Parable of the Soils - because the soil made the difference between what happened to the seed

Though those names seem more appropriate to me, Jesus called this the “parable of the sower” in 13:18, so I guess I should be OK with that, eh? 

As the crowds heard this story, they were told about the different soils and the results. That would have been something they would be aware of. The questions they would have to wrestle with are, “What is the seed” and “What was the fruit”? THOSE are the ambiguous items in the parable. 

Define Parable

OK, so let’s take a minute to talk about parables before we listen to Jesus’ explanation of this one. 

I have heard parables defined as “a heavenly story with an earthly meaning”. How many of you have heard that definition before? I am not a fan of that one. I think if you flipped it around it would be more accurate but it would still fall short: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. 

According to Webster: “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle”.  I think that is a very narrow definition that is not consistent with the Greek roots the word came from. 

The word “parable” is one that we transliterated in English. We took the Greek word and make it English: παραβολή. But that is not helpful in providing a definition. 

Word Studies in the New Testament Chapter 13

From παρά, beside, and βάλλω, to throw. A parable is a form of teaching in which one thing is thrown beside another. Hence its radical idea is comparison.

Matthew Explanation of the Text
“parable” (παραβολή) builds on the Hebrew māšāl and can refer to stories, illustrations, similitudes, proverbs, or even riddles. The basic meaning of the term is “comparison,” so it is a literary device drawing an analogy or comparison from everyday experience to deepen one’s understanding of a concept. This is the first time the term appears in Matthew, and it will be used twelve times in this chapter.

A parable could be a brief saying, a proverb, a song, poem, riddle, or allegory. It is a pretty broad term in the Greek, so we should be careful not define it down too much. 

Perhaps, rather than try to define what a parable is, we can list some of the characteristics of parables so we can spot them and find out how to interpret them:

They are usually concise and often symmetrical - avoiding unnecessary words. 

They feature everyday life and common elements from earthly living.

The often contain elements of surprise or hyperbole which draws attention to the main point.

The parable requires the hearer to pass judgement - to make a decision about what they heard. 

See Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible for a more detailed breakdown.

About 1/3 of Jesus’ teachings are parables. Why? THAT is the question the disciples asked! Let’s continue reading in Matthew and we can round out our definition of parables a little more: ⚡

Matthew 13:10–17 (CSB)
10 Then the disciples came up and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?” 
11 He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 12 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. 14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, but never understand; you will look and look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn back— and I would heal them. 16 “Blessed are your eyes because they do see, and your ears because they do hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see but didn’t see them, to hear the things you hear but didn’t hear them.

WHY Parables?

It seems like if you really wanted people to understand what you are saying - parables would be counter-productive! NOW we get another insight into the definition of parables - they are mean to conceal truths from some -> specifically those that have chosen to close their eyes to the truth of Jesus and have willingly rejected him. 

Many have wrestled with that concept. If God is merciful, if Jesus wants all to repent, then WHY would he conceal truth about the kingdom with parables? 

Context:

This section in Matthew’s record comes immediately after the teachings about people who accept Jesus and do the will of the Father being family and those that reject Jesus being a wicked generation. There are two groups and they are divided on Jesus.

Jesus further demonstrated this divide with the words “you” and “them”. Matt 13:11 “...Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.” 

This may seem exclusive - and it is! However, the invitation to become part of the “in” group was and still is, always open. The truth of the kingdom is exclusive in that it is just for those who accept Jesus but it is inclusive as the invitation is open to all people, or every generation and nation to accept Jesus and be included. 

Jesus had demonstrated his deity over and over by doing the things only Yahweh could do, and some accepted while others rejected. John the Baptist looked at the evidence of what happened and accepted Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes looked at the evidence and dismissed it as the work of demons. 

The evidence of Jesus being the anointed one (Messiah) was very plain. The call to repentance by both John and Jesus was very clear. At this point, there is a divide between the “in” and the “out”, the “have” and the “have not”, and Matthew has been painting that picture for us. 

Isn’t that harsh? Perhaps. All actions carry consequences. God must be just if he is also good which means that rebellion and rejection must be dealt with and not just overlooked. It can be pardoned, but only with repentance. 

If you struggle with this concept of judgement,  you might want to consider what the CSB Study Bible notes:

CSB Study Bible: Notes (Chapter 13)
13:10–13 Jesus’s parables had two distinct purposes: (1) to reveal truth to those who were willing to hear and believe, and (2) to conceal truth from those who willingly rejected truth because of their calloused hearts (v. 15). The hiddenness component of Jesus’s teaching may seem harsh, but since greater exposure to truth increases one’s accountability to God in judgment (11:20–24), the concealment may represent God’s graciousness toward those whom he knew would be unresponsive.

