Do you understand?

Text: Matthew 13

Our Gospel lesson is a parable and its explanation that come from a series of conversations Jesus had with his disciples and a crowd by the sea one afternoon or evening . Our temptation is to isolate each of them and to look at them individually. Many parables, as stories, are pretty well encapsulated and seem to stand on their own, so we tend to draw on lessons and meanings, all important and legitimate, without looking into their broader context.

But Matthew relates parables and side conversations in the context of a bigger story, one with several layers and clues that point us to the fact that each parable and conversation is inter-related. The lessons to be learned are bigger and broader than those from any one parable.
The kingdom and the person to which those parables refer is more profound than any one story can communicate.

In this case, the first verse of chapter 13 gives us a clue that we must look back a little to understand what Jesus is trying to say. “That same day” Matthew writes, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea” (13.1).

That same day—”The same day as what?” we might ask. It was the same day, we learn in chapter 12, that Jesus had been through a serious confrontation with some of the scribes and Pharisees after casting demons out of a blind and mute man, delivering him from the demons and healing him (12.1-32). He had been accused of being a demon himself by these leaders who should have known better, and he said some of the toughest things in response that we have ever read. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” he said (12.30). He spoke of blasphemy and sin, of bad trees known by their rotten fruit (12.33-37).

Spiced with “brood of vipers” and “evil and adulterous generation,” he laid out charges of careless words out of evil hearts, of judgment and condemnation, of an evil generation (12.34, 45). “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” he said, drawing the line between those who know much and obey little and those who are truly members of God’s kingdom and household (12.50).

Worn out, probably discouraged and heart sick, Jesus went to sit by the sea (13.1). As so often happened when Jesus sought rest and tranquility, a crowd gathered, and Jesus was forced to get into a boat from which he could address them.

I invite you to keep this image in your mind and to put yourself in the place of the people waiting to hear Jesus speak. Perhaps you are one of the crowd who came to hear him out of curiosity. Maybe you are one of his disciples (not necessarily one of his 12 closest, but one who has followed him for some time and witnessed what happened earlier in the day).

You watched with amazement, and a bit of fear, as he battled with the wisest men you knew until now. You are close enough, maybe even in the boat with Jesus, to see how weary he is, to notice how his voice has grown hoarse, how often he closes his eyes and pauses before speaking, as if to gather as much energy as he has left before speaking another sentence. You are in earshot to hear the comments he makes that are only for the ears of his disciples—the ones he speaks in hushed tones that cannot hide his concern and his exhaustion, the ones through which he speaks his heart to those he desperately hopes will hear and understand the full truth, when no one else seems to.

Although you are exhausted as well, somehow you know that he feels the weariness more deeply. You sense somehow that he has something very important to say, or he wouldn’t even make the effort at this point. So you listen carefully, and Jesus speaks.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! (Matthew 13.3-9, NRSV)

Jesus pauses for a moment, letting the weight of his words settle among the people.

One of the disciples with us asks, “Why do you speak to them in parables” (13.10)? Jesus thinks for a moment and steadies himself with a hand on Peter’s shoulder as he sits down in the boat. A little softer, so the people on the beach don’t overhear, Jesus responds.

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (13.11-17)

Our hearts leap for a moment! We have been given to know the secrets of the kingdom. We are seeing and hearing what our teachers, the scribes and Pharisees have failed to see and hear. We are privy to the fulfillment of prophecy!

But some of us wonder, for we are still a bit puzzled by what Jesus has said. We don’t really understand everything he’s said. We are not that much different than the crowd of people on the beach. We have just been following Jesus a little longer. We are still a bit confused. Maybe our eyes are closed, our ears hard of hearing, and our hearts dull after all.

But we only have a moment to be doubtful, for after a deep sigh during which he closes his eyes and bows his head, almost as if he’s asleep sitting up, Jesus lifts his head slowly and continues.

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (13.18-23)

Some of us nod our heads knowingly as he speaks. We have seen many turn away without understanding, without any desire to know more. Many on the beach this afternoon will leave without any real knowledge of what they heard or who was speaking.

As Jesus talks about those who receive with joy and then fall away under pressure, several of us clear our throats and mumble names. Already we lost several who were afraid of the way Jesus invited the anger of the scribes and Pharisees. A few of us glance at a brother sitting at the back of the boat who had been acting nervous and withdrawn since we returned from the synagogue, and he doesn’t return our gaze. He’ll be gone in the morning.

We lost another just a few days ago when Jesus said that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10.37). That didn’t sit well, even with the twelve.

Jesus stumbles a little when he mentions those burdened by the cares of the world and lured by wealth—perhaps he is remembering the same thing. Ah, but he manages a smile when he talks of those who hear and understand, those who bear fruit. As he stands again to continue talking to the crowd, giving Peter a knowing squeeze on his arm, we wonder about the people and others of our dear friends around us. Who will hear and understand? Which of us will buckle under the pressure and fall away? Do any of us really love Jesus enough to see this through? (“See exactly what through?” some of us ask ourselves.)

We glance around again at each other and see tears in some eyes and the far-away look of distant thoughts in others. We know that we are all asking the same questions.

