That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’
Translation: On that day, Jesus went out of the house (and) was sitting alongside the sea, and great crowds were gathered together to him so that he entered into a ship to sit down and all the people stood upon the shore. And he spoke much to them in parables, saying, "Behold! The sowing one went out to sow. And as he sowed, some indeed fell beside the way, and the birds came to eat them. But others fell upon stony places where they were not having much soil, and immediately they sprung up because they did not have depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched and, because they did not have a root, they were withered. But others fell among the thorns, and the thorns climbed up and choked them. But others fell upon the good earth, and they were giving fruit, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty. The one having ears, let that one hear."
Background and situation: Father Robert Capon says that the parable of the sower is the touchstone of all the parables. He notes its primacy of place in all three synoptics. Even the gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes the parable of the sower.
In Matthew, the parable of the sower is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another in chapter 13. The parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.
The lection begins with Jesus leaving the house. He "goes out" to the sea just as the sower would soon "go out" to sow. This would apparently be his own house, and the same one where he had just refused entrance to his own relatives (12: 46-48).
At the sea, "great crowds" flock around Jesus. The word is sunago, and means that the people "gathered together" around Jesus. He is at the center of the people. This is not surprising. Jesus had significant support in the region of the Sea of Galilee. The people loved Jesus and thrilled to his message. He is presented as a "man of the people."
Then, he gets into a boat. The stated reason is that Jesus needs a place to sit--he needs to sit in order to assume the posture of a teacher. This gives Jesus a bit of distance from the crowd which continues to stand on the beach. Matthew has moved Jesus from being "man of the people" to being "authoritative teacher."
What a deft piece of political theater. Jesus is sitting in a fishing boat, which is, quite literally, on the sea. In a sense, Jesus is speaking to and for all the people who try to make a living from the Sea of Galilee. (It's not for nothing that fishermen were some of Jesus' first supporters.)
Jesus may have had a home at Capernaum, perhaps the most important harbor city on the entire Sea of Galilee, which also made it an important communications center for the region. He also traveled to many other towns and villages that lie on the sea, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, his frequent companion.
The parable: Jesus told them "many things in parables," and starts off with: "Behold! The sowing one went forth to sow."
In the sowing, some seeds fell "alongside the way"--para ton hodon--and the birds came and ate them. (NRSV has "on the path," but para means "alongside" and hodon is a technical term for "way," which, in turn, means the practices of the kingdom of heaven.) These seeds fell just off the path.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground where "they were not having much soil"--opou ouk eixen gas pollen. "And immediately, they sprang up because they did not have depth of earth." When the sun rose, these were "scorched." Other seeds fell upon the thorns, and the thorns rose up and "choked" them.
Still other seeds fell upon the "good earth." These gave fruit in abundance, in some cases a "hundredfold," but some sixty, and others thirty. "The one having ears, let that one hear."
The interpretation of the parable:
‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When 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. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet 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.* 22As 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. 23But 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.’
Translation: You, therefore, hear the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand, the wicked one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one sown alongside the way. But the one sown upon rocky places, this is the one hearing the word, and immediately receives it with joy. But he does not have a root in himself, but is for a season, but when tribulation or persecution happen on account of the word, immediately he is offended. But the one sown into the thorns, this is the one hearing the word, and the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth together choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But the one sown upon good earth, this is the one hearing the word and he understands, who also bears fruit and does, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty.
In the intervening verses, 10-17, Jesus tells the disciples that they get to hear "the secrets of the kingdom of heaven," but others do not. Jesus says that he speaks in parables, but no one understands.
This suggests that, far from being easy to understand, the parables are so contrarian that they are difficult to hear. The reason Jesus so often encouraged people with ears to hear is because what he was saying was so counter-intuitive, so formed by an alternative paradigm, that people were having a hard time comprehending what he was saying.
In verse 18, Jesus calls the story "the parable of the sower." This alone is instructive. It means that this is a parable about God, and not about us. It's the parable of the sower, and not the parable of the four kinds of soil. It's about what God does, in other words, and not our feeble efforts at putting God's word into action.
The common evangelical view of the parable is that the sower is Jesus, and he was going around throwing out "the word." We want to prepare ourselves to be really good soil so that when Jesus throws "the word" on us, we--splendid people that we are--can put it into action and (finally) make it into something.
This is completely wrong-headed for the very basic reason that the sower is not Jesus. God is the sower, and God sows the Word--logon, Christ--absolutely everywhere. Jesus is not the sower, but the seed sown. (As the fourth gospel puts it, "The Word became flesh.")
