We are approaching the finale of Matthew’s gospel, and as an endcap to Jesus’ teaching ministry, Matthew the evangelist shares with us the account of three very different reactions to this man, this prophet, this king, Jesus. These reactions very closely correspond with the parable of the farmer and the four soils from Matthew chapter 13.
As you may recall, very near the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry, He said there would be four basic reactions when someone encountered the word of God. He taught in a story, a parable about a farmer who went out to scatter seed at planting time. Some seed fell on the path, which was cold, hard, dead, and completely resistant to the seed. The seed never stood a chance of taking root in that hard soil.
Today, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we see a real-life example of this hardened soil in Caiphas and the other Chief Priests, Israel’s spiritual gatekeepers. These supposedly most holy of Israel’s holy men -- the ones who were supposed to be the pinnacle of devotion when it came to hearing God’s voice and seeing His hand at work -- were in reality totally deaf and totally blind to the Word of God, the wonderful counselor, the clear Messiah: Jesus. Stubbornly, this elite club would not open their hearts to God’s message, not even a little. Their hardened resistance to God’s Word would spell barrenness and spiritual famine not only for themselves, but for the nation of Israel they were appointed to represent.
The second and third seeds in that parable of the farmer’s field fell among thorns... and in rocky, shallow soil. These seeds were choked out by weeds and scorched dead by the sun, respectively. They represented those who were willing to go with God’s amazing grace for a short while, but when the cares of life and the rejection of the world became too much to handle, they fell away and died spiritually. These two types of seeds, the ones that fell among thorns and on the rocks, are manifested in the person of Judas.
Matthew reminds us today that Judas was no mere casual follower of Jesus -- he was “one of the twelve” -- part of the core team, one of the elite special forces of the disciples. Judas found himself disappointed and threatened by Jesus’ determination to be nailed to a cross instead of leading an armed revolt against Rome. Little did Judas and the other zealots know just how powerful the crucifixion would be in transforming Rome, and therefore the world, in the coming years. Furthermore, like the seed that fell among thorns, John the evangelist tells us that Judas was very greedy for money, and the cares of the world were too much for him to ignore. His faith was choked out by the heat of persecution and disappointment, but also by the cares of this world and greedy gain. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, it is hard to miss Judas as a tragic, living example of those two seeds from the parable of the sower.
And finally, the farmer cast seed on good soil, ready soil, welcoming soil, soil that was prepared to receive the life-giving word of God and His one and only Son. This seed is represented in the woman who responded in faith to Jesus and broke the alabaster jar in His presence. We learn in John’s gospel that this was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus -- but not Mary the mother of Jesus. Notice how little regard this Mary has for the endless obstacles this world has put in her way! She circumvents every social and religious barrier to come to Jesus and offer her shockingly sincere and extravagant worship. First off, she enters the home of Simon -- a leper. This was not acceptable according to her culture. Lepers were unclean, and to enter the home of a leper was social suicide, and a cultural rebellion with a heavy price. But Jesus was there, and she had to get in, too. Mary’s boldness doesn’t end there, though, Mary sacrificed what must have been a very precious family heirloom, an incredibly expensive jar of fragrant oil, in order to show her love for the Lord. Not only was this a financially unwise decision according to the ways of the world, but it may very well have also been considered a betrayal of her family, because a flask of oil like this would very likely have been an inheritance, passed down from generation to generation. Also, Mary’s gift is extravagant beyond what anyone else present thought was appropriate. The complaints start the minutes she offers her expensive gift. And so it is with anyone who wishes to show extravagant love to God. When you worship God without concern for the expectations of the people around you, people will talk, they will complain, and they will almost certainly find some trivial way to be extremely offended.
Notice how dull the disciples are to spiritual things, while this deceptively “minor player” Mary gets it right! Yes, there can be no question -- in the context of the parable of the seeds and the four soils, Mary represents the seed that fell on good ground. And the crop her faithfulness yields is astounding -- Jesus rightly says that what she did in faith, against all social, cultural and family obstacles, will be remembered wherever the Gospel is proclaimed!
So, in these last scenes before the crucifixion, Matthew is pushing us to identify ourselves with the characters presented here.
Do we see ourselves in the chief priests and Caiphas, whose sustained hatred of Jesus leads them to utter hardness of heart and barrenness when they encounter Him, the living Word of God? When we are like Caiaphas and these priests, we are driven by envy for the devotion Jesus requires. Yes -- envy. Not envy for the attention He is getting, but envy over the absolute position of authority He demands in our lives if we are to follow Him. Caiphas sees Jesus as mounting a direct assault on his domain -- which is true. Jesus will not settle for anything less than our full and complete devotion to Him -- which ultimately means relinquishing the throne in our own hearts. Like this sad enclave of self-important priests, when we envy Jesus for the devotion he expects, we will eventually desire nothing short of His death in our hearts.
Or do we see ourselves in Judas, whose sinister treachery is to this day a metaphor for any kind of betrayal by a friend? Judas was driven by selfishness -- both a selfish desire to save his own skin in the coming persecution, and selfishness for his pocketbook. Like many of us here, Judas is initially attracted to Jesus and His ways, but when the road gets hard, that old instinct for self-preservation kicks in even harder. And so we sell Him out. Oh, we might pretend for a while to still be a disciple, but the truth is, we no longer call him lord. Instead, like Judas, we desire to be His lord -- the price Judas received for Jesus, 30 pieces of silver, is also the same price the old law demanded as the blood price for slave. Not as overt as the priests, Judas plays the part of a hypocrite -- greeting Jesus with a kiss at the moment he is (metaphorically) stabbing God in the back.
Or, in contrast to Judas and the priests, do we see ourselves in Mary. Her devoted love for Jesus is driven by faith, and is not concerned one bit about what others may think or about what following Him may cost? This extravagant love of a marginal misfit is outmatched in all the world only by the extravagance of the love our master and maker showed when He poured out His life and His blood as a fragrant offering on the cross.
What About You?
These three people may well represent the reactions of anyone who has fully encountered Jesus as He is. Have you fully encountered Him? What is your reaction? Who do you identify with?
If the truth be known, Matthew wants us to be honest enough to admit that we are all of these at times. We can be hard hearted and envious like the hateful priests. We can also be selfish and hypocritical like treacherous Judas. And, sometimes, when we get it right, we can be faithful like devoted, extravagant, and always-remembered Mary.
Let us learn from these three types. Let us allow love and faithfulness to win in our hearts today, to overcome envy and selfishness, and to let the good seed of the Word of God, Jesus Christ himself and His spirit, dwell in us richly!