Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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!”
The rest of the Gospel text below is optional:
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 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. 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. 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.’ 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. 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.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 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.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. 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. 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” (Matthew 13:1-23 – 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. Matthew adds five parables to the two he shares with Mark – see Mark 4:1-34. 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. We find this parable also in Mark – see 4:3-9 – and Luke – see 8:5-8.
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” (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 5).
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 is 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.
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 13:1-9 – we have the parable of the sower. It is one of seven parables of the kingdom reported in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew. On the face of it, there is something a little crazy about this parable. The sower is reckless, throwing seed everywhere. Inevitably, some seed – perhaps most of it – is going to fall where it will not thrive.
Jesus invites us to think about the kingdom of heaven from within this craziness.
Recall the Sermon on the Mount: “‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’” (Matthew 5:44-45). God’s love and mercy and goodness and beauty are – to our eyes – extravagant and indiscriminate. God does not love us because we have earned it or merited it by behaving according to the rules. God’s love cannot be earned. It is unmerited, prodigal and always available to us all – no matter what.
History would suggest, however, that for the most part we do not believe that. We would rather reduce the love and mercy and goodness of God, to tiny portions – portions that fit our sense of what is right. Compared to what is actually on offer, these portions are ridiculously and insultingly, infinitesimally small. And so, we have this equation lurking in our consciousness: If I do the “right thing”, God will love me and reward me and if I do the “wrong thing”, God will not love me and will punish me. There is of course some superficial evidence in the Scriptures that this is how it works. But overwhelmingly, when we listen to the sacred text, we discover that is not the case.
Imagine you are present when Jesus tells the parable of the sower. Imagine, further, that you then present him with this equation. What do you think he might say? Perhaps he might say: “You remind me of what the Prophet Isaiah said – ‘You indeed listen, but never understand, and you indeed look, but never perceive’. Your heart has been made dull by moralism. You have forgotten – or never learned – that I am the way. What I am offering is the kingdom of heaven, a state of being in which God reigns. It is free! No matter what you have done or will do, it will always be there for you. All you have to do is want it!”
Here is a question you might ponder: What is it that prompts us to reduce the infinite love of God to little portions we get like pay-packets each week? Maybe the pay-packet love gives us some sense of security? It holds out the possibility of control? The wasteful love of God is just too scandalous to bare? The sower maybe the antidote we need. Walk with him this week and listen.