Farming frustration and harvesting hope (Matthew 13:18-23)

The Sower Parable is inspiring insight into the frustration we feel and the fruitfulness we anticipate for God’s farm.

Jesus’ kingdom stories are at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel. The lead story is one Jesus titled the parable of the sower (13:18). So, who was the sower? What was he planting? And why bother when many seeds don’t grow?

Our horticultural methods have changed, but every farmer can relate to this sower. So much is beyond our control. Some seeds die, some struggle, some succeed. Even in the face of all the frustrations, farmers keep planting in hope of a harvest.

Jesus compared his own work in God’s earth to a farmer. He was the sower in the story. The seed he was planting was the message of the kingdom (13:19). He was replanting God’s kingdom on the earth. That’s a tough gig: the good earth God created has become resistant to his reign.

In the beginning, God decreed fruitfulness for the earth, its plants, its creatures and its people (Genesis 1:11, 12, 22, 28). Turning from God’s authority, we found ourselves farming cursed ground that bears thorns and thistles. We battle for a harvest, until we ourselves lose the struggle, falling back into the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

That is the foundational story of God’s kingdom. So when the Sower comes to replant God’s earth with the message of the restoration of God’s kingship, will his message bear fruit? Will the seeds germinate? Will they die out for lack of depth, or be choked out by the thorns and thistles? Will there be a harvest? Or will the Sower, like his seeds, simply fall back into the ground and die?

Human rulers use their power to force everyone to submit to their authority. But the Sower is not broadcasting his own authority and trying to force it on the land. He is entirely dependent on the One who gives life, the One who decreed fruitfulness for the earth in the beginning, the One who acknowledged the struggle to survive in a world that resisted his sovereign authority.

That faith inspires the Sower’s faithfulness. It’s why he as a frustrated farmer keeps sowing in hope of a harvest.

In the story, each failed seed takes us closer to the harvest:

  1. The first doesn’t sink in. The person heard the message of the kingdom but didn’t get it. It never took root. In an earth under the dominion of evil, death reigns, and there are seeds that don’t germinate.
  2. The second germinates, but dies almost immediately. Jesus calls it a shallow response. A careless observer might be fooled by the sudden, obvious, emotional response to the kingdom message, but it dies out just as quickly. Evangelists could benefit from meditating on Jesus’ insight into the nature of these sudden shallow decisions.
  3. The third takes root and starts to grow, but doesn’t develop into a productive life. The thorns and thistles interfere with the productivity God intends. We’re talking about a) the stresses people endure in the present evil age, and b) the enticement to accumulate wealth for the self instead of being productive for God’s reign.
  4. The fourth germinates, takes root, and survives in the difficult and overcrowded earth that is the world under God’s care. These lives are productive for what really counts, some more than others, but all of them are a joy to the Heavenly Farmer and to the Sower who planted the seeds of his kingdom in the earth.

Did you hear the Sower’s heartbeat? How heartbreaking it was watching unresponsive people resist his message. They didn’t get it, didn’t keep it, or lost it to the pressures of life. He didn’t force the soils. He kept sowing, trusting that his Heavenly Father had decreed fruitfulness for the earth, and he would have his harvest in the end.

Every kingdom servant needs the Sower’s heart. Frustrated farmers need the faith that inspires faithfulness towards the fruitful farm that is God’s earth.

The text

Since this is the head story at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel, take your time and meditate on Jesus’ explanation:

Matthew 13:18-23 (my translation, compare NIV)
18 So, listen to the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the message of the kingdom and doesn’t get it, the evil one takes away what had been sown in their heart. That’s the one sown on the path.
20 The one sown on the stony ground, this is someone who hears the message and instantly receives it with joy 21 but without any root to draw on it doesn’t last. When pressing or harassing times come as a result of the message, it falters straightaway.
22 The one sown into the thorns, this is someone who hears the message and the worries of the present era and enticement of wealth crowd out the message and it becomes fruitless.
23 The one sown on the good soil, this is someone who hears the message and gets it, actually bearing fruit — some a hundred seeds, some sixty, some thirty.

What insights are you seeing for how we work with him? How does this shape our role under his kingship? Feel free to post your insights as comments below so we can all benefit. Thanks.

What others are saying

Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 155–156:

The first of the parables is the most significant of all. It is not just ‘a farmer’ who went out to sow his field. It is (literally) ‘the farmer’, and he comes bringing the precious seed which can transform the soil. The kingdom comes when the soil and the seed get together. It is a marriage of seed and soil. The seed is the word of God proclaimed by the Sower of God. And the kingdom begins to come in a life when the ‘soil’ receives the seed of the word for itself. Then it begins to germinate and shoot.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 519–520:

The key interpretive phrase is “the message of the kingdom” (repeated in the abbreviated form “the message” in vv. 20, 22, 23), which is itself an abbreviation referring back to the full phrase “the kingdom of heaven” in v. 11. It is this message which Jesus has been proclaiming since 4:17, and which has been received in such a varied way in the narratives of chs. 11–12. This parable therefore aims to explain that varied response to Jesus’ proclamation. In every case the message is “heard;” what matters is what happens next.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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