Matthew 13: 3-9; 18-23
As we move to today’s gospel lesson, you might think it makes a good children’s message, but what can it say to adults in our day and age? Stay tuned. Up until this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been narrating, teaching, and proclaiming messages about being part of God’s Kingdom. That, as we have learned before, is the primary way that Romans and Greeks taught: orderly, rational, and in your face. Other persuaders in the world, when they meet with resistance, may choose different strategies to get their message across. One of the most brilliantly persuasive campaigns was in the 1960s, when American car companies were all about bigger and faster cars. Their ads were not only in car magazines, but in Life magazine, Look magazine, and others. The ads were colorful and dazzling. But then came some curious black and white ads, that made people stop and read them: They were from Volkswagen of America. One ad was all white space framed with a black border. In the far back corner of the ad was a VW Beetle and the two-word sentence declaring: “Think small.” That was it, and people were drawn to that innovative way of advertising. Another one that caught people’s eye, also black and white with a sideview of a Beetle said: “Presenting America’s slowest Fastback.” If a student was pitching ideas like these to some “Mad Men” agency in the 60s, he would have been told to take his idea and leave! But Volkswagen made history with their car ads, including another famous one: “It floats” with the car seen floating in water while other cars were underwater. Brilliant. It worked for me: I bought one and had it from my college days, through my seminary days, to my first congregation days until our family grew too big for it to double as our second car.
Listen to what has been said about Jesus’ new way of teachings that starts in Matthew 13. It’s a campaign using parables:
Until now, Jesus’ presentation of God’s rule has been relatively straightforward. He has taught in synagogues, delivered a manifesto on a mountain, and offered diverse, compelling demonstrations of God’s power on earth. The responses have been disparate, from wondering crowds that follow him seeking healing, to the now murderous hostility of the Pharisees. In response to this growing division and rejection, Jesus begins speaking in parables, a form of teaching that at once reveals and conceals.
[Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 120.]
Like the Volkswagen ads, parables are a middle eastern tool to “sell an idea” by drawing listeners into a story, inviting them to respond. Jesus first parable is a deliberate choice, not a haphazard one. The first thing Jesus asked his disciples to do was to tell others about God’s Kingdom. Perhaps they were starting to get their first rejections to those invitations. Certainly Billy Graham and his team taught thousands of pastors and new converts not to give up when people turned away uninterested after sharing “the Word.”. No salesperson who has tried a straight-on approach if selling a product is successful by just giving up. Likewise using the same approach that did not work over and over in the past will likely not work in the future. So people change strategies. Jesus is teaching his disciples with parables as a change in strategies. He even changes scenes too: he leaves a house, and gets into a boat, forcing his listeners to sit on the shore. I suspect he looked around and saw a person sowing, or planting seeds. Then he tells what every sower of seeds knows, but it’s information that others may not know. A sower goes forth to sow, and because sowers do not carefully select where each seed goes, casting his hand back and forth in a general area, some of the seeds land on a path, likely placed there so crops could be picked without trampling other crops. But seeds on a path could easily be spotted by birds that are hungry, and they could come down and make a snack of those seeds, never letting them take root. In some plots of land there are also rocks under the slimmest layer of soil. When a seed lands on it, roots start but cannot grow beneath the rock, so the sun bakes those seeds so they cannot not grow. Not every garden is picturesque, and some seeds fall among weeds (or thorns) which grow much faster than the crops, and they choke out the growth from the seeds. But some seeds fall on good, deep soil, and if it does, it will grow, but not by the same amount every time. Sometimes a seed will grow a lot, some will grow, a little bit, and some will grow somewhere in between. Then Jesus give his audio clue to his listeners: “Those who have ears, let them hear.” Again, this is not literal. All his listeners have ears; he’s not talking about those who are literally deaf! He’s saying, as we say sometimes: “Do you get what I’m saying?” or “Do you understand?” or colloquially: “Do you feel me?” Then we put our thinking caps on to realize what he is teaching us is not just about how to farm. There is another meaning. So if you are selling a product, or if you are telling others about God, not everyone will respond in the same way! Some will jump at your invitation, some will decide to think about it, some will shut down and walk away, and some never even heard you since they were checking their phone the whole time! That is how life works! Astoundingly, even Jesus decided that he needed to explain what he meant for this, his first parable. Most people know that if you have to explain a joke, it probably wasn’t a good joke! But sometimes explanations can bring along some in the human race who learn differently from others. So from verses 18-23, we find an explanation from Jesus about what his parable meant. A little later when we sing “Bringing in the Sheaves,” it’s not really about farming, it’s about bringing people in who have been won for Christ! See, even I’ve gone to explaining this just as Jesus did! We have little control over our audiences when it comes to sharing the gospel with others; what we can do is use different methods to connect with them. Clearly American History has been taught from books for ages, but with the Broadway musical “Hamilton” that has been selling out wherever it has played, audiences have been wildly receptive to the acting and the music, and in the meantime it has ignited a hunger to learn more about American history! The way we present the gospel matters!
But there is one nuance of this parable that barely gets noticed: Gospel messages, historical messages, political messages, or advertising messages can affect us differently by the way they are delivered. If we say to others: in a monotone voice, “Do you know Jesus?” we might expect a quick, “yes,” or “no” or “what do you mean?” from the person we are asking. But if we say “I have a story to tell you!” and then relate how a prayer saved you from a scheduled surgery, or how another prayer brought a loved one back from the brink of death, people might be more than ready to listen! Or if a person approaches me to ask, “How can you really believe in that God of yours? Instead of a straight answer they may tune out, I could answer a question with a question: “What if I told you I believe I’ve heard God’s voice on two occasions?” We could have an interesting conversation, with less likelihood that I will be tuned out! These are the ways Jesus is trying to offer his gospel message; by extension, he is teaching us too. Recent ads about “Tractor Supply” company on television have reminded me of one time when I was in a feed store. There are different grades of seeds baskets or burlap sacks that can be planted. We can choose one kind or another kind to plant. But if we are planting “Gospel seeds,” which seeds will we choose? Will we sow “seeds of kindness,” as the old hymn describes? Will we sow seeds of judgment? Of fear? Of love? Of grace? We can choose the attitude with which we will sow the Gospel seeds. Presbyterian Christians have been teased about having an aversion to the “E” word. You know, “Evangelism.” Perhaps they experienced it as an in-your-face encounter on their doorstep. Jesus shows us the original way: by telling stories that draw people in. Practice telling others about your God events, or as we are calling them this summer, “God Sightings.” When you do, you’ll get much better at inviting others to buy what you are selling:
That Jesus loves; and that Jesus saves.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 12, 2020