Another year has passed and here we are celebrating Harvest again. Where does the time go? This is the time of year when we quite rightly give thanks to God for his goodness and mercy in providing so much for us by way of the harvest. The amount that farmers produce may vary slightly from year to year but in the main there is always more than enough to feed us. Some years it is grain that brings in a bumper crop, in other years it may be fruit or vegetables. However, whatever it is it is all due to God’s benevolence towards us.
It is only right and proper that we should celebrate harvest and give thanks to God for all that He does for us. In celebrating we are continuing an interesting tradition that was started by the Jewish people. As the passage (Exodus 23:14-19) that I read earlier shows, they had, and indeed still have, a number of festivals related to different harvests. The harvest festival as we know it is much more modern than that since it originated in Victorian times when there would be a massive party when the final work of harvesting was completed. All those who had worked during the harvest would come together for a great big party as they relaxed and enjoyed themselves.
Over the centuries farming methods have changed greatly. In the passage from Matthew that we have just read the seeds were obviously sown by hand and thrown almost randomly in all directions. Now, modern technology comes into play and new tractors are fitted with satellite equipment that tells the farmer precisely where to sow the seed in order to get the maximum yield. That is quite a major, and expensive, step but has helped farmers to be sure that seed falls in the right place. That presents quite a contrast with what we have just read. In 13:4-8 Jesus describes the seed that has been sown landing in four different parts of the ground, only one of which ensured proper growth of the crop. I should imagine that the yield come harvest time would have been very low and very variable year on year.
This whole story begins with Jesus being surrounded by such large crowds that He retreated into a small boat and used it as a pulpit. At least out there He wouldn’t have been jostled as He generally was when He was out and about preaching! Many of those in the crowd would have been in farming or had some knowledge of the farming process, which is probably why Jesus chose to tell them a parable, a story, based on agriculture. When He had told the story, His disciples were curious as to why He had chosen to speak to the crowd in a parable. His reply may seem rather strange although very understandable. Jesus’ argument, or explanation, was fairly simple. The disciples had spent a lot of time with Him and as a result had been exposed to the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11). They may have struggled to understand all that He had told them but they at least had some idea of the wonders that awaited them in heaven. It should go without saying that the people to whom Jesus was speaking did not have that privilege and would therefore have had difficulty understanding what He was talking about. Using parables, or stories, allowed Jesus to paint word pictures to illustrate what He was trying to teach them and help them to understand what He was saying.
In 13:13 Jesus adds the interesting thought, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” What He meant was that many could keep on looking at something but not see what they were meant to see, and many could keep on hearing something and still not grasp what was being said to them. That is just as true today. Many have heard the good news of Jesus Christ but have failed to understand what was being said or what it meant for them. Many have looked around at God’s glorious creation but still cannot see or accept that God exists and that He created everything; it didn’t just arrive as the result of a big bang or a cloud of dust being formed into the earth and all that is in it.
As always a lot of what Jesus said to the people was rooted and grounded in scripture. These comments were no different since Jesus went on to quote a short passage from Isaiah 6:9-10. The Message version puts this quote in 13:14-15 in very clear and simple terms; it says this, “Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing. Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing. The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they screw their eyes shut so they won’t have to look, so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face and let me heal them.” I particularly like the comment, “the people are blockheads!” That summed up why Jesus chose to use parables to explain things to the people. If He didn’t do that they probably wouldn’t listen and they certainly wouldn’t understand.
We can see from 13:16-17 that Jesus didn’t feel that way about His disciples; their eyes and ears were blessed because they could see and hear and understand what He was saying. Jesus reminded them just how fortunate and privileged they were since He knew that there were “prophets and righteous people” from years gone by who would have loved to have been in their position.
As it is harvest time perhaps we should go back there for a few moments! The farmer who sowed the seed had gone out to scatter that seed all across his land. As we can see from 13:3-8 unfortunately not all of the seed fell onto good ground. Some “fell along the path”, “some fell on rocky places”, “other seed fell among thorns” and “still other seed fell on good soil”. Wherever the seed fell we know that God nurtured it by sending the rain and snow that it needed to grow. We can read in Isaiah 55:10 that “the rain and snow came down from heaven ... watering the earth and making it bud and flourish”. That meant that the seeds would grow and yield a good crop, without that water they simply wouldn’t flourish.
