Which Dirt Are You? (Matthew 13:1-23)
The question Jesus will answer in our text today is this: why do different people react so differently to the word of God? But let’s quickly set the context, because this parable could be an explanation of what has been happening over the last two chapters.
- 11:18-19 — People malign Jesus as a glutton, drunkard, and friend of sinners.
- 11:20-24 — The cities where Jesus did most of his mighty works did not repent.
- 11:25-29 — The Father has hidden Truth from the wise of this age and revealed it to children.
- 12:1-8 — The Pharisees condemned Jesus’ disciples though they were guiltless.
- 12:9-14 — Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and the Pharisees want to kill him.
- 12:22-32 — The Pharisees accused Jesus of using Satanic power to cast out demons.
- 12:38-42 — Jesus is greater than Solomon and Jonah to whom people listened without any signs; yet this generation ignores his preaching and demand signs.
- 12:43-45 — After Jesus walks away, this generation will be infested with demons and wickedness worse than they were before they encountered Jesus.
Crowds gather around Jesus at the beach, Jesus sits down on in a boat, and he tells them a parable. A sower threw seed. Some seed landed on a path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, some on good soil. And it appears Jesus just kept telling more and more parables like this one without any explanation to the crowds. The disciples became confused — what happened to that sermon you preached on the mountain? Why are you speaking to the crowds in parables? Jesus’ replies in vs. 11-17 — notice the distinction he draws between his disciples and the crowds.
Parables: Revealing and Concealing (13:10-17)
Jesus plainly says he speaks in parables to the crowds because…
Given to know the secrets of the kingdom
Not been given
They have, more will be given — abundance
Don’t have, what they do have will be taken away
You see/hear what many have longed to see/hear
They do not really see or hear; won’t be healed
I used to think parables were Jesus’ way of waking the crowds up from sleepiness — “It’s a great illustration.” However much this parable may help Jesus’ disciples understand, Mark makes it clear that it is the opposite for the crowds: everything is in parables “so that they may indeed see but not perceive and may indeed hear but not understand.” Jesus says he tells parables because the crowds don’t hear or see and he tells parables to ensure that continues.
This may be troubling. We want fairness. But Jesus makes it clear in verse 12 that’s not what his kingdom is about: to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. Pharaoh is a good illustration of this. Did Pharaoh harden God’s heart, or did God? Exodus says both. Pharaoh was hard of heart and God did not respond by asking him out to lunch to talk things over. God is God, and we are not, and he decided to press the point further with plagues.
The reason it has come to this, Jesus says, is because the crowds are like the people in Isaiah’s day. Isaiah saw the Lord in his real heavenly temple, he let them ask for a sign, he walked around naked for three years, and he preached eloquent sermons, but they said, “No, not interested, your sermons are too hard to understand anyway.” Side note: we’re not in good company if we aren’t willing to do the work understand Isaiah or some other portion of the Bible.
The same is true of Jesus. He has been teaching, casting out demons, doing good works, and while some are loving it, others resist him at every turn — why should he give to dogs what is holy? why should he throw pearls before pigs who will trample them and attack him? So, he tells parables.
There’s an important note for us here: Jesus didn’t mind saying hard things that confused people and left them on the outside. I hear preachers sometimes say that we need to preach to the common man like Jesus. If we mean we should use words people can understand, I agree. If we mean that we should help eager people who are willing to do the work to understand and apply the word, I agree. But if we mean that people should be able to always understand what’s being said on the first go, if we mean that the Bible, classes, and sermons should cater to people whose intellect and ability to pay attention has been destroyed by screens, or if we mean that we should cater to those who are distracted by cares and concerns or deceived by various things, that’s not Jesus’ approach. We should come to God’s word expecting it to be something we will only understand with difficulty. God longs for all to understand and repent, but that does not mean all will. The secrets of the kingdom are not for everyone, and Jesus left some people on the outside — while urging them to listen more carefully.
