Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s version (4:3-8, 13-20) was the first to be written. It is likely that both Matthew and Luke (8:5-8, 11-15) had access to Mark’s version when they penned their own versions.
MATTHEW 12-13. THE CONTEXT
Chapters 12-13 emphasize two themes: (1) Jesus as the Son of God. (2) The opposition of Jesus’ enemies, who are determined to kill him (Leuking, 72).
In chapter 12, Jesus moves from controversy to controversy. The disciples provoke a Sabbath controversy by plucking grain on the Sabbath (12:1-8). Jesus provokes a Sabbath controversy by healing on the Sabbath (12:9-14). He heals a demoniac and is accused of healing by the power of Beelzebul. (12:22-32). He gives a short but sharply worded discourse (12:33-37). The scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, and he responds with a sharp rebuke and a discourse (12:38-45). The crowd tells Jesus that his mother and brother are waiting outside to talk with him, and Jesus responds, “For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother”(12:46-50). In the midst of controversy, crowds follow Jesus and he heals many people (12:15-21).
“On that day” (13:1a) links chapters 12 and 13. The great crowds of 12:15-21 gather around Jesus again in 13:2. Chapter 12 gives examples of people accepting and rejecting Jesus. In chapter 13, Jesus speaks in parables that only his disciples can understand (cf. 13:10-17). In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus provides a rationale to help the disciples to understand (and therefore not to be discouraged by) rejection. This is the first of a series of parables in this chapter that deal with that issue.
MATTHEW 13:1-2. GREAT MULTITUDES GATHERED TO HIM
1On that day Jesus went out of the house, and sat by the seaside. 2Great multitudes gathered to him, so that he entered into a boat, and sat, and all the multitude stood on the beach.
“On that day Jesus went out of the house, and sat by the seaside“ (v. 1). The sea is not identified, in part because Matthew is not overly concerned with geographical detail, and in part because the Sea of Galilee plays such a prominent place in Jesus’ ministry as to be self-evident.
“Great multitudes gathered to him, so that he entered into a boat, and sat, and all the multitude stood on the beach“ (v. 2). Great crowds gather, but the context does not specify their relationship to Jesus. Jesus gets in a boat, a good place from which to address the crowd, and sits down, the traditional posture for a teacher.
MATTHEW 13:3-9. A FARMER WENT OUT TO SOW
3He spoke to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, a farmer went out to sow. 4As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. 6When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away. 7Others fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them. 8Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. 9He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“He spoke to them many things in parables” (v. 3a). The word “parable” is a compound word formed by the Greek preposition para (alongside of) and the verb ballein (to set or place something). Jesus’ parables set rather ordinary-sounding stories in place to illustrate spiritual truths.
Jesus gives the parable in verses 3-9 and explains it in verses 18-23. Is this truly a parable (a short, simple story, drawn from ordinary life, illustrating a spiritual truth) or is it an allegory (a story in which things have a hidden or symbolic meaning: i.e., a=one thing; b=the second thing, etc.)? In verse 3, Matthew identifies this as a parable, and verses 3-9 fit the definition of a parable. However, in Jesus’ explanation (vv. 18-23), he gives particular meanings to the seed that is scattered on the various soils —an allegorical approach.
In earlier times, allegory was a popular method of interpreting parables, but it led to odd interpretations and is used sparingly as an interpretive tool today. There is no question that the Parable of the Sower includes allegory—i.e., the labels that Jesus attaches to the seed that is sown on each of the four soils.
The question is whether to expand the allegorical approach by labeling other elements of the story as well. For example, some reputable scholars say that Jesus is the sower (Boring, 304; Morris, 335; Senior, 151), but our text does not say that. If Jesus intends this parable to encourage disciples in their proclamation of the Gospel, it would seem that they must be sowers too. We who proclaim the Gospel today are also sowers. It seems best to limit the allegorical approach to elements that Jesus clearly labels as such— namely the seed that falls on the four soils.
While not as comforting as the Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Sower is one of Jesus’ best known parables. Preachers use it to warn people against becoming poor soil and to encourage them to be fruitful soil. Also, the church in every century has seen people reject Christ, and this parable gives us a framework for understanding that.
