Justified in the Sight of Men

And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things; and they scoffed at [Jesus].
And he said unto them, “Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Luke, of all the Gospel writers, spends a decent amount of time chronicling Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees as He is about to head to Jerusalem. We find within this context some of Jesus’ most famous parables and stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the shrewd steward, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 15:1-16:31). These specific narratives are unique to Luke’s narrative, even if their themes are consistent with the rest of the Gospel authors. Why, as the story of Jesus’ life is reaching its most climactic point, does Luke record all of these discussions?

There is much to be gained from each story on its own merits. Nevertheless, they are told and placed as they are as part of an overall critique, primarily of the Pharisees, exposing the wide gulf between their true condition before God and the righteous appearance they offered to others.

Jesus makes the critique explicit in Luke 16:15. He charges the Pharisees with justifying themselves in the sight of men, honoring what is exalted in the sight of men, as opposed to that which is exalted in the sight of God.

It is easy to hear this critique and consider it in terms of 21st century America, concluding how the Pharisees’ religiosity was not really significant, their worldliness was apparent, and they honored the “secular” over the “spiritual.” In so doing we would be imposing our categories and concepts upon a time and place where they are quite foreign. The Pharisees are not being condemned as secularists; they are being condemned because they continue to justify the type of religiosity that marked Second Temple Judaism in a Gentile world.

All of the parables and stories of this section underscore this critique. The Pharisees murmur about Jesus receiving sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:2); Jesus responds with the parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the prodigal son/older brother (Luke 15:11-32). It is hard to escape the understanding that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees in terms of the “older brother,” showing the distance between their “entitled” attitude and the merciful love of the Father. In showing distance and alienation from “sinners,” the Pharisees are maintaining a “righteous” attitude that looked down upon all defilement and transgression; they were trying, at some level, to remain unstained from defilement, and to maintain holiness. Yet this was a socially acceptable type of exclusion; that is how they could get away with it and still be honored as the “righteous” in society.

The Pharisees’ scoffing in Luke 16:14 is related to the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16:1-12) and the declaration that a man cannot serve two masters, both God and money (Luke 16:13). Luke condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:13), and his condemnation is just. Nevertheless, this idea was pervasive throughout society at that time. After all, God blesses those whom He loves and causes affliction for those who disobey Him; how many proverbs were written indicating the honor of wealth and the shame of poverty? Even the disciples go along with this “conventional wisdom,” expressing complete astonishment at Jesus’ declaration of the difficulty for the wealthy to be saved, wondering how anyone could thus be saved if the rich were not (Luke 18:23-26)! Therefore, the Pharisees’ love of money was entirely in line with conventional thinking of the day, no doubt married with a sense of upright piety.

Jesus will continue on with declarations about the Law and Prophets being until John, how people seeking to enter the Kingdom, and yet how nothing would be modified in the Law until all was fulfilled (Luke 16:16-17), a declaration regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Luke 16:18), and then the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The Pharisees presume to understand the Law and the Prophets and thus the will of God, and yet in their declarations they add to and subtract from the Law, focus more on the technical legality of the Law than the intentions of its Author, and otherwise find ways to justify their desires with a distorted understanding of the Law as opposed to serving God through the Law according to God’s intentions.

In the end, the Pharisees were externally everything every first century Israelite would expect from a holy person. And yet they remained separated from God, exalting what was abominable in His sight.

We do well to consider Luke’s focus on these conversations and what it shows about the Pharisees, lest we walk in the same path toward destruction. As we seek holiness and righteousness in conduct (cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16), it becomes easy to feel superior to those who are “sinners” and who are “defiled by the world,” and seek to fully separate from them and condemn them. That may be what men expect, and one can certainly seek to justify such behavior in the sight of men with constant appeals to “holiness” and “withdrawal from evil,” but since it entirely neglects humility, love, kindness, compassion, and mercy, such is abominable in the sight of God. It also proves quite easy to honor wealth and the love of money and even do so with religious motivations and with a pious veneer; there will always be many who will have no qualms with the pretense of religion cloaking a covetous and greedy spirit. Yet the love of money remains the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and we do not do well if we seek to minimize the impact of Jesus’ lamentation of how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven in Luke 18:24-25.

It is also easy to view Scripture like the Pharisees did: a source of justification for whatever thoughts, desires, or actions we seek to justify. In such situations the conclusion is never in doubt. The justification may persuade men, but it dishonors God and shows who really is in control. If God is the center of our existence and we seek to please Him, then we will allow His message in Scripture to change us into conformity with Jesus (Romans 8:29). This is not a matter of the spirit of the message or the letter of the message, but the proper marriage of both the spirit and the letter of what God has revealed in Scripture. There is a reason why Jesus first declared that it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a tittle of the Law to fall and then to speak about marriage and divorce (Luke 16:17-18): the Pharisees might have been technically accurate with some of their interpretations, but by missing the entire intention of God as revealed in other Scriptures, they were justifying things which were contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Matthew 19:1-9).

