|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
Our lessons for the next three weeks come from Jesus' third major discourse in Matthew (13:1-58), which are primarily parables.
Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) offers a reminder as he begins his comments on this text:
We come to our text for this week noting that the lectionary has entirely omitted Matthew 12. This is a critical omission because it appears that the material in Matthew 13:1-23, the Parable of the Sower along with its explanations, is Jesus' response to the events that have taken place in chapter 12. [p. 112]
In ch. 12, opposition to Jesus intensifies. Pharisees now debate Jesus directly (12:1-8). They plot his death (12:14), but then there is a bit of irony. Matthew tells us that Isaiah has been filled, which includes the statement: "And in his name the Gentiles will hope" (12:21). The Jewish leaders want him dead, but at the same time, he is the hope for the Gentiles. Jesus' mission to the house of Israel has failed.
The Pharisees believe Jesus is in league with Beelzebul (12:24). Jesus indicates that these Pharisees are against him (12:30). By attributing his power to Beelzebul and not to the Holy Spirit, have these Pharisees committed the unforgivable sin (12:32)? They are not bearing the good fruit because they are bad trees -- a "brood of vipers" (12:34a). They are "an evil and adulterous generation" who ask for a sign (12:38-39).
Jensen suggests the following questions and answer:
Why do people not believe? What is going on here? How can God's Son meet such a fate? Is there any explanation for the fate we have arrived at by the end of Matthew 12? The answer is: Yes. The explanation begins with simple words: "A sower went out to sow." [p. 114]
We are to read the parable as an answer to such questions raised by chapter 12. They illustrate why some people did not and do not believe. That is a message and probably the purpose of the parable and its interpretation in Matthew. However, as we will see, one can also glean other meanings from the parable.
Eugene Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) writes:
In the preaching of Jesus, parables were not vivid decorations of a moralistic point but were disturbing stories that threatened the hearer's secure mythological world -- the world of assumptions by which we habitually live, the unnoticed framework of our thinking within which we interpret other data. 
This leads me to wonder as we look at these parables, "What was Jesus seeking to threaten in the hearer's world of assumptions by which they habitually live?"
In a book completely unrelated to parables, Music in Churches, Linda J. Clark writes:
I wish to return to something I said earlier about the nature of the event called "art." I said that it had to be transparent. I use the term transparency to describe that quality of music that allows the release of meaning to take place in both the work itself and the "worker" (the singer). Art is an event in which the life embodied in an art work and the life of the beholder or performer meet. In order that any meaning be expressed by a composition, or a painting, or a play, it must work. It must be adequate to the task of evoking or carrying this meaning event. [p. 9]
Similarly, I think that "parable" is an art-form that creates an "event" between the life in the story and the life of the reader. Parables are created, I think, not to be studied and interpreted so much as to be experienced. The following is my present "experience" with this parable with exegetical comments interspersed.
I asked earlier, "What in our hearer's world of assumptions should we be seeking to threaten?" The answer I'm toying with now is "efficiency and effectiveness". At a previous congregation, the council met with a consultant who raised the question: "How do you know if your decisions are faithful?" "Effective" and "efficient" were two of the early responses. Are they good criteria for our faithfulness? I think that this parable says, "No!"
About the same time I attended a workshop on stewardship. The leader made comments about wastefulness. The OT rules regarding sacrifices didn't permit the worshiper to pull out the best steaks when they were medium rare. The whole animal was "wasted" -- burned up as one's offering to God. The same might be said for setting aside 24 hours for the Sabbath -- a full day of rest without working. Isn't that wasting time which could be productive?
I heard of individuals who stopped giving to congregations and of congregations who stopped giving benevolence to synod, churchwide, or other agencies, because they felt that their gifts were "wasted".
I find myself using the terms (or ideas) of "effective and efficient" often. "Putting a church advertisement in the paper is not effective evangelism. It isn't the most efficient use of money." I've often wondered why naves usually have such high ceilings -- isn't that a waste of money both in building the structure and heating or cooling that extra, unused space? Discussions about adding a Saturday evening service centered around effectiveness -- how many worshipers are necessary to consider it a viable part of our ministry?
In the parable, there was a lot of wasted seeds. Some was wasted immediately as the birds ate them from the path and they had no chance to germinate and grow. Other seeds began to grow, but after a short time (on rocky ground) or a longer time (among thorns), they did not reach full maturity and produce fruit. In none of these cases was the lack of growth the fault of the seed. The potential was always within the seed. It was the outside forces that thwarted the seeds' natural purpose.