But see the positive of what Jesus says: many prophets and righteous people longed to see and hear what we have the opportunity to see and hear, but they didn’t. We are a blessed people.
But why do different people react differently to God’s word? You’ll notice it even here. Many are very attentive, some aren’t. Some reorient their schedules to hear God’s word, others allow anything to get in the way. Some bear fruit, others don’t. Jesus’ parable explains why. As we read, let’s ask ourselves: we are all dirt, but which kind of dirt are you? And to be clear, I don’t think we are simply always one dirt — I believe by God’s grace and power we can repent and change.
The Interpretation of the Parable (18-23)
The Path: hardened by Satan and sin (19). When I tried to read classic literature as a teenager, all I saw were words on a page. It was complete nonsense. I didn’t understand it and it made no impact on my life. Has this ever been you with the good news? You read or hear and it doesn’t register.
Here, the path is hard — there is no soil for it to germinate in. Satan — the bird — snatches it away. We may read that and think, “But that’s not fair for Satan to take it.” But Paul also says in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 that the gospel “is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Satan blinds people and takes the gospel from people. He is a real spiritual power who can destroy you. You are porous. You are not impermeable. You have little spaces and holes in you by which Satan can get in. Sin is not just law-breaking — it is obedience to a Satanic master who is trying to find a place into us to put a chain on us. And when he does, something happens. Paul says in Ephesians 4 that our understanding becomes darkened, our hearts become hard, and we become calloused, unfeeling.
We all have difficult days, but if we repeatedly open God’s word or come here and find little to no nourishment from anything that is said or done — things rarely find a place in our heart or life — Satan has found a way in. He has become lord and he doesn’t want us to know. Where did he get in? How has he hardened you? Whoever you are, if somehow you woke up to hear this point, hear!
The Rocky Ground: No root, little endurance (20-21). In Palestine there are places where there is a limestone layer underneath the soil. When it is a rainy season, the soil is moist and things can grow. But, I have read that the when the sun or a hot wind comes, you can literally watch a flower in that soil wither before your eyes. What’s the problem? Should we blame the sun? No, the sun is important for growth. The problem is there is no space for roots to grow and find more moisture.
Similarly, the rocky ground is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. Who wouldn’t want forgiveness, life change, meaningful purpose, eternal life, a spiritual family and spiritual power, to know the God who made us? Moisture is a good thing and receiving the gospel with joy is a very good thing, but neither are the only thing. Roots are necessary to take in moisture and nutrition and to keep one stable and receiving nourishment through difficulties.
As with the sun, so also suffering helps us grow. We cannot and should not try to avoid difficulties nor persecution on account of the word. The sun doesn’t kill plants and trials do not destroy Christians. A lack of roots kills both.
The gospel needs to develop deep roots in our lives. The sun is coming and it will regularly be paired with very hot winds. Don’t just pray here and there, pray without ceasing, and do what we read Daniel doing: have habits, rituals, times of prayer. Don’t just constantly stuff your face with food as if man can live by bread alone, take time to fast and teach yourself regularly from experience where your strength comes from. Don’t just come here and walk out, stay and talk awhile, get in the lives, tables, and homes of others here and let them in your life and home, stir one another up to love and good works. And don’t just read and or heart God’s word and let it slip away, study it, memorize it, ask questions about it, write about it, pray about it, put it on your walls, and let it find a deep place in your heart and bones and life.
Blessed and merry is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… but rather in Yahweh’s instruction is his delight, and on his instruction he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water bearing his fruit in its season, and his leaf does not wither and whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked, but rather they are like the chaff that the Spirit-wind blows away. Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment… Do not live as if the sun and hot winds aren’t coming. We need to be planted with deep roots going into streams of water.
The Thorny Ground: Choked by Cares and Riches (22). Note: the plant does not die, it is simply proved unfruitful. Churches can be full of thorny ground — Christians in name but not in action. Christians who come but never do. What are the thorns that can make us unfruitful? The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word. Luke adds: pleasures of life. Is it wrong to care about something? To enjoy pleasure? To have money? No. But we must not stop there.
