Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew)

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 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 13:1-9

The parable of the Sower appears here in the gospel of Matthew and also Mark and Luke (I've linked to previous commentaries). My study bible notes that metaphors of sowing and harvesting are common in the Old Testament, for example in Psalm 126:5-6 and Isaiah 55:10-13. Sowing and harvesting are, of course, common to the understanding of daily life of the people.

Here in Matthew, the parable of the Sower is taught just after Jesus' scathing remarks about the "adulterous generation" and his subsequent expression of the family that is created via faith and relatedness in the Father. There is a sense here, for me, of the turn in the tone of the gospel. We are beginning to get the first hints of opposition; we've been told that those in the circles of religious power are plotting against Jesus. He is teaching to large crowds and at the same time he is being rejected by others. So, the parable of the Sower illustrates the word that goes out, and the Sower who is the Teacher. In the next few passages of Matthew, Jesus himself explains his use of parables to his disciples and also explains the parable of the Sower itself.

I find parables interesting in that they are not absolute metaphors. They make use of metaphors but I find them to be vivid illustrations, rather than elaborate analogies that are to be drawn out to infinite degree. It is a distinctly ancient and traditional way of speaking and revealing truth. My study bible notes that the Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable also mean "allegory," "riddle," or "proverb." Moreover, the truths hidden in the parables require "ears to hear." As we have been prepared through this gospel with the understanding and teaching that we are responsible for how we receive what is revealed to us, so parables make this important point. It depends on our own capacity to receive.

In the parable of the Sower, Jesus is revealing himself as the one who is sowing the word, his teachings. The seeds are all equal, each seed is a good seed, each word good - but the harvest depends on the conditions where the grain is received. Some fell on the path and birds took them away, some in soil without enough depth to take lasting root nor survive the bright sun. Some were choked by thorns - but others took root in good soil and brought forth much grain, with a wide range of multiples in their harvest: some one hundred, some sixty, some thirty.

What do you make of this parable? We are getting a sense of the divisions between us all in terms of how we receive what is sown. The differences in the harvest depend on the conditions found for each place the seed is received. So, in a sense, the parable of the Sower is a parable about what happens in us, as individuals, and how we receive and nurture what is given. As already noted, we will receive Jesus' elaboration of the meaning of the parable in subsequent readings, so I will leave interpretation here. But it is important to think about themes that have been consistent so far throughout our recent readings in Matthew's gospel. How do we develop ears to hear? Parables are not grasped by intellectual understanding alone; to reveal mystery via riddle requires a different reception, a different insight - "the ears to hear and eyes to see" that we have been hearing about. For such sensitivity and receptivity, we recall Jesus' words about those who cannot receive, whose hearts are stony or rigid with a strict intellectual mindset that does not allow for love and mercy in its grasp or hearing. Perception of the realities of this kingdom requires relationship of a spiritual nature. How do we learn to hear and to listen?

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