Many falsely reason that if we focus on the “spirit” of the message, we will be led to compromise or minimize the importance of the “letter” of the message. In reality, as the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees show, by understanding the “spirit” of the message, we will honor it to the “letter”; it is by focusing on the “letter” to the exclusion of the “spirit” which will more often lead us astray, just as it did the Pharisees. And yet it all goes back to our intentions. Do we seek to honor self in the pretense of honoring God or to honor God as God and follow after Him? Are we seeking to look righteous in our current predicament, using elaborate justifications to persuade men of our religiosity, while God remains remote and unimpressed?

We can know the answer by how we react to the message of Jesus’ parables and stories. Do we feel the joy of the people who lost their sheep or coin? Can we feel thankful for the merciful love of the Father for both the prodigal son and the older brother? Do we understand how love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive? Do we sympathize with Lazarus? Or do we feel as if the people who found the sheep and coin are irrationally exuberant? Do we feel the Father is acting shamefully in how He welcomes the prodigal son? Do we chafe at the idea that the love of money and love of God are mutually exclusive? Is our sympathy more directed toward the rich man?

Do we want the justification of men that passes away or the justification that comes from God as His humble servant, trusting in Christ the Lord? Let us seek the latter and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justified in the Sight of Men

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

“But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a shilling a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle; and to them he said, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.’
And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he saith unto them, ‘Why stand ye here all the day idle?’
They say unto him, ‘Because no man hath hired us.’
He saith unto them, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard.’
And when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.’
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a shilling. And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received every man a shilling.
And when they received it, they murmured against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a shilling? Take up that which is thine, and go thy way; it is my will to give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Or is thine eye evil, because I am good?’
So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 19:30-20:16).

When it comes to work and compensation, people tend to get very, very sensitive. Most people have some subjective standard in their minds regarding what types of effort are worth how much in compensation. For most people it is intolerable to think that some people are paid much to do quite little, and others are paid quite little to do much. Ultimately, for many, fairness and consistency is the key– if I work hard and do more than you do at the same job, I should get paid more, and you less. If we get paid the same, conventional wisdom says, I am being punished for doing more and you are rewarded for doing less. In such a circumstance I am better off doing less and making the same. Perhaps such logic is part of the reason why communism has not worked out so well in practice.

It is quite easy to translate such thoughts and feelings to the spiritual realm. Many would like to think that there are levels of reward in eternity. Those who did more should be more greatly rewarded, right? And those who did less should receive less, right? Surely those who did more should receive greater prominence, and those who did less should receive lesser prominence!

And yet Jesus overthrows this line of logic, just as He does with so many other expectations that humans have based upon how the world works. He presents a parable regarding workers in a vineyard, and the parable itself has a statement as its “bookends”– the last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 19:30, 20:16). This connects the parable with what came before– the distress of the rich young ruler, the declaration that what is impossible with man is possible with God, and that those who follow Jesus and sacrifice for doing so will receive a hundredfold in the “regeneration” or “new creation” (Greek palingenesia) and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-29). The rich may be humbled and the poor exalted, indeed, but Jesus wants one thing to be entirely clear: the Kingdom presents a very level playing field.

He communicates this through the parable. The sense of the story is easy enough to understand. In what was a very common circumstance in Jesus’ day, an owner of a vineyard hires men as day laborers to work the vineyard. He begins going around 6 in the morning and hires workers for a denarius— the average day’s wage for a laborer (Matthew 20:1-2). The money is not extravagant but is also not measly. Later in the day– at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm– the owner does the same, but does not specify the wage, but says he will give “what is right” (Matthew 20:3-5). He even goes out at the eleventh hour– 5pm, one hour before work tended to be finished for the day– and finds men idle, and hires them as well (Matthew 20:6-7). When the day was done and the wages were to be paid, the steward is instructed to begin with those who came at 5pm, and they received a denarius even though they worked but an hour (Matthew 20:9). Ostensibly those who began work from 9am through 3pm also received a denarius each.

And then we get the original workers– those who began working for the denarius. They have the same mentality we all have, and they start trusting in a vain hope. “Well,” they say, “he gave them a denarius. We have worked far longer than they have. We should be getting more!” But they also receive a denarius (Matthew 20:10). They do what any one of us would likely do– they began grumbling. This is patently unfair. “We” deserve more because they got what we got even though we worked more and/or harder. And so the workers grumble (Matthew 20:11-12).

Now comes the paradigm shift. We hear from the owner of the vineyard. He declares that he has done them no wrong, and in truth, he has not– he promised a denarius, they received a denarius (Matthew 20:13). The owner is in charge of the money and dictating how he will pay his workers, and if he wants to be generous toward those who worked less, who can tell him that he is wrong for doing so (Matthew 20:14-15)? The owner concludes, literally, by asking them if their eyes are evil because the owner is good– in effect, asking if they begrudge his generosity or are envious of it (Matthew 20:15)?

Many have extrapolated fancy ways of interpreting the parable. Some overlay Biblical history upon it, understanding the different laborers as successive periods of covenants between God and man, with the Gentiles coming in at the eleventh hour. Others look at it exclusively in terms of Jews and Gentiles. While such concepts are interesting, and it is true that the Gentiles are lately brought into the fold in which the Jews have been for generations (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18), such expositions are far from the heart and soul of this parable. We need not extrapolate periods of time or types of people to make sense of this parable– we just need to think about people!