Isaiah

Jesus’ reply pointed back to a passage in Isaiah which talked about how Israel would reject Yahweh - and the One sent by him. The issue Isaiah points out is a “callous heart”. 

ask: can anyone tell me what a “callous” is?  Webster: A callus is a hard, thickened area of skin that develops usually from friction or irritation over time. 

You might remember other passages in the Bible that talk about a hard heart, such as Pharaoh. When you read these you find they they started by rejected God - even if God continued to drive distance between Him and them. A callous heart is one that does not feel remorse or sorrow for rebelling against God.

As Jesus gave his answer as to WHY he spoke in parables he also divided people into two groups: 

those who can hear and those who cannot hear

those who can see and those who cannot see

those with callous hearts and those with tender hearts

He used Isaiah to describe those who rejected him and who he is concealing things from. However, he referred to those that accept him in a different way:

Matthew 13:16–17 CSB
16 “Blessed are your eyes because they do see, and your ears because they do hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see but didn’t see them, to hear the things you hear but didn’t hear them.

There are two things we should note here:

They are given insight

First, they DO SEE and they DO HEAR - and YET, the meaning of the parables were not obvious to the disciples! Jesus explained the parables to them so that they could understand them. As a matter of point, the disciples did not understand the parable when Jesus told it. Luke’s account tells us:

​Luke 8:9 CSB
9 Then his disciples asked him, “What does this parable mean?”

As you will see in the weeks ahead, while it has been granted to the followers of Jesus to understand the parables, it is not an easy task and there is not a universally accepted interpretation of any of them!

They were able to see the Messiah

In verse 17 it says that many people who followed and obeyed God in the past looked forward to the time of Jesus. Noah’s dad, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets all looked forward to the coming of the Messiah - the serpent-crusher.  

In Luke we read about two people who demonstrate this truth: ⚡

Luke 2:25–38 (CSB)
25 There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said, 29 Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation. 31 You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel. 33 His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. ⚡34 Then Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, “Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed—35 and a sword will pierce your own soul—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well along in years, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and was a widow for eighty-four years. She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers. 38 At that very moment, she came up and began to thank God and to speak about him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

There were 2 people who were looking for the redemption from the Messiah - the one who would restore people from all nations back to their God. Simeon and Anna got to see it! But many before them hoped and prayed for it and never saw it. The disciples were blessed to not only see it but be allowed close enough to walk with God on this earth!!

So, we have the “in” and the “out”, the “have” and “have not”, those who are enlightened and those who are kept in the dark because of their decision about what to do with this Jesus.

The Parable Explained

After Jesus explained why he spoke in parables he then went on to explain the parable: ⚡

​Matthew 13:18–23 CSB
18 “So listen to the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the one sown along the path. 20 And the one sown on rocky ground—this is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. 21 But he has no root and is short-lived. When distress or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 Now the one sown among the thorns—this is one who hears the word, but the worries of this age and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 23 But the one sown on the good ground—this is one who hears and understands the word, who does produce fruit and yields: some a hundred, some sixty, some thirty times what was sown.”

After listening to that passage, what would YOU say is the focus of the parable?

What was being planted (sown)? - the good news about the kingdom

What does the soil represent? - people who hear it

In all cases, the soil represents people. The type of soil represents different environments in which that person lives. 

The 4 Soils

PATH - paths are hard. the dirt is packed down. Fields would often have paths right through them, not necessarily off to the side like we might do today. Seed would not grow on a path and it would be natural for the birds to come by and eat it. While the bird is interpreted into “the evil one” in this parable, we should be careful not to take that analogy across the entire scripture - leave it in the parable ;) This person is one whose heart is hardened towards God, and there is no openness to receive the good news. 

Can you think of a group of people from Matthew that fit this soil type? [Pharisees]

ROCKY - in the North Country we have a LOT of rocky soil. If you work on a farm that grows crops you know what it means to go “pick rock” each spring - they seem to actually grow! I am sure it is more like the frost pushing them up, but I still think the reproduce and grow :)  When we have a particularly hot summer you can see where the big rocks are underground, can’t you? How? Whatever is on top of them dries up. In some yards you can see big patches of dead grass with green all around it.  There is no room for roots so there is no way to get enough water to survive so it dries up.  This person likes what they hear, but they have not made a commitment to remove the things that will keep them from following God. Notice it is distress or persecution from the world that is mentioned. Initially they are willing to follow God because he makes them feel good … until they no longer feel good. Or they follow because of God’s blessing … but when the blessings are not evident it is time to leave. [ASIDE: unfortunately this is how many people also approach relationships and marriage]

Who might this be in Matthew’s gospel account? [crowds]

Matthew Explanation of the Text
These are probably those among the crowd who are amazed and enthralled with Jesus but have not yet become true followers.

NOTE: As disciples, we should expect trouble and problems. 

