I’m wrapping up some Matthew posts over the next few days, even though I’m actually in Luke right now for my daily quiet time. Over the course of my Matthew reading, I wrote down some ideas for blog topics, and I’ve not yet pursued all of them. And so I’ve made that my current project, before I proceed to blog on Luke.
Today, I want to discuss a parable that puzzles me: the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23).
This parable is about the various ways that people interact with Jesus’ message, which concerns the kingdom of heaven. Some are not affected at all by his message. Some initially receive it, only to forsake it later because of worldly temptations or persecution. And some–the righteous ones–believe in the word and bear good fruit as a consequence.
Jesus couches this lesson in a parable in order to conceal a mystery. He tells his disciples that he’s speaking in parables to hinder his audience’s comprehension and repentance. The hearts of Israel have become spiritually hard, and so Jesus will share the mysteries of the kingdom only with his disciples. To the rest, he’ll speak in riddles.
This is part of what New Testament scholars call the “Messianic Secret,” the idea that Jesus keeps his messianic identity a secret throughout the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). When Jesus heals someone and instructs him not to tell others about it, that is another part of the Messianic Secret.
But there are two things that puzzle me about the parable of the sower. First of all, Jesus is expressing a mystery about a message that’s basically public. Sure, there’s a Messianic Secret in the synoptics, but it’s not exactly an iron-clad rule. Jesus does a lot of messianic things in broad daylight. For example, he publicly affirms that he as the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). This tells his audience (which includes his opponents) that (a.) he is the Son of Man (see Daniel 7:13), and (b.) he has authority that they ascribe to God. Jesus also heals in public and explicitly connects such activity with God’s kingdom (Matthew 12:28-29). And his overall message, which he proclaims in public, is that the kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 4:17).
And so there seems to be a paradox: Jesus is trying to keep his message a secret through parables. And yet, his secret interpretation of this particular parable–the parable of the sower–assumes that his message is going out publicly, which it is.
Second, what exactly is the big mystery in his interpretation? The secret is that there are different responses to Jesus’ message. Isn’t that rather obvious?
People can address my perplexity in a number of ways. Michael Cook, a New Testament scholar at Hebrew Union College, says that the Messianic Secret is one author’s explanation as to why the Jews rejected Jesus. For this particular author, they rejected him because they didn’t know he was the Messiah. Jesus kept it a secret from them! According to Michael Cook, this author’s idea got inserted into Mark’s Gospel and is in tension with other parts of Mark, in which Jesus is more public.
Some believe that there is a chronological factor behind the Messianic Secret. According to this line of reasoning, Jesus was public with his message at first, but he went the parables route after many rejected it. “So you reject my message, huh?! Well, I’ll tell it in riddles from now on!,” they see him saying.
Some may view Jesus’ Gospel of the kingdom as rather nebulous in itself. In this approach, most of the Jews expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom of peace, prosperity, and righteousness. That was their definition of the Kingdom of God. But Jesus was teaching a more spiritual kind of kingdom, one that involved faith and spiritual fruit. And so, in this scenario, the parable of the sower may mean that God is establishing his rule in people’s lives, but it hasn’t come with the big bang that a lot of the Jews are expecting (see Luke 17:20-21). Rather, it arrives through a message that is permeating the lives of only a few, even as most disregard it. That probably was somewhat of a secret to many of Jesus’ contemporaries, who may have thought that the Messiah’s arrival would be obvious to everyone and that they’d all jump on his bandwagon.
Jesus gave a public indication that God was doing something special. And, yet, there was still an element of mystery to this kingdom he was proclaiming.