GOSPEL ANALYSIS: The Sower and the Seeds
Pentecost 8A Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198
The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.
Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 113, 114, 116.
#122. THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8
There are three parallel versions of this story in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The first three gospels are working in tandem as they report the parable of the sower. Many scholars think that Mark was the earliest gospel and that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark.
The three gospel parallels: Mark, Matthew and Luke
*Mark is the earliest of the gospels.
*Matthew reproduces 92% of Mark’s gospel (606 of Mark’s 661 verses).
*Luke reproduces 48 % of Mark’s gospel (320 of Mark’s 661 verses.)
*Matthew and Luke also follow Mark’s order of events in the life of Jesus.
*Mark and Matthew are more alike in both order and content. Matthew carefully follows Mark’s ordering of the life of Christ.
*A student can see the close parallelisms of Mark and Matthew in this parable.
*Luke seems to have a somewhat different order and content in this parable.
The word, “parable,” means “riddle.” The very nature of a parable is that a person must figure out the meaning of the parable and then apply that meaning to one’s life. For example, the following is a parable: “I like coffee but I don’t like tea. I like Edward but I don’t like Markquart. I like Bill but I don’t like Gates. I like George but I don’t like Stein. I like Marvia but I don’t like Stratis. I like coffee that I don’t like tea.” That is the parable. Can you figure out the meaning of that parable? The explanation? I don’t like anything with the letter, T, in it e.g. tea, Markquart, Gates, Stein, Stratis. The point is: parables are like riddles and you have to figure them out.
Of Jesus’ 40 parables, only two of them are explained. You need to figure out the rest.
The parable of the sower is one of the two parables that have an explanation attached to it. The explanation helps us to understand the parable. The parable of the sower is the first of Jesus’ parables that we encounter; and it is helpful to have an explanation of this first parable, so that we can lay the groundwork for trying to comprehend the remainder of Jesus’ parables.
There are seven parables about the kingdom in Matthew 13. We recall that Matthew was a collector of taxes and also a collector of stories about Jesus. Matthew was a systematic organizer and he organized seven parables of Jesus into this particular section of his gospel.
-That same day Jesus went out of the house. Matthew. “That same day” is a continuation of the previous story from the gospel of Matthew 12:46-50.
In that previous story, Mary and Jesus’ brothers and sisters stood outside of a house, asking to speak to Jesus. Near the phrase, “that same day,” write the words, “see the above story in Matthew.” Perhaps this was the home of Jesus in Capernaum, the house where the paralytic was let down through the roof (p. 40, Mark 2:1 “He returned to Capernaum and was at home.”). (See also p. 107, #116, Mark 3:19b, “Then he went home. His family tried to seize him, for people were saying that he is beside himself.”) We know that this house was near the seashore because the next phrase has Jesus standing beside the Sea of Galilee. We know that Capernaum was on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
It seems a probable deduction that this house was the house of Jesus, in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee. Refer to the photograph below that shows Capernaum and Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee.
-Jesus sat beside the sea. This is a clear reference to the Sea of Galilee. Prior to this time in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had been teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. But now it seems that Jesus changes his format and setting and he will begin telling stories out in the openness of nature. We are reminded of English history when John Wesley was preaching in the comfort and luxury of architecturally beautiful sanctuaries in London and when George Whitfield was preaching to thousands of coal miners out in the open air. The synagogue in Capernaum would seat about one hundred people but the open air and shores of the sea made it possible for Jesus to teach and reach thousands of people. Also, when preaching to thousands, concrete stories are more effective than abstract ideas when trying to hold the attention of the enormously large crowds. (Barclay).
-Great crowds gathered about him. Luke 12:1 (p. 179) tells us that “many thousands were there” and in the next lesson, we will hear of the feeding of the 4,000 and feeding of the 5,000. According to these gospel texts, “Great crowds” implies thousands of people. Near the phrase, “great crowds,” write “perhaps thousands of people.”
Remember that George Whitfield would preach to 20,000 at a time in England and people could hear his booming voice. In a book about Benjamin Franklin, the story is told of Benjamin Franklin listening to George Whitfield in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin wanted to compute the size of the crowd, and he measured one person for every two square feet. Franklin then concluded that 30,000 could listen to the young booming voice of George Whitfield. Franklin was impressed with the audibility of Whitfield’s booming voice. Franklin wrote, “This reconciled me to the newspaper accounts of his (Whitfield) having preached to 25,000 in the fields, and to the ancient histories of generals haranguing whole armies of which I had sometime doubted.” THE FIRST AMERICAN, by H.W. Brands, p. 148.
