I’m continuing a series on the historical Jesus––attempting to situate his actions and words in the 1st century Jewish world where he lived. This is largely inspired by N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, although it’s far from summary or paraphrase of that work, as I take my own directions here and make some different critical judgments from Wright. And again, these are longer than my typical posts––chapter-length. You’ll need some time.
Let me ask you to go back in time… back to a difficult time in your life. Maybe you had lost a job, or were struggling to find work. Maybe you had lost someone you loved, or you were struggling for direction. Don’t think of the immediate moment—the crisis moment, if there was one—because it’s okay to do nothing but grieve in that moment. But think about the weeks and months afterward, when you needed a word of hope or comfort. Maybe the time in your mind was decades ago… maybe it’s right now.
And in that time, I wonder if you can remember a word of hope or comfort that someone gave you. For me, I remember a difficult time several years ago where a friend just said to me, “I know it feels like this is a dark cloud that won’t pass, but know that it will get better.” A few years ago, when a dear friend died of cancer, someone quoted Revelation 21:5 to me: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”
Do you have words like that? Words of hope or comfort that you needed in a difficult time?
Isaiah and Hope
The book of Isaiah has words like that for a whole nation. Most people think these were words that came to Israel after they had gone into captivity.
Here’s the really brief history of that. First, the Babylonian Empire came and laid siege to Jerusalem. When you hear of a siege, you can think of something like this.
That’s the siege of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings for any of you unfamiliar with Middle-earth. The sieges we hear about in Scripture may not have had the same sort of cinematic weight—maybe not quite this many people, probably no flying Fellbeasts. The siege on Jerusalem lasted over two years, not just 10 movie minutes. And at the end of it, the Babylonians burned the city and the temple and led the people away as prisoners. Here’s one artist’s depiction of that:
The descriptions of Jerusalem afterward talk about it like a wilderness, overgrown with thorns and briers.[1. e.g. Isaiah 32:13-14] This is what comes of that land that God had promised his people—a land flowing with milk and honey has become a land of thornbushes.
So to a people who have watched their city and their temple burn, who have been led off into captivity, into exile from their promised land, we hear these words in Isaiah:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
For those people living in wilderness, there’s a word of comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people…” “Prepare the way for the LORD,” for Yahweh. Your king will come and reveal his glory, and you’ll see it! That’s the kind of hope and comfort we long for in times of distress, isn’t it?
A lot of scholars see this whole section of Isaiah—from chapter 40 to chapter 55—as a word of hope for those people in captivity. We just saw how it starts, now let me show you how it ends:
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)
Perhaps you could use a hopeful word like that right now. You who are thirsty—come to the waters. You who have no money—come, buy and eat without cost. And not just beans and rice. God says, “you will delight in the richest of fare.”
God reminds them of the everlasting covenant he made with David—that God would place one of David’s sons on the throne to rule forever. For a people who have lost their king, captives in a foreign land, there’s a reminder that God has said to David, “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne to rule forever and ever.”[1. See Psalm 132 for one version of this.]
God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and he means it. Even though they must feel left, forsaken, forgotten in Babylon, God reminds them that he’s with them still.
So then, here’s how that chapter in Isaiah concludes:
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’S renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.” (Isaiah 55:10-13)
So the final picture is a farming picture. God describes his word as something that will yield a crop. It won’t return empty. He describes it as something that defies the thorns and the briers. For people whose last image of being led forth looked like this––
going out in misery, led forth in distress with their city bursting into flames behind them—now they hear, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you.”
You can imagine how the Israelite people would have clung to words of hope like that. God will come and restore us. God’s word doesn’t return empty, it produces a crop—seed for the sower and bread for the eater!
The Israelites in Jesus’ day would still be claiming those words. As we saw in part I, many of them still believed they were in exile. They were back in the promised land, but only under the thumb of the Romans. This wasn’t joy and peace. It was still misery and distress.
So you have to wonder how some of Jesus’ parables would hit those Jewish ears. In the one known as the parable of the sower, Jesus goes around talking about a sower and seed and some of it falling among thorns, but other seed producing a crop. I expect that most people would have immediately heard more than a nice farming analogy in this. They would have heard echoes of those promises like we see in Isaiah, the promises that were surely still on their minds and lips.
The parable begins with this setting: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (Matthew 13:1-2).
