The Parable of the Sower and Soils in Matthew 13

The lectionary this week (Fifth Sunday after Trinity in Year A) repeats a grievous error in its choice of passage that it also made last week—cutting out the central section and thus seriously altering the meaning of the reading.

Last week (on which, forgive me dear regular reader, I failed to comment), we had a reading that excised two sections from three in the chapter: Jesus rather taunting comparison of himself with John the Baptist, and the response to them both (Matt 11.16–19); Jesus condemnatory words to the towns that had not received him (Matt 11.20–24); and Jesus’ invitation to ‘rest’ and ‘take my yoke upon you’ (Matt 11.25–30). The lectionary cut out the middle section, so that instead of us hearing both the challenge and the comfort of Jesus’ teaching, we focussed on the comfort only. Is it any wonder, then, that so many find it easy to make Jesus in their own image, as one who offers words of solace only without confronting us with the challenge and consequences of decision?

There is a similar error here. The lectionary selects the first (Matt 13.1–9) and third (Matt 13.18–23) parts of Jesus’ parable of the soils (usually called the parable of the sower following Matt 13.18, but it is in fact the soils and their different responses to the seed which are at the centre of our attention), whilst omitting the crucial middle section of Jesus’ commentary (Matt 13.10–17), which both contains the challenge of the parables, and explains that this is, in effect, a parable about parables. Most seriously, the elision of the two outer sections changes the meaning of the second; if we didn’t know better, we would think (by following on from verse 9 to verse 18) that those ‘hearing’ the explanation of the parable are the same people who ‘hear’ the parable itself. They aren’t, and that is the point; the parable is for ‘them’ (or ‘those outside’, Mark 4.11) but the explanation is for ‘you’, the ones to whom the ‘secret of the kingdom of heaven’ has been given.

Mark recounts the parable as part of the first (and only?) major block of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 4, following three chapters of dynamic action in the ministry of Jesus, which has provoked both wonder and opposition. In Matthew, it comes as part of the third block of teaching—the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 to 7, and the teaching on mission in chapter 10 preceding, and followed by teaching on life in the ekklesia community in chapter 18 and the eschatological ‘parables’ in chapter 24 and 25. In this sense, then, this collection of teaching on the kingdom comes at the centre of Jesus’ teaching ministry, and has a pivotal importance. Mark gathers other teaching around it in Mark 4, but Matthew collects more material, including several parables that are unique to this gospel, and there is a relentless focus on the ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s].’ That emphasis finds its way into this parable about parables; where in Mark 4.14 ‘The sower sows the Word’ (at five words, surely one of the shortest verses in the NT), in Matt 13.19 this seed is ‘the word of the kingdom’.

Matthew has not given us any explicit indication as to the location of Jesus’ recent activity, but the fact that Matthew alone specifies that Jesus ‘went out of the house to the sea’ implies that this takes place near Capernaum, where he has made his home (Matt 4.13). He follows Mark (contrast Luke) in including a general introduction, that he ‘told them many things’, perhaps reminding us of the wisdom of Solomon, who told ‘three thousand proverbs’ (1 Kings 4.32, in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, parabolai). Jesus is in a boat, pushed away from the crowds on the shore; we might infer that some of his disciples are with him, so that they are actually separated from the crowd physically, as well as in their understanding.

Over the years there has been a wide-ranging debate about the way we should read parables. In an earlier period, scholars made the dogmatic assertion that parables only had one main point, and that the inclusion in all three Synoptic gospels of Jesus’ explanation was a very early misunderstanding of the teaching. (It is sobering to note the confidence of scholars that, at nearly 2,000 years’ distance, and working in another language and culture, they are able to tell those who first recorded Jesus’ teaching that they, the scholars, understood him better than the writers of the gospels!) In fact, the word parabole has quite a wide range of meanings, much broader than our English term has come to have. Even within this gospel, the term can refer to a simple comparison (in Matt 24.32) or a striking aphorism (Matt 15.15), and in the Greek OT it is also used as a description of a wide range of cryptic sayings and epigrams, proverbs, prophetic utterances and riddles (translating the Hebrew mashal).

There is also much debate about first-century farming practices in the region, and in particular the suggestion that seed was sown before ploughing the soil, thus explaining why seed might fall on ‘rocky ground’ where the soil was thin, and on soil that becomes compacted as it is used as a path. But this is in fact disputed—and it is worth noting that the meaning and impact of the parable does not depend on us knowing specific details of farming practice.

(It is always sobering to recognise how different the practicalities of life were in the pre-modern era. This short four-minute video from the slightly eccentric historian and vlogger Nikolas Lloyd illustrates this quite nicely.)

The parable itself is a quite straightforward description of a scenario from daily life in the agrarian culture in which Jesus was living and teaching. If you have ever broadcast seed by hand (for example, when reseeding a lawn), then you will know that the wind carries seed to all sorts of unplanned places—and that birds love to come and eat it up when they can. The ‘rocky ground’ here is not so much grounds with stones in (as the fate of the seed there makes clear) but soil that only thinly covers the underlying rock; this is more common in that part of the world than it is in most parts of Britain. The possibility of thorns or other weeds choking out the crop that has been sown is a much more serious threat in a culture without weedkillers, as Nikolas Lloyd points out in the video. The competition of the bad and even indifferent with the good was a real threat. Although there are four kinds of soil mention, and so four different possible outcomes, there is no sense in which Jesus implies only a quarter of the seed is fruitful, as some commentators (slightly oddly) claim. The yields that Jesus mentions would, in that context, be good, but not extraordinary or miraculous.

