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 of 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)

Paul Ricoeur:
- 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. 105-112.]

- 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 Dominic Crossan.]


* 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? This parable 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 mule.)

But I often find that what bothers me about a biblical story is a clue to something important.
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 depth? (v.5)
- 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 many).

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