The Parable of the Sower and the Soils in Matthew 13

The lectionary this week (Trinity 6 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 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 ground 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 to 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.

Come and join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues, and their implications for reading and preaching on this passage:

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