Scripture: (Matthew 13:3-8; Matthew 13:18-19)
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path
There was an incident in high school when I was helping a Korean student who only spent couple of years in Canada at the time. During the class time of computer science class we were taking, he would more-often-than-not ask for translation. One time teacher asked class a simple question and while the students all took turn to help answering the question, my friend asked what the question was. I provided Korean translation of the question from what I thought I had heard. When it was his turn, my friend provided, what seemed, a faithful answer to the question. But when I saw the look of bewilderment on everyone else’s face, a terrifying feeling shot down my spine and soon after that my fear became reality: my translation was wrong. With the misrepresentation of the teacher’s question, my friend was not given an opportunity to provide a right answer.
Of course, I would do the right thing and I notified the teacher that I had provided wrong translation of the question but my teacher pointed out (even as he realized wrong translation) that my friend really should have come equipped to understand the question on his own.
Whose fault was it? It is true that my friend really should have come with the ability to understand the lectures and assignments on his own and therefore it ultimately was his responsibility but I was not completely guilty free either. Especially in wake of the fact that the teacher asked my friend to remove himself from the class after that incident since he determined that my friend’s English skill level was just not adequate to keep up with the rest of the class.
As we reflect on the parable of the sower, we cannot help wondering what Jesus means by “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.” (Matthew 13:19). In what sense, shall we understand the word “understand” and what kind of impact would it have on Jesus’ message? Is Jesus talking about people who have heard the Word of God soundly, truthfully, uprightly and intelligibly but decided that it is not reasonable due to their preconceived notion of God or righteousness (in this case it is a voluntary rejection of the Gospel) OR is Jesus talking about people who only hear and see misrepresentation of the Gospel which is no more than an insult to their intelligence and hypocrisy (in this case it is an involuntary rejection)?
Just as I had misrepresented the computer science teacher’s question to my friend which led to his wrong answer, can a Christian’s misrepresentation of the Gospel (either case of testimony of words and/or actions) lead to another’s rejection of it entirely? And how does the word “understand” in verse 19 help us identify which one?
For the first point, think of the farmer who threw the seed in the path. A good farmer spreads his seeds carefully and by the act of sowing the seeds along the path where a seed does not have a chance to grow, he is no longer a good farmer. If you think that a farmer who, by mistake, scatters the seeds along the path is simply clumsy and it’s really unimportant, think about this — in many cases the seeds that farmers sow to grow the crop are edible. In the parable of sower, even though Jesus does not specify exactly what kind of seed the farmer sowed but considering following short list of edible seeds, we should keep in mind a definite possibility of Jesus talking about edible seeds. The edible seeds in a limited list are:
For Cereals: Barley, Maize (corn), Oats, Rice,Rye, Wheat, Wild rice
For Beans: Chickpeas, Cowpeas, Black eyed pea, Dry beans, lentil, Peanuts, Pigeon peas, Velvet beans, Winged beans, Yam beans, Soybeans
For Nuts:Almond,Brazil nut, Cashew, (Chestnuts, including: Chinese Chestnut, Sweet Chestnut), (Hickory, including Pecan, Shagbark Hickory), Hazelnut, Macadamia, Malabar chestnut, Pistacia, Walnut, Black Walnut
In the case of these seeds, if they are not used to create crops, then they can be consumed as food. If we imagine this only in North American context of 2012, we might fail to understand the devastating significance so let me help you imagine this better by framing it in the society 2000 years ago.
We are very fortunate in Canada because even if we do not and our parents do not have a dollar in our pockets, there are *some* ways to feed ourselves because of the social services like welfares are available through government programs. And government of Canada collects what is known as EI. When someone gets a payment from work, typically there are three types of deductions that appear. Income tax (federal and provincial), CPP (pension plan claimable after 65 upon retirement) and EI (Employment Insurance). EI is a form of savings that government of Canada collects while one is at work. Upon the unfortunate case of unemployment, it becomes the unemployeed person’s right to claim the EI (even though there are conditions and time limits attached) from the government.
But during Jesus’ days, there was no such thing as Employment Insurance and if their neighbors or the rich person in the village cannot help then starvation or begging off the streets were very realistic option (which, by the way, is the reality of many cities and countries today). So given a bag of edible seeds and a hungry family, a farmer is left with two choices: 1. save it for following year’s farming so that, according to Jesus’ paraphrasing, he can grow a hundred, sixty or thirty times than that which were sown. In this case, a farmer is “investing” the seeds for future benefit 2. Address the immediate need and feed the family. Either case, there is a significant degree of sacrifice. With the former, a farmer may provide possibility of prosperity in the near future but it is not a guaranteed prosperity with the immediate hunger as its price. With the latter, it addresses immediate needs but only with the future benefit as its price. So a farmer who, even by mistake, throws some seeds over to the path where they have no opportunity to bear crop, commits an unforgivable act of extreme clumsiness since the seeds were being invested at the cost of his family’s hunger.
