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Matthew 13:1-23 recounts the Parable of the Sower. This is one that I've heard a number of times in a number of sermons and books. It must have some ambiguity as it's interpretation by pastors and authors alike has been inconsistent.

What is the meaning of this parable?

  • Who/what was being referred to by those who sprang up in fertile soil?
  • Who/what was being referred to by those who fell along the path?
  • Who/what was being referred to by those who sprang up in rocky/shallow soil?
  • Who/what was being referred to by those who fell among thorns?
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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. Please keep in mind that this is not a Christian site, so we welcome other perspectives on the text as well. Be sure to check out what makes us different from other sites that study the Bible. –  Daи Feb 11 at 16:21
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I've edited this question to place the emphasis on understanding the text rather than on Christian theology (which is moreso application of the text, which is off topic here). I should have retained enough of your conjecture to help others understand where you're coming from, however. It would be helpful for you to give the exact title of the books and page numbers where commentators have made claims so answerers can see the context of these claims for themselves. –  Daи Feb 11 at 16:22
    
If we talk about the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation, only one is saved (in fertile soil), the other not. "Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown." Matthew 13:8, "By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?" Matthew 7:16 (NIV) –  Paul Vargas Feb 11 at 16:29
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A key to understanding this passage is the exile and return language used which is reminiscent of Isaiah 55 and various Psalms. Equating 'kingdom of heaven' with the modern Christian individualistic understanding of 'gospel' and salvation is very eisegetical. Hopefully I'll have time to answer in the next few days. –  Daи Feb 11 at 17:12

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This answer is just a brief attempt at the leading question, "What is the meaning of this parable?"

Interest is expressed in Matthew's version of the parable in particular. The "sower and seed" parable appears in each of the three Synoptic Gospels, Matt 13:3-25 // Mk 4:3-20 // Luke 8:5-15, with some variations in the parable and its explanation. This is more a "global" comment, and others may well come in with a different perspective, and some Matthean particulars.

Interpreting Parables

What is a parable? A parable is a story designed to elicit a judgment from the listener -- and that judgment implicates the listener in some action or response.

A powerful example of this is Nathan's story to King David about the poor man and his lamb, which was seized and sizzled by the rich man (2 Samuel 12:1-7). The story provokes an outraged response from David, to which Nathan replies, "You are the man!"

As the Nathan/David illustration already suggests, "parables" have been around for a long time. Although Jesus' teaching is especially associated with parables, he didn't invent them, and others through the centuries have used them.

Jesus and parables. There are probably three main "styles" of parables that the gospels show Jesus as using:

  • brief, pithy statements ("The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all the dough had risen." Matt 13:33)
  • short stories involving several characters and a "plot" (e.g., the "Good Samaritan", in Luke 10:25-37)
  • more elaborate "symbolic" stories, accompanied by a "key" (e.g., the parable of the sower, under discussion here).

Clearly, the "definition" of a parable given above has its closest fit with the middle, "short story" parable type. Whether the first and third also are intended to provoke "self-implicating" reaction is open to question, although my own sense is that this approach works well.

The Parable of the Sower

One answer, then, to "what is the meaning of the parable of the sower?", is to enquire further about what kind of judgment it provokes in its hearer(s) - or might provoke!1

The effect of this parable is not so direct as Nathan's story of the poor man's lamb told to King David. One common (?) interpretation can be safely ruled out. It is sometimes said that the message of the parable is that "the word does the work". Now, it may be that this is true (and other parables would make this point more clearly), but it seems unlikely here. At least, if it's the case that "the word does the work", this parable suggests that in the majority (three out of four that Jesus describes) of cases ... it doesn't work! ("He who has ears -- let him hear!" Matt 13:9)

Given the larger setting in all three of the accounts in which it appears, the parable is told to those anxious (?) about their own ability to understand, to be perceptive listeners. Much as King David offered a judgment on the "rich man" that implicated himself, so too Jesus' listeners could not help but align themselves with the "good soil" (case #4) which produced a harvest.

