The Parable of the Careless Sower

(A number of people have said they got lost in the exegetical study notes on the Bible passage that I normally put at the beginning of these posts. So, starting today I'll include them at the bottom instead. I hope all of you Bible geeks don't mind. The content is the same, but the arrangement is just slightly different.)

Proper 10, Year A

Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23
The passage is located in the midst of what may be called, “the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah,” which runs from 4:17-16:20. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read that section a couple of times all the way through to get the feelings of the section.

It takes place during a period of Jesus’ ministry filled with preaching, teaching and healing. It is also the section which starts stories of opposition to Jesus, so, beginning with these questions from John the Baptist at 11:2, or 12:1, the Gospel begins to concentrate on the opponents of Jesus and their rejection of him.

This parable is the first of seven that Jesus tells in reaction to Israel’s rejection of him, starting at about chapter 8. (An interesting, but unanswerable, question is whether this parable is related to or responding to that rejection?).

Notice at the very beginning that he starts his day by coming out of the house and going down by the sea. When people started gathering around him, he began to preach to them, but what was that “house”? Many people don’t think about the fact that Jesus might actually have a house that he actually lived in. There’s no way of knowing, but this was probably the house that Jesus lived in. We know that he had to live somewhere and that his base of ministry was in Capernaum, so if he had one, it was there. But there’s almost nothing ever said about it, except for these brief suggestive comments now and then. See Mark’s parallel at 4:1ff, where Jesus has also been in “a house” (presumably his) in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 13:36 he goes back into “the house,” though Matthew does not say whether or not it is the same house.

Note that he uses a farmer and harvest metaphor probably because everyone knew what a farmer was and what one did. Note also that harvest was often used as a metaphor of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and this would also have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners.

A problem with some people in preaching this is, why did the farmer throw seeds with so little regard for the soil? Don’t get bogged down on that. In First Century Palestine, farmers simply threw the seed far and wide before turning up the soil. They threw it on open fields with rocks and gullies, where the wind could take it away. “Thus the detection of adverse soil conditions would not be possible until the plowing got underway. This would explain the four different conditions of soil so integral to Jesus’ parable”[1]

The issue, then, is not the nature of the seeds, they are all the same. The issue is the nature of the soil, the quality of which is not recognizable with only a quick look.[2] The three soils are of different qualities, but each is substandard in its own way. Each soil has something wrong with it. The yield, on the other hand, winds up being the same in each case: they are all bad. And that is the bigger point. So it’s best to also not get bogged down on various causes of the crop failure (the meanings behind the badness of the various soils), but focus on the fact that all of the crops went bad. The point is to recognize that in three out of four cases Jesus’ message failed to produce anything.

Now, the success of that last crop would get listeners’ attention. In good storytelling form, the best is always last.  And note that with that last crop the yield is higher than is possible for humans. The hundredfold produced by the seed in good soil represents about ten times average yield. That’s because we have help from God. The point is that the gospel, if germinated in good soil, bears the fruit and evidence of the Messianic Age that has drawn near in Jesus.

One very possible interpretation of the parable for preaching is that the sower is a stand-in for God. God throws the seed far and wide, with no regard for the receptivity of the soils. Such is the love of God, such is the word of God. God wants the widest possible number of people to hear it and be able to be healed and reconciled with it. That some are receptive is a sad commentary on our own fallen condition, but God’s task is to put it before us and to allow us to decide. One commentator suggested that the parable be renamed, “The Parable of the Careless Sower,”[3] because God simply does not care where the seed falls, only that all who are out there get a chance at it. God can create the conditions for us to hear and be healed, but will not force us to act on it. It is we who have to make that decision. We are the last in the good three-part story to respond.
A second interpretation moves the focus from God to Jesus, and the sower becomes Jesus (this is a better interpretation, if you believe that the parable was written after Jesus, and by the early Christian community). In this case, it illustrates how Jesus tried hard to spread his good news to all about him, but that very few actually heard it. Very few responded and let the seed of the Kingdom of God take root in them and grow. This interpretation explains to the listener/reader why Jesus’ foray into the world was such an apparent failure. There was just too much poor soil out there, and even good seeds cannot grow in bad conditions.[4] Yet, the good news is that at least some seed germinated, as evidenced by Jesus’ disciples. The harvest will be (eventually) bountiful, even if most of the soil onto which you throw seed will not produce. The message then, is don’t give up. It’ll happen. Nothing worth giving your life for, as Reinhold Niebuhr used to say, can be accomplished in one lifetime.
You may be one of the remnant, one of the few who was able to recognize the beauty and possibility of the seed, the word, the love of God. Don’t give up on its possibility and don’t squander it. There is much to be done.