We tend to overlook the setting for this parable, but I think it’s significant. The same day, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and people started asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” What would it mean for people to be asking if he’s the son of David? They’re asking, “Is this the one God is going to put on the throne?” But the Pharisees accused him of being an agent of the devil instead, and they had a big debate where the Pharisees called Jesus an agent of Satan and Jesus called them a brood of vipers. And the Pharisees demanded a sign from him, and he called this a wicked generation… The whole thing got pretty ugly. So it’s on that same day that he went out and had to get into a boat to speak because there were such large crowds there.
Here’s a picture of the place where they think he spoke.
They call it the Cove of the Sower. You can see how it forms this natural sort of amphitheater. Some people have done research and said that it can hold probably 7,000 people. Here’s a view from way up at the top.
It’s so far away that the people at bottom look like specks. But they say you can sit up there, and as long as it’s not too windy, or as long as there’s not too much traffic (less of a problem in Jesus’ day), you can hear someone speaking all the way at the bottom.
So it’s been a tense day. We’ve seen a demon-possessed man healed, some people wondering if Jesus is their next king, accusations of “spawn of Satan” and “brood of vipers,” and now you have a huge crowd gathered. With that background, let’s hear the parable:
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:1-9)
I’ll admit to you that I’ve looked at so many of Jesus’ parables as simple, timeless truth—something kind of like Aesop’s Fables, where the setting didn’t much matter, just the point. And I’ve always figured they were nice teaching devices—right? Preachers are supposed to tell stories. It helps people remember things and visualize them.
But Jesus is doing more than giving timeless truth in easy-to-understand stories. He’s speaking to people who have been asking, “Could this be the Son of David?” “Could this be the one God is going to put back on the throne for Israel?” And now, he’s telling farmer stories about a sower and a crop, the kind of stories that they would tell for how there would be a great day of harvest when God would restore righteous Israel and punish her oppressors.
Can you imagine people standing at the top of that hill—hanging on every word from the man down in the boat, the one they could barely even see? They wouldn’t crowd around like this just because he was a good storyteller, or because he had some interesting wisdom to share. They wouldn’t crowd around because he’s telling the same story they’ve always heard about God restoring them—they could tell that anywhere. They would crowd around because they wonder if he’s announcing that it’s happening now.
In the book of Isaiah, God describes a coming time of his favor—a coming day of salvation. He says,
“In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” (Isaiah 49:8-9)
So they would wonder: is now the time? Is Jesus saying, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation”?[1. Paul would later confirm that it was in 2 Corinthians 6:2]
Jesus talks about a crop, but he doesn’t tell the story the way people would expect it. It’s not just a story about Israel’s triumph. There’s both failure and success. Where Israel has talked about God’s word yielding a great crop—it won’t return empty, it defies the thorn bushes and the briers—now Jesus tells a parable with thorns that choke out some of the seed.
For people who have told all these great stories about God coming back and removing the thorn bushes and sowing a great crop, Jesus’ parable isn’t as much of the good news as they’ve wanted. Why would there still be thorn bushes? Why would some seed not produce a crop? Why would any of the farmer’s seed go to waste, when the farmer is God, and the seed is his word?[1. An important note: there are also several instances in Jewish wisdom literature that use seed growing in relation to personal righteousness. Jesus at least seems to have these in mind, as well, as he tells these stories. I focus on the other side here because it’s less-known and because of the way it fits the tense context with people asking about Jesus as the Son of David or as agent of the devil. This isn’t less than a word about individual righteousness, but I want to highlight here that I believe it’s more than that, too.]
God’s action and our expectations
We can make two mistakes with how we understand God’s action. One of them is that we don’t really give God any credit. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” With enough effort and motivation, you can accomplish anything. That sort of mindset ignores God’s part. Have you ever done that with your own life? You were determined that you could solve everything on your own. You needed no one’s help—just your best effort.
That’s the sort of attitude that got a lot of people in Israel killed through the years. They said, “We’re the chosen people, surely we’ll have victory!” and they went into battles where they got crushed, because God wasn’t with them.
I used to do a small group exercise where we blindfolded people and put their hands on a rope maze and told them to get out. Now, here was the funny thing about it: it was just one big circle. People just kept going around in circles. Every once in a while, someone would change direction and go the other way. This sounds cruel, doesn’t it? The leaders just sit back and laugh while the blindfolded people walk in circles. Well, it was a little bit. But it had a point, too. The leaders would walk around asking people, “Do you need anything?” “Can I do anything for you?” Because the only real way out was to finally acknowledge that you needed help—that you couldn’t do it on your own. So someone would finally say, “I think I need some guidance” or “some direction” or one person asked for “a helping hand.” And when they did, we would take them away from the circle and take the blindfold off. But some people would just keep going—30, 45 minutes. And when we asked if they needed anything, some of them would say absurd things like, “No, I think I about have it figured out” or “I think I’m getting close now.”