All these wasted seeds seem to go against our ideas of effective and efficient ministry. How many farmers today would sow seed as the sower did in the parable? None that I know of. It's just not efficient or effective. Too much is wasted. How does this challenge our understanding of being faithful in our ministries, our stewardship, our evangelism, our service, our worship? Should we be "wasting" baptism on children whose parents probably won't be back at church until they want another child baptized? Should we distribute the forgiveness of sins through Christ's body and blood in bread and wine to everyone who comes forward? Might we be "wasting" some of God's grace on unrepentant sinners? Should we be mailing newsletters to people who probably don't read them? Should we distribute fliers or go door to door, knowing that much of the paper and work will be wasted?
For a number of years I have printed the entire service -- words and music -- in a bulletin. I think that it makes it much easier for the worshipers (both long-time and first-time) to follow and participate in the service. Seldom are all of the bulletins used. Most of the bulletins that are used are thrown away immediately after the service. The complaint has been raised about wasting paper. Is that a justifiable waste? (To that complaint I've often countered, "I'm from Oregon and I'm saving a lumberjack's job.)
This parable may also challenge us to take risks that may possibly fail; to try some things that may prove to be ineffective. Could "recklessly throwing out the seeds of God's word" by similar to Luther's "sin boldly"? Or to paraphrase it, "Do something, even if it's wrong (or ineffective or inefficient)"? I've read business books that advise, "Be sure to generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes." Another book, (Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, by Robert Kriegel & David Brandt) offers these quotes: "Says former IBM chairman Tom Watson, 'If you want to succeed, double your failure rate'" [p. 97]. And "Said one executive, 'If you aren't making mistakes you aren't doing anything worth a damn'" [p. 99]. Another book by Robert Kriegel (and Louis Patler) is entitled, If It Ain't Broke ... Break It!: and Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World. The willingness to make mistakes, to waste time and energy is part of the creative process. Such creativity may result in a wonderful break through or new product, etc. Why is it that so many people in the church, which is to be centered on forgiveness, find it so difficult to risk making a mistake -- for the sake of the gospel?
This parable and the seed being the "word of the kingdom" (v. 19), also presents a contrast with the First Lesson. Isaiah declares: "so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (55:11). There is also the proverb in Galatians 6:7: "For you reap whatever you sow." The parable suggests that the Word isn't always successful. The sower doesn't reap from everything that has been sown.
However, I heard a speaker suggest that when the birds ate the seeds, they were fed. Those seeds did fulfill a purpose -- perhaps not the purpose of the sower, but a purpose of seeds. I've also heard that some seeds, like wild asparagus, are spread (and fertilized) naturally by ingestion and later expulsion by birds. Perhaps the other seeds in our parables fulfilled some other purposes besides that of producing a crop for the sower. Those who are more familiar with plant growth may come up with some good things the other seeds did even if they did not bear fruit.
However, the experience of Jesus and the early church seem to support the understanding of the parable as mostly wasted seed. The sowing of God's word by speech and actions did not always produce a fruitful harvest. It often produced opposition. The following quote from Eugene Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters' Bible) suggests the importance of Matthew's context for this understanding.
Matthew has located the 'parable discourse' in the midst of the conflict section in which Jesus is being rejected by the leaders of Israel, the new community is being formed, and the inclination of the people as a whole hangs in the balance. The messianic words (chs. 5-7), deeds (chs. 8-9), and mission (ch. 10) had generated increasing conflict and rejection (chs. 11-12). The section is preceded by the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees and by his own family, culminating in the announcement of a new community of those who do God's will and are thus Jesus' 'family' (12:22-50). Immediately following the parables discourse, Jesus is rejected with hostility in his own home town (13:53-58). Matthew created this structure, having already used the intervening Markan stories in his earlier section of miracle stories (Matt 4:35-5:53; 8:23-34; 9:18-26); as a result, Jesus' parables in 13:3b-52) are his commentary on the meaning of his rejection by Israel and the founding of the new community. [p. 300]
Matthew connects the parables with the opposition preceding them by "That same day" in v. 1. He also more closely connects the sower with Jesus by the use of forms of exerchomai ("go out") in v. 1 for Jesus and in v. 3 for the sower.
On one hand Jesus is the sower in the parable. However, the explanation seems to fit as well or better in the context of the early church when believers sowed the word, which was sometimes completely rejected, accepted for a short time, or believed and bore fruit.