There is a kind of progression in the destinies of the four groups of seeds. The first seed never gets going; the second gets going, but cannot endure; the third gets going, and endures for a while, but in the end produces nothing; only the fourth fulfils its potential and the intention of the sower. Curiously, Matthew reverses the order of productivity, starting with the most fruitful and going down to the least, in contradiction to Mark 4.8 (and different from Luke 8.8 who includes only the most fruitful). There doesn’t appear to be any reason for this, other than to draw our attention to it.

It is worth noting that, because Jesus’ teaching here uses such concrete and everyday images, it is both very memorable and very adaptable. You can easily engage children with it, but, if you have willing adults, you can even act it out in a memorable and amusing way once people’s inhibitions have relaxed a bit! I have done this in the last few months in the context of a secure psychiatric unit local to us, in a group consisting of patients and staff. And there is an almost unavoidable sense of needing ask—well, that’s the story, but what does it mean?

There appear to be at least three prominent themes within the parable and its explanation: the grace and generosity of God; the existence of spiritual forces of opposition; and the need both for decision and response, and for ongoing perseverance.

The grace of God is represented quite graphically by the sower, who broadcasts the seed far and wide, almost without regard for the destiny of the seed. In the immediate context, this is exemplified by Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and his willingness both to speak to people and bring them healing, forgiveness and restoration irrespective of whether or not they then personally respond to him. But already, within this gospel, Jesus has shared his ministry with the Twelve, and will eventually commission a much wider group (which ultimately includes us, dear reader) to share in this. Perhaps being generous with our actions is demanding but not too challenging; what we find hard is being generous in sharing the message of the kingdom of God, which will receive mixed reactions, and only bear fruit in some.

The existence of spiritual forces of opposition have their focus in the image of The Evil One, who is opposed to the fruitful and gracious purposes of God, and so seeks to snatch away the life-giving message of the kingdom before it can even sink down into the understanding of its hearers. It is striking that this element of the parable has no anticipation in the explanation from Isaiah of the different responses—and yet this sense of supernatural opposition is a consistent theme in the ministry and teaching of Jesus. It is difficult to think of any reasons why our experience should be any different.

The third focus is the need for decision and response. Coming as this parable does after the account in the previous two chapters describing Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and the very mixed response to it (even from those closest to him in his own earthly family!), it functions to answer the question: why is there such a varied engagement with Jesus and his ministry? We might be tempted to think, in a range of circumstances, ‘If only Jesus were here, physically, life would be much more straightforward!’ But that clearly is not the case; respond to the good news of the kingdom was as mixed for him as it often is for us. This parable serves both as an explanation of what has already happened, but also as an anticipation of what the disciples themselves will find in their own mission and ministry.

The paradox within the parable is that soils do not have a choice about what they are like—but people do have a choice about how they respond. Despite the apparently fixed division between the four kinds, and the apparently fixed division in the quotation from Isaiah about those who listen and those whose hearts have grown dull, the point of both is the invitation to change—’those who have ears to hear, let them hear!’ (There is no pun in Greek between ‘ears’ and ‘corn’ as there is in English.)

But what is called for is not only decision, but persistence, something that Matthew implies in his record of Jesus’ teaching, but that Luke makes more explicit (in Luke 8.15, using the term for ‘patient endurance’ that also comes in Rev 1.9).

Perhaps the final thing we should note is that, despite some indifferent, shallow and fruitless responses, in the end there is a harvest. Although Jesus offers no easy resolution here between the sovereignty and grace of God, the real but limited power of the Devil, and the central function of human response and responsibility—in the end God’s will prevails, not always in the way we expect, but in the end to produce a harvest.

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11 thoughts on “The Parable of the Sower and Soils in Matthew 13”

  1. Really interesting… As it happens I am preaching on this parable on Sunday and this is really helpful! 🙂 Blessings, David

  2. Bearing in mind the omissions from the lectionary, would you follow it or include the redacted verses?
    Who decides on the lectionary readings and what governs their choice, particularly when a distorted emphasis of the context results?

  3. The Revised Common Lectionary was produced in 1992 with its origin in N America but it is based on a Catholic lectionary from 1969. It is a three year programme of readings cycling through the synoptic gospels, one in each year with John coming up each year at the time of the major festivals. It includes readings from the Epistles and the Old Testament. Beware, it only covers 41% of the New Testament and much less of the Old.

  4. Very helpful, as always, Ian. Many thanks.
    Absolutely loved the video – many a true word………
    Now if some bright young theologian with a GSH could give some of our everyday misconceptions of the NT world and how we read back 19th and 20th century secular/legalistic values into our NT interpretations of Jesus’ teaching and ministry the same treatment……..???….. – our house groups and home groups would lap it up!!

