Sermon: Matthew 13:1

I love questions. Many here would be aware that I’m working on a PhD in theology. I’ve also been a teacher of theology, worship, and critical thinking, for around 12 years. I love answering questions and I love asking questions. I suspect my students hate it, though, when I answer a question with another question.

Theological questions tend to be quite simple. Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is faith? How do you get saved? The questions themselves are simple. The answers, though, can occupy a lifetime if you want them to. Jesus was a master of asking questions. To the scribe who asked him how to inherit eternal life he asked “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). To the blind man who called out for mercy on the side of the road he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10:51). To Peter and the disciples, after they’d recounted what other people were saying about Jesus, he asked “But who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29).

I love questions. In our gospel reading today, the disciples ask an important question. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (13:10). Jesus answers the question for them. “To you has been given to know the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (13:11). The disciples have been given the ability to know these secrets but the crowds, it hasn’t. Even more so, to those who have been given some more will be given and those who have nothing, what they do have will be taken away.

This makes it sound like God gives some people the privilege of understanding the secrets of the kingdom and others are left to their own ignorance. Hardly sounds fair, does it? 

Well, as with all Scripture, context is critical.

Today, our passage is taken from the third of five groups of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel account. Matthew has grouped Jesus’ teaching in this way to mimic the five books of Moses. You can identify each of these groups by looking for the common concluding verse in each one – “After Jesus had finished…” (13:53). An even easier way is if you have a “red-letter Bible” to flick through Matthew’s gospel and look for all the red parts. You’d probably be most familiar with the first group of teaching; the sermon on the Mount. This passage, which starts at the beginning of chapter 13 and concludes in verse 53, is known as “The Parable Discourse” because it is a group of several parables teaching about the kingdom of heaven. Some of them are only one verse long. The parables are about growth, development, and the fruit of the kingdom of heaven in those who follow Jesus. The passage also sits right in the middle of the whole gospel account and in the narrative we are beginning to see the divide widen between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. The reader is beginning to ask “Why?” Why do some people follow Jesus, and some do not? Particularly when those who do not seem to be the ones who should be the most equipped to identify the Messiah in their midst.

“Why is that?”

A parable is a story that does not immediately reveal its meaning. The hearer must work to understand what is meant by the story. Ironically, Jesus uses a parable to tell us about parables; the parable of the sower. Or more correctly, the parable of the soil. It’s not really about the sower, is it?

The parable, and its explanation, act as bookends around the disciples’ question; “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Bookending like this is pretty common in Scripture and it’s a tool used to highlight the bit in the middle. So, the question of the disciples is the important part. The parable helps to answer the question “Why do you speak to them in parables?” If you are prepared to hear it, if you have ears, to listen, and to respond, then you will understand.

The parable points out that not everyone is prepared. There are some who are hard-hearted and simply refuse to listen. Then there are those who are shallow. They take on the message for a time but when challenged their roots don’t run deep, they wither, and their faith dies. Lastly, there are the thorny hearts. They’re distracted by the troubles and attractions of the world so taking the time to nurture their faith is just… not worth the effort. We’re probably familiar enough with the parable, and we have Jesus’ explanation, so I’ll leave it for you to read that for yourself.

What I’m interested in is this idea that the secrets, or mysteries, of the kingdom of heaven are given to some people and not to others. Why is that? Again, if we take Jesus’ answer on its own it seems like God determines who knows and who doesn’t and does so arbitrarily. For those with some theological study in their past this sounds a lot like the idea of double predestination, doesn’t it? But the parable taken on its own makes it sound like it’s up to the soil to receive the message, to nurture it, to grow it, for it to take root and survive. For those with some theology under their belt this sounds a lot like salvation by works, doesn’t it?

Well, I can’t pretend to subscribe the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination which suggests that God alone decides who is predestined to salvation and simultaneously decides who is predestined to damnation, and there is nothing that anyone can do to change God’s mind. Such a doctrine, if I’m honest, I find repulsive. Nor, can I stand here and suggest that salvation is by works either. That if we just work harder at being “good enough” we can all save ourselves. That theology makes a mockery of the cross.

My theological training sits firmly, and comfortably, in the Wesleyan camp. John Wesley, the 18th Century English Anglican priest and founder of Methodism spent much of his early life trying to make his soil receptive to the kingdom of heaven. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who worked harder to earn his place in the kingdom. He studied hard, was diligent in prayer, he joined with his fellow Oxford students in studying the scriptures, visiting prisoners, and feeding the poor. In 1725, at the age of 22, he was ordained as a priest, but still, it wasn’t enough. Ten years later, having graduated from Oxford with a Master of Arts, he and his brother Charles journeyed to the colony of Georgia in what we now know as the United States. There he worked as a missionary at what was, for him, the ends of the earth as they knew it. He did as much as he could and went as far as he could in service to God.

But it was a failure.

He left Georgia in disgrace returning to London just a couple of years later, arriving home at the beginning of 1738.

His problem was both theological and personal. He thought if he could work harder, be more faithful, more diligent with the Scriptures, then he would know in himself that he was truly saved. The problem is theological in that he had the order of sanctification and justification around the wrong way. “If I’m holy enough then God will see me as righteous and count me as saved.” But he wrestled with the reality that this was never going to happen. Not in his own strength. Not with all the missionary journeys in the world. The problem was personal in that he doubted whether he really was saved or not.

Then, a few months after landing back in England, on May 24, 1738, he attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading from Luther’s preface to the Romans. Luther who, just over 200 years earlier, had a very similar crisis of faith, having stated that he “hated God and God’s righteousness” because it was an unattainable ideal, realised, whilst reading Romans, that justification is a gift of God’s grace, given through faith. The result changed Luther’s life, and the church, forever. Wesley, hearing Luther’s story again, and his reading of the book of Romans, had an experience that changed his life forever as well. In a very understated, and typically British manner, Wesley writes in his journal that his “heart was strangely warmed.” More importantly, he goes on to say, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” It was that assurance that he had been desperately searching for and that had eluded him for so long. Now, in a moment of simple trust and faith, it was given to him. In theological terms, he knew he was already justified by faith and now he can move on to sanctification. In personal terms, he came to know this as true for himself; that he was indeed saved.  

Now here’s the interesting thing for me. Was all that time spent studying, praying, visiting the sick and prisoners, and journeying to Georgia as a missionary wasted? No! Without the hard work that preceded it Wesley’s heart-warming experience would have made no sense to him at all. The soil in his heart was prepared for the message when it arrived. But, at the same time, it wasn’t until God moved in his heart that the message was planted. It was the work of God and the work of Wesley.

So, returning to our passage today, is it that God determines who will receive the secrets of the kingdom of heaven? Or is it that the hearers of the word of the kingdom need to work the soil of their hearts so that they are prepared for its planting in their heart?

The answer, to both questions, is “yes”.

Yes, God will reveal the secrets of the kingdom to whom God chooses and those who are prepared to hear it will receive it.

“If you have ears…. hear!” (13:9).

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