“Behold, a farmer went out to sow” (v. 3b). In preaching this parable, preachers often talk at length about first-century agricultural practices. That is appropriate in a world where few people understand primitive farming, but such detail is useful only insofar as it illuminates a spiritual truth.
“As he sowed, some seeds (hos) fell by the roadside” (v. 4a). The original Greek doesn’t include the word “seeds,” but that is implied by the word hos (literally, “some”). Luke’s version of this parable does include the word “seeds.”
Seed was usually broadcast by hand as the sower walked through the field. The fields were small by today’s standards, and the sowing imprecise. It was natural that some seed would land in unproductive areas. It was also natural that the birds, seeing seeds lying on the ground in abundance, would eat their share.
Pathways interlaced the fields, and were packed hard by many feet. Hard-packed soil makes it nearly impossible for seed to put down roots and grow.
“and the birds came and devoured them” (v. 4b). Birds are smart enough to recognize feeding opportunities. They follow ships, feeding on fish brought to the surface in the ship’s wake. Wouldn’t they also follow a sower of seeds, feeding on exposed seeds?
In verse 19, Jesus says that these birds represent “the evil one (who) comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart.”
“Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth” (v. 5). Much land had a shallow layer of soil over a stone base. The rock would absorb heat during the day, releasing heat to the seed during the night, causing the seed to spring up quickly.
“When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away” (v. 6). Rocky soil can include enough good soil to encourage a seed to sprout—but not enough good soil to sustain the plant once it begins to grow. A plant would be especially vulnerable once the sun rose high in the sky, because the plant would be unable to extract from the soil enough water to replace that claimed by the sun.
As we will see in verses 20-21, the heat of the sun represents trouble or persecution. Everyone experiences trouble, and many Christians have faced (and are facing) persecution for their faith. The person who becomes a Christian assuming that life will thereafter become easy is bound to be disappointed. Having never truly understood the demands of discipleship, that person is likely to leave the faith, looking for greener pastures elsewhere.
“Others fell among thorns” (v. 7a). Borders of fields would be infested with thorns, and weed seeds would blow onto freshly plowed ground, invisible to the sower but ready to sprout and to choke out good seed.
In verse 22, Jesus says that the thorns represent “the cares of this age and the deceitfulness of riches (which) choke the word, (so that) he becomes unfruitful.”
This sower knows all that, but sows his seeds widely anyway–just as God broadcasts mercy widely (Long, 147). This is a story of God’s prodigality (“prodigal” has to do with lavish or wasteful expenditure).
The church is prodigal too, proclaiming the Gospel among primitive tribes in far-away jungles and teenage gangs in urban ghettos. In some cases, the sower is martyred. In some cases, the sower spends a lifetime on the mission field without seeing substantial response. In some cases, the preacher toils for hours preparing a sermon for only ten or twelve people. Jesus assures us that we need not worry that our effort is in vain. Things are happening that we cannot see. Not only is the seed at work under the surface of the ground, but God is also at work. God will bring the harvest, and it will be abundant.
France notes that there is a progression here. The seed that fell along the road produced nothing. The seed that fell on the rocky ground started to produce, but then stopped. The seed that fell among the thorns sprang up, but was soon choked out. None of these three turned out to be of any value to the farmer (France, 505).
“The thorns grew up and choked them” (v. 7b). Every gardener knows that weeds have a prolific energy that can quickly overpower more desirable plants. Perhaps that is related to the curse pronounced by God upon Adam in the Garden of Eden: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:19a). In any event, weeds choke desirable plant, not by reaching up and strangling them, but by preemptively feeding on the water and nutrients that the desirable plants need to survive.
“Others fell on good soil, and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty” (v. 8). How does the harvest of this parable measure up? Yields depend on the crop that is planted, but in his book, The Parables of Jesus, Jeremias claims that a first-century harvest would have been seven-fold to ten-fold. Thirty-fold would have been very bountiful, and a hundred-fold truly amazing (cited in Hare, 152-153; cf. Keener, 238). Even with modern farming methods and equipment, the average U.S. wheat yield in the 1950s was more like fifteen- to twenty-fold (Johnson, 409). Jesus’ words about the harvest, then, seem designed to encourage disciples who work hard with few apparent results. The parable assures us that God is at work below the surface, causing growth that will manifest itself in due time. We need not despair if the results are not immediately apparent—or if some of our efforts produce no gain.
