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Why The Sower and the Seed Parable is the ‘First Among Equals’

Rembrandt Christ Appearing

Rembrandt, “Christ Appearing” (portion of print at University of San Diego, Hoehn Family Galleries).

As you study Jesus’ parables’, it becomes quickly obvious how important the Sower and the Seed story is, one of the few to appear in all three synoptic Gospels. (John’s Gospel doesn’t contain any parables.)

Even more noticeable is that the Sower and the Seed story headlines the rest–in Matthew (Matt. 13:3-17), Mark (Mark 4:1-9) and Luke (Luke 8:4-8) where the majority of parables cluster. Are bells and whistles dinging somewhere for us right now, prompting questions like: why is this parable so significant? What are the three Gospel writers trying to tell us by such premier placement?

First, most of the parables Jesus tells are colorful — and sometimes enigmatic — stories about the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the Sower parable leads the rest because its focus is how we receive the message of the Kingdom, more than about the Kingdom itself.   We learn of four states of soil, or thought, that exhibit various conditions. Only in the fourth are the conditions of soil and cultivation right for harvest.

Jesus not only tells the parable to a crowd but also goes through an explanation of what it means. For that, Jesus turns back to one of the great Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 in the Mark version of the story. Through the prophet, the Master Christian underscores the need for spiritually receptive, hungry hearts.

They may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
(Mark 4:12)

Is Jesus wondering if the resistance Isaiah experienced will be any different 600 years later in his own day?  The warning of hardness of heart and deafness to the message is repeated again and again throughout the Gospels. Since their intent is to bring about good discipleship, it makes sense the profound parables that have become such a loved part of The New Testament would begin with what many call this ‘parable of parables’ – how the good soil readies itself for that incomparable seed.

But there is another way to gain insight into this parable and it’s through a technique the gospel writer, Mark, uses called bracketing, or placing relevant material on either side of his key point. (Think of this a little like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich where the parable is the yummy inside and the before and after the two pieces of bread!)

Mark 3:31-35 sets up the story (the first piece of ‘bread’):

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This passage seems pretty harsh, with Jesus referring to his family as being outside (a key word, we’ll discover). After the parable appears as the middle portion (Mark 4:1-9), a final section (the second piece of ‘bread’) follows returning to the theme of outsiders, but this time citing a different example.

11 And he said to them (the disciples), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables”  (Mark 4:10-12).

The first outsiders are his family and the second, the crowds (as distinct from his disciples). Is the placement of the parable, both in this ‘sandwich’ position and first in the line up, telling us that spiritual receptivity is the first qualification for those who truly follow Jesus and will be the true insiders?

While ‘insiders and outsiders’ is not very politically correct today, what if its Jesus’ way of describing his followers or disciples? If we want to be a true follower, an insider, then spiritual receptivity, the parable explains, must be our measure.

Likewise, those outsiders are similar to three of the four conditions of soil that prevent productivity and high yield. By not yielding to ‘the will of God’, how Jesus defines his family in the first passage, our ‘soil’ won’t be sufficient to produce a harvest.  Happy cultivating!

(For more on the parables, you might enjoy this earlier blog if you missed it.)

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How Jesus Used His Location to Teach

Caesarea Philippi Pan and cave

Caesarea Philippi cave and Pan Niches

One of the more arresting aspects of traveling to Israel, particularly the Galilee area, is how nuances of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels come to life in wholly unexpected ways.

I had such a moment at Caesarea Philippi. It all began with the familiar passage in Mark 8:27-29:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah (or Christ)”.

So there we were, entering what is now a major site for Christian pilgrims, north of Capernaum where Jesus lived much of his three-year ministry. What led Jesus to come here and ask this particular question? Our bus had just driven the distance, passing the Golan Heights near Syria as we drove the fifteen miles to the entrance. It wasn’t a simple walk but an all day undertaking, knowing 15 miles was considered a day’s walk in the 1st century. What was it about this place that prompted the Master to ask this question? (The more time spent in Israel, the more these kind of questions directly from the Biblical text come to thought and seem logical to ask!)

The only other reference in the New Testament to Caesarea Philippi is the same story in Matthew, but a different version.   With Mark being the first Gospel written, it’s instructive to see if anything gets added to the stories by the time Matthew writes his account some twenty years later. In this case, a vital part was added that answered my question of ‘why this place’.

In Matthew 16:13-19 , the location of Jesus’ question is more specific. Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 

Matthew adds to Peter’s brief response (as told in Mark):

…”and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Imagine the astonishment of discovering that this very place had an enormous cavern that ancients once considered ‘the gates of Hades’. Here human sacrifices occurred in early Canaanite days, when Baal cult worshippers were active and threw their victims down what appeared a bottomless hole. Later when the Greeks took over this area, a temple to the nature god, Pan, was erected, including small niches we saw next to the spring that flowed to a river below.