The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom. The marketplace represents the world, and those in it waiting for work are those seeking the truth. Those entering the vineyard are those who obey Him. Some begin serving the Lord from a young age, working many years in the Kingdom, and God has promised them the hundredfold inheritance and eternal life (cf. Matthew 19:29). Others enter at various stages of life– in their 20s or 30s, or more toward middle age– and such are those entering the vineyard from 9am through 3pm. Some might come to the faith as older people or with very little time left on earth to serve God; such would be those coming at 5pm.

Ultimately, they all receive the same as what is promised to the first group. They all get the same reward– the denarius. It is not out of disrespect to the “original” workers but a reflection of the magnanimity and generosity of God the Master. This logic is offensive to the world but ought to be a source of joy to those in the Kingdom. It is not designed to be a damper on spirituality and spiritual growth– it should not lead anyone to assume that they can just squeak into the resurrection without diligently seeking to serve God. Quite the contrary (Matthew 7:21-23, 10:22, 19:16-26). Instead, this message is hope for the world. It does not matter whether you enter His vineyard at 9am or 5pm– the important thing is that you enter His vineyard, and once you are in it, to work diligently to serve the Master! Salvation can be had at any age– because salvation, ultimately, is more about what God has done for us and establishing that association with Him, and not about what we “deserve” based upon what we have done (Ephesians 2:1-18)!

In the resurrection all saints should be sated with glory beyond understanding and eternal life (Matthew 19:29, Romans 8:17-18). Those who worked for a long time and those who worked for a short time will both receive it. Let us praise God for the opportunity for salvation and eternal life and let us all be active in His vineyard!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

The New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The New Old Treasure

The Dragnet

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).

As Jesus is preaching and teaching in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee, it is all but expected that He would use some kind of image from the fishing industry in His parables. And as Matthew finishes the presentation of a good number of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, we have a fishing parable to show us the significant consequences that will come on the basis of what we will do or not do with Jesus and His Kingdom.

We find that parallelism among the parables is maintained in Matthew 13. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) stands at the fore of the parables, perhaps understood as the parable of parables. We then find the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43), which is parallel to the Parable of the Dragnet we are considering (Matthew 13:47-50). The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and the Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33) are paired together and are parallel, as are the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46).

The dragnet is a time-honored fishing technique, one that would be well known to Peter, Andrew, James, and John (cf. Luke 5:1-11). A large net is lowered into the water and pulled along, catching within it anything that gets in its way. When full– or whenever desired– the net is pulled back up into the boat and its contents emptied out. Ideally, one would have made a good catch of fish that could fetch a nice income from the marketplace. Regardless, many things will get caught in the net that are not desired– smaller fish, perhaps some other creatures, and the like, and those are best cast back into the water or as refuse.

So we have the Parable of the Dragnet: the fish are people, the net is the Kingdom and its upcoming day of Judgment, and the fishermen are the angels. Those who are worthy shall be kept; all others shall be reckoned as refuse, cast into the hell described as the “furnace of fire,” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47-50). As it was with wheat and weeds, so now it is with fish: some will be preserved, and others will be burned with fire.

Therefore, we see that the basic message of the Parable of the Dragnet is the same as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Yet there are some differences in detail and explanation, and then there is the question of placement.

There is a qualitative difference between wheat and weeds: they are different types of plants. Fish, however, are fish; we are not given the impression that the “good fish” are one species of fish, and the “bad fish” are another species, but that the fish might very well be of the same species but of different quality. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the “tares” are to be harvested first; the Parable of the Dragnet vividly describes the separating of the good fish from the bad fish. The tares are to be burned; the bad fish are “cast away.”

We should not press these distinctions in detail too far; we must remember that these are images designed to help us understand the spiritual reality behind the image, and not to get too enamored with the images themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus is not simply repeating Himself with the Parable of the Dragnet.

The fact that the fish are not really described has significance. It is not as if people are inherently divided into different classes, with one group of people who begin well, remain well, and end well, and another group of people who begin as refuse, remain as refuse, and end as refuse. Just as the fish are fish, so people are people. There is no distinction made between people based upon their birth, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other similar measure (Galatians 3:28). Put another way, God does not show partiality toward some and not others (Romans 2:11). No one is irrevocably destined to be a “weed” or a “bad fish.” Instead, in this parable, the distinction is based on the value of each fish, which in the spiritual reality can be understood as the character of each person. Is our character bad, evil, and natural, or does our character have Jesus and His Kingdom impressed upon it (cf. Romans 8:1-11)? The Judgment is not based in who we are; it is based on what we have become and what we have done (Romans 2:5-11)!

The day of Judgment will come at once for everyone– it will not be that the wicked go before the righteous, or vice versa (Matthew 25:1-46). The sorting does not happen in this life; it will happen on the day of resurrection when Jesus is glorified in His Kingdom (1 Corinthians 15).

There is also some significance to the idea of the wicked as refuse– as something thrown away as no good. On the spiritual level, there is no distinction between the “tares” and the “bad fish”: Matthew 13:42 and 13:50 are precisely the same. Nevertheless, in the parables themselves, the tares were destined for fire (Matthew 13:30). The bad fish are to be thrown away (Matthew 13:48). This “casting away,” what is done to garbage, evokes the Valley of Hinnom as a place where garbage was collected and burnt, and the “inspiration” behind Gehenna as hell (Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33). Just as people would take garbage to the Valley of Hinnom to be burned, since it had no use, those who have not served God and who remained evil and in rebellion will be taken to hell– Gehenna– for burning, since they were no good and provided no profit.

