Thought for the day
The parable of the sower is told twice, in an original form and in a later, church interpretation. The explanation tends to dominate our reading; but it might be worthwhile allowing the original parable to “speak.” It tells of small, even careless, beginnings—the sower scatters all over the place. As we see in nature, tiny seeds have an astonishing, miraculous effect. Go back over your own experience and recall something which began modestly but which in the end grew surprisingly. The reign of God is like that—the modest beginnings of Jesus’ own preaching had tremendous effect.
God of every harvest, it can be hard today to be confident about the Good News and yet we know that it is you who give the growth (1 Cor 3:7).
Matt 13:1 On that day after Jesus went out of the house, he sat by the lake. 2 And such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat to sit while the whole crowd stood on the shore. 3 He told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they did not have much soil. They sprang up quickly because the soil was not deep. 6 But when the sun came up, they were scorched, and because they did not have sufficient root, they withered. 7 Other seeds fell among the thorns, and they grew up and choked them. 8 But other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 The one who has ears had better listen!”
Matt 13:10 Then the disciples came to him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He replied, “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. 12 For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand. 14 And concerning them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will listen carefully yet will never understand,
you will look closely yet will never comprehend.
15 For the heart of this people has become dull;
they are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they would not see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
Matt 13:16 “But your eyes are blessed because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For I tell you the truth, 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.
Matt 13:18 “So listen to the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches what was sown in his heart; this is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. 21 But he has no root in himself and does not endure; when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the word, but worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the word, so it produces nothing. 23 But as for the seed sown on good soil, this is the person who hears the word and understands. He bears fruit, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.”
This is part of the third largest discourse of Matthew’s five. At the end, you find the concluding formula: When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place. (Matthew 13:53)
(i) You have three very distinct portions of text here, each from a different “layer” of the tradition, reflecting different concerns. The parable of the sower is found also in Mark 4:1-9 (slightly longer) and Luke 8:4-8 (quite short). The surprising increase is given differently in Matthew (100-60-30) and Mark (30-60-100).
(ii) The intervening—and very puzzling—conversation is also found in Mark 4:10-12 and Luke 8:9-10. Matthew’s version is much longer. On the face of it, the text seems absurd: why speak at all if the purpose is so that people may not understand? The citation from Isaiah is used elsewhere in similar contexts: John 12:40 and Acts 28:26-27. A very similar text (Is 29:10) is cited in Romans 11:8. The context for this unusual spread is the much later Christian attempt to understand rejection of the Gospel by God’s first chosen people. They reasoned that as it happened in this way, it must have been part of God’s plan to extend salvation beyond the boundaries of Judaism. They found support for this in the texts from Isaiah. Matthew—always the rabbi—gives the fullest version of the text and even adds the beatitude in vv. 16-17 (Luke has the same beatitude but locates it elsewhere at 10:23-24). Here it fits the context and indeed Matthew’s purpose. This means, to put it plainly, that we do not have here Jesus’ own understanding of the purpose of the parables but a later generation’s understanding of God’s mysterious use of the “no” from the people of Israel in order to create a “yes” among the Gentiles. Hence the beatitude at the end!
(iii) The allegorical explanation of the parable—usually assumed to reflect both a later “church” context and a flattening of the original parable—is also found in all three synoptic gospels, Mark 4:13-20 and Luke 8:11-15. Matthew’s version reflections his interests and typical vocabulary. He takes up the word “hear” to introduce the explanation. He moves the idea of understanding from “outside” the parable and makes it part of the interpretation. In Mark, the seed is the “word”; in Luke, the “word of God”; in Matthew, the “word of the kingdom.” Very importantly, Matthew expresses his interpretation in the singular, challenging the individual hearer to respond.
Kind of writing
(i) The original parable is a metaphor, a comparison of some kind designed to trigger a new understanding or a change in the heart of the hearer. (Parables have their own meaning independent of any later allegorical reading.) In our case, the parable portrays the astonishing growth of the kingdom in spite of its smallness during the ministry of Jesus. Most likely, the climactic sequence 30-60-100 belongs to the layer of the ministry of Jesus.
(ii) The intervening conversation is a chreia, this time in the form of a question and answer, using a biblical citation. It concludes with a beatitude, backed by a comparison with other generations.
(iii) Allegorical interpretation is known the Bible (see the parable of the trees in Judges 9:1-21) and became very common later on in Christian interpretation. In our context here, the allegorical interpretation reflects a situation later than the ministry of Jesus (the persecution of disciples and the “settling down” of believers) and turns the parable of surprising growth into a warning about what can go wrong when complacency sets in.
Old Testament background
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” (Is 6:9–10)
It is part of the call of Isaiah, whose preaching will be met with in-comprehension. In the context, this is not God’s will, but is foreseen and incorporated into the call of the prophet. There a positive reversal of this in chapters 32. Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen. (Is 32:3)
New Testament foreground
As we saw above, the use of Is 6:9-10 is spread across the NT. The same puzzling rejection of Jesus is being addressed in each case.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)
Verse 1 The Palestinian context would lend tremendous force to these images. The crowds are addressed. The image of the sower was not confined to the world of the Bible. Seneca writes in one of his letters, “Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it once has found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth” (Letter 38.2).
Verse 8 In spite of everything, the kingdom will flourish to an amazing degree.
Verse 9 Given that we all have ears, this means every one! This forces each listener to ask, “Will I be part of the eschatological harvest?”
Verse 10 “To them” is quite revealing—already a them/us setting is presumed.
Verse 12 An offensive text, on the surface. In the immediate context, it means that those already open can receive the word, but those whose hearts are closed cannot.
Verse 13 The Greek is difficult. The text in Mark could be purpose (in order that) or consequential (with the result that). In any case, Matthew changes Mark’s “in order that” (hina) to “on account of” (hoti).
Verse 16 This is aimed directly at the Matthean community.
Verse 18 Matthew takes up the language of hearing, thereby echoing the ending of the original parable.
Verse 19 The issue here is not understanding.
Verse 23 Why this reverse order? A hundredfold yield is possible but extraordinary. Perhaps Matthew wants the more ordinary experience to be the climax?
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus uses parables to make people think about their own responses to his message. As you read this parable you may recognise that at different times you have been like each of the different types of soil. As you recall times when you presented fertile soil for the word of God, what helped you create that receptive atmosphere? What lessons for life do you get from that?
2. Parents with children, teachers with pupils, speakers with listeners, are all like sowers in a field where the preparation of the soil is up to another—the child, pupil or listener. They can sow the seed but cannot guarantee that it will bear fruit. At times there may be a temptation not to try any more. The challenge is to sow in hope. When have you been surprised by the harvest you have reaped?
3. “We are wasting our time here” may sometimes be the apparent wisdom in a group. Have there been times when you have gone against this apparent wisdom and seen your efforts bear fruit?
God of the heavens, God of the earth, all creation awaits your gift of new life. Prepare our hearts to receive the word of your Son, that his gospel may grow within us and yield a harvest that is a hundredfold.Through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.