However, despite that nourishing water from heaven we know that not all of the seed flourished. The seed on the path just lay there and so was soon eaten up by the birds. The seed on the rocks didn’t have enough soil for the roots to form properly and so the new growth soon withered and died. The seed that fell among the thorns produced plants that were soon choked by those thorns and not allowed to grow. It was only the seed that fell on the good soil that was able to grow and yield a crop. That doesn’t happen today of course. Those modern techniques that I mentioned earlier mean that virtually 100% of the seed falls on good ground and is able to take root. Under current regulations a strip of ground around a field is left fallow and so any seed that falls there will be eaten by the birds. Whilst farming techniques keep on improving and using more and more technology, the seed still needs the rain and snow, and the sun that is sent by God. There is no technology that can be invented that will ever replace God and so He will still be there to send the much needed water!
It is interesting to see in 13:8 that the seed that fell on the good soil produced a crop that was “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown”. I wonder if that was to make up for the seed that didn’t develop and grow.
Whenever Jesus used a parable there was always a meaning behind it that He wanted everyone to understand. This parable is no different and in 13:18-23 He explains just what the true meaning of the story is.
Jesus likens the sowing of the seed to the preaching of God’s word. Just as not all the seed lands on the good soil so not everyone who hears the word of God responds in the same way; it doesn’t matter how good or bad the preacher is, that’s what happens and God is fully aware of that.
Just as the seed lands on four different types of soil so the word is heard by four different types of people. There are those who hear the word but because they don’t fully understand it the enemy comes along and snatches away any vague semblance of understanding that there may be. That is like the seed that fell on the path and was eaten by the birds.
Then there are those who hear the word and respond to it immediately with great joy in their hearts and great enthusiasm. Unfortunately their faith doesn’t develop and they fail to establish any roots. Consequently when times get hard and any sort of trouble or persecution comes along then they rapidly fall away. They are like the seed that fell on the rocks.
Thirdly there are those who hear God’s word but are pulled away by the lure of the world and the ever present worries about wealth, job security and things of the world. Such thoughts simply strangle anything that they may have heard and accepted and so they fall away. These people are like the seed that falls among the thorns.
Finally, there are those who hear the word of God and who understand it and respond positively. They grow and develop in their faith and become good servants of Christ. They are like the seed on the good soil and just as that seed tends to yield a superb crop so too does this group of people. They share and demonstrate the good news of Christ and the love that He has for everyone. Consequently as a result of their witness for Christ many more come to faith.
I mentioned earlier that a lot of what Jesus said had a scriptural background, mainly through prophecy. The thoughts of God sending the rain and snow to water the ground and aid the harvest are prophesied in Isaiah 55, a chapter that we looked at a few weeks ago. They do their work “making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry” (Isaiah 55:10b The Message)
The thought of the seed falling on good soil and producing a bumper crop is likened to “someone who hears the word and understands it” (13:23). In that instance it can be said that God’s word has not returned to Him empty, it has yielded what He planned for it to yield. That thought of God’s word “not returning empty” is also prophesied in Isaiah 55; you see, it is God’s wish for everyone to respond to His word by coming to faith and growing as a result.
There are many harvests mentioned in the Bible and we can see here that there are two basic types of harvest. There is the harvest of food that we are rightly celebrating today and then there is the harvest of people who hear and respond to God’s word. Jesus referred to this second type of harvest in Luke 10:1-2 when He sent out the 72 two by two to go into every town to spread the good news. His comment at that time still applies today; Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
The lack of workers also applies to the food harvest, especially the fruit harvest when many foreign workers come to the UK just for the harvest period to gather in all the fruit that has been produced. Many of these workers come year after year and without them the fruit would probably be left to rot.
God’s word will never rot but it does need workers to go out into the harvest field and bring in the “crop” of new believers. We need to be careful though not to look at people as just a crop to be reaped but rather as loved individuals who could rot and die without hearing the word of God and taking it into their hearts.
Harvest is a great time to celebrate and give thanks to God. He provides all of the food that we eat and without that sustenance where would we be? He sends the rain and snow in winter and the sun in summer and they all combine to refresh the ground and nurture the seeds and fledgling plants as they come to full fruition.
Similarly, we should give thanks to God for all those who have heard His word and responded by coming to faith in Jesus Christ. They too represent a type of harvest, a harvest that is brought to us by God.
So, as we celebrate harvest today let us all give thanks for the seeds that are sown and take root in the ground to produce a great crop, and the seed of God’s word that is sown and takes root in our hearts to produce a different type of great crop. Whatever the harvest we should all praise God for His generous gifts that He gives each day.