The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

In the first blog in this series, Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus, I offered a few introductory thoughts about Parables and how truly hearing them is to understand and interpret their meaning.  Here I offer a few comments on parables by focusing on the story of the Sower from Matthew 13.

In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, after listening to their Lord tell the Parable, the Twelve Disciples do not let on if they are puzzled by the meaning of the parable of the sower, but “the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?'”    What puzzles the disciples is why Jesus speaks in parables at all; why does He use parables to teach the crowds, the others, those who aren’t part of the inner circle of chosen disciples, them

We do not know if  the disciples themselves understand the parable.   Interestingly, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proceeds to explain the parable to the disciples, not to the crowd.   Jesus realizes the disciples are saying in a way to avoid embarrassing themselves, “we don’t know what you are talking about.”  In the Gospels, the disciples not understanding the sayings of Jesus is fairly commonplace, and they are sometimes embarrassed by their failure to comprehend.   Before Jesus explains the parable to His disciples, He answers their question (“why do you speak to them in parables?”) in the terms in which they asked it.

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.   For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.   Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”   (Matthew 13:11-17)

The explanation of Jesus touches upon the heart of His message in the Pharisaic world of 1st Century Judaism – you think literally following the Torah is the way to salvation, but your way is in error and has caused you to be deaf and blind.  You are following your own ways and own interpretation, but I am here to heal your eyes and ears and hearts and minds so that you can find the Kingdom of God.  The Jews thought they had found the way – strict adherence to the Torah according to their own interpretation of it.  Jesus says your way is narrowing your mind, hardening your heart and causing you to be deaf and blind to what God is doing, to God’s love and God’s path to the Kingdom.

After talking about why He teaches in Parables, Jesus does explain the Parable of the Sower to His disciples; He sees their question about the crowd as really their own question – what does the parable mean?  In Luke and Mark’s Gospel (Luke  8, Mark 4) it is much more clear that the disciples do not understand the meaning of the parable and Jesus explains the meaning precisely because they have not comprehended it.  As Jesus asks the disciples,   “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)  It is the meaning of the Parables, their interpretation which is essential to Jesus.

 In Mark and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does proclaim the parables to the masses of people, not just to the disciples, but His explanation of the parables, he apparently offers privately to his inner circle of disciples.  There is a public proclamation – the evangelization, the preaching, but then there is the teaching, the explanation which is given to those who have ears to hear – those who care and want to know what the meaning of the parable is.  “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; [34] he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything”  (Mark 4:33-34).

It is interesting that neither St. Paul, nor the Acts of the Apostles ever mentions one of the parables of Jesus.   In the New Testament writings outside the Gospels, the public proclamation – the evangelization and preaching, does not include the parables of Jesus.   There is a difference between the preaching and the teaching of the Church.  What is proclaimed to attract others to the Faith is one message; but that Good News is further explained in the teaching of the Church, which includes the Parables of Jesus.   The Parables belong to the teaching of the church, to the disciples, and those who have ears and are willing to hear.   For those who reject the Good News of God’s Kingdom, the Parables will be of little value for they point to and reveal the Kingdom of God, the very thing non-believers already reject. 

Though St. Paul never mentions the Parables, there is in his writings a very close parallel to the parables in his reference to speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:19-25 (RSV)  [19] nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. [20] Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. [21] In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” [22] Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. [23] If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? [24] But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, [25] the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

As the disciples and the crowds struggled with understanding the parables, so to St. Paul sees the people in his generation wrestling with something equally incomprehensible – the speaking in tongues.  It is the understanding, the interpretation, the meaning of either parables or tongues which is most important for the church.  But whether listening to the Parables of Jesus when He was preaching, or listening to the speaking in tongues, the difficulty lies not just in hearing the sounds, but in realizing what these sounds mean and what they are revealing to the hearer.

Next: Part 3 The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43

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