John 16:33 NLT
33 I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

This should never drive us away from our Father. Following God IS the easy way in one sense but the more challenging way in another. The blessings far outweigh the battles - and there will be battles! Some with society, some internally and some with God himself. 

THORNS - these like to grow up on the fringe of the fields. The imagery of being choked by thorns gives me this picture of this tangle of thorns squeezing the life out of something. The thorns are the worries of the world and wealth. Basically, it is those that are not able to trust God for their daily provision and their future and feel that they need to be in control. Or, it can be those who have made money and possessions to be their gods.  

​Matthew Explanation of the Text
The true disciple does not allow the concerns of life to have precedence over following Jesus.

Again, this group seems to be the crowd - some of them have already bee addressed by Jesus about leaving family to follow, or not living for money, etc. 

SO - we have 3 groups that have heard about Jesus but have not fully accepted Jesus. The hard of heart, the fair weather follower and the person who needs to be in control.

While it might be tempting to turn this into a math equation like, “75% of people who hear the gospel will reject it” - DON’T.  What kind of farmer would scatter 25% of his seed onto a path? Or who would throw 25% of their seed into the thorns on the side of the field? This parable is not meant to be a math equation so don’t take it there. 

GOOD SOIL - Then there is the seed that falls on the good soil. They hear. They understand. They are fruitful. Some 100x, some 60x and some 30x - it is interesting that there are 3 groups who do not accept Jesus, and then there are 3 level of fruitfulness in the one group that does accept Jesus. 

Again, this is not a math parable. The focus should not be on the amount of increase as if there are levels of fruitfulness that we should expect if God is truly working in our lives. 

100x

That being said, I can’t help but wonder if it is *possible* that the 100x crop is meant to take us back to Isaac - which is the only other time we have a harvest of 100x recorded in the scriptures:

​Genesis 26:12–13 CSB
12 Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundred times what was sown. The Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich and kept getting richer until he was very wealthy.

The context of that passage is that Isaac was living in the land of the Philistines and God blessed him and increased his harvest 100x and his sheep and flocks and wealth. The people around him grew jealous and wanted to get rid of him - so they forced him to leave. This is a pretty cool parallel to Jesus who showed up on the turf of the Pharisees and God blessed him, increased his crops (kingdom harvest), and his sheep (followers) and his treasure (in heaven) to the point where the Pharisees were jealous and wanted to get rid of him. 

I think one of the valuable things for us to realize in these numbers of increase is that growth is God’s business.

​1 Corinthians 3:6–7 CSB
6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

While we must be receptive and obedient, we do not dictate the effectiveness of ministry or the fruitfulness of our lives. We are branches connected to the vine and the vine produces the fruit. 

The good soil represents the ones who accept Jesus have honest and good hearts. 

good soil = good heart

producing fruit = right living that honors the name of Yahweh

If you have been with us for the past few weeks, you should be seeing that this is not a random parable just stuck in the gospel so we can have a break from the conflict. This parable is a response to the reactions of people and how they accept Jesus. It is a continuation of the last two chapters and a foundation for what it yet to come. 

​Matthew Literary Context
The parable of the soils brings together all three groups Jesus has impacted—the hardened leaders (the first soil), the excited yet uncommitted crowds (the second and third soils), and the disciples (the fourth soil).​

Matthew Main Idea
This story centers not on the sower or the seed but on the four kinds of soil. It is clear that everyone reacts to the kingdom teaching (the seed) presented by Jesus (the sower); the soils represent the receptivity of the differing groups to Jesus’ proclamation. They do react in different ways, but there is no neutrality; no one can remain outside the convicting power of God’s truth.

It is ALSO a call to you and to me to make sure we are listening and obeying. We have the choice and it is an easy one:

If your heart is hard towards God, pray for him to soften it - he can!

If you are going through a tough time, don’t turn away from God, turn towards him!

If you are consumed with worry, wealth and your future trust God with these things, he is the only one who is truly in control!

If you are living just for the pleasures of the moment and self-gratification you will be disappointed some day, you were meant to live for God and for others!

We should keep in mind that the majority of the people Jesus was talking to were Jews. They were people who knew about God and who know the scriptures. They were “good” people, but that does not mean they were “God’s people”. This is a reality check for everyone who has gone to church for years - it is just part of your social life, just something good to do, or is it because you are a child of God and desire to live in a way that honors him?

The question we, as the parable hearers should ask today is, “What type of soil am I?” and always keep in mind that if you are not the good soil, the invitation is always open to hear and receive. 

FOR FUN: Check out these passages for Parables from the Prophets:

  • Ezekiel 17
  • Judges 14
  • 2 Samuel 12

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North Country Fellowship Church
NCF was started in 1987 to minister to the growing population of Fort Drum and Jefferson County. Located in Carthage, just minutes away from Ft Drum, Lowville and Watertown, it is a blended congregation of local and military folks, single soldiers, young families and grandparents.