Clearly, this place had been the site of pagan worship for centuries. Jesus wouldn’t have come on to the actual site, being so associated with pagan worship. But he could easily have been on the hill overlooking it, the one in the near distance, with the object lesson clear to the disciples that any thought of hell – pagan or otherwise – could not challenge the new Kingdom of God that he explained was among them right now.

What struck me was that although Judaism had established monotheism, Jesus pressed his disciples to figure out his identity, not God’s. In that moment I realized monotheism alone wasn’t enough. Mankind needed Christ, the savior and liberator who would, as Malachi prophesied “rise, with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2).  It was this liberating, spiritual presence that so infused Jesus’ healing ministry that the Master knew his disciples had to understand. Otherwise they would think his healing work was based on personal ability, rather than available for everyone to experience for all time. This healing Christ Jesus so embodied, proved the sovereignty of his Father’s kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This unquenchable power would always triumph over every pagan and political outlier – be it Baal or Rome itself.

Standing in that place, I asked myself if I too truly understood why Jesus’ identity as Christ is so integral to his teachings. I began to glimpse all the ways of modern paganism that Christly love and truth continue to conquer – whether fear of terrorism, disease, poverty or any other calamity. We indeed have a savior. And a trip to Caesarea Philippi helped me glimpse that a little more.

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Why the Parables are Integral to Matthew’s Gospel

Parable of Sower

Hortus Delicaiarum, 1180, Latin for “Garden of Delights” illustrating the Sower and the Seed parable.  In medieval manuscript from Alsace, France–the first encyclopedia written by a woman (for young novices at the convent). Source: Wikipedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share similarities with each other, including their versions of Jesus’ parables. (The Gospel of John doesn’t contain parables.)

When I discovered that Jesus’ parables constitute over one-third of the Master’s teachings in these three books, it was time to treat them as more than loved stories whose characters have seeped into our collective vocabulary (i.e. ‘the good Samaritan’; ‘the prodigal son’, etc.). Someone wrote that ‘familiarity breeds complacency’. How many times have we read or heard, ‘a sower went out to sow’ and partially mused, ‘I already know what that means’? That’s probably a wake-up call, as it was for me this past year, to get serious and dig in more.

Among the many discoveries associated with this new study of the parables, is the conviction—once again—that powerful insights await the student who reads these Gospels continuously, chapter by chapter, in addition to pouring over favorite verses.

For example, Matthew’s parables are clustered primarily in chapter 13. Why? Did Matthew do that intentionally? If so, what point is he trying to help the reader see? What precedes this chapter to lay the groundwork for them? Is there an overall theme Matthew puts forward in which I could better understand the seven parables clustered here? (Asking these kinds of questions is my favorite tool in Bible study.) The answers require a bit of historical background.

Matthew is thought to have written his story of Christ Jesus almost half a century after the Master’s ministry (probably around the mid-80’s CE). By that time, the Antioch, Syria church where Matthew was a key member, was facing the demands of helping pagan Gentiles both convert to, and learn, Jesus’ teachings. They also had to integrate the Jewish members of their congregation, people who had long been awaiting the Messiah and felt Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the one. Matthew’s Gospel was an answer to help both the new converts understand Christ Jesus’ teachings as well as build a church of disparate individuals into the one ‘body of Christ’, as Paul called it (I Cor. 12:27).

Approaching his Gospel logically, Matthew first tells the birth story in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic prophesies. Then he shares the Messiah’s words (chapters 5 – 7, Sermon on the Mount). Next are the Messiah’s works, Chapters 8 – 9, those healings that demonstrate the earlier words. Next, Matthew reveals the mounting resistance to his words and works (Chapters 10-12).

By the time chapter 13 arrives filled with parables, Matthew is laying out for those early workers and us today, Jesus’ parables– often with surprising twists and turns–as a way to illustrate what followership or discipleship looks like.

For example, what is required to go to ‘the other side’ of the lake (Sea of Galilee) with a few disciples while the crowds watch on the shore (see Matt. 8:18)? Is that merely a verse describing changing geography?   Or is Matthew teeing up what’s coming if you’re ready and willing to make a life-changing commitment to the Master’s teachings? Will you encounter storms, such as those disciples did who got on the boat (see Matt. 8:23-27)? Or will you observe from a safe distance, perhaps on a symbolic shore of non-commitment? You get to decide what Matthew is trying to tell us

I invite you to reread Chapter 13, not just for its rich seven parables, but with these portions of chapter 8 in mind. Please share what you discover on your own journey in discipleship.

(More on the parables in future blogs.)

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Jonah: An Ancient Archie Bunker?!

Jonah and the Whale, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1568-1625

Last week’s blog in this three part series was the world OF the text. Now is part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals).

