Matthew 13:1-9 is the first of three Sunday Gospel readings from chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew opens the scene with Jesus sitting in a boat and speaking to a large crowd gathered on shore of Lake Galilee.
Jesus speaks very briefly, for perhaps ten or twenty minutes. He uses two parables, the sower and the weeds (13:1-9) and the wheat (13:24-30), to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. Then he employs another two similies (13:31-34), the mustard seed and leaven, to explain the Kingdom. Jesus is trying to convey to the large crowd the dynamic tension between a Kingdom that is inaugurated with the ministry of Jesus, but is not fully complete until his return.
When theologians speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, the modern phrase already, but not yet is often used. The already of the Kingdom of Heaven began with the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the salvation made available to all through the cross and his resurrection. The not yet component of the Kingdom of Heaven speaks of the return of Jesus at the end of the age. As Scripture and the Fathers of the Church teach:
For before we reign with Christ in glory, all of us will be made manifest “before the tribunal of Christ, so that each one may receive what he has won through the body, according to his works, whether good or evil” and at the end of the world “they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but those who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment”. (LG 48, cit II Cor 5:10; Jn 5:29, Mt 25:46)
With this already but not yet idea in mind, Jesus introduces one of the most recognizable parables in the Gospels, the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9). The message of the parable is simple: God extends the Good News to everyone through Jesus Christ. However, Jesus reminds the disciples that the “Word of the Kingdom” (Mt 13:19) is like seed that is scattered on the ground. Some seed falls upon good soil, some among rocky soil, and some among thorns and brambles.
Jesus’ parable is simple to understand, yet it explains the intricacy of his “already but not yet” eschatology of the Kingdom. There are three theological aspects of the parable of the sower that I’d like to mention. First, while the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived with the ministry of Jesus, the believer is a full and active participant in the Kingdom. In fact, if we read chapter 13 carefully, we can see that Jesus argues that the privilege of participation in the Kingdom is our responsibility. Jesus extends the Good News – the “seed” or the “word of the Kingdom” to everyone. But, it is our duty to cultivate the earth so that the Good News / Seed / Word can produce fruit.
As Jesus says in Mark 4:14, the sower sows the word. Nevertheless, the sown word can fall on poor soil, or among thorns. In human terms, the word may fall upon deaf ears. And there are consequences for ignoring the word of God. This much is made clear in the next parable, the parable of the weeds and wheat. As we will see next week, the consequences of ignoring the Word are repeated by Jesus three times (verses 30, 41-42, 49-50) in chapter 13.
Third, Jesus spoke in parables to the great crowd, in part because explaining a supernatural reality more directly may have been a bit much. As Jesus says in Mt 13:13:
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.
But Jesus is not being cynical in this passage. He is simply stating the truth that some may understand the Good News, while others are not spiritually prepared for it. The parable is, for Jesus, not just a story-telling device. It is the mode through which believers and non believers self-select. Jesus relies on the faith – not the intellect! – of the hearer to make the connection between the story in the parable and the supernatural reality. The parable of the sower directly addresses Jesus’ concern that, among the entire flock, some will listen, believe, and act upon the proclamation of the Kingdom, while others may not.
Since the very birth of Christianity on Pentecost Sunday, the Good News has been proclaimed by an elder to the Christian community. By the late first century, only three accounts of the Good News were accepted by Christians throughout Asia Minor and the Roman Empire: the accounts written by Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s account was accepted within another generation, having been written later and taken longer to propagate throughout the Empire.
To hear the Gospel proclaimed by a presbyter was, and is, to hear Jesus speak. And to hear Jesus speak required, and still requires, reading from one of the four accepted Gospel accounts. In fact, to believe in the truth of the Good News – the Gospels – is evidence, par excellence, that the Word of the Kingdom has fallen on good soil.
Whoever has ears ought to hear…
On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him
that he got into a boat and sat down,
and the whole crowd stood along the shore.
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”