Jesus clears his throat, and after quieting the crowd who had been discussing the parable among themselves, he continues.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” 13.24-30

At this some of us in the boat gasp. A murmur among those on the beach tells us that a few of them understand as well. Did he really say that? After what we have heard recently, we are really not surprised, but still…

Jesus ignores the murmuring, and even though his voice sounds a bit strained, he continues.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. (13.31-33)

And then, without ceremony, and while his words yet echo in the still of the evening, he motions to Peter and the others to row back to shore.

Most of us are quiet as we make our way through the crowd and back into town. A few talk to one another in hushed voices, and Jesus smiles wanly at the few people who press for him to speak to them some more. Most of the crowd know that he’s finished and disburse to their homes—some looking puzzled, some in deep in conversation with one another, and others, a few mind you, follow thoughtfully behind us, even into the house.

Weeds among the wheat—that would make for a small crop. Much of the wheat would wither and fail to make grain in time for the harvest. Much that once was wheat would be useless and thrown into the fire with the weeds.

A mustard seed, yeast—a small thing with great potential, a hidden ingredient, a little of which leavens a whole batch of dough. There is hope in those words, thank God!

Even though few seeds take root in good soil , and even though the few that bear fruit may lose some to weeds, the few will grow the kingdom. We are a mustard seed, a small thing with great potential. We are yeast, a hidden catalyst that leavens.

As we make our way into the house, the mood lightens a bit as we begin to grasp the implications of what Jesus has just said For a moment the hushed tones turn to friendly noise as we begin to talk and even jest with one another again.

A look at Jesus quiets us, and as we all look to see what’s going on, we notice that his is still the grim countenance of one with much on his mind. We are all aware again of just how few of us there are and how strong the resistance is to Jesus and his message. We see again those among us who will likely be gone by morning, and the room falls quiet.

After a long and awkward silence, Thomas addresses Jesus without quite looking at him, almost as if he’s not sure he should open what might be a painful subject when we are all so tired. “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (13.36).

Again, Jesus sighs and does not answer right away. When he does, the intensity of his voice overcomes his weariness for a moment, and he answers as if he’s trying very hard to get us to understand much more than what Thomas asked about.

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (13.37-50)

Jesus stops again, but his face is ablaze with urgency, and although the lines of fatigue are still obvious, his eyes are bright and clear. We are all caught by his words, like the fish in the net, as if they have power beyond being heard—as if they are working their way into our hearts.

The moment lasts an eternity, and one by one heads nod and gazes lift to look at Jesus who seems to be staring intently at each one of us all at the same time.

Wheat and weeds. Good fish and bad fish. Seed on a path, on rocky soil, on thorny soil, and on good soil. The mustard seed and the yeast. Falling away, uprooting and burning, fire and judgment. Selling everything to possess what is most precious. The hidden treasure and the pearl of great value.

Before us in the flesh is the treasure, the seed, and the yeast. If our hearts are not dull, our ears not deaf, and our eyes not blind, we will see and hear and know this treasure for what it is—its surpassing value, its hidden, but explosive potential. We will give everything that we are and everything that we have to be a part of it—to know and cherish it, to love HIM.

If we endure trouble and persecution, if we do not allow the cares and concerns of this world, of making money and living standards, of comfort and security, of success and promotion, we will yield fruit for the kingdom. We too will be the mustard seed and the yeast. We will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father” (13.43).

Already a few have gone, and all who remain are locked in the gaze of the Son of Man. “Have you understood all this?” he whispers (13.51).

No one breathes, and his words reverberate in the silence.

“Have you understood all this?” “Yes” we all say together with one voice. “Yes.”

Somehow we know we don’t know everything you are trying to tell us, but we understand all the same. More than that, we are willing to pay the price for the treasure and the pearl. We’re ready to bear fruit for the kingdom. “Yes.”

Jesus leans back against the wall, and the weariness returns in fullness to his face. The lines are more pronounced and the slump in his shoulders more obvious. But for the first time today he is relaxed and at peace, and the smile on his face is full and warm.

With one last sentence, he who is the only one with authority to do so, places the treasure of the kingdom in our hands. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” he says, and he smiles a little wider (13.52) He knows what it means to us to be called scribes of the kingdom—men of wisdom, those who preserve and teach its secrets. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13.52).

At once we feel the privilege and the responsibility. We remember his words from earlier that same day. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (13.16-17).

The scribes and Pharisees did not see it. Most of the crowd did not and will not hear it. Even some close to us fell away and others will. “Have you understood all this?” he asked. “Yes, Lord, we have. And still we follow.”

We are not in the house by the sea, but we have seen and heard all that Jesus shared with the crowd and his disciples that day. Wheat and weeds. Good fish and bad fish. Seed on a path, on rocky soil, on thorny soil, and on good soil. The mustard seed and the yeast. Falling away, uprooting and burning, fire and judgment. Selling everything to possess what is most precious. The hidden treasure and the pearl of great value.

And the question Jesus asks of all of us, that we must answer even now, is simply this: “Have you understood all of this?”

The kingdom has come. The hidden treasure has been revealed and the pearl found. Have you sold all that you have to buy the field and the pearl? Are you ready to grow and bear fruit for the kingdom? Are you wheat or a weed?

Let anyone with ears listen!

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1.9-11)

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