In that “furnace of fire” there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, images of great suffering and torment otherwise associated with the “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Thus we see all kinds of images of hell brought together: the fiery furnace, the place for refuse, a place of suffering, separated far from God and the righteous with Him.

Yet one question remains: if the other parallel parables came right next to each other, why does the separation exist between the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet?

Perhaps this was just the order Jesus used, and there was not much thought put into it. Such, however, is highly unlikely; Jesus is very deliberate with His words and how He presents His message of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the Parable of the Dragnet is designed to be some sort of conclusion; its ultimate message, however, is quite consistent with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, even ending on the same note (Matthew 13:42, 50).

Yet if we look in more detail at the presentation, we see a type of order. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares is presented (Matthew 13:24-30), but its explanation comes only after the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Matthew 13:31-43). We then see the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46), and then we have the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50).

What could this mean? It seems as if there is a deliberate “sandwiching” of the parable sets, with the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet providing the overall structure. Perhaps we are to understand these parables as representing some kind of structure within the Kingdom: the righteous and the wicked will remain together until the end of time. The Kingdom will start small and grow large; the Kingdom is worth more than anything else, and therefore costs more than anything else. Not everyone will appreciate the growth of the Kingdom. Not everyone will appreciate its value, and even more will not want to pay the cost. Yet, in the end, God is going to separate people based on whether they participated in Jesus’ Kingdom as His servants.

Let us not miss the force of this parable and the way that the parables are laid out in Matthew 13. The message of the Kingdom goes out to all sorts of people, many of whom hear, many of whom fall away. We must understand that the Kingdom starts with humble beginnings, and that just as the Kingdom is of supreme value, so there is great cost involved in obtaining the Kingdom. We must persevere and obey, for we know that the day is coming when God will judge everyone, and those who serve Christ in His Kingdom will be redeemed and honored, while those who did not serve Him will be bound up, cast off as refuse, and burned in eternal suffering. There can be no sitting on the fence; let us make our decision and follow after our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Dragnet

The Value of the Kingdom

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a merchant seeking goodly pearls: and having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

Everyone is taught to be wary of the deal that is too good to be true, because more often than not, it is. A free car is never really “free.” That e-mail from Nigeria promising you hundreds of thousands of dollars is a scam; do not send them any money! While that “hot stock pick” sometimes might make you money, more often than not, it probably will not. Most everyone has a story about having high expectations for some great and wonderful thing that proved to be too good to be true.

But what happens if we actually do come across something that is wonderful and good– and it is true? What if we could discover something that, in reality, is worth far more than anything we could ever own or dream to own? What if you were promised security in the midst of every situation? Peace no matter the circumstances in which you find yourself? Unwavering hope for the present and future? The prospect of unimaginable glory for eternity? How much would that be worth to you?

These things are what Jesus offers people in His Kingdom (Romans 8:18-25, 31-39, Philippians 4:7). He describes this Kingdom for us in many parables, and two of them really show us just how valuable we are to consider His Kingdom to be: the parable of the treasure in the field and the parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46).

In the parable of the treasure of the field, a man, for whatever reason, is digging in a field, and he finds treasure in it. He buries the treasure, joyfully goes and sells all that he has, buys that field, and thus obtains the treasure (Matthew 13:44). In the parable of the pearl of great price, a merchant is seeking pearls to buy, and happens to come across one magnificent pearl, and he goes and sells all that he has in order to buy that pearl (Matthew 13:45-46).

There are some distinctions in these parables that are profitable to consider. In the parable of the treasure in the field, the Kingdom is likened to the treasure itself; in the parable of the pearl of great price, the Kingdom is likened to the merchant seeking pearls. The merchant is more of a “specialist”– he has seen many pearls, he knows what he is seeking, and he finds the ultimate pearl. The man in the field, on the other hand, does not seem to be a “specialist”; it would seem that he discovered the treasure by chance.

Some people, therefore, come upon the Kingdom of God by chance. Others are seeking the Kingdom and then find it. Some may not be very knowledgeable about God; others might be quite knowledgeable about spiritual things, seeking divine truth. Nevertheless, however one ends up finding the Kingdom, the result is to be the same: it is to be held in such high esteem that it is worth getting rid of any hindrance, any possessed object, so as to obtain that Kingdom.

Thus we return to the question: what is the Kingdom worth to us? How much is confidence, hope, peace, and ultimate glory worth to us? We know what the answer to the question should be– it should be worth giving up everything else in our lives so that we obtain it. This is what Paul emphasizes in Philippians 3:8-15: counting everything as rubbish so as to gain Christ, to strain forward toward the upward call of God in Christ.

But do we really think the Kingdom is that worthwhile? Are we really willing to suffer the loss of everything else in life so as to gain the Kingdom? Are we willing to be entirely transformed so as to conform to the image of Jesus, and no longer walk in the ways of the world (Romans 8:29, 12:1-2, 9; 1 John 2:15-17)? Are we willing to be entirely expended for Jesus’ cause and suffer in order to obtain that glory (Romans 8:17-18, Galatians 2:20)?