-He got into a boat and sat in it. When I came to be a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, a little suburb located on the shores of Puget Sound (during the summer of 1973), my first series of sermons were based on the parables of Jesus. The title of that series was: “From the Dinghy Off Redondo.” I tried to recreate a scene where Jesus was standing in a boat, off the shores of Redondo, and people were standing on the banks, listening to Jesus tell stories about the kingdom of God. Here in Des Moines, Washington, we could easily visualize the scene of Jesus sitting in a boat not far off the shore of a lake and teaching people who were sitting on the shore.
-The whole crowd stood on the beach. Again, we can easily imagine this scene. From the above photograph, we can imagine a larger crowd of people standing together on the beach to hear Jesus.
-He taught them many things in parables. The parables were a favorite teaching device of Jesus. People loved the stories that Jesus created and told. His stories were drawn from every day life, from the simplicities of every day life. Jesus did not use theological abstractions as the Apostle Paul did. By telling a story, Jesus created pictures of those abstract ideas. The abstract idea became concrete and visual.
The sources for his preaching and teaching material were “homey” and down to earth situations, growing out of the everyday experiences of people’s lives. But these down to earth stories also had a heavenly twist, and the crowds had to discover for themselves the meaning of his parabolic riddles.
In this first parable of Jesus, he chose the most common of experiences from the everyday lives of people: “seeds, sowers, hard paths, rocky soil, thorny soil, good soil.” These were as common as scenes as possible, but in the commonness, Jesus saw illustrations about God and his kingdom. In the soil and the sower, Jesus saw sermons. In the soil and the sower, Jesus saw signs about how God works in this world.
-Read Mark’s account, Mark 3:3-9. Highlight or circle several words: sower, seed, path, rocky ground, thorns, good soil, 100/60/30. Also highlight or underline, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
-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!" Pay attention. Think deeply. Open up your heart and mind to God’s message in this simple story which is not so simple as it seems
#123. THE REASON FOR SPEAKING IN PARABLES Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10
This section is omitted from the gospel reading for Pentecost 8A.
-When they were alone, the twelve disciples came and asked. The disciples are being distinguished from the gigantic crowds that had been listening to Jesus.
-Why do you speak to them in parables? Why do you speak to the crowds in parables or riddles?
-To you (disciples) has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God. The disciples had been given a special privilege: that is, to understand the secrets of the kingdom of God. That is our goal today: we too want to understand the many secrets of the kingdom, the many facets of the kingdom, the ways of the kingdom, the wisdom of the kingdom, what it means for our lives to be ruled by God. The larger crowds may not grasp the wisdom and ways of being ruled by God, but a smaller group of disciples may comprehend.
-To the crowds, it has not been given to understand (the parables.) We are gradually going to comprehend that these large crowds will not grasp the true identity of Jesus, nor will they comprehend the way of the cross and nor the ways of the kingdom. We are gradually discovering that these large crowds wanted a “bread king” who would give them food for their bellies, or a “political king” who would throw off the yoke of Roman rule, or a “healing magician,” who would heal all of their diseases. These large crowds of people were (and still are) wanting food, healings, miracles, signs, wonders, and freedom from political oppression. The large crowds will not grasp the way of the cross nor the way of the rule of God in their lives because their ears will not hear and their eyes will not see and their minds will not comprehend the true message of Jesus.
-To a person who has (the kingdom), more will be given. From him who does not have (the kingdom) even what little he comprehends will be taken away from him. We will gradually come to understand Jesus’ parables about the kingdom e.g. how it grows inside a person like a mustard seed, growing to such enormous proportions. But that miraculous growth will not happen to all people. Some people will be just the opposite. Rather than the Spirit of Jesus growing in that person, their heart and mind will prove to be hard as stone and the Spirit of Jesus will not penetrate either their heart or mind or their daily habits.
-That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear nor do they understand. As Christians, we need to put energy into seeing, hearing and understanding the riddles and parables about the rule of God in our lives. Most people are more interested in food, health, miracles and politics than in God ruling our lives.
-With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: "You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.' Matthew, being our Jewish gospel and more interested in Jewish logic and reasoning, quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. Matthew often has Jesus’ words fulfilling Old Testament prophecies as a way of authenticating the truth about Jesus. Notice that Luke, being a non-Jew and writing to a non-Jewish international audience, does not quote the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament to confirm Jesus’ identity would help convince Jewish people who loved the Old Testament, but would have little appeal to a non-Jewish audience like Luke’s.