This, I think, is some of our approach to life—refusing any help. Assuming we have everything we need on our own. If you compare it to the farming analogy, it would be like land that thinks it can produce a crop all on its own—no seed, no water, no farmer. Just try hard enough!
But then there’s the other sort of attitude—and that’s the attitude that says God will take care of it all. “If it’s God’s will, I’m sure it will happen.” If God wants to produce a crop, God will do it. We abandon any personal responsibility.
You can see how some people hearing the announcement about God’s kingdom could start to think that way. Either God will do it, or God won’t. We just wait.
This is where a parable like what Jesus tells would disrupt either of those attitudes. It’s not all barren and thorns—continued exile. It’s not all good crop—restoration. It’s a mixture. If Jesus is announcing a new era—a return from exile where God’s word yields a huge crop—he’s also announcing that not everyone returns from exile. The barren land and the thorns remain. That’s not the message the people expect.
Jesus ends by acknowledging that this message he’s giving is cryptic: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” That would be like saying, “Think on that for a while.”
It’s funny that we would think parables are such great devices because they make things easier to understand, simpler. It doesn’t seem that the disciples thought that. After the parable, look at what they ask Jesus.
Bad News — Parables and Isaiah 6
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10)
“Jesus, why can’t you just tell them straight what’s going on? We’ve heard of this great new business practice––bullet points, get straight to the point. Just tell us all exactly what you mean.”
But then Jesus refers back to Isaiah. A different part. Not that part later that’s comfort to the exiles. It’s a part near the beginning—in chapter 6—that is much less comfortable. Look at his answer. Why speak in parables?
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ ” (Matthew 13:11-15)
Have you ever heard that and wondered why God would ever talk about keeping people from understanding? Surely God would want everyone to hear and see and understand! But in this part of the book of Isaiah, God talks to the prophet about making the people’s hearts calloused and their ears dull. Why?
Look at the song that came right before that:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
Do you see what’s happening here?? It’s another passage about Israel like land that’s supposed to produce a harvest! And here’s God, clearing it of those rocky places that might keep things from growing.
In our house, we talk in terms of setting up our kids for success. Do any of you do this—for yourselves or for kids or anyone else? We know that if we let our kids stay up too late on a school night, the next morning will be a disaster. And we really can’t blame the kids for it. It’s on us. So here, it’s almost like God saying, “I did everything I could to set them up for success!”
The passage continues:
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7)
So the same book of Isaiah that later comforts people in exile about God producing a great crop is the book that earlier warned them of their exile. (Most people think that the piece we just read is referring to the time before they were led into captivity. It’s giving the reason they went into captivity.)
Isaiah warned them that God would make them a wasteland because he did everything necessary for them to produce good fruit, but instead they produced only bad. God expected justice but saw bloodshed. He expected righteousness, but instead heard cries of distress—probably from people who were victimized.
These are people whose ears and eyes were already shut to God. Their hearts were already hardened. God had done everything necessary, and they yielded only bad fruit. So God said, “I’m going to stop protecting them, and they’ll be destroyed.”
You probably expect to hear some anger in that. A people who hardened themselves to their God. But there’s also probably a sense of heartache in it. Like when a parent realizes they can’t do anything more for the child who’s making bad decisions. At some point, they say, “I have to leave him to his own devices.”
As those people walked off to captivity in tears, I wonder what the general mood was. I talked at the beginning about a time that you needed a word of hope and encouragement during a dark time. You needed to hear that things would get better. But I wonder if you can think of another time in your life: a time when you were reaping the consequences of your own actions.
This is one where it may be easier to see it in someone else’s life. Right? I suspect that you can identify someone else who is struggling as a result of their own bad decisions, but they won’t even recognize it. (Always easier to do with someone else! Probably worth searching our own lives for the same…) During some times like this, the word we need isn’t, “Everything will be okay.” The word we probably need is, “This will not get better until you start making better choices.”
I think that’s part of what we see in these Isaiah passages. They’re not comfort that God always makes everything better. They’re cold, hard reality for stubborn people.
Jesus – a prophet like Isaiah
Jesus comes as a prophet like Isaiah. But what is Jesus’ message for those people standing on the hillside? Is it continuing that word of hope from later in Isaiah? Comfort, comfort my people… Or is it continuing that word of warning like this one here? Usually those different words came in different eras.
