Jesus faced a daunting task: sowing the kingdom of God in a world gone feral. Refusing our one true sovereign, earth was overrun by self-proclaimed rulers. Even back in Jesus’ time that was a long story: the powers of Rome, Greece, Babylon, Assyria, all the way back to the oppressive Pharaoh of Moses’ day.
Those powers conflict with the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord, that God’s anointed has been raised up as our global leader. Those who hold the political, social, and economic capital have little interest in yielding to him. You could say it would be easier to get a camel through a needle’s eye.
But Jesus wasn’t planning a war to rid us of these leaders. He used stories. His stories were not bombs to destroy existing power structures; they were seeds of what could be, opening people’s eyes and ears and hearts to the hope of life under God’s reign. Seeds can grow into trees. Living roots can crack hard rock. Life is more powerful than death. That’s why the sower went out to sow his seed (Matthew 13:3).
“Why don’t you deliver a clear, direct message that everyone can understand?” his disciples wondered (13:10). “Because they don’t understand,” was Jesus’ reply (13:13).
He’s right of course. People have no understanding of what it would be like to live together as the kingdom of our heavenly sovereign. People don’t want to understand: if they did, they’d yield to his authority and treat each other differently. Let my people go has never been a popular message with those in power (Exodus 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20-21; 9:1, 13; 10:3).
Proclaiming the kingdom of God is a frustratingly exciting commission. Such astounding possibilities from the heavens! Such outright resistance from the earth! Every prophet faced this problem. God revealed this when he commissioned Isaiah: first the throne (Isaiah 6:1-8), then the resistance (6:9-13). Jesus faced the same resistance (Matthew 13:13-15).
We face the same resistance as we proclaim the gospel of the kingdom today. People close their eyes, block their ears, and obstruct their hearts to what life could be. They don’t want to turn around, yield to God’s authority, and let him heal us.
So, what can we learn from Jesus’s creative response to the human problem? Three suggestions.
Don’t give up the kingdom hope
King Ahaz resisted Isaiah’s promise that God would provide an Immanuel child (Isaiah 7). Isaiah saw the northern part of God’s kingdom fall to Assyria (Isaiah 8). God promised a great light would dawn on these Galilean tribes when a child was born, a son was given, and the government placed on his shoulders (Isaiah 9).
700 years later, Jesus came to call people back under God’s kingship: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17). His kingdom proclamation began in the region lost first: Galilee of the Gentiles, the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Matthew 4:15-16 || Isaiah 9:1-2). They felt the kingdom hope as he made his way through the whole of Galilee … announcing the gospel of the kingdom and restoring them from all the maladies and afflictions of his people (Matthew 4:23), and teaching them kingdom life (Matthew 5–7).
Jesus warned how threatening this kingdom message is to those in power. He prepared his followers to give their lives (10:16-39). Self-appointed local leaders were plotting to kill Jesus, muddying the power issue by portraying him not as God’s servant but as Satan’s (12:14-24).
Jesus doesn’t give up the kingdom hope. He just adjusts his strategy. A sower went out to sow (13:3).
Plant the seeds of the kingdom
The earth is hard, shallow, and crowded, yet the seeds of the kingdom grow into the harvest God anticipated (Matthew 13:3-23).
God’s enemy planted alternative seeds, power structures competing with God’s kingdom, but Jesus refused to weed them out and forbids taking that approach. The little mustard seed grows into the tree that brings everything under its branches, like yeast working its way through a whole bag of flour. (13:24-43).
Kingdoms usually come by invasion, one power throwing out the previous one and burning the wreckage. That’s not how God’s kingdom comes. God calls us to leave the sorting out to him. This doesn’t feel like a safe way to establish a kingdom: what if the wicked kill the righteous (13:47-50)?
Those were the seeds Jesus planted for those whose eyes, ears, and hearts were closed to God’s reign. But that wasn’t everyone.
Develop those who have ears
To his followers the king revealed classified plans not yet ready for public release (13:11). The secrets of the kingdom included the identity of God’s anointed ruler, and how he would receive that authority (compare Matthew 16:16-28).
He said those who got it would be entrusted with a great deal more. We see that in Acts, in their proclamation of the good news of the resurrected king. He said that those who didn’t get it would lose even what they had. Judas is the obvious example (13:12).
The key difference was the disciples’ posture towards God’s reign. They had not closed their eyes, blocked their ears, and obstructed their hearts. They were among the few who could already understand the sower and the harvest God was expecting from the earth.
That was the king’s dual strategy for the kingdom: developing those who had ears, while never giving up on the wider world despite the frustration. Isaiah accepted his frustrating commission with the same hope — that heaven would eventually reveal the king who softens human hearts and brings God’s world to harvest:
Isaiah 32:1–4 (NIV)
1 See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. 2 Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. 3 Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. 4 The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.
Proclaiming divine kingship is the most exciting and purposeful calling anyone could have. At the same time, the earth where we’re proclaiming this message is frustratingly unreceptive, like planting seeds on hard tracks, impervious rocks, and weed-choked soil.
So what do we do? Keep planting. In the face of all these frustrations, there will be a harvest.
But perhaps we don’t need to waste our efforts trying to poke the seeds into the soils. A gram of creative intrigue might be better than a tonne of pressure when the soil has closed its eyes and ears.
Matthew 13:10-17 (my translation, compare NIV)
10 His followers approached and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?
11 He answered them, “To you has been given secret information on the kingdom of heaven, not released to the public. 12 The one who gets this will be given a great deal more; the one who doesn’t get it, will have it removed from them.
13 This is the reason I speak to them in parables: ‘Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear or understand.’
14 Fulfilled in them is what the prophet Isaiah described,
‘In hearing, you will hear and never understand,
and in seeing you will see and never perceive.
15 Obstructed was the heart of this people; they heard with blocked ears.
Their eyes they closed, so there was no way they could see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn back and I would heal them.’ [Isaiah 6:9-10]
16 But your eyes are blessed so they see, and your ears so they hear. 17 Truly I tell you that many prophets and upright people yearned to see what you see and didn’t see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.”
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), 1:161–162
We can feel their frustration, like a child wanting the tree to be fully grown straight away. ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’
Jesus’ answer is almost as confusing and disturbing as the parable itself. He takes them back once again to the prophets, to a passage in the book of Isaiah which spoke of the reaction the prophet knew his words would provoke. The Israel of his day was wicked and hard-hearted, and, though his message did indeed contain the promise of salvation, that promise could only come true on the other side of an awesome judgment. The great trees would have to come down before the new shoot could start to grow (Isaiah 10:33–11:3). God would cut the tree down, and prune it further and further, until there was only a stump left; but he would then reveal that there was new life hidden in the stump (Isaiah 6:9–13).
And what was that life? ‘The holy seed’ (6:13). Jesus quotes the very passage in which the prophet promises that one day, many years hence, a new seed, a new shoot, would arise, bringing mercy the other side of judgment. And he does so in order to explain the reason for telling all these stories about — yes — seeds.