-Turning to his disciples he said privately, “Fortunate are the eyes which seen what you have seen. Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see and hear what you hear but they did not see or hear it.” (Luke) Jesus said to the effect: “You disciples are fortunate to be present so that you hear and see the Mind of God/the Word of God.”
Similarly, we disciples today are fortunate to see and hear Jesus through his Word right now, as we take this class. As we take this class and saturate our selves in the teachings, parables, healings, miracles and narratives about Jesus, his Spirit works within us. We see, hear and understand what Jesus was teaching 2000 years ago and still is teaching to us today. The great crowds around us may not see, hear or understand the kingdom, but we are invited to see, hear and comprehend Jesus through his Word…in this moment. This is not an occasion for self-righteousness but for possibility. That is, God’s Spirit may enter into our hearts through the words of Jesus in the words that we are studying in the Biblical texts.
#124. INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15
-Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables? (Only Mark) Jesus wanted his original twelve disciples to understand this first parable. Jesus wanted his original twelve disciples to begin thinking in the logic of parables, in the symbolism of parables, in the possibilities of the parables. Jesus wanted his first disciples to look for and find the “heavenly meanings to his earthly stories,” and Jesus wants us contemporary disciples to do the same. That is, today, Jesus gives us this first parable as the first simple riddle to be solved. It is like starting with basic arithmetic and the textbook gives you the first simple mathematical problem to be solved, so that you can learn how to solve the rest of the problems. Similarly, Jesus gives us this first simple parable and asks us to solve its riddle, so that we have the framework to solve the other riddles that will be presented to us.
-The sower sows the word. The seed is the word of God. Highlight. Step one is very clear. We are working with symbolism in Jesus’ stories and the first symbol is the seed. The seed stands for the Word of God. The Word of God means the Bible, the teachings of the Scriptures, the teachings/parables/miracles/healings/narratives of and about Jesus. The seed also stands for Jesus. The seed is the book of the gospels that we are studying right now.
-The ones along the path, the ones on the rocky soil, the ones on the thorns, the ones on the good soil. We discover that the four places where the seeds fall represent four kinds of people and four kinds of responses to the word of God.
-The ones along the path. The word, “path,” is found in all three gospels. Highlight it. Near the word, “path,” write the word, “hard.” There are people who are hard like a path and the Word of God barely penetrates them, if at all. The Word of God is unimportant to them, inconsequential, means nothing to them. We all know such people. Such “hard people” may be brothers, sisters, family, friends, work associates, and school friends. The “hard soil” may be ourselves at certain times in our lives. Before the Word even penetrates their lives even a little bit, Satan/the evil one/the devil/the power of evil takes that seed away. To say that Evil is active in that person’s life and takes the seed away is not trying to say that that person has no responsibility. In this parable, Jesus is not saying: “The devil did it. It is the devil’s fault that the person was hard hearted and therefore the person is not responsible.” What Jesus seems to be saying is that some peoples’ hearts and minds are hard like a path. The seed of the kingdom does not even begin to sprout because evil is active in their lives and they don’t even realize it. We know that our own hearts can be hard and not receptive to the Word of Christ.
-The ones on rocky soil who when they hear the word of God, immediately receive it with joy. But they have not roots. When the tribulations (suffering) and persecutions (hardships) arise on account of the word, they immediately fall away. Highlight. We have all heard about “fair weather” baseball or football fans. When their team is winning, they are enthusiastic about the game. When their team runs into trouble, they stop watching or attending the contests. So it is in the Christian faith. There are numerous “fair-weather” Christians who believe in Christ when they sense their lives are winning (food, health, money, miracles, freedom), but when suffering or hardship comes along, they may give up the faith and say, “Where is God now? Why didn’t God protect me from this disaster?” The faith found in “great crowds” is often a “fair-weather faith,” that believes in God and his rule as long as things are going well.
Years ago, I worked up as a canoe guide up in northern Minnesota where there were tall pine trees towering over a thin layer of soil that barely covered the granite rock in which the trees were planted. Those pine trees were very tall and stately and a person could erroneously conclude that they were strong and somewhat impervious to the weather and winds. But the strong winds would push over those pine trees in a flash of wind because those pine trees had small root systems. So it is with many “great crowd” Christians. It does not take much wind to blow them over because of their lack of depth and lack of deep roots.
Notice that Luke omits the phrase, “on account of the word.” Luke, who was keenly aware of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, omits the phrase “on account of the word.” Living in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century when 67% of Americans are part of the church, we don’t normally experience suffering and hardships due to our faith in Christ; but we all experience suffering and hardship because of life itself. Luke’s wording seems to more accurately describe our situation today as we live here in a nation where Christians are not persecuted as they were in the Roman Empire in the first two centuries … on account of the Word. (Luke was writing to a Roman official and among many things, Luke wanted to convince that Roman official that there was nothing seditious or threatening within Christianity to the Roman government of the day.)
