PARABLE OF THE SEED AND THE SOIL: Matthew 13: 3 – 23
Chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel begins a series of parables in which Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God. The first parable however only mentions the Kingdom of God obliquely, as Jesus explains it to the disciples. In this sense there is something mysterious, even hidden about Jesus’ teaching as He does not explain His meaning directly and one wonders why. His teaching however is quite different to coaching children for an exam in which they need to be able to answer the questions and so they need to know what answer is correct and what kind of answer is not.
In this sense Jesus is trying to reach beyond what a person knows about a question, like being able to list accurately the capital cities of countries. Rather He is trying to reach into people’s understanding of the things of faith. And so there is the sense in which He is reaching in so that His hearers may reach out – and do so in the spiritual realm as opposed to an emotional or legalistic or intellectual realm.
Then He uses the language and illustration of farming the land, and provides a picture which should require no explanation. The people would understand the seed and the sower, and the kinds of land where seed may fall. And Jesus then offers 4 kinds of outcome to the sowing: the wayside where seed will fall onto hardened ground, exposed to easily eaten by birds; the stony places with no depth of soil, where what is sown will soon spring up but be scorched as it does not receive sufficient moisture; the thorns, where the seed grows but competition from thorns prevents it from coming to fruition; and finally the good soil where it sinks in and receives both moisture and sun to bring forth growth and yielding a crop.
The first question that comes is as I have said: Jesus’ explanation for using such a parable and His quote of Isaiah: ‘Hearing you will not understand and seeing you will not perceive…’ His use of the parable is to offer real riches to those who can and will receive them, without demeaning them with the ridicule and sarcasm of sceptics. In this Jesus is seeking out those who will respond, even if it is to ask ‘what does this mean?’ and who will not dismiss the whole thing out of hand.
But perhaps this is in itself a seeking out of hearts like those represented by the good soil – who will receive and nurture what is said. They will not reject it out of hand, like those represented by the wayside and neither will they allow it to be lost to the competition of other interests and distractions like those that fell among thorns. Equally they will not discard it when difficult or even trick questions are asked, or when the social and fashionable climate has changed and the things He had come to say and do are regarded as out of date or even socially dangerous, as might those represented by the seed falling among stones, growing when it is fashionable but falling away when the glamour has worn off.
As you see this parable is about more than the sower or the seed but rather about the soil on which he was sowing. The sower does not change and is not the centre of the drama – but the soil and what happens to the seed are. In other words, the parable is what happens in the hearts and minds of the hearers, and how they receive and respond to the word of the kingdom (v19). For some it is a matter of profound joy, received quietly but absorbed seriously; for others it is a matter of indifference or even hostility. In between are those whose lives are cluttered with distractions and many loyalties. For some these will be unsurprising, like home and family and earning a living – but in themselves these need not take the power of the word from the hearer. Perhaps these distractions are more like excuses to avoid the central issue of the message. For others the thorns and briars will be provided by the fear of being different, ridicule at ‘getting religion’ or fear of not being able to compete against seemingly more powerful, more influential, more fashionable or glamorous interests which command so much attention and loyalty.
- Why do you think Jesus used parables which seem to obscure rather than clarify His message?
- In presenting the gospel message to others, how do you approach them, and how do you negotiate those whose attitudes seem to be like those with hears of stony soil or which are liable to be choked with thorns and briars?
- How much time would you spend trying to communicate with those who seem to be like the hardness of the wayside?
- What in your own life is represented by the shallow depth of soil in which some seed fell?
- What in your own life is represented by the thorns which grew up to choke the seed?