Commentary. Matthew 13 is a “day of parables.” The parable of the sower is spoken in public to great crowds (vv. 1–3), but its explanation and the teaching about parables are spoken only to the disciples (vv. 10–11). More parables are then spoken to ‘the crowds’ (v. 34), but the crowds are again left behind (v. 36), and the second explanation and further parables are spoken to the disciples in ‘the house’ (which Jesus had left in v. 1). The unresponsive crowds are thus clearly distinguished from the disciples to whom alone explanation is given, and this distinction is spelt out in vv. 11–17.
The structure of our gospel reading is a bit odd:
- the parable of the sower and the seed (vv.1–9)
- a passage explaining parables and the need for their explanation (vv.10–17), and
- lastly an explanation of the parable of the sower and seed (18–23).
Despite the traditional title of the parable, “The Sower and the See,” the real focus is on the seed and their yields. More important than the fate of the four different plantings is the contrast between the three unsuccessful planting and the fourth superabundantly successful one.
What did they hear? The parables focus on the seeds is an allegory for those who hear the word of the kingdom proclaimed. The parable describes the varying receptiveness to what they hear; all hear the same word. Yet each type of person is identified as what was sown in a certain place (v.19). This might strike us as odd since we are biased to understand the “seed” as the Word of God proclaimed, but understanding of the parable rests on the interaction of the unvarying seed with the various types of ground.
|seed sown on the path… without understanding||To understand is more than an intellectual grasp of the message; cf. the contrast in 7:24ff. between hearing and ‘doing’ the word. The word which is only heard is easy prey for the evil one. It is a non-starter.|
|seed sown on rocky ground …receives it with joy||But to start is not necessarily to finish. Here the word is received (not ‘understood’) with joy, but joy without understanding and commitment cannot last: lasts only for a time is literally ‘is temporary’. Tribulation is a general term for suffering which comes from outside; persecution is deliberately inflicted, and usually implies a religious motive. Falls away is literally ‘is tripped up’ (cf. 5:29–30); it is not a gradual loss of interest, but a collapse under pressure.|
|seed sown among thorns …||This time the soil is good, but it is already taken up. The world (as opposed to the kingdom of God) offers both anxiety and lures (the normal meaning of this word, apatē, is ‘deceit’), each occupying the attention and energy in a way that prevents even good soil from bearing fruit|
|seed sown on rich soil||Hearing is matched with understanding, and the consequences are a superabundant yield.|
In the context of Jesus’ ministry the parable serves to explain why it is that the good news of the kingdom meets with such a varied response as we have seen in chapters 11–12, from enthusiastic acceptance to outright rejection. The fault lies not in the message, but in those who receive it. People are both inadequate in themselves to respond as the word of the kingdom requires (compacted and shallow soil), and also exposed to competing pressures from outside (tribulation and persecution, anxieties and lures, and behind them all the evil one himself). The wonder is not that some do not produce fruit, but that any do. But here lies the parable’s encouragement both to Jesus’ followers then and to all who since then have preached this same gospel; not all will respond, but there will be some who do, and the harvest will be rich. The theme is thus closely related to that of the verses which divide the parable from its explanation, the division between those to whom the ‘mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’ are revealed and those who can hear the same message but will never understand it.
Yet the parable is probably more often employed today as a call to members of the Church to examine themselves in their response to God’s word. And this application, though secondary, is surely also within the parable’s intention, for the careful spelling out of the causes of the seed’s failure is not mere scenery. Unreceptiveness, shallowness, preoccupation with the world are not faults confined only to ‘those outside’, nor does the parable’s division between fruitful and unfruitful necessarily correspond to the limits of parish’s members.
Matthew 13:1 on that day…went out of the house: this connects the reader to all that has just transpired in Mt 12 and makes the day into a “day of parables.” The house (presumably that of 8:14; 9:10, 28) serves here and in v. 36 to make clear the distinction between the public teaching which follows and the private explanation and further teaching.
Matthew 13:2 large crowds: the expression indicates that Jesus’ ministry has attracted lots of interested parties. Yet one wonders how being in a boat serves to allow Jesus to address the crowd. Speculations are many, but there are many places on the Sea of Galilee where natural coves would form an amphitheatre-like setting with the “stage” being on the water with hills rising from the water’s edge serving as the audience seating. Perhaps this describes the physical setting of the scene.
Matthew 13:3 in parables: The Greek parabolē is wider than our ‘parable’; in the lxx it translates māšāl, which includes proverbs, riddles and wise sayings aswell as parables. In all of these nuanced meanings, the common denominator is the use of analogy to illumine or obscure. Matthew uses it for instance for Jesus’ cryptic saying about defilement (15:10-11, 15), and in 24:32 (‘lesson’) it indicates a comparison. Speaking in parables is therefore enigmatic, and requires careful interpretation.
Matthew 13:4 some seed fell on the path: Some scholars (e.g. Jeremias) insist that the sower is following good Palestinian farming practices by which sowing precedes plowing – in other words the sower intended to return and plow under the scattered seed. Some see a bountiful generosity is spreading seed even where it is not likely to bear fruit. Others write that the seed should probably be understood as falling on the packed soil beside the path, not the packed soil of the path itself.
Matthew 13:5-6 rocky ground…soil was not deep: the problem is an underlying shelf of bedrock, not multiple rocks in the soil. Such soil warms rapidly, and the seed sprouts quickly, but the plant wilts as the soil soon loses moisture (cf. James 1:11).
Matthew 13:7 thorns: akantha – a general word for “thorn plant” or “thistle” [EDNT 1:48]. Such plants were sometimes used to mark off the boundaries of a farmer’s fields and to keep animals from intruding. If this is the case then the sower is casting seed at the boundary of the field.
Matthew 13:8 a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold: From agricultural records we know that in Italy and Sicily soils averaged fivefold or sixfold return on the grain sown; irrigated fields in Egypt averaged around a sevenfold yield for wheat and eightfold or better for barley. Following the ancient rhetorical technique of praising a land (cf., e.g., Aelius Aristides on Rome), Josephus emphasizes the fruitfulness of Palestine’s soil (Apion 1.195). The average Palestinian harvest may have yielded seven and a half to ten times the seed sown. Thus while even a hundredfold harvest is not “miraculous” for some parts of Palestine, harvests yielding thirty to a hundred times the seed invested are extraordinarily abundant (Gen 26:12; Jub. 24:15; Sib. Or. 3.264–65), and one rarely exceeded one hundredfold. (Keener, 377-78)
Matthew 13:9 Whoever has ears: The same expression is used in Mt 11:15 to call attention to a significant teaching