Rebranding the Parable of the Sower: Reflections on Matthew 13
Biblical scholar J. Dominic Crossan emphasizes that it is not so much the size of the harvest that counts, but the fact that it happens at all. However big or small the harvest, against such opposition, there is a miraculous quality to it; it is a gift whose graciousness and surprise are meant to make us think of the kingdom of God. By his view, we ought to rebrand this parable the "Parable of the Miraculous Harvest." (Donahue, 33)
The Parable of the Helpless, Hapless Seeds
The seeds the sower sows have no choice in whether they flourish or not. It's all in the quality of the land they land in. If a bird eats you, you're done for. If the ground you're on is rocky, you wither. If the ground you're on is thorny, you're choked. If conditions are not ideal, you cannot yield a harvest. By yourself.
The Parable of the Good Soil
In Mark, the parable concludes with the seed that fell on good soil yielding an ever-growing harvest. Mark says of the seed that fell on good soil that it "grew up and increased and yielded thirty and sixty and a hundredfold" (4:8). Matthew focuses on the fact that the seed that fell on good soil brought forth a harvest of grain, but of varying amounts, according to each individual. "Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
The success of our sowing depends on the quality of the soil on which it lands. Except that, in Matthew it sounds like even with good soil, some individuals bear more fruit than others (13:8). The final verse says, "Let anyone with ears listen." To me that says, everybody has the ability and potential to be good soil. Some ancient texts add the words "to hear," which changes the meaning a bit. "Let anyone with ears to hear listen." To me that says, not everybody uses those abilities and that potential to be good soil.
Mark's version, written in a time of persecution, focuses on comforting the vulnerable young community. The emphasis is on the miraculous harvest of the seed despite adverse circumstances. Seeds are a good metaphor for encouraging a vulnerable community. They speak of a mysterious reality whose growth occurs without our instigation and, often, even our knowledge.
Matthew, written several decades later to an established, but divided community, highlights the need for the individual to bear a harvest from the seed that falls on its soil. That subtle change Matthew makes to Mark's version is in keeping with the larger theological agenda of each gospel. Mark, writing in a time of persecution by Domitian or Nero, emphasizes that, though the vulnerable community is not in control of its own destiny, God brings forth a harvest.
Matthew, written later in the first century to a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians, emphasizes the need of each individual to not rest on their religious heritage as Jews or on their freedom from the law as Gentile Christians. Rather, each person needs to be a doer of the word and not only a hearer.
It is interesting that, in the explanation of the parable of the sower in Mark, all the references are in the plural ("they are those who . . ."), whereas in Matthew they are singular ("this is the person who . . ."). This conveys Matthew's focus on the varieties of individual responses. Some people have ears, but refuse to use them to hear.
The Parables of the "Secret" Savior
Chapter 13 of Matthew's gospel is the beginning of the "parables discourse." It comes at a critical point in Matthew's narrative. In chapter 12, Jesus has been under assault by his opponents. The Pharisees apparently are not good soil for his teachings to land on. They object when Jesus plucks grain and heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (12:1-14). When he cures a demoniac who was blind and mute (12:22) they accuse him of deriving his exorcizing power from Beelzebub, the ruler of demons (12:22ff). The Pharisees have ears but do not hear. Over against this opposition, the parables discourse affirms Jesus' divine identity. He both teaches and embodies the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, (13:11), a mystery "hidden from the foundation of the world" (13:35) but now revealed at this dawning of the final age.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.