Riches easily deceive us. We look at the future and wonder, “I might lose my job. The economy might turn down. I might get sick. She might get sick. This might break. I shouldn’t be a fool: we need to hold it, we need to work harder, we need more money. Cut all costs. Scarcity mindset. Store it up.” But it is a lie. Satan is deceiving us — robbing us of the ability to do something that actually matters with your life. Do we really think a solid bank account is the sign of anything that matters much before God?
Enjoyment of pleasure can consume us — especially today: we have the time and money to spoil ourselves on pleasure, “treat yourself” to death. We can afford to eat every delightful thing, watch funny videos, call friends, wear the nice things, have the perfect hair. We need never fast, never miss a show or salon or nail appointment. We need never stop consuming. But do. Stop all the buying, watching, consumption that weeds up your life — is there anything left? Any fruit? Can we even bear the silence while we try to find something fruitful to do?
What alarms me here is “cares of the world.” Cares. Concerns. Loves. Hobbies. Pursuits. We say it ourselves when we do not keep up our disciplines, come here, encourage others, serve others, befriend the downtrodden, reach the lost, give to the needy: I have been busy. I am worried about this or that. Notice how Jesus doesn’t say, “I am so sorry. I didn’t realize you were genuinely concerned about a-b-c and troubled by x-y-z and that’s why you aren’t — nope. That’s choking us.
I love Hebrews 12: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus. He doesn’t just say lay aside sin, he also says lay aside every weight. A lot of “not-inherently-sinful” things weigh us down, choke out the word. Weeds will come and obligations, cares, concerns, pleasures will come. But they don’t have to stay. We have to regularly rip weeds from our gardens, and we have to regularly rip weeds our lives so we can be fruitful.
The Good Soil: Understanding Leads to Fruitfulness (23). What is the difference here? There’s no rocks preventing the gospel from taking deep root in every part of a person’s life. There’s no weeds choking out fruitfulness. And Satan is kept away. The soil is good. And, whenever the word is sown here, they hear the word and understand it. Understanding the word leads to the word becoming fruitful. Many in the evangelical world are growing concerned over a trend over the past 150 years or so since the great awakenings: Christianity is spreading wide and far with little concern for solid understanding of truth. Anti-intellectualism is a top concern. It is common to hear people criticize “head knowledge” or “information” or “Biblical scholarship” because all that really matters is whether we are transformed to be like Jesus.
“I won’t have to pass a Bible test when I get to heaven.” Yes, but try becoming like Jesus without understanding the word which Jesus gave us. Try lasting through the withering heat without being planted by the law which is described as streams of water. Try examining yourself well and try to not repeat the past without knowing and understanding Bible stories. Try seeing the world aright as God sees it without understanding Revelation. Try to love become the heavenly city and to love the heavenly without the prophets that tell us all about it. Try to be fruitful — growing to become full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, knowledge, virtue, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection — without the word of God. But let’s not complain when we wake up in a few decades to find we are doing whatever is right in our own eyes and living in the damned generations of the Judges thinking God will bless us because we have a Levite as a priest because we didn’t read or listen carefully. Our anti-intellectualism is not from Jesus, it’s a carryover from the great awakenings which impact us more than we know. Now, could we waste our time with fruitless knowledge? What’s the shortest verse in the Bible? Who is the oldest man? Of course. Could we make study of the Bible a purely academic thing? Parsing out the original languages to no end? Of course. But that’s not what we’re talking about.
To bear fruit we must hear the word and understand the word. And notice, some will bear a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Hopefully we all aim for 100, but we’ll all bear different amounts of fruit at different times, and that’s okay. And Luke adds that they bear fruit with patience. Fruit is not born overnight. It needs water, sunshine, ripping out weeds, and time. Work.