The harvest extends across a large range—from thirty-fold to a hundred-fold—all from good seed planted in good soil. Jesus neither criticizes the thirty-fold harvest nor praises the hundred-fold harvest. The faithful disciple may be responsible for sowing the seed and watering it, but God is responsible for the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).
In verse 23, Jesus says that the good soil “is he who hears the word, and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit.”
MATTHEW 13:10-17. AN ASIDE
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but are useful to understand. Jesus said, “Therefore I speak to them in parables (Greek: parabolais), because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand” (v. 13).
Matthew uses the Greek word, parabolais. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew, and probably used the Hebrew word masal —a word for figurative language, such as proverbs, fables, parables, and riddles.
To understand these verses, it helps to remember that Jesus has been dealing with rejection. In verses 14-15, he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, where the prophet speaks of people whose hearts have become dull and who have shut their eyes to God’s truth—and Jesus clearly means that the same is true for the people who are rejecting him. They see but do not perceive and hear but do not understand, and the reason is that they have no interest in perceiving or understanding. Their hearts are closed to Jesus. Jesus, therefore, will speak to the faithful in the veiled language of parables— keeping the light from those who prefer the darkness.
MATTHEW 13:18-23. HEAR THEN, THE PARABLE OF THE FARMER
18“Hear, then, the parable of the farmer. 19When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom, and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes, and snatches away that which has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown by the roadside. 20What was sown on the rocky places, this is he who hears the word, and immediately with joy receives it; 21yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while. When oppression or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. 22What was sown among the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of this age (Greek: he merimna tou aionos —the anxiety of the age) and the deceitfulness of riches (Greek: he apate tou ploutou—the deceit of riches) choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. 23What was sown on the good ground, this is he who hears the word, and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit, and brings forth, some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty.”
“Hear, then, the parable of the farmer” (v. 18). Jesus gives the parable a title —the parable of the sower. The Gospel of Mark is Matthew’s primary source for this parable, but does not include a title. It seems unlikely that Jesus would be so formal as to give the parable a title, so it is likely Matthew’s addition. Matthew also gives a name to “the parable of the weeds of the field” (13:36).
“When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom, and doesn’t understand it” (v. 19a). Jesus likens the seed to “the word of the kingdom.” Jesus uses words powerfully in his ministry, and calls his disciples to do likewise. Like seeds, words seem delicate. Their power is veiled. Nevertheless, just as a growing seed can crack a rock, so can the word of God transform lives.
In the interpretation, the symbolism shifts. Until now, the parable has been about four kinds of soil—the four soils representing the receptiveness of four kinds of people to the seed—the seed being “the word of the kingdom.” Now, in verses 18-23, the seed is the people who fall on the four kinds of soil. Some scholars believe that this inconsistency means that Jesus gave the parable of verses 3-9 and Matthew’s church added the interpretation of verses 18-23. They cite the fact that Matthew’s church, struggling with difficult circumstances, would have found a great deal of comfort in this interpretation. That seems possible, but far from certain (Morris, 344-345).
The problem for this person is that he/she fails to understand. Understanding, in this context, is something other than simple intellectual assent. Understanding requires appropriating the word at a deeper level— taking it into one’s heart—living by faith.
There are many reasons why a person might choose not to embrace the word. Wealthy people might choose not to understand because of the claims that Jesus might make on their wealth. Powerful people might choose not to understand because of their reluctance to allow Jesus to shape their use of power. Hedonistic people might choose not to understand because they don’t want to give up their sinful pleasures. In Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees refused to understand because to embrace Jesus as the Messiah would turn their religious world upside down.
“the evil one comes, and snatches away that which has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown by the roadside” (v. 19b). Even though the seed is sown in the heart, it fails to find lodgment because the person failed to understand. This failure leaves the seed/word vulnerable to the evil one, who seldom misses an opportunity.
“What was sown on the rocky places” (v. 20a). Some seed is sown on rocky ground —rock covered with a thin layer of soil. The seed draws heat from the rock beneath it and sprouts quickly. It cannot develop a good root system in the rocky soil, however, so it quickly withers and dies.