The Kingdom costs everything because it is worth more than anything else we can have or imagine. Perhaps we may not have been looking for it; nevertheless, the treasure is before us. Perhaps we have been searching; the pearl is there for us to find. But once we have found it, what then? Will we understand that the Kingdom is good and it is true, and be willing to suffer the loss of everything in order to obtain it? Or will we find the cost too high and walk away? Let us recognize the exceeding value of the Kingdom of God, and be willing to be entirely expended for Christ’s cause today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Value of the Kingdom

Leaven

Another parable spake [Jesus] unto them; “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened (Matthew 13:33).

When we seek to think about pleasant things, or to find ways of describing people or things positively, fungi rarely make the list of possible comparisons. They are normally something we do not often consider (like yeast, or perhaps mushrooms) or rather unpleasant things (like mold and fungal infections).

Yeast, or leaven, is known for its expansive properties– it multiplies very quickly. A small amount of yeast, in the right conditions, will quickly expand and fill the space it is provided. This has been the secret to bread making for generations– if you want a lump of dough to rise, it must have the right amount of yeast in it. As it bakes, the yeast multiplies and expands, and the entire lump rises. The yeast is also partly responsible for that addictive smell of baking bread!

The image of leaven as an agent that starts small but expands mightily is used a few times in Scripture. Sometimes it is used negatively– Jesus describes the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees as leaven (Matthew 16:6-12), and Paul warns that false teachings and sinful practices “leaven the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, Galatians 5:9).

But the image need not always be negative, for Jesus uses the image in a positive way in Matthew 13:33. Having described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard plant, with a small seed that grows to become a tree in which birds can nest (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus continues down the same theme by describing the Kingdom as the leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour that leavens the whole lump.

The general message of both parables are the same: the growth of the Kingdom will be exponential despite its humble origins. Just as a very little amount of yeast filled three measures of flour, so the Kingdom that begins with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit will expand from 12 to 3000+ to thousands upon thousands all over the earth (Acts 1:8, 2:41, etc.). The proclamation and advancement of the Kingdom is a wonderful story, clearly demonstrating the power and wisdom of God that is greater than anything man can imagine (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If we wanted to get the most important message of life across, sending twelve fairly unreliable and uneducated witnesses would probably not make our list of possible options. Nevertheless, we see how effectively it was done by the power of God!

Nevertheless, there is a bit of distinction between the two parables. A mustard plant, by virtue of necessity, grows out in the open– while there are roots growing underneath the soil, without sun and water, the plant will not prosper. Yeast, however, works entirely behind the scenes. From the outside you can see the effect of the growth of the yeast– the rising lump of dough– but you cannot see how it is working internally.

So it is with the Kingdom. There are times when the growth of the Kingdom happens in a public and spectacular way, like on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Nevertheless, both in the first century and now, much of the advancement of the Kingdom happens more behind the scenes.

This growth comes about on the basis of many opportunities. It happens when believers go about doing good and living holy and upright lives (Romans 12:9, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). It happens as believers have conversations with friends, associates, relatives, and others about God’s truth in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15). It happens as believers trust in and pray to God, as His Word is studied, as believers strengthen and build one another up, and in many other kinds of opportunities (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 10:24-25).

We may not always see how this growth happens, but the results will be evident. God is magnified and praised while more and more come to the knowledge of the truth. This is how God expects the Kingdom to grow!

As we seek to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom, let us remember the humble leaven. No matter what public proclamation is made, let us remember that much of the way that God’s purposes are advanced are done behind the scenes, imperceptible to most. Let us trust in God and participate in His work of advancing His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

The Wheat and the Tares

Another parable set [Jesus] before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man that sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares also among the wheat, and went away. But when the blade sprang up and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
And the servants of the householder came and said unto him, “Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? Whence then hath it tares?
And he said unto them, “An enemy hath done this.”
And the servants say unto him, “Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
But he saith, “Nay; lest haply while ye gather up the tares, ye root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather up first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:24-30).

Then [Jesus] left the multitudes, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, “Explain unto us the parable of the tares of the field.”
And he answered and said, “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; and the field is the world; and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy that sowed them is the devil: and the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are angels. As therefore the tares are gathered up and burned with fire; so shall it be in the end of the world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:36-43).

One of the great questions regarding the faith is why it is that there are so many different groups claiming to represent Jesus and His truth, and so many others who have entirely different beliefs. At times we might direct this question toward God– why, if He is trying to reconcile the world to Him, does He allow so many different views about so many different subjects? If the Bible can be understood be people, why are there so many understandings of it allowed? Why doesn’t He just set everything straight?

Part of the answer– or at least part of a means by which we can try to understand it– involves free will. God does not compel or coerce; even if He does great things and makes powerful displays, people still must turn to Him and be willing to submit their wills to His (cf. Matthew 26:39, Acts 9:18, 1 Timothy 2:4). Therefore, we should not expect God to force people to change their views, or compel them in any way.

The rest of the answer is addressed in the second parable presented in Matthew 13– the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, as it is often called. Matthew presents for us both the parable itself (Matthew 13:24-30) and Jesus’ later explanation of it to His disciples (Matthew 13:36-43).