One way to initially unpack a Biblical text is to find out when it was written– providing often-significant context for why this story, told at this time.

Jonah is written quite late in Israel’s history, around 400 BCE, over a century after their return from Babylonian captivity. Yet the story centers on a much earlier time when the city of Nineveh needs to be saved. Founded on the east bank of the Tigris River originally by the first Babylonian Empire, the city was rebuilt as the capital of the Assyrian Empire around 705 BCE.

Before Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE (by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes), they had a long history of cruelty, especially toward their conquered enemy, Israel. Centuries before, in 922 BCE, Israel’s citizens were defeated and deported, forced into an exile where all they loved was at risk of being lost: their culture, history, language and religion.

The result? Assyria became Israel’s most hated and feared oppressor, known for violence and cruelty in its capital. Israel prayed that God’s wrath would consume its enemies, especially the Ninevites.

Enter Jonah, a dedicated Jew convinced the Ninevites should not only not be saved, but God should punish them for their inflicted misery. After all, wasn’t God supposed to avenge Israel’s enemies, a theological view entertained for centuries?

Yet by 400 BCE, Nineveh’s greatness was long over. So what was the little book’s purpose? To stop the growing nationalistic and racial attitudes developing after the Babylonian Exile, especially since the Jews had just passed a law that they alone could stay in Jerusalem.

I think of Jonah as a kind of Old Testament “Archie Bunker”, a narrow-minded prophet given the opportunity to think differently about a bitter enemy, shedding prejudice and bigotry. But first, he had to respond to God’s call.

Consider the sympathetic portrayal of the sailors and Ninevites, both heathen groups willing to acknowledge God and repent of sins. Didn’t this indicate they weren’t nearly the pagans Jonah (i.e. the Jews) assumed them to be?

The Book of Jonah teaches us through negative example.   Told as the only Old Testament parable, it delivers its point through symbolism.   It becomes the reader’s task to figure out, for example,

  • Does Jonah stand for something larger, such as Jews directed to share God’s word beyond their borders?
  • Is Nineveh a whale that had swallowed Israel?
  • Is King Cyrus of Persia the whale willing to spit you up to live again?

As in any parable, the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. And since parables are timeless, we’ll explore in the third and final column, how to bring Jonah’s oh-so-contemporary lessons forward. Until then, happy pondering!

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Jonah’s Enemies: Narrowness & Nationalism

Jonah is one of those Biblical books that can make me squirm.  More than the ‘whale of a tale’ of childhood Bible stories, this parable offers food for thought sometimes tough to digest, not unlike the whale who couldn’t quite swallow this Avoider.

JonahJonah makes us look closer at hints of self-absorption that make me want to run to the Tarshish-equivalent of today,  comfortable homes and lives. That means shutting out the heart-rending news like the hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees run from their once-comfortable homes throughout the Middle East. Does Jonah help me see I have a role in this modern-day forced Exodus? But we get ahead of ourselves.

There are lots of ways to look at a Biblical text, but here are three that BibleRoads will explore this month:

  1. The world OF the text (plots, characters, setting and themes)
  2. The world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals)
  3. The world in FRONT of the text (how you bring it forward to your life today).

So in this first of three blogs on the short Old Testament book of Jonah, we’ll look at the world OF the text.

Plot: Prophet gets God-given directive to go save others, resists, runs, turns, complies and ends in a snit of self-absorption.   Wow! How’s that for a Biblical plot loaded with lessons to teach?

Characters: The prophet, Jonah; the (pagan) sailors; the (pagan) people of Nineveh; a crustacean (with a digestive challenge), and God.

Setting: Israel, somewhere near Joppa, where the prophet lives; Tarshish, farthest western point of then-civilization (in today’s Spain); Nineveh, home to one of Israel’s arch enemies, a major city in northern Mesopotamia and former capital of Assyria until 612 BCE when it was destroyed; an orchard east of Nineveh, containing the Bible’s most famous gourd.

Themes: People can repent and find God, even those who don’t know Him. God cares and loves all people, including animals. God provides and appoints his messengers/prophets to help others but they must be obedient to this call. If we are initially running from God’s call on our lives, we always have another opportunity to turn and be obedient to this call. You can run but not hide from God and your conscience. That despite self-absorption, God provides the opportunity to learn it is never about just the individual, but the individual in relation to community.

If you’ve ever looked at ‘others’ (i.e. those unlike ourselves and our ‘tribe’) with a bit of a downward glance, then you get how much the creep of spiritual insularity must be guarded against. What do you do to stave off the mental isolationism that doesn’t pray for those in the toughest of circumstances?  Learning from Jonah is a good place to start.

We’ll keep exploring Jonah’s teachings in part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals) next week. Happy digging!

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