Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 13:10-17
by Mary Stegink
Thus far in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus has been busy. He’s been teaching and preaching, he’s been healing, he’s been explaining, he’s been gathering disciples, and he’s been traveling. And, here in chapter 13 he does something new. He tells his audience a story – a parable – and his disciples wonder why. Why tell a story that only a few get? Now, pastors know the important of a good story – a good life example, a good illustration from literature, or a current news item – will bring a wandering audience (congregation) back to attention. Living and ministering on the East Coast in an area that was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, all I have to do is say the word “Sandy” and the rustling stops, the ears perk up, and I can regain a restless audience. So – Jesus goes into “the story telling” business – but his stories have a twist. The twist is that the meaning of the story isn’t immediately clear. The listener has to pause a moment and let it sink in – and then maybe the light bulb goes on and they get it. The NIV Study Bible defines a parable as a “placing beside.” A parable is used to compare or illustrate the speaker’s point. F. Dale Bruner defines them this way: “Parables are riddle-like sayings, covering as much as conveying truth.” He goes on to say, “they require ‘looking into’ in order to be understood.” They prick the mind. And so here in chapter 13 Jesus has just told the Parable of the Sower – and the disciples wonder why. Why get your point across this way? Maybe they asked, “why not just say what you want to say?” And Jesus gives them his answer. The answer, at first hear, sounds a bit harsh. Basically Jesus tells that that some are meant to get it and others aren’t. And the disciples should be thankful that they’re in the group that understands.
Hearing and listening can be two very different things. We can tell our children it’s time to come to dinner – and they hear the noise of our words – but they don’t get up and come to the table. (Okay, maybe they hear us tell them to clean their rooms – and that’s when they don’t listen). We hear all kinds of things – but we don’t let every sound in for processing. We hear the sound of the wind, the whistle of a train, a clap of thunder – but we don’t have to figure out what that means. We also hear all kinds of words during the day – background voices on the radio, the voices of our colleagues in the next cubicle, the chatter of small children in a classroom – we certainly hear all kinds of sound but we don’t always listen to what’s being said. It doesn’t matter to us, it’s not going to make a difference in our life – so we hear but we don’t listen. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of people who hear the Gospel message the same way – that’s what Jesus is telling his disciples – not everyone is going to listen the same way you do. They (mistakenly) think that these words aren’t going to make a difference in their life so they tune them out or they scratch their head and walk away.
According to F. Dale Bruner there is a tension at work here – that difficult line “but to them it has not been given” reminds us that “we have to let God be God.” The tension is between the Sovereignty of God and the free will he has given us – our own human responsibility. The good news of the Gospel is God’s gift to give – it’s up to each individual whether or not they’re going to accept it. And because many people choose to say “no” they don’t get it – they hear the words, but they choose not to listen. Their hearts are hard. And here there is a difference between Matthew’s account of Jesus’ answer and Mark’s. Mark uses the preposition ‘hina’ translated “in order to.” Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ intent was to tell parables in order to harden the hearts of those who would reject him. Matthew’s take is a bit different and a little easier to swallow. Matthew uses ‘hoti’ translated as “because.” Matthew’s account suggests that Jesus spoke in parable because the hearts of those who rejected him were already hard. And possibly, parables were a way to get into that hardness and make a difference. (Bruner)
But – all is not necessarily lost here. Jesus has just told the Parable of the Sower and all of the different kinds of ground that the seed falls on. Some sprouts shoot up quickly and then wither away, but others take their time, they put down deep roots and in the end they grow and flourish. Sometimes it takes time for the truth of the Gospel to sink in and take root. As pastors we know how often we plant seeds and then hope and pray that something we’ve said will suddenly, in God’s time, make sense to the hearer. We certainly don’t know what God’s timing is going to be – we just have to be faithful planters of the seed. We need to say the words and hope that – in God’s time – the hearing turns into listening and hard hearts are turned to hearts that are ready to accept the love and grace our Lord has to offer.
And, if we’re already in the place where we hear and listen and understand – then Jesus’ words remind us what a privilege this is. He tells his disciples at the top of this passage that they are blessed to hear and understand. He reminds them at the end of all of those who had gone before who would have given anything to hear and understand – to stand where the disciples were standing – right next to the Savior of the World!
As I was pondering this sermon starter I thought about all of the times in my childhood when my parents spelled part of their conversation. They needed to talk about stuff while I was in the room – but my ears weren’t ready to listen to what they had to say. Or what they had to say was none of my business. But, over time, as I grew – more of what they were spelling started to make sense – I was mature enough to understand and to listen. They stopped spelling because it wasn’t necessary – I was ready to hear and to listen. I feel like that might be what Jesus is about here – some people just aren’t ready to listen to the gospel and so he talks in stories that don’t immediately make sense – but with growth and maturity, we Holy Spirit led curiosity, who’s to say that the good news of the Gospel won’t make sense later – something might remind them of what they heard – and the seed will take root and another soul will be won for the Kingdom!
Rev. Mary Stegink is the pastor of Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church, Ridgewood, NJ.