“this is he who hears the word, and immediately with joy receives it; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while” (vv. 20b-21a). Jesus tells us that these are the people who respond to the word initially with joy, but who run when the going gets tough. When they become Christians, they do so with great enthusiasm. They sign up for everything. They develop a thousand new ways to do ministry better. They often become judgmental, because they see the world divided so crisply into good and evil—and judge those who disagree with them as evil.
However, once these early enthusiasts discover the realities of discipleship, they are gone. The song, “We got married in a fever” comes to mind. These people do lots of things in a fever. They are long on excitement but short on commitment—long on energy but short on loyalty—quick to decide and quick to undecide. Their lack of staying power condemns them. They rather quickly wither and die.
“When oppression or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (v. 21b). The issue here is more significant than waxing and waning enthusiasm. Christians often face opposition, an important theme in this Gospel (5:11-12; 10:16-25). We must prepare ourselves for that possibility (Hagner).
“What was sown among the thorns” (v. 22a). The third seed is sown in thorny soil. It yields nothing, because it soon finds itself choked out by “the cares (merimna—worries or anxieties) of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.”
The person who would have faith must stay focused on Jesus, who teaches us not to be anxious (merimna) about what we shall eat or drink or wear, because “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Jesus counsels, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:25-33). Faith relieves us of anxiety and makes it unnecessary to pursue wealth, because Jesus has assured us of God’s providence—God knows what we need—God will take care of us. Jesus shows us how to grow faith by avoiding the faith-chokers.
In his commentary on this verse, Bruner warns against “issue-centered Christianity” as thorny ground for churches (Bruner, 483). All too often, our social and political agendas consume us to the extent that they replace Jesus as the focus of our preaching. However, if we focus on Christ, he will lead us to improve our society and politics. If we start with social and political agendas, we are likely to find not only that we have lost Christ in the shuffle, but also that any social or political change that we have achieved will prove ephemeral.
“the cares of this age” (he merimna tou aionos—literally “the anxiety of the age”) (v. 22b). What are people anxious about today? Make a list. The possibilities are nearly endless.
• At a personal level, we are concerned about money and the things that money can buy—debt and the problems of repayment—jobs and career progression—health care —leisure time (how to get it and how to enjoy it)—how other people relate to us— and a host of other issues.
• At the macro level, we are concerned about terrorism—war—crime and punishment—moral and political leadership—the economy—and a host of other issues.
“the deceitfulness of riches” (he apate tou ploutou—literally “the deceit of riches”) (v. 22c). The apostle Paul warns that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Have you seen articles about wealthy but miserable people? (Hint: Read the sports, entertainment, and business sections. They are full of stories about the rich and famous who are anxious—often self-destructive—even miserable). We are always tempted to believe that money would solve all our problems, but that is seldom true.
Later, a man who will ask, “Teacher, what good deed shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” When Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and then come and follow Jesus, the man will go away sorrowful, “for he was one who had great possessions” (19:16-22).
These two phrases, “the anxiety of the age” and “the deceit of riches” are pregnant with preaching possibilities.
“What was sown on the good ground, this is he who hears the word, and understands it, who most certainly bears fruit, and brings forth (Greek: karpophorei kai poiei), some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty” (v. 23). This is what number-crunchers call “the bottom line.” Yes, we Christians have wasted our breath preaching to people on the pathway—and rocky ground—and thorny ground. Yes, some of our efforts will never amount to anything. However, that doesn’t matter, because those who hear the word and understand it (take it into their hearts—live by it—stake their lives on it) will produce an abundant harvest.
The Greek word karpos means fruit, and the word karpophoreo means “to bear fruit”. When the seed falls on good soil, it will bear fruit. When the Word of God falls on receptive hearts, it will do likewise.
The Greek word poieo means “to make” or “to do.” Matthew, in this Gospel, emphasizes doing (7:21, 24, 26; 12:50)–unlike Paul (Bruner, 496).
This parable warns that initial enthusiasm does not necessarily indicate true discipleship. The best test is the kind of perseverance that survives temptation and produces fruit.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan