Rebranding the Parable of the Sower: Reflections on Matthew 13
The Purposely Confusing Parables (?)
The parable of the sower, in both Matthew and Mark, is followed by a passage (Mt. 13:10; Mk. 4:10) in which Jesus turns from addressing large crowds to speak to a more intimate group of his disciples (13:10). He talks about the strategy of speaking in parables (Mt. 13:10-17; Mk. 4:10-12), then offers an allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:18-23; Mk. 4:13-20).
Matthew 13:10-15 is a confusing passage. It sounds like a clear statement that Jesus uses parables intentionally so that he can reach some and not others. The quotation in verse 12 is from Isaiah 6:9-10, the story of Isaiah's call to ministry. Just after he accepts God's call, Isaiah is told that his ministry will not be well received. In fact, it seems as if his calling is to preach to a faithless people. My interpretation is that "in order that" in verse 12 is better rendered "with the result that." A typical construction in Hebrew is to use a command to express a result. Jesus is not saying he uses parables deliberately so some will be excluded. He is saying that some will see and hear, but will not, at a deeper level, understand and take his words to heart. (Thurston, 51)
Verses 10-15 are not a statement of divine intention that some not hear. They are a description of the mixed reception of any prophet's life and teachings, whether Isaiah's, whose words these verses cite, or Jesus'. The "secrets of the kingdom of God" referred to in verse 11 are the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a real-life parable of the victory of God's kingdom over circumstances in which death and failure seem to have had the last word.
The parables discourse in Matthew 13 explains why, despite Jesus' manifest identity as the Messiah, his opponents have ears but do not hear, do not respond positively to him, or to the community who proclaims him. Their inability to penetrate to the meaning of Jesus and his mission is the result of their obstinate disbelief and dullness of heart, as Isaiah had prophesied (13:10-15). They do not open their minds and hearts to the parables, but rather, allow them to compound their misunderstandings. By contrast with Jesus' opponents, the disciples in Matthew are the blessed recipients of the mystery of the kingdom, something the prophets and just ones of old longed to see 13:16-17. (Senior 159-160)
Unlike in Mark, where the "duh-ciples" never learn much of anything, in Matthew they do "understand" Jesus and his teaching. In the parables of Matthew 13, Jesus reminds the disciples of the exceeding value of the kingdom and the necessity of total commitment to it.
Not "the Allegory of the Seeds," but "the Allegory of the Soils"
Matthew 13:18-23 is often called the "allegory of the seeds," but I think it is better named "the allegory of the soils." An allegory is a story in which each figure and feature actually refers to something else beyond the story. Allegories can be used as a code for oppressed groups to communicate with one another during times of persecution.
The word choices and themes of the allegorical explanation of the sower reveal that it is probably the product of the early Church. Jesus' initial parable (Mt. 13:1-9; Mk. 4:3-8) is about how his listeners are to respond to God. The church's appended explanation of his parable in verses 18-23 reflects how various groups responded to Jesus' teachings about the kingdom of God. It also seems to reflect that many people believed those teachings were completely negated by his crucifixion.
The seed parables point us to hidden realities whose power and activity will one day be manifested. They remind hearers and readers of Jesus, whose power was hidden on the cross, glimpsed in the resurrection, and is now growing steadily in the world despite the appearance of initial failure and repeated rejections of Church's ministry and message. Matthew, as well as Mark, uses the seed parables to define discipleship as hearing, accepting, and bearing fruit, following the way of Jesus that yields a bountiful harvest. Says biblical scholar John Donahue, "The miracle and mystery of growth provide a polyvalent cluster of images which evokes God's power and graciousness in all areas of life."(Donahue 51)
The parable of the careless sower, the miraculous harvest, the helpless, hapless seeds, or the good soil? Which brand name(s) do you prefer? Whichever one(s) you pick, "let's hear something we've never heard before."
John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress Press: 1988).
Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).
Donald Senior, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Fortress Press, 2002).
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.