The story is understandable enough. A man (the Son of Man, Jesus) has a field (the world) and plants good wheat seeds in it (the “sons of the Kingdom,” true believers). During the night, an enemy (Satan/the Devil) came and sowed tares, or weeds (the “sons of the evil one,” those who are not of the truth) in that same field. It was not clear until the plants grew that some were wheat and others were weeds. The man’s servants ask him whether they should go out and remove the weeds, but the man is concerned that wheat would be inadvertently taken up with the weeds. He thinks it better for them all to remain until the harvest (the end of time), and then the reapers (the angels) will separate out the weeds for burning (hell) and the wheat for bringing into the barn (the resurrection of life/shining in the Kingdom of the Father).

Jesus presents this parable to encourage the disciples. He does not want them to be deceived: there will be “weeds” out there, people “planted” by the Evil One to do his will and to resist God’s truth. They will be in the midst of Christians until the end of time. But the day of Judgment will come and the weeds will meet a terrible end then. The wheat will be vindicated and glorified.

Many arguments surround this passage, particularly regarding Jesus’ referent for the “Kingdom.” Does “Kingdom” refer only to the church, i.e. the people who at least nominally understand that Jesus is Lord, or does “Kingdom” refer to the entire world? According to Matthew 28:18, Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, and so the entire world is under His authority and could therefore be seen as His Kingdom. Nevertheless, most of the time Jesus speaks about the Kingdom, He is speaking about those who recognize His Lordship.

If we stop and think about it, however, the message is true for either referent. Within the world there are plenty of opponents of the truth planted there by the Evil One who seek to undermine the Gospel of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:12, 4:3-5). Unfortunately, there are also plenty of people who are part of churches who advance false teachings and promote a false gospel, leading people astray (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, Jude 1:3-19). The dangers are present everywhere.

So why? Why does God allow the “weeds” to continue? Jesus gives the answer– lest the wheat get removed as well. Notice that it takes time to see whether what was planted would become a “wheat” or a “weed”. This message is the same as Peter’s in 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Whereas plants themselves cannot change their nature, human beings can. The possibility exists for a “weed” to become “wheat”; in fact, every “wheat” must be renewed and reformed from its previous state as a “weed” (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Sadly, some “wheat” return to being “weeds” (2 Peter 2:20-22). Nevertheless, God is waiting and reserving judgment until the final day so that the righteous do not get pulled up with the wicked, and to give the wicked plenty of chances to repent and reform their ways.

We must remember that it is the work of Satan, not the work of God, that has caused confusion, divisions, conflict, and misunderstandings of the truth. The fragmentation among “Christian” groups is the work of the Devil; the Devil is also behind the reason for so many others rejecting the Gospel entirely. God made a good world (cf. Genesis 1:31), and the pure Gospel seed remains very good (Matthew 13:24, 38, Romans 1:16). When good and honest hearts hear the pure Gospel, they can be saved and live to glorify God. Sadly, far too many are not hearing the pure Gospel, but instead are settling for the various seeds and ideas of men.

We know that the day of Judgment is coming, and on that day every plant not planted by God will be uprooted and burned (Matthew 13:30, 40-42, 15:13). The plants whom God planted will bask in the Light of the Son in the resurrection of eternal light (cf. Matthew 13:43, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Let us not wait until the final day to see what kind of plant we will be. Let us make sure that we are planted by God and rooted in Christ so as to live eternally!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wheat and the Tares

The Good Soil

“…and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…and he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8, 23).

Finally, after speaking about the unbelievers, those who were not firmly grounded, and those who allow the cares of the world to choke out the faith, Jesus comes to the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.

Soil is good by virtue of the climactic conditions in which it exists along with the nutrients present within it. So it is with people and the message of the Gospel– the good soil are those people who have good and honest hearts, who hear the Word, understand it, believe it, and consequently bear fruit with patience (Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:20, Luke 8:15). All of these conditions must exist for the soil to be good.

The condition of the heart is critical. As we saw with the “road soil,” an unreceptive heart will not accept the message of the Gospel. A person must have a good and honest heart for the Gospel to do them any good. They must be willing to question themselves and the way they have conducted themselves. They must be willing to accept that they were wrong and acted wrongly and must change. They must be willing to accept truth as truth and to not justify error or rationalize their improper conduct in any way. In short, they must be willing to humble themselves so as to learn from Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Gospel is preached, and those who are of the “good soil” hear it, understand it, and believe it (cf. Romans 10:9-17). Yet such was also the case for the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil.” But the “good soil” has greater depth than the “rocky soil” and lacks the weeds of the “thorny soil.” Because conditions are more optimal, the seed bears fruit in the “good soil.” So it is that believers are to be known by their fruit– by how their faith operates in their lives (cf. James 2:14-20, 1 John 3:16-18). Most everyone wants to be the “good soil,” just like everyone is a good person, a good driver, and feels pretty well. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case with everyone or even of most. Most will prove to be the road soil, the rocky soil, or the thorny soil. “Good soil” is not something we declare ourselves to be by our words; instead, we are manifest as good soil (or, for that matter, less than ideal soil) by how what we profess changes our lives, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 6:1-11, 8:29, Galatians 5:17-24). And, as Luke adds, this requires patience (cf. Luke 8:15). As fruit and grain take time to grow and ripen, spiritual transformation demands time and effort (cf. Romans 12:2); patience with others is also manifest as fruit of spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22-24). Growth may take time, but it must be something for which we consistently seek and toward which we endeavor.