Part of the instructions that Jesus gave the disciples when he sent them out was: "You received without payment; give without payment" or "You received as a gift, give as a gift." Could the willingness to waste be connected to "giving freely," which is based on the understanding that God has given freely to us? When we start thinking that we've earned God's grace in some way; that it has become our personal possession; then we tend to become more stingy with it; guarding it; protecting it from abuse and waste; becoming overly concerned with spreading it in only efficient and effective ways. A pastor friend often quoted, "Some things are worthy doing poorly." At first I reacted negatively to that idea. I want to give my best for the sake of God; but perhaps we could rephrase it, "Some things are worth doing ineffectively or inefficiently or wastefully in spreading God's Word." That's certainly better than doing nothing. If the sower had sowed no seed, there would have been no chance for growth and fruitbearing.
A farmer I know complained that when he wanted to buy a new tractor, most banks required that he put up his whole farm as collateral. The same was often true when farmers went to borrow money to buy the seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, and fuel necessary to put in the crop. I experienced more faith among such farmers who were betting their whole farms -- their whole lives -- that there would be a crop large enough to pay back the loan with enough left over to live on for a while.
Except for their building(s), I've never known a congregation willing to borrow money to pay for an evangelical program of spreading God's Word in the neighborhood or service projects among the needy. Why is that?
A Matthean emphasis in chapter 13 centers on the word syniemi ("understanding"). Of the six times this word occurs in this chapter one came from "Mark" (13:14 -- quoting Isaiah 6:9); four times Matthew added it to "Mark" (13:13, 15, 19, 23); and once it is from "M" (13:51). In Matthew, from this point on, the disciples understand in contrast to Mark where they fail to understand -- (Compare Mt 16:12 and Mk 8:17 -- Mt's other uses of the word are 15:10; 17:13). Mark Allan Powell (Loving Jesus) summarizes the two approaches the gospels take concerning the disciples:
The Gospel of Mark presents the disciples of Jesus as total losers, apparently to emphasize the grace of God shown to them through Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't flinch on that point, but it adds something new: in this book, the disciples learn a few things as the strong goes along, and they show some progress at becoming better people than they were at the start. Matthew understands grace but is also interested in growth. [p. 110, italics in original]
It should also be noted that while Matthew presents the disciples as people of faith, they are frequently called "people of little faith."
Syniemi literally means, "to bring together" or "to come together" or perhaps, "to put together". When we can "put things together" in our minds or when the words we've heard "come together" in our heads, we understand what the speaker is trying to say; thus its metaphorical meaning of "to understand". A similar metaphor is "I get it!" Somehow a "light" is turned on in our brains and we understand what is being talked about.
The last two additions by Matthew in this chapter are part of the interpretation of the parable. It is not only hearing that is important, but understanding -- or "getting it". In v. 19, even though the word has been sown in the hearers' hearts, it is snatched away, because they don't understand. In v. 23, the good soil are the people who hear and understand. (Mk has "hear and accept" [paradechomai]; Lk has "hear and hold fast" [katecho]).
"Bearing fruit" is emphasized more in Matthew than the other Gospels. The statistics of the noun (karpos) and verb (karpophoreo) combined are: 18 in Matthew; 7 in Mark, and 12 in Luke. Good fruit can only come from a good tree (7:17, 18; 12:33). From Matthew's additions to the explanation, being a "good tree" comes from hearing and understanding the word of the kingdom. However, to properly understand requires an act of God. The noun form of the verb is used in Mt 11:25: where God has hidden "these things from wise and the intelligent and has revealed them to infants." Part of our confession is to recognize that the proper understanding about God can't be self-generated. E.g., Luther's "I believe that I can't believe."
However, I think this also means that we have to do more than just "throw out the Word" to anyone who might hear it. What can we do to help them understand it? Part of that has to come from our own "fruit bearing." Not only indicating that the Word found good soil within us, but "You will know them by their fruits" (Mt 7:20). They will know that we are good soil by our fruits. They will be better able to "put together" the words with the proper actions.
I was talking recently to a clergy friend who was having difficulties helping a lady understanding the gospel (partly because of mental deficiencies). The advice others and I gave her -- and something she was already doing -- is to be the gospel for this person. Don't just talk about it. We spread the seed with our lives.
To be effective, oops, I mean faithful sowers, we need to show by our lives that the Word has found deep roots in us and it won't fall away because of troubles or persecutions. We need to show by our lives that the cares of the world and the lure of wealth haven't made the Word "unfruitful" (akarpos in v. 22) in our lives.