  5. Your point in the text makes a true point about academia.

    You wrote:
    “….In an earlier period, scholars made the dogmatic assertion that parables only had one main point, and that the inclusion in all three Synoptic gospels of Jesus’ explanation was a very early misunderstanding of the teaching.”

    Such errors were, and are, propagated by those who fail to see that the original academics were merely asking a question and were not making a claim at all. By asking a question they can find out if it leads to anything. It is right that academics should ask questions, it is, by contrast, mistaken of us to assume academics are stating facts when they are not.

    The classic is John’s gospel. Even today you can find books claiming that John’s gospel is written post-300 AD. However, even archaeologists and scientists have proved that many of the items stated in John’s gospel are true. The pool does have 5 porticoes, the Roman fort does have a pavement outside it, and so on. It took Bauckham to politely ask of other academics that if John’s gospel was really so late then why are early letters in the Church quoting in. Even then, academics tried to hold on to the unproven idea that it was post 300AD, and only when fragment P52, in Ryland’s library was shown to be part of John’s gospel and written on both sides, was carbon dated and found to be circa 120 AD that the claim that John’s gospel was written post 300AD was shown to be clearly untrue (the point that it is written on both sides indicates it to probably be a copy and not the original).

    The new academic question that is now widely copied, referenced, and mistakenly taken to be a fact when it is nothing of the sort, is that the four koine Greek words for love are interchangeable and mean the same. The very idea that an ancient language of less than just 8000 words can have enough words to spare that four of them can mean the same is a defiance of reality. The four koine Greek words for love each have a different meaning. In English we attach an adjective (or adverb in some cases) to the word love to tell you what we mean. Thus koine Greek has one word where we have at least two. For an ancient language that has no surplus of words available, the use of one word in place of multiple words makes sense. The claim that the four words are interchangeable and mean the same will, in years to come, be shown to be untrue.

    • Re dating, Bauckham believes what he states as the ‘consensus’ view that Matthew, Luke and John were all written around AD 80. I dont think there is a consensus view when it comes to dating the Gospels, as a significant number of scholars believe, for example, that Luke was written no later than AD 65 (I tend to agree). There doesnt seem to be any good evidence for the so-called consensus view of such late dating, though it does appear the majority of scholars of all persuasions do think John was written post-AD 70, but that is debatable too.


    • Hi Clive,
      On words for love, I think you have missed the point. You commented on Ian’s article:

      which was only dealing with the use of two of the four words in one particular passage.

      Now, I don’t think anyone actually says all four words are exact, interchangable synonyms. Ian’s article actually quotes reasons for similarity between the two verbs in question in John 21. Perhaps the clearest is the LXX translation of Proverbs 8.17 where a single Hebrew verb is translated into both phileo and agapao. This does suggest that there is some overlap in the sematic range of these two words. Then, if you allow for John needing to translate from the language which Jesus and Peter used into Greek, I do wonder if John is using the Proverbs verse as a parallel. The exegetical point is that you should not base an interpretation on a supposed difference. This is not the same as saying that the words are identical in semantic range. Liddell-Scott-Jones is available online and if one compares there the variety of meanings of the two verbs, it does seem that there is enough overlap.

      The problem with vocabulary lies in English. I don’t know if it is the case that Koine Greek has only 8000 words (perhaps that is the vocabulary used in NT and LXX, but that does not mean that the actual language beyond these was so restricted). But English with its huge vocabulary because of its diverse origins only seems to have one word in use – love. It think it was Tom Wright who wrote that the word needs to learn how to delegate.

      • Dear David

        In English the word “love” can be wide open to a lack of clarity and requires adjectives (if “love” is a noun) and adverbs (if “love” is a verb) simply to acquire some clarity of meaning.

        So it is not correct to say in English we only have one word for love when it must be used with adjectives or adverbs to have any meaning.

        You suggest only discussing two words but please remember that Jesus did not have good things to says about the Pharisees and Sadducees when they were arguing about the small points and He constantly wanted them to see the holistic picture.

  6. There’s an important point that should be mentioned about the tacit pronouncement of divine mercy and judgment.

    After Christ shared His parable, his own disciples asked why He used such illustrative comparisons among the large crowds without explaining their moral significance to them.

    Similar to Isaiah’s heavenly vision of God’s eternal kingship being largely lost on a nation that languished in moral apathy and despair after the unsettling demise of King Uzziah, Jesus knew that the miraculous glimpses into own eternal kingship would largely be lost on His Jewish countrymen who also languished in moral apathy and despair under Roman rule and corrupt religious leaders.

    So, Jesus repeated the prophetic reminder (Is. 6:9,10) that the assurance of God’s eternal miraculous and inexorable sovereignty (as revealed both in Isaiah’s vision and through His own mighty works) would also be largely lost on all but a minority. A minority whose comparative readiness to delve further and respond to His God-given supreme authority to forgive their sins tacitly betokened God’s election of them to redemption as much as it tacitly betokened the damnation of others who remained apathetic and impenitent towards His messiahship credentials.

    And that’s as true today as it was back then.


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