Matthew 13: 1-23
Parallel: Mark 4: 1-20; Luke 8: 4-15
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 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.
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In Matthew’s gospel we are almost at the midpoint of the gospel when we encounter this first block of parables. This is the third of the blocks of teaching in Matthew (previously we have encountered the Sermon on the Mount and the Mission Discourse) but now we encounter three groups of parables grouped together with explanations of why Jesus teaches the crowd in this manner and explanation to the group of disciples. This first parable and explanations is mainly shared between Mark, Matthew and Luke with Matthew adding the text alluded to in Mark.
Our word parable comes from the Greek prefix para (along-side, together with) combined with the verb balo (to cast, to throw) and in Greek they are stories that cast two things alongside one another metaphorically. They are related to a long practice within and outside the bible of mashal, short stories used in instruction and teaching. They are not necessarily allegories where individual items represent something else (although the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds below are disclosed as allegories by the interpretation provided in the gospels). Most of the parables we encounter will stand on their own without interpretation often acting like metaphors placing two things alongside each other to either reveal (or perhaps conceal) something about what Jesus is saying.
Unlike the Sermon on the Mount or the Mission Discourse where the primary audience is the disciples, now the primary audience is the crowds which approach Jesus. The teaching takes place while the crowd stands on the shoreline in Matthew while Jesus, and presumably his disciples, sits on a boat. It is likely that Jesus, like most storytellers, probably used these stories on multiple occasions and that they were an important part of his method of addressing the crowds that sought him. As a reader of the parables we are invited into the role of the disciple who has been given to know the secrets (literally mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven rather than the crowds who stand on the shoreline and many of whom, in the words of this first parable, will not grow deep roots or will endure only while it does not provoke trouble or tribulation.
In contrast to the other parables in this chapter the parable of the sower is not placed alongside the kingdom of heaven explicitly in its proclamation. The short story told to the crowd simply begins in the familiar picture of a person sowing seed in anticipation of an eventual harvest. Without jumping ahead to the explanations that the gospels provide let’s look at this short story on its own. Hand sowing is done for wheat, barley and other grains and would’ve reflected one of the primary means of farming in the Middle East. Many of the festivals of the Jewish people are oriented around the harvest times for these sown crops and they were essential for the diet of the people Jesus speaks to. Although modern farming attempts to remove some of the variables in the soil by introducing fertilizers, planting at a preset depth and field preparation, even modern farmers will see areas of a field underproduce while others produce abundantly. But the sower in this parable casts the seed upon the field and its surroundings indiscriminately and the seed falls both in areas expected to provide growth and those that would be typically avoided (hardened paths or areas of brambles and thorns). The reality of rocks and undesired plants growing in a field may have been unavoidable, and yet, the sowing in portions of the field that are not anticipated to be good earth is probably intended to be the portion of the parable which introduces the dissonance to normal, more careful practices of preserving one’s seed where harvest is most likely.
Following the parable are two sets of explanations to the disciples. The audience has changed and those who are in the presence of Jesus are the ‘little faith ones’ who continue to follow him through his work and proclamation. The disciples, even in Matthew which has a more positive evaluation of them than Mark’s gospel, hardly prove to be paragons of understanding and yet it fits within the paradoxical world that Jesus proclaims where the Father has, “hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to infants.” (Matthew 11: 25). These ‘little faith ones’ are given the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew takes the allusion in Mark to Isaiah 6: 9-11 and makes it explicit. Isaiah 6: 9-11 is a part of the call of Isaiah which is less frequently heard where God says to Isaiah that paradoxically the lack of reception for Isaiah’s prophecy is a part of the divine plan. Here Isaiah and this first parable are brought together to speak to the reality of that God’s proclamation often falls upon dull hearts, closed ears and shut eyes. The call still goes for those who have ears to hear, eye to see and hearts to turn and yet even in the midst of places where the harvest is great, there will be surprising places where the word of the kingdom is not received, where faith is not found, or where the depth of understanding is shallow or where distractions or alternative values strangle the nascent faith.
The explanation of this parable as an allegory provides a key to understanding the parable. This may not be the only way that the parable was heard, but as readers we are invited to hear ourselves with the disciples as those who receive the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. The seed becomes the word of the kingdom, the proclamation of Jesus or the proclamation done by his disciples, which goes out into the world. We have already seen times where Jesus’ message is received with hostility and resistance and this will continue to be a reality, including later in this chapter in Jesus’ hometown. For those who are charged with casting this word into a waiting world one of the gracious pieces of this parable is that reception is not their responsibility. They are not responsible for preparing the soil, they are merely sowers casting the seed into the receptive or unreceptive earth. Some of the proclamation may have no perceived effect and lay lifeless on the ground to be snatched away by the forces opposed to the kingdom, at other times there may be a joyous reception followed be dashed hopes as the shallowness of the faith is revealed as times become difficult, sometimes other persuasive alternatives will turn people away from the kingdom. I’ve always found the description of the thorny ground as ‘the cares of the world and the lure of wealth’ enlightening for I think many modern Christians who follow a prosperity understanding of the gospel would think that being wealthy and being engaged in the world are fertile soil rather than soil that grows strangling weeds. Nonetheless, there continues to be a harvest for the times the proclamation meets those receptive, who are people where the seed can germinate and bear fruit and continue to give life to the world around them. In our modern mechanical understandings of farming, which reflect our modern understandings of our world, the farmer would probably force the field to yield its harvest, but these artificial methods have their cost to the long-term health of the field. Perhaps we modern proclaimers have also tried to force a reception of the kingdom only to find it shallow, choked or non-existent. Perhaps, in this ancient wisdom there is a permission to a more cooperative approach where both the seed and soil must work together and the sower in not ultimately responsible for the harvest, for that lies in the hands of the Father. Like in the Mission Discourse the sower, when they find a field that is not receptive to the seed, is simply to shake off the dust and proceed on to another field where the seed may thrive.