Jesus ends His discussion of the “good soil” with what may seem to be a puzzling addendum– the harvest is not necessarily the same with every patch of the good soil. Some bear thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8, Mark 14:8)! Was not “good” soil really “good” soil?

We go back to the source of Jesus’ story: farming. Farmers know that one can grow the same crop in different soils and get different yields based upon the soil quality and conditions. “Good soil” in one place may yield, say, 200 bushels an acre, while “good soil” somewhere else might yield 300 bushels an acre. They are both good, but based upon conditions, one may get more from some than others.

So it is spiritually. The “good soil” is that which is open and receptive to the Gospel, working to bear fruit for God. Yet God has not made us all the same. We are different, and different people not only have different abilities but also different levels of ability. In our egalitarian society it might not be politically correct to say as much, yet it is affirmed by the Gospel (Romans 12:3-8). Consider the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30: three people are entrusted with different amounts of money. The five talent man who made five more talents is rewarded equally as the two talent man who made two more talents. It is not important for us to try to compete with one another and try to boast about how many gifts or talents we may have; instead, we must ascertain what God has given us so that we can serve Him and one another in accordance and in proportion to what we have received (1 Peter 4:10-11, etc.). One bearing a hundredfold and one bearing thirtyfold are both “good soil,” and one is not inherently better than the other. “Good soil” that could bear a hundredfold but gets a big head or does not work up to his potential is worse off than “good soil” actually bearing thirtyfold. Likewise, “good soil” that bears sixtyfold does better than “good soil” that could bear thirtyfold but does nothing because they are not equipped to bear a hundredfold. The emphasis is on the fruit borne, not a spirit of competition.

Few people who understand the Parable of the Sower would define themselves as road soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We all aspire to be the “good soil.” That is a good and noble aspiration, but it is meaningless if we do not prove to be the “good soil” by our works. Let us strive, then, to have that open and honest heart, seeking after and trusting in God our Creator and Savior, and devoting our lives to bearing fruit for His cause, be it thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. Does the Lord know that we are His by our works? Let us serve Him and prove to be good soil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Soil

The Thorny Soil

“And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked them…And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Matthew 13:7, 22).

“I’m too busy.”

If there were a universally agreed upon anthem for our modern world, this would surely be it. It seems that everyone is always too busy. There is always too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. How many times have we made or heard pleas for there to be more than 24 hours in a day, or for time to stop for a moment so we can get “caught up”?

Part of our difficulty involves the unprecedented number of people and things that compete for our time. Employers are demanding more hours and work out of employees. Depending on our phase of life, our parents, children, and/or spouses place demands on our time. There is the ever-present computer with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, games, and a thousand other ways of spending time. Not to be outdone, television and movies and other forms of entertainment also beckon. Beyond all of these are sports activities, book reading, indoor and outdoor maintenance, and all sorts of other activities. Little wonder, then, that we never have any time!

Many of the purveyors of entertainment and other forms of distraction are quite aware of how busy we are, and so they work diligently to gain our attention. Forms of entertainment become more sophisticated and designed to draw you in and keep you watching or playing. News programs and politicians often use various scare tactics to attract your attention and support for their cause. All of these tactics are very seductive and very hard to resist!

While the quantity of distractions and forms of entertainment today might be unprecedented, the root problem is not. As Jesus presents the parable of the sower, He describes the third type of soil as the “thorny soil.” The thorny soil is full of thorn-bushes and other weeds. In such ground, the sower’s seed cannot take root and grow, for it is out-muscled by the weeds.

Notice that the problem here is not the soil quality in and of itself, as it was with the “road” soil and the “rocky” soil. The soil is not the problem– the competitors for that particular patch of soil are the problem! If the competitors– the thorns– were removed, the seed would grow and multiply.

Jesus goes on to say that the thorny soil represents those people who hear the Word of God and believe it, but the cares of this world, the desire for riches, and various lusts and pleasures choke out the Word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14).

We see this often when we present the Word of God to others. As statistics show, the majority of Americans believe in God, Jesus, and even His resurrection. Therefore, they know that God exists. They know that Jesus exists and that He is Lord. Many such people know that they should probably be assembling with Christians somewhere and should be serving the Lord more faithfully.

And then there is the “but.” They know they should follow God, but there is not enough time. They should assemble with Christians, but they have to work, or Sunday morning is their only time to rest and relax or spend time with family, or it is the time for a given sporting event or other form of entertainment. They know that they should devote themselves to God, but there is always something in the way– money, entertainment, sports, even family and friends.

Jesus’ image of the thorns is very apt, for it gets to the heart of the problem. As said previously, the problem is not with the soil but with the competition for the soil. The difference, then, between “thorny” soil and “good” soil is not the soil itself but the cultivation thereof. The invasion of the “thorns” is an ever-present danger, and great care must be taken to cultivate the ground to clear away the thorns so as to allow the seed to grow and multiply.