I think that it is an emphasis in Matthew that "understanding" comes not just from hearing or studying the Word, but by living it in a community of other people who are striving to live the word. As I've suggested before, "Actions speak louder than words." Or a more complicated form: "Actions will corroborate or contradict the words we speak."
How do we live our understanding that we have freely received so we should freely give? Perhaps being a little wasteful with the Word is part of that understanding. If we hoard the "seed" for ourselves, never casting out on the ground (whether good or bad), it certainly won't find root and grow and produce fruit. Seed that isn't sown has failed in its purpose for existing. The Word has not been given to remain a private, personal possession of those who understand it.
At the same time this parable talks about wasted seeds, it also gives the promise of a harvest. Is a hundredfold, or sixty or thirty, a super-abundant, unheard of harvest as Jeremias concludes, which points to the great harvest at the end of time?
More recently, Bernard Brandon Scott (Hear Then the Parables) suggests another understanding. He quotes Pliny in his Natural History, which says in impart: "At all events the plains of Lentini and other districts in Sicily, and the whole of Andalusia, and particularly Egypt reproduce at the rate of a hundredfold." Herodotus in his description of the fertility of Babylonia reports: "Its corn is so abundant that it yields for the most part two-hundred-fold, and even three-hundred-fold when the harvest is best."
Assuredly this review of ancient texts undermines Jeremias's conclusion about the harvest's superabundance. Given the rabbinic texts with their wild numbers, and the Greek and Latin texts with four hundredfold as their incredible number, the thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold are well within the bounds of the believable. They are an average-to-good harvest. 
We may also look at Genesis 26:12: "Isaac sowed seed in that land, and in the same year reaped a hundredfold." While this seems to be large crop as a sign of God's blessing, it doesn't seem to be a miraculously, super-abundant, end-time return from the seed sown.
Scott concludes with this interpretation:
In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God's activity. The accidents of failure are not exploited for their possible moral overtones but are coordinated within the harvest. The hearer who navigates within this triangle can experience God's ruling activity under the most unfamiliar guises, even among prostitutes and tax collectors -- in the everyday. In a Woman with Ten Drachmas, the woman searches for what is ordinary like the harvest and she as a woman is unclean corresponding to the failed seed. Both the ordinary and the unclean belong to the miracle of the kingdom. The kingdom does not need the moral perfection of Torah nor the apocalyptic solution of overwhelming harvest. 
Maybe even our wasteful and ineffective and inefficient attempts are also part of the miracle of the coming kingdom.
I wrote earlier that this parable was included, in part, to explain why some people don't believe. In a sense, the Father had sown the Word with Jesus coming to earth and some did not believe him. Jesus sowed the Word with his speech and actions and some did not believe him. The early disciples continued to sow the Word with their speech and actions and some did not believe them. However, I wonder if we are facing the same problem. It is my impression that many of our congregations and the believers within them are not sowing the Word out in the world. The problem with people not believing today is not necessarily that they are bad soil, but because the sowers are failing to spread the Word in speech and actions beyond the confines of the church building.
In support of the last sentence in the above paragraph, in Matthew, there is a shift in meaning of the seeds. In v. 19 the seed represents the "word of the kingdom." However, in vv. 20ff, the seeds represent the people who respond in different ways!
I think that this fits into Matthews understanding of believers -- they are people who bear good fruit (see 7:15-20). Thus the question answered by Matthew's version of the explanation is: "Why do some people not bear the proper fruit?"
Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church is clear that "the fruit of a believer is another believer" [p. 63]. He goes on: "Considering the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the church, I believe that the definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include growth by the conversion of unbelievers" [p. 63].
And, "The Bible clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit. Many of the kingdom parables of Jesus emphasize the unavoidable truth that God expects his church to grow. In addition, Paul connected fruit bearing with church growth. Colossians 1:6 says, 'All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it ..." (emphasis in original). Is your church bearing fruit and growing? Are you seeing the fruit of new converts being added to your congregation?" [p. 63]
I would push Warren's picture a little bit. Since, by definition, "fruit" contains new seeds that will naturally fall to the ground (or spread by birds or the wind) if not harvested for food or seed; it seems reasonable to think that if we are the seeds, the fruit we are to bear are not other disciples, but other disciples who are also "sowing seeds" -- seeking to make new disciples.
Perhaps Matthew's version of the explanation might help explain the lack of growth in our congregations. It becomes a parable about us -- not just the word of God. How many of us are more like the first three seeds and the problems they faced than the fourth that bore much fruit?
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