Planting Trees You’ll Never Sit Under
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: Your lasting success is defined by your spiritual effect on other lives
Charles Spurgeon admonished his people: write your name on hearts, not headstones. Write your epitaph on the lives of those you influence. And your influence will be eternal.
If you were to die today, how would you be remembered? What lasting impact has your life made on your world? Your legacy is in people. Your spiritual effect on other lives is the only permanent, enduring effect your life can leave. When your possessions are possessed by others and your life is done, the spiritual “fruit” you produce in the eternal souls of others will be your success.
Today Jesus will show us the hindrances to such a harvest, and the commitments which it requires. Then we will decide whether or not to pay the price of true success.
Listen to your Lord (vs. 1-3)
We will study this week one of the most important parables Jesus ever taught, in that it is foundational to the rest of his theology and ministry. Here he makes clear the definition of true success with God, and how it is to be achieved.
It may be that the other six parables of Matthew 13 are enlargements and commentaries upon this one. In this view, the parable of the wheat and tares explains the seed which falls by the wayside; the mustard seed and leave explain the seed on stony ground; the treasure and the pearl explain the seed among thorns; and the dragnet explains the good seed (Gardhardsson, cited in Hagner 363).
The text opens: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake” (v. 1). This has been a stressful day for our Lord. Jesus has already defended his disciples for eating grain from a field, and healed a man with a withered hand, incurring the wrath of the Pharisees. He has healed the sick and a demoniac, and been accused of being demon-possessed himself.
Now he “went out of the house,” most likely the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum and “sat by the lake,” the Sea of Galilee. But “large crowds gathered around him” (v. 2), so many that he could not see or speak to them all. And he cared for every person in this multitude, as he does today. Note that this is the only one of Matthew’s five teaching discourses which is addressed not to the “disciples” but to the “crowds” (Carson 300).
So he “got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (v. 2). This was most likely Peter’s fishing boat, close at hand. The Jewish rabbi typically sat down, while his students stood to hear his words and lecture (thus originating the “chair” at a university). There is a cove near Capernaum which would be especially suited for this scene, where Jesus’ voice would carry easily across the water to the crowds (Keener, IVPNTC 236). Spurgeon comments: “The ship became his pulpit, and the little space between it and the shore gave him breathing space, and enabled the more to hear him. The shelving beach and the blue sky would make a grand auditorium. . . . The teacher sat, and the people stood: we should have less sleeping in congregations if this arrangement still prevailed” (164).
Now Jesus began to teach: “he told them many things in parables” (v. 3). This is the first occurrence of the word “parable” in Matthew’s gospel (France 215), although he has already recorded seven parables in the Sermon on the Mount and two others following it. And it is the only parable which Jesus titles (v. 18).
Note that Jesus taught anyone who would listen to him. The parables recorded in Matthew 13 were given at the end of a particularly busy and stressful day (Robertson calls it the “Busy Day,” 1.100). Our Lord sat by the lake, presumably to rest. But when the crowds came, he had compassion on them and taught them the word of God (cf. Matthew9.36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”).
He will do the same for any of us who will listen to him. If you have not heard from the Lord lately, the fault is not his. If we will but make time to listen to him through Bible study and prayer, he will speak to our hearts and needs. What he did for the people in that first-century Galilean crowd, he waits to do for us today.
Sow in faith
Now the parable begins: “A farmer went out to sow his seed” (v. 3). The Greek original begins with the word “Behold!”, a term used to call attention to something important (Broadus 285). What follows is of the utmost urgency.
And it is delivered by a very common occurrence. Palestinian fields could be sowed in the fall or the spring. Sometimes the field was prepared by plowing, and sometimes the seed was first scattered and then plowed into the ground, as is the case here (Boring 303). And so “the” sower went out sowing (the definite article is present in the Greek). Jesus expects us to see the man as he steps forward to begin scattering his seed. Most likely a farmer in a nearby field alongside the Sea of Galilee began this actual work just as Jesus began teaching the crowds, and Jesus took him for his text (Barclay 2.57).
The farmer could put his bag of seed on the back of his donkey, cut a hole in it, and let the seed spill out as the donkey walked along. But more likely he was scattering the seed by hand (Keener, BBCNT 82), probably wheat or barley seed (Lenski 508).
We will soon learn that the “seed” being sown is the word of God (v. 20), making clear several spiritual implications. One: God constantly scatters his “seed” across the world. Jesus’ words are in the present tense, indicating that the sowing is a continuous action. He is always giving his word to us (Albright 166). Two: none of us will be able to claim ignorance of God as an excuse for disbelief or immorality. The seed has been scattered—the fault is not with the sower but with the soil (Davis 125).