Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), The Sower (1850), oil on canvas, 105 x 86 cm, Carnegie Museum of Art
The Gospel text for yesterday was Matthew 13:1-23, which you can read here. It’s also found in Mark 4:3-9 and Luke 8:5-8. Matthew calls it the Parable of the Sower, but it’s more a parable about different types of soil: the wayside, rocky, thorny, and good soil. There are three distinct sections in the passage. First, Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower (1-9). Next, he explains the purpose of parables (10-17). Finally, he interprets the parable so his disciples can understand it’s meaning (18-23).
In the original language of the New Testament, the word “parable” means something “thrown along side.” In other words, a comparison. It’s a symbolic story whose earthly elements point to a heavenly truth. We tend to think of parables as a form of divine condescension—Jesus making his teaching accessible to everyone, dumbing it down so even a humble peasant or child could understand, like a children’s sermon with an object lesson. Only that’s not what Jesus said.
Jesus said the reason he spoke to the crowds in parables was twofold: to reveal truth to responsive listeners and to hide truth from the unresponsive (11). Mark’s Gospel is even harsher. Mark adds, “lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins be forgiven them” (4:12). So Jesus wants some people to be forgiven and others not? Sounds like that, but I think his point is that those who don’t “get” his teaching had already hardened their hearts. Jesus’ rejection of them was the result, not the cause of their unresponsiveness.
Even though Jesus told his disciples they were included among those who had eyes to see and ears to hear (16), he still had to explain the parable to them. His explanation shows that the parable was really an allegory. (An allegory is a symbolic story in which various elements represent something else.) The seed is the “word of the kingdom . . . sown in his heart” (19). What is the “word of the kingdom”?
The “word of the kingdom” means something less than the whole Word of God and something more than the Gospel in the narrow sense of what Christ did to save us from sin. It’s Jesus’ teaching about how we should act toward God and others—how we should live in the kingdom. It’s the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). It’s turn the other cheek. It’s go the extra mile. It’s love God with all your heart. It’s love your enemies. Many people ask Jesus to forgive their sins. Many call themselves Christians. But not many actually do what Jesus said.
Not many, but some do. Clarence Jordan did when he founded an interracial farming co-op called Koinonia Farm in the rural South. Millard and Linda Fuller did when they started Habitat for Humanity to provide adequate housing for those who couldn’t afford it. Mother Teresa did when she cared for the poor, sick, and dying of Calcutta. Frank Laubach did when he began the “Each One Teach One” literacy project, which taught thousands to teach illiterate people how to read. These were ordinary people like you and me who did extraordinary things by caring for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). What would radical obedience to Jesus look like in your life? What would it look like in mine?
Back to the Parable of the Sower. The growth of the seed depends upon the type of soil. The wayside was the hard-packed footpath between the narrow agricultural fields; that’s the person who doesn’t understand the message. They just don’t “get” it. Then like a hungry bird “the wicked one,” the devil, snatches away the seed. The seed sown on rocky ground had too little soil, so that even though there’s initial reception and growth, it’s short lived. Faith quickly dies. The seed on the thorny ground represent those who allow the cares of the world to choke out God’s implanted word. Finally, the good soil receives the message and produces a bumper crop as a result.
I think the point of the parable is not primarily introspection. Jesus wasn’t trying to get us to ask, What kind of soil am I? He assumed his disciples were the good soil type. I think the goal of the parable is encouragement for those whose labor for the Lord is bearing little visible fruit. Fred Craddock writes, “The parable encourages those who have experienced failures in their ministries, reminding them that some seed will yield abundantly.” Understood this way, the Parable of the Sower is not an admonition to get our hearts right but an encouragement to keep us from despair. St. Paul put it this way: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in do season we shall reap if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.