We can apply this understanding back to the parable. In the parable, Jesus says “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart”. One might take the easy way out and claim “it’s their fault to not understand my message!” but in most cases one’s understanding can go only as far as another’s presentation of the subject of understanding. Why do schools care so much about a teacher’s teaching skills? In our school system, if an entire class fails an exam for example, do they not assess a teacher’s performance as well? Yes, the students need to do their due diligence to ask questions and bug the teacher until she understands the problem at hand but is it not a duty of the teacher to lovingly and carefully prepare her lessons so that she can best communicate the lessons to her students?
The Greek word used to say “understand” is συνιέντος which is from its root word συνιημι. In English, the same word is also translated as “to put together, that is, (mentally) to comprehend”. Jesus often uses that word just before he taught people something (i.e. “listen and understand”). When we spread God’s Word (that is to spread the Gospel), we are announcing the Gospel intelligibly so that the listeners are given, at least, the mental capacity to put together the story for themselves. What God does with such mental comprehension is entirely up to Him but according to the scripture, our duty is to make the announcement intelligibly. If we make such clumsy representation as that no one understands intelligibly what we have witnessed to, then what benefit would it have for anyone or for God?
When Moses had gone up Mount Sinai, had wonderful time with God, received the Ten Commandments and come back down the mountain and told the people of Israel “I had such wonderful time with God but it was too wonderful that I cannot say anything to you”, his experience is useless to the rest of believers. Because God had revealed himself to Moses intelligibly, Moses was able to communicate something about God intelligibly to Israel. And since God revealed Himself concretely in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, WE can (and we better!) communicate something about God intelligibly as well.
So the first imagery of seeds that fell along the path regards also the planter (that is the believers), rather than just where it landed (that is the listener). How ready are you to present the Gospel to the people who are curious about the Gospel? Just the other day I had an opportunity to chat with an unbeliever about Christianity and answered some of his questions. If the same opportunity comes your way, how ready are you to present the case for Christ and make sure that the seeds will fall in the fields and not along the path where the seed is just useless and will be snatched away by the evil one? The parable notifies us that if we are to LOVE God, then we ought to put our minds at work and engage in biblical reflections so that there will not be wasted opportunities.
Secondly, think of the soil of the path in the imagery. Today we read from the Gospel of Matthew and Matthew does not explain what good soil is but the same parable is in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke explains what the good soil is. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says “the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart.” For now, let’s not consider ay further than this: Goodness of soil depends whether the heart is ready or not.
The power of the Gospel is not lost because of the unready heart but fruit of the Gospel may not be borne with the unready heart. Many years ago I was watching a talk show where the host was interviewing pro Naziists. During the interview, to my surprise, the Naziist revealed that he reads the bible. Then he said “well you have to know your enemy in order to destroy them”. This man’s heart is already hard shut. This man’s heart is not a good and fertile soil but dry and hardened roadside pavement where seeds do not stand much chance at germinating and grow.
When we approach the scripture or when we come to worship Jesus on Sundays, with what kind of heart do we come before His throne? Is it just another Sunday with another boring message or do you come with the hope that you will grow closer to God and learn something about Him through the pastor and your Sunday school teachers? Depending on what your heart expects, your heart can be a good and fertile soil that represents much moisture for God’s seed to begin taking its root OR it can be a hard paved roadside that rejects just about anything that is thrown at it.
So then “the seed that fell along the path” must be understood in two ways. First, people can misrepresent it or teach the Gospel wrong because they do not study. In that case the blame is on the one who is presenting the Gospel. Second, even if the Gospel is presented truthfully and intelligently, the listener’s heart may be hardened with pride and his own ideas. In that case, the blame is on the listener but only one thing is true of both cases. In both cases, the evil one comes and takes away the word so that it does not bear fruit in the listener’s heart.
So what do we do so that we do not misrepresent the Gospel? We do not have choice but we need to learn to love God with our minds. You will hear pastors always telling you to read the scripture and pray. We have to go back to those basics. We need to study the scripture so that when the opportunity comes, we can present it intelligibly instead of blabbing all over the place. John Calvin, commenting on 16th century preaching with the following harsh words: “stupid, ignorant men who blurt out their worthless brainwaves from the pulpit.” Back then the bible was not personalized. There were only few copies and they were entrusted only to certain members of the church. Now the bible has been made personal in that we now all have a copy. We, now, bear the responsibility to study for our own and make our presentation of the Gospels something that is not “blurting out of worthless brainwaves”.