By implication then, the hearer thus aligned with the "good soil" will guard against the other three scenarios: vulnerability to malign spiritual influence, lack of perseverance, and the lure of riches. Or, in a more familiar order and wording: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The meaning of the parable, then is as much an "action" as a "proposition": it is to provoke the inclination of the hearer towards productive Kingdom living.2

Implication

On this reckoning, trying to work out more precise theological questions about "assurance of salvation" or the like is, ironically perhaps, to miss Jesus' main point. His listeners did not walk away pondering this question, but rather whether their understanding of Jesus' message led to a "fruitful life" (Matt 13:23 // Mark 4:20 // Luke 8:15).

Further reading

Without any doubt, the most significant academic contribution to the study of Jesus' parables in the 20th C came from Joachim Jeremias. His major study The Parables of Jesus came out in English in 1966, and a revised edition in 1972 (this is the one that is still available). He also prepared a "simplified" version, Rediscovering the Parables. There is, of course, a huge literature on the parables, but Jeremias's contribution is pivotal.


Notes

  1. It is significant, of course that the parable of the sower in particular is the context for Jesus' own teaching about the effect of parables: that they can conceal truth from those unwilling to listen, as well as disclose truth to those inclined to hear (Matt 13:10-17 // Mark 4:10-12 // Luke 8:9-10).
  2. This is, perhaps, a "distinctive" of Matthew's version, as the parable of the sower serves as an introduction to a collection of "kingdom parables" in the rest of Matthew 13.
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Great stuff here. I also hope to have a chance to take a stab at this, but I feel like I could write a book on it. There is of course the exile and return language reminiscent of Isaiah 55 and psalms, this is the first of seven parables given in this segment of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gets into a conflict with religious leaders in Mt. 12 and this represents the 'shift' from the 'clear(er)' teaching like the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus using parables to hide the mysteries/secrets of τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, and.... –  Daи Feb 11 at 22:36
    
And then there is of course the critical perspective that would argue that this parable is not an authentic saying of Jesus because it seems to draw on later Christian theological themes (ὁ Λόγος) and goes against Jesus' own purpose of parables given in the immediate context, not to mention the presence of a Hellenism (πρόσκαιρος) with no Aramaic parallel etc. (Bultmann argues this, for instance). This is a weaker argument, IMHO since it brings with it the a priori assumption that Jesus would not interpret his own parable, but still interesting. –  Daи Feb 11 at 22:42
    
But it would take so much time to aggregate all this in a post.... :P –  Daи Feb 11 at 22:43
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I never anticipated such a thought provoking, well-articulated reply. Thanks for the extra effort. Really well done! –  Mario Feb 12 at 6:35
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Excellent answer. Well thought out, well reasoned, and interesting at the same time. The "word does the work" comment is good, but it may miss the point. The word's seeming inability to work in 3 of 4 cases is not the fault of the word; it's the fault of the hearers of the word. I may develop this thought in my own answer. You've laid a great foundation. Kudos. Don –  rhetorician Feb 12 at 17:56

Do read (or re-read) Jesus' explanation of the parable to His disciples. (I assume that His words in Matthew 13:18-23 are a continuation of what began in v.10, where the disciples, not the crowds, asked for further clarification about parables, in general, and probably about this parable in particular.)

I think Jesus gives an answer to each one of your questions, and I will unpack His answers shortly. First, however, we need to identify what is the seed in Jesus' parable. Jesus clearly identifies it as "the word of the kingdom" in v.19. In other words, the seed was (and still is) Jesus' message. There are any number of ways of condensing this message in precis form, but in no particular order, Jesus preached the following:

  • repentance, or turning away from sin (doing an "about face," or a "180-degree turn" in one's life)

  • the linking of repentance with good works (or fruit befitting repentance)

  • the ethics of the kingdom and the rules by which God's kingdom is both established and run (e.g., the Beatitudes, and the principle of love for God and neighbor, to name but two)

  • the new birth, or the birth from above

  • in order "to work the works of God," the very first step is to believe in Jesus, whom the Father had sent into the world to seek and save the lost

Jesus fully realized that for each person who heard His words, there would be a different kind of response from each hearer. For simplicity's sake, He reduced the responses to four. Why He chose four, I am not absolutely certain. Pedagogically speaking, perhaps in choosing four categories He not only simplified things for His disciples, but He also summarized the typical responses to God's word.