-The ones sown on the thorns. They are those who hear the word but the cares of the world and the delight in riches and pleasures of life choke the word and it proves unfruitful. From our own experience with our own lives, we are keenly aware that the cares of this world and the pleasures of this world can choke out faith in our own lives. We have experienced that much too often. At different epochs of our lives, we can be overwhelmed by the cares of our daily lives: all the schedules we need to meet, the complications of making it through one more day. Also, the pleasures of life can diminish our commitment to Christ and his way of the cross and his way of life. So this parable is profound and applicable to our lives today: we experience the rocky soil of hardship and suffering and we experience the thorny soil of pleasures and cares. Both sets of circumstances can prevent the Word/Christ growing in our lives.
The Word proves unfruitful. That is, our lives do not produce the quality of fruit that comes from being attached to the vine e.g. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. Sometimes, a person can plant a tomato plant. All that grows on that tomato plant are green leaves. The few tomatoes that may be on that plant are very small and immature. So it is with certain Christian lives whose acts of love (fruit) are small and immature.
-The ones sown on good soil. They hear the word, receive it or hold fast to it with a good and honest heart, and patiently bring forth fruit, some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some one hundred fold. We all want to be good fruit or we would not be taking this course. We would not be studying Jesus’ words so diligently and carefully. All of us want our lives to be enormously productive, producing an abundance of good fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control). We don’t want the fruit of our lives to be small and immature. Jesus describes people who were like good soil. We all know that seeds do well in good soil, along with water and sunshine and loving care.
In the text, Jesus invites us into a three-step process.
The first step is actually listening to the Word of God. We listen to the word when we study it; when we read the word on our own during devotions; when we hear it preached. Our minds are open and we are receptive to hearing it. We know that the hardships and suffering of life can distract us from actually listening. So can the cares and busyness of life. So can the pleasures and riches of life. All of these can get in the way of our listening to the Word.
The second step is to receive the Word of God into ourselves or “to hold fast to it with a good and honest heart.” (Luke). Earlier in this class about the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about being a good student of Jesus. We talked about the three “L”s of a good student/disciple: listen, learn, and live out. We listen to the words of Jesus; we learn the words of Jesus; and then we live them out. All three steps were crucial in being a good student. During this step, we begin to actually learn the words and parables of Jesus. We learn them well enough to share them with somebody else.
The third step is to produce fruit; that is, to put his parables/teachings into practice. We discussed this when we studied the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew was especially concerned that a Christian puts his/her faith into practice. It was in the “doing” that a person actually learned. In those same lessons, we used the analogy of learning to work with a computer. First, you listen to the instructions on a function of the computer; you learn the instructions well enough to try them; and then you actually do those instructions, several times over until you finally learn it. It is in the doing of it over and over again that you actually get the whole process into your brains and behavior. So it is with the ways of the kingdom, the way of the cross. It is in doing the will of God over and over again in real life that you actually learn the way of the cross, the way of the kingdom, the way of love.
Luke adds the words, “with patience.” Once again, Luke is very wise. If one is a gardener, one has patience for “slow growth” and so it is the ways and wisdom of the kingdom growing inside of you. It always involves “slow growth.”
Thirty/sixty/hundred fold. These words are omitted by Luke whose Roman, world wide audience would not fully appreciate the vocabulary of a farmer from rural Palestine. But for a Jewish audience of farm folk from the farming country of Palestine, they realized that the good soil would produce an astronomical amount of fruit. In fact, the excessive fruit is an indication of Jesus’ humor and exaggeration. It would be like saying that this tomato plant will have one hundred large tomatoes on it. That is incredible, fantastic, outlandish! The outlandish growth is beyond even the expectations of farm folk from the farm countryside. There is humor and truth in Jesus’ excessive language. We will soon hear another of Jesus’ parables about the miraculous growth of a mustard seed, from the smallest of seeds into an incredibly large bush that even has birds sitting in its branches. The growth of the minute mustard seed into such enormous proportions is parallel to the soil that produces 30/60/100 fold. Similarly, we are also aware of the image of a cluster of grapes on a vine and that there is never only one grape in that cluster but a large cluster of grapes. All of these parables reinforce the concept the luxurious growth of God’s ways in people’s lives. God intends luxurious growth for our lives as well.
PAINTING AND IMAGINATION: THE SOWER