That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:1-10 – NRSV)
Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel features seven parables: the parable of the sower (above), the darnel, the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure, the pearl and the dragnet. Much of this material is taken from Mark 4:1-34, though Matthew “has enlarged and supplemented his source, making it into the third major discourse of Jesus”. (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 197.)
The parable of the sower is generally regarded as being original to Jesus.
A fundamental theme of the parables here is that of “choice” – do you accept the authority and identity with Jesus or not? (See also Chapter 10.) The parables remind us that there is a deep mystery to that choice.
It is not hard to imagine this being a major point of questioning and concern for the early Christian communities. See also St Paul writing some thirty years earlier in Romans 9-11.
The fact that this group of parables is placed literally at the mid-point of the Gospel suggests its high significance to Matthew and his community.
in parables: C. H. Dodd defines parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought”. (Cited in Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 198.)
the sower: Although this text is called “the parable of the sower”, the focus is the seed, especially contrasting the seed in rich soil with the other three instances in which the seed was not in rich soil. The assumption is that all the seed is in fact good.
And as he sowed, some seeds fell etc: Attempts have been made to draw a link between this description of how the seed is sown in the parable with how seed was typically sown by Palestinian farmers. As Harrington points out, it is probably best to not attempt such connections as they are at best tenuous: “Rather than trying to defend the verisimilitude of the parable, it is better to take the peculiar actions of the sower as part of the ‘unusual’ dimension of the story”. (Daniel j Harrington, op cit, 194.)
Let anyone with ears listen: We find the same expression in 11:15. Like the seed falling on different kinds of soil, the response to the words of Jesus will vary. But the listener should be in no doubt that those who are able to hear what Jesus is saying will know and see things beyond their imaginings.
Last Sunday we heard the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The parable in today’s Gospel takes that invitation one step further.
The central point of this parable – the sower and the seed that is sown – seems to be the explosion of life, with the seed landing on good soil and flourishing, yielding “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty”. In other words, the seed finds a home and something wonderful is born! It reminds us of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel: “If you make your home in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31-32). And again when John gives us the parable of the sheep and the shepherd: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). It also reminds us of St Paul’s exclamation in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). “Let anyone with ears listen!”
What a tragedy when we reduce our life in Christ to a moral project, holding out the possibility of rewards and punishments. There is precious little “evangelii gaudium” – “joy of the Gospel’ – in such a project. And if we substitute this project for life in Christ, we are not likely to exhibit those crucial characteristics of grace and freedom. When we are alive in Christ, we know it as gift. The natural outcome of that will be a life that is gracious and free, increasingly manifesting all the desirable human qualities that are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit – love, peace, joy, freedom, forgiveness, compassion and so on – come to life when the seed of God’s word finds good soil in us. The harvest is waiting for our acceptance of the gift, our willingness to bow before God as Mary did: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). What a sad thing it is when we fail to receive the gifts on offer!
In the coming week, when you have a quiet moment, be still, gather your whole attention on Mary’s words. Say those words deliberately, simply and without reserve. When you have said those words stay quiet and still and listen in your heart. Then leave it with God and get on with what needs to be done without more ado.