In fact, it’s easy to see the history of the people of God in eras. There was the era of slavery in Egypt. And then there was the era of deliverance and Promised Land—living in a land flowing with milk and honey. And then there was the era of wasteland—the people taken into exile. And now they’re awaiting a new exodus, a return from their exile. A time when they flourish and thrive. Surely God will do this!
But as Jesus sits in that boat—talking to people who wonder if he’s the Son of David who God will place back on the throne—he tells a parable that suggests any new era will have both. It will have flourishing, and it will also have continued wasteland. This is something very different from those clear eras before. It means that some people will come out of exile, others will remain in exile. That’s not because God isn’t doing the work, but it’s based on how they’ll receive his work. And some of them have hardened themselves to their own ideas and understandings of the way things should be.
That time the people looked forward to is coming. There’s a welcome to the hurting exiles who need to hear that God will restore them. But God’s kingdom may not be coming in the way that some of them expected. For the people who are entitled, who think God owes them this, who have already hardened their hearts, or refuse to change their ways, for many of them who are set on violent overthrow of the Romans (again, see part I)—the message is probably more like that other one: “This will not get better for you if you don’t start making better choices.” This is why Jesus goes around saying things like “Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” Doesn’t this sound like some of those entitled children, who are sure that their parents will bail them out no matter what they do?
Don’t think that just because you’re “the people of God,” that you’re exempt from any expectation! Don’t think that your bad fruit doesn’t matter, just because you’re the chosen people!
Good News — Those who hear and understand
For those people who were wondering if Jesus was really the Son of David—the one who was expected to do all this—what Jesus says next confirms it for his disciples:
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For 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. (Matthew 13:16-17)
N. T. Wright summarizes it all this way:
Israel’s God is acting, sowing his prophetic word with a view to restoring his people, but much of the seed will go to waste, will remain in the ‘exilic’ condition, being eaten by the birds, or lost among the rocks and thorns of the exilic wilderness. The eventual harvest, though, will be great.[1. From Jesus and the Victory of God, 234]
When Jesus explains the parable, he describes the barren land as people who don’t listen and understand. He describes the rocky land as people who fall away as soon as they run into trouble or persecution. He describes the thorny land as people who are distracted by their other worries, or by money—those things grow up and choke out any chances for life. And then he describes the good land, where there’s a harvest, as people who hear God’s word and understand it.
While Jesus uses farming analogies, maybe a different one would be better for us. When Jesus comes, he comes to reign. He comes to set people free. If the story he’s describing is like a play, then it’s a play in search of a cast.[1. This analogy suggested by Wright in JVG, 243] Those people sitting on the hill listening don’t get to be spectators. They’re on stage. What part will they play? Will they be the ones who welcome Jesus with joy? Who don’t just flock to listen to him on hillsides, but who take his word deep down into themselves and understand and obey it, even if trouble or worries come?
I asked you at the beginning to go back to a difficult time—some time when you needed a word of hope and encouragement. The word Jesus gives is that—God is making everything new! He is restoring those places that were previous wasteland. Good news! The good news to you who have lived in any slavery to sin is this: in Jesus, God has overthrown Satan. Through Jesus, you do not have to remain captive to sin. For you who will hear and understand, God will produce a crop—good fruit. God will replace any wasteland that has come before and restore you. This is a transformation of your past: wiping away the guilt of the past. It’s a transformation of your present: replacing sin with righteousness. And it’s a transformation of your future: deliverance from death and wasteland to life eternal in God’s kingdom.
And for us as the people of God, this happens not just to individuals, but to groups of people––the church. In us, God should be able to look for justice and see justice, for righteousness and hear cries of joy.
But also there’s warning. For any who think they’re in a desert place, but who won’t listen to Jesus’ prophetic word, there’s just more desert to come. The word for these may not be a word that says, “Comfort, comfort, my people…” It may be a word that says, “This will not get better for you if your choices don’t change,” or “Things are going to stay the same until you give up your own ways and are ready to listen and understand God’s ways.” God does not bail out people who have shown no actual desire to hear and understand and obey. God does not bail out people who think they’re entitled to some gift from God. God gives comfort to those eager to hear and understand and obey. He gives warning to those who aren’t.
You wonder how the people standing on that hillside responded. Surely some decided he wasn’t the kind of Son of David they were hoping for. They may have been some of the ones to later yell, “Crucify him!” But there were others there who gave up everything to follow him, to listen to him, to devote their lives to him. How will we hear the announcement of God’s kingdom today?