This speaks to the need for priorities. No one can assume that time will automatically be made for God and spiritual things. As with all things, we must make time. Left on our own we will succumb to the temptation to play around more on the Internet, watch another TV show, or do a thousand other things. We must decide to make God the priority– to make His Kingdom and His righteousness the most important thing in our life (Matthew 6:33).

We must hasten to add that not all of these “thorns” are inherently evil. In fact, there are many “good” things with which we can fill our time– our family, our friends, employment, helping others, etc.– but even these “good” things can distract us from the ultimate good– God and His Kingdom. We must first serve Christ– and then reflect Christ to our family, at work, and in other realms of life (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). God must be first and foremost.

There have always been and will always be a lot of people who know that God exists and and that they need to do better at following after Him but remain distracted by money, cares of the world, and various pleasures. They have just as much potential for good in promoting God’s purposes as those who are the “good” soil if only they would clear out the weeds and focus on the Word of God. The thorns, however, are an ever-present danger. If we are not careful, even if we begin as good soil, we can allow the thorns to move in, becoming distracted with worldly cares and concerns, and prove to be unfruitful in the end.

Too many people, upon looking back at their lives, realize just how much time was wasted on what ultimately proved to be vain and futile. Some are fortunate enough to have come to repentance before the end, and simply lament all the time that they could have done great things for God but were too busy with themselves and the cares of this world. Sadly, for too many, this realization will come too late, with bitter tears and lamentation, as they hear of their doom (Matthew 7:21-23). It is never too late to clear out the thorns and to cultivate the good seed– let us all remove the distractions of the world and make God and His righteousness the ultimate priority in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Thorny Soil

The Rocky Soil

“And others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away…And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).

One of the most savage ironies in life is that we learn the most about our character and ourselves when we least expect it. Rare is the person who learns character lessons from winning, success, and prosperity. Just as fire is necessary to remove dross from pure metal, so distress, tribulation, and difficulty are necessary to refine the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We have the maxim today that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what happens to the one who does not survive their difficulties and challenges? Jesus provides an illustration of such people in the parable of the sower with the rocky soil.

The story is consistent in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The sower casts seed on rocky soil. The seed takes root and grows initially, but the roots do not sink down very deeply. Therefore, when the sun rises, or the moisture runs out, the plant withers and dies.

So it is with many people. Many hear the Word of God, and they receive it eagerly. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They assemble with fellow Christians. By all appearances, they are growing well as disciples. They may be involved with all kinds of spiritual efforts. And yet, all of a sudden, they are gone.

Why? The reasons are many. Some burn out– they acted more on impulse, and perhaps their personalities are the sort wherein they do not keep any practice or commitment up for any significant amount of time. Others find themselves in some spiritually discouraging situation among Christians who do not act as God would have them act. Many more experience some external difficulty– a family member dies suddenly, they or someone they love endure some kind of evil, or their faith is challenged by some unbeliever in person or on some television show. As a result, many such people entirely abandon belief in God. Others will say that they still believe in Jesus, but not the church, or will declare that they are spiritual but not religious, or some other rationalization.

All such circumstances boil down to the same problem: a shallow faith. Faith is the “roots” that people grow as they learn of God. In the physical realm, roots have amazing power as they grow. Over time roots can often find ways to grow, even in inhospitable places. But when the roots dry out, there is not much hope left. So it is with our faith. If our faith has not grown sufficiently, or was not sufficiently founded in Jesus, when some difficulty comes, it is easy to lose whatever faith we had. If the roots of faith did not grow deeply before boredom set in, then we will move on to some new thing in life. If the roots of faith did not grow past the actions of others, then we are likely to abandon Jesus when some of His followers fail us. If our roots of faith did not grow to the point of trusting God’s goodness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, then we can easily imagine that God is not there when bad things happen and life seems to go wrong, or when we are posed with challenges in life for which there are no easy answers.

The illustration of the rocky soil is designed to be both a declaration of reality and a warning. It declares the reality that many will believe in a shallow way. When such people fall away, it will be discouraging and unfortunate, but it should not shake our faith or cause undue distress. Our Lord knew that many people would follow Him only as long as it was comfortable– in the sports world, those described as “fair weather fans.” And that is the warning– we must not be the rocky soil. We must be prepared for challenges to our faith. There will be times when Christianity will seem boring and/or our zeal for Christ will languish. There will be times when fellow Christians do not act like they should, and it will discourage us. There will be times when evil will confront us head on, and it will lead to questions about the presence and goodness of God. And there will be times when the hope that is in us will be challenged by those who do not accept it. We cannot change that reality– but we can prepare for it. We can decide how we will respond to it. We can understand that such trials are blessings in that they help us to grow in faith (James 1:2-3). They may not be pleasant, but they are necessary for our growth. We can never prove to be the good soil until someone or something tests the depth of the roots of faith we have set down in our lives.

Life is not a bed of roses, and becoming a servant of Jesus does not then somehow make it so. In fact, serving Jesus means to humbly accept challenge, sacrifice, and difficulty (Matthew 16:24, 20:25-28, Romans 12:2, Galatians 2:20). When difficulty comes, will you grow or perish? We pray that you will grow and prove to be good soil, and not rocky soil, and to please the Creator of us all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rocky Soil