[1] Lectionary Homiletics, July, 2008, p. 9.
[2] Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, p. 297; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 149-151
[3] “The Parable of the Careless Sower,” Alyce McKenzie (
[4] “In comparison to the Markan parallel (4:1-9), Matthew’s version focuses more on Jesus’ own fate (the failure of his ministry to bear fruit) than on the kingdom of God, but in both cases, they agree that the focus is not on different kinds of soil, we might be” (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, p. 297; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 149-151).

Matt. 13:1-9,18-23

The Parable of the Sower
1That same day Jesus went out of the house[1] and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path,[2] and the birds came and ate them up.[3] 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears[4] listen!”[5]
The Purpose of the Parables
10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[6] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
        ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
  and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
15     For this people’s heart has grown dull,
  and their ears are hard of hearing,
     and they have shut their eyes;
     so that they might not look with their eyes,
  and listen with their ears,
        and understand with their heart and turn—
  and I would heal them.’
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
The Parable of the Sower Explained
18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble[7] or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.[8] 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

[1] “The house” There’s no way of knowing, but this may well be the house that Jesus lived in. We know that he had to live somewhere, and his base of ministry was in Capernaum. See Mark’s parallel at 4:1ff, where Jesus has also been in a house (presumably his) in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In 13:36 he goes back into “the house,” though Matthew does not say whether or not it is the same house.
[2] “On the path” (para tēn hodon). Literally “On the side of the path.” Interestingly, the kjv comes closer with, “by the wayside.”
[3] “Ate up” (katephagen) Second aorist active indicative of katesthiō. To “eat/consume,” but interestingly, the sense is to “eat down,” not up. The kjv, once again, gets this right, with “devoured them down.”
[4] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities add to hear
[5] “Let anyone with ears (to hear) listen!” (ho echōn ōta akouetō). The traditional translations that have something like, “he who has ears to hear, let him listen” are in passive voice, but this is much more in the imperative voice. Jesus was not much into commandments, but he does want you to know that this is serious business, not something that he will just “let” you do if you are not busy. See also Matt. 11:15 and 13:43.  
[6] “Secrets” (must─ôrion) “[C]an mean either (1) a new revelation or (2) a revealing interpretation of existing revelation  as in Dan 2:17-23; Dan 2:27-30. Jesus seems to be explaining how current events develop old promises, since the NT consistently links the events of Jesus’ ministry and message with old promises (Rom 1:1-4; Heb 1:1-2). The traditional translation of this word, ‘mystery,’ is misleading to the modern English reader because it suggests a secret which people have tried to uncover but which they have failed to understand” (New English Translation note).
[7] “Trouble” (thlipseōs). From thlibō, to press, to oppress, to squeeze (cf. Mat_7:14). Comes from the term for the roller that presses down wheat. “Trench (Synonyms of the N.T., pp. 202-4): ‘When, according to the ancient law of England, those who willfully refused to plead, had heavy weights placed on their breasts, and were pressed and crushed to death, this was literally thlipsis” (Word Pictures in the New Testament) A.T. Robertson.
[8] “Immediately falls away” (skandalizetai). “Stumbles” (sometimes, but not here, “offends”). From sk├índalon, a trap, stumbling block or impediment. Something that gets in the way of fulfilling a promise or goal. It is a frequent metaphorical term in other parts of the NT for someone or something leading one of the faithful astray. Occasionally a synonym for “sin” in that one falls or comes up short from honesty or fidelity or faithfulness.