Lectionary Year A
July 11, 1999
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Step II: Disposition
Matthew has Jesus admittedly telling a parable and then, in the second part
the lesson, explaining its meaning. This parable seems to be couched in
language familiar, if not intimately familiar to the hearers of it. The
seeds fall repeatedly. The surface onto which they fall and the soil into
which the sink get similar repetitions. Then, in the explanatory second
part of the lection, we get more repetition - "this is the one who hears
the word . . .", especially grabs our attention. A parable tells a story.
This one does it quite well.
The paragraph in Matthew 13 that stands between verses 9 and 18 justifies
the explanations in verses 18-23. It states that those to whom Jesus told
the parable might have been listening without hearing and/or understanding
what was said. Consequently, the explanation. It identifies the various
surfaces' effect on the seeds sown.
Parable = realistic or possible fiction built on comparison; may have the
character of maxim (gnome) or proverb (paroimia).
Hebrew literary tradition:
Hebrew "mashal" mostly translated in Greek with "parabole." Designates a
similitude or comparison (something is like another thing). Very close to
the meaning of "metaphor." Not fixed to one particular genre (can be
proverb, allegory, etc.).
[In Crossan's judgment, the Jesus tradition follows the Hebrew tradition
with emphasis on comparison and metaphor, 148.]
Modern parabolic theory:
Parables = combine qualities of narrative, metaphor, and brevity; it tells
stories with "double meaning," a) a "surface" meaning (clear, obvious) and
b) a "hidden" meaning (deeper, possible multiple meanings)
- Metaphorical (parabolic) language is characterized by "polysemy," i.e. the
arising of multiple meanings out of the ambiguity of words.
- Parables encourage listeners to widen and deepen their notion of a
particular subject matter (i.e. the Kingdom of God).
- Thus, parables cannot be reduced to abstract concepts.
[in: Bailey and Vander Broek. Literary Forms in the New Testament.
- Narrative parable = parable containing :epic laws of folk narrative," in
the case of the parable of the sower, one is confronted with the "Law of
Three" (path - rocks - thistles).
- Can receive external or internal interpretation; here, external, i.e. in
the form of "commentary (Jesus himself comments and interprets his own
parable -- vv.18-23).
- Lit. "parabole" = to cast alongside
Rabbinic tradition interprets parables in a classical sequence: 1) problem
requiring a parable; 2) introduction of the parable; 3) parable itself;
4) application; 5) biblical quotation (as it is written).
[source: The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Parable. v.5. 146-152. John
B. PERSONAL INTERACTION
* Verses 18-23 inform us of much of the meaning of the parable. Why does
the term referring to the Kingdom, "basileias", occur so late and so almost
unnoticeably, in this parable?
* Does "the evil one" mentioned in verse 18
really belong in this pericope?
* Do I hear this parable correctly when I
begin to wonder what to do, regarding the various surfaces and contexts upon and into
which the seeds fall? Or do I more faithfully focus mostly, if not
exclusively on the seeds and how they most effectively grow?
* How are we to
hear and understand the word in order to grow productively?
only subtly addresses this question, and indirectly, at best.
* Can I correct
the unfavorable situation of rootlessness and thorniness?
* Were ancient Near
Eastern sowers so irresponsible as to drop seeds on pathways and into thorny
patches? I should hope not. Furthermore, and perhaps, much more to the
point, what exactly does this parable tell us to hear today? (see Response below)
* The situations described as the "beds" on and into which the seeds fall
present me with a problem. Is Jesus describing some of the inevitably
favorable and unfavorable "grounds" on which we live and grow? Are we to take
responsibility for improving those environs? Can mortals help how the
world affects living and growing entities?
* Is the emphasis on the seeds more
than on the surroundings in and through which we live and grow? Are the hard
path, the rocky ground, the shallow soil, the birds, the thorns identified
with "the evil one" in verse 19?
* Does it become our responsibility to prepare the soil for fruitful harve
sts? Is that the main point of this story?
* Does Jesus intentionally
increase the degree of intensity through the unfavorable plots onto and into
which seeds fall in this parable? The details get clarified amply. The
main point still baffles me. Maybe the commentaries shed some light.
We'll see soon, surely.
Response from RJFC
I am responding to JFC's question:
"Were ancient near eastern sowers so irresponsible as to drop seeds on
pathways and into thorny patches?"
(From previous study in commentaries I had come to understand that yes,
some would sow their seed by ripping a hole in a seed sack on the back of a
But I often find that what bothers me about a biblical story is a clue to
Here's a question: Is God so irresponsible as to plant the seed of the
gospel in all sorts of times and places and harsh environments, in all
sorts of human hearts including those whose owners are obviously beyond any
hope of doing anything with it? Well?
Perhaps your question is a link to a scandal in our gospel. Suppose the
near eastern sowers were much more careful with their precious seed.
Perhaps we have here a contrast between human sowers and the Divine sower,
much less discriminating about where the precious seed, carrying within it
the possibility-- the promise even-- of life, lands.
- Why did Jesus separate himself physically from the crowd? (v.2)
- I find the expression "depth of soil" very interesting. What gives soil
- I wonder what a word study of "proskairos" would reveal?! (v.21)
- I wonder about the thorn-plants, the worries and concerns of the "age."
Are they connected to Paul's "thorn in the flesh" in 2 Cor. 12 1-10?
- What is the "good earth (vv.8, 23)?" What turns earth into "good earth?"
Is plowing a necessary thing to make earth into good earth? Plowing is a
rather "violent" but necessary thing for agricultural success (one among
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