The four types of soil are meant to signify all conditions of life. Jesus has already been sown everywhere in the world, in good soil and bad, among rocks and among thorns. This sowing of the word into the entire world, and into all conditions of life, has already been done without any participation on our part whatsoever.
The story would have been shocking to many who heard it. There were many--in those days, and in ours--who most certainly did not think God had sown the seed of the word everywhere in the world. God had absolutely done no such thing. God had sown the word only in America, or in the Roman Catholic church, or only among those who adhere to something called protestant theology.
In Jesus' own time and place, many would have been shocked by this parable. As in our own time, many then believed that God had not sown the seed everywhere. God had sown the word only in Israel. There's nothing special about Israel in Jesus' story, and that would have caused some major grinding of teeth in some people.
Moreover, there is nothing spectacular about a seed. For people expecting a triumphal messiah who enters the fray with force, the seed is a weak image. Seeds are tiny. They fall into the ground and get covered over. They "die" into the earth.
It is precisely then, when they are out of sight, that they begin to do the real work of a seed. The message of the story is that the seed--the Word--sown into the world doesn't look like all that much. It can be hard, or even impossible to find. It does its work out-of-sight, mysteriously. Capon, Parables of the Kingdom:
Once again, this is not our idea of how a respectable divine operation ought to be run...Given our druthers, our pet illustration of the kingdom would probably be a giant nail--driven into the world, appropriately enough, but a giant hammer in the hand of a giant God. Something noisy and noticeable. But a seed? Oh come now.
You'll notice, too, that the seed has already been sown. It is not about to be sown. It's already in there, and it's doing what it does without waiting for us to do something to put it into effect. We don't add to the seed of the Word being sown, or complete it, or kick it into gear.
Not only has it been done, it works. In every case, the seed, which is the word, springs up, even in rocky soil and even among thorns. The word--the sown seed, which is Christ--never fails.
But the birds, you say? What about the birds who snatch up the seed and carry it away?
So what? That seed is still going to land somewhere. We had a tree on our farm that was in the oddest place. It was in a ditch, and there wasn't another tree, in any direction, for a least half a mile. (This was Kansas, keep in mind, where trees can be few and far between. When we have one, we tend to form a personal relationship with it.)
I once asked my dad how in the world that tree ever got there? His one word answer? "Birds." Birds may snatch up the seed, but they're just going to distribute it somewhere else, where, again, the seed which is the word will do its work.
Aren't the birds equated with "the evil one" in verse 19? The word is ponerou. If Matthew had intended the devil, he probably would have used diabolos. "Hardships" or "troubles" would be possible translations. I have rendered it "the wicked one."
The logos: The word logos appears six times from 13:18-23. The logos, which is Christ, has already been sown into the world. God has done this mysteriously--the work of a seed takes place out of sight. And God has done this paradoxically--the seed is a "weak" image, not a triumphal power display, which would have been business-as-usual.
Significant traditions within the church, however, have typically said just the opposite. They have said that, really, the world wasn't quite saved yet. It was only potentially saved. In order to get it really saved, we needed to do something to kick the Word into gear.
We needed to repent, or confess our sins, or get "born again," or cry our eyes out over something-or-other, or sacrifice a goat, or wear pink on Thursdays--or whatever! It's always something. We need to make ourselves into good soil so that the Word can really work!
Wrong. The four types of soil reflect the human condition which all of us share. They are a statement of reality, meant to cover the bases of existence. We fail to understand. We all live our lives in the context of pain and trouble. We all endure "rocks" and lack "root" in the face of oppression. We all live amid the "thorns," which are the "cares of eternity," and "the deceit of riches." This "chokes" us--and doesn't it? Isn't that an accurate description of our reality?
But we also have capacity. The "beautiful earth"--ten kalen gen--is also part of our reality. We don't put the Word into action--Christ has already saved the world--but the Word prospers in some conditions more than others. In "beautiful earth," it "bears fruit" in the world.
In Matthew's theology, "bearing fruit" means living out the kingdom of heaven. This has nothing to do with piety, nothing to do with outward sanctimony, nothing to do with syrupy pronouncements, nothing to do with vague decisions, nothing to do even with worship.
"Bearing fruit" means "following on the way," which means imitating Jesus, and doing what he did. With Jesus as our model of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, "bearing fruit" means actually doing what Jesus himself teaches and does in the gospel of Matthew, which is: gender equality, open table fellowship, non-heirarchical living, embracing the human dignity of all, resistance to oppression, and resistance to religious corruption. "Bearing fruit" is that program lived out in every day life.
Image: The sower, Van Gogh