He did not necessarily provide us with four air-tight, hermetically sealed compartments, however; rather, He gave us four typical responses, each of which contains a little wiggle room, so to speak, to allow for the uniqueness of each individual hearer, and for the uniqueness of each person's response to His message.

Most important for us to understand is that the seeming "failure" of the message to take root and subsequently bear fruit in three out of four scenarios is not the fault of the word; rather, it is the fault of the hearers. (At this point I will not even touch on the notion of "the elect" as being the only ones who are enabled to hear, respond, obey, and then bear fruit. That is a subject for a different discussion.)

Need I quote the writer to the Hebrews at this point, especially chapter 4? Probably not. I'll leave you to read it on your own and draw an application or two to the question at hand.

Again, the good seed of God's word (in each of the four scenarios) gets a result; in only a minority of the scenarios, however, does it bear fruit. Again, the hearts of the hearers, not the word, are to blame, although Jesus made it clear that both Satanic and human instrumentalities bear some of the blame as well. Consider, for example the many "Woes" pronounced by Jesus, in which He indicates there is plenty of blame to go around regarding temptations to sin (check out this link).

In summary, then, here are some answers to your questions:

  • Scenario 1: The word is believed but is not fully understood. Some crucial pieces of the puzzle are missing, so to speak, and the enemy of souls takes advantage of that muddled thinking, and snatches away what little understanding is there. Could this scenario describe the reaction of many in the religious establishment of His day who failed to understand Jesus' message? Perhaps initially they were intrigued by Jesus' message but failed to understand its implications for their lives.

Here is where the nature of parables is revealed. A parable is a story which a person hears and then puts alongside (para-, alongside) his or her life to see if and where its moral (as in "the moral of the story") fits in his or her life. Listener number one, then, has an incomplete understanding and doesn't know fully how the story fits in his or her life.

  • Scenario 2: The word is believed, but shortly thereafter confronts affliction and persecution. There is a modern (anachronistic) phrase, "easy believism" which has some relevance here. "Just believe," some phony evangelist says, "and God will pour the blessings of prosperity, good health, and security into your life." Sounds good, but is that necessarily what happens with all who believe? Hardly. The promises of the word of God were given to us to help us through the tough times, not to escape them. That's where "the rubber meets the road," when the word in us triggers affliction and persecution. That's where the men and women are separated from the boys and girls; that is, where there are no deep, firm roots. These hearers fall away.

  • Scenario 3: The word is believed, but confronts worry and wealth. In that confrontation these two enemies of men's souls choke the word. Again, this is not the word's fault; rather, it is the fault of the one who decides to hold on to worry and wealth (and interestingly, the two go together well, since wealth is deceitful in that it creates the "burden of ownership," which triggers worry, which is often followed by sometimes desperate measures to hold on to something of which we are, after all, merely stewards, not owners). Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and mammon."

  • Scenario 4: The word is believed, understood, applied, and subsequently bears fruit of different kinds and amounts. (Compare the parable of the talents, in which two of three servants received a "Well done, good and faithful servant," despite the differing amounts of return on their investments; whereas the third servant received a reprimand for a) not obeying his master; b) for poor stewardship; and c) for failing to invest the master's money, if only to put it in the bank to gather interest.

In conclusion, the good seed of God's word has the power to bear fruit if it is accompanied by a true understanding of its message, by endurance in the face of difficulty, and by the refusal to fall prey to worry and wealth. In the absence of these, there will not be, and there cannot be, fruit. Fruitfulness comes from "abiding in the vine" and from being willing to be "pruned" of those things which serve only to drag us down and make us unfruitful (John 15:1-11).

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