16 July 2017

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

“Let anyone with ears listen.” (v. 9)

Psalm: Psalm 65


This passage is usually entitled 'The Parable of the Sower' in English Bibles. However, in some other languages it is known as 'The Parable of the Four Types of Ground'. This is, arguably, a much better description of the passage as it seems to be the receiving ground that determines the differing outcomes here, not the sower or the seed.

Whatever title we use for the parable, though, most scholars agree that it begins the third of five distinct blocks of teaching within the Gospel of Matthew. Many commentators see this as a deliberate decision by Matthew as editor. It could suggest that Jesus is the 'new Moses' and that his teaching parallels, or even surpasses, the five books of the Law (or Torah) attributed to the great prophet. This particular block covers most of chapter 13 (Matthew 13:1-52) and is given by Jesus to the crowds beside the sea of Galilee, in the north of modern-day Israel.

Jesus' teaching in this chapter is nearly entirely given in parables and even includes a discussion of why Jesus uses them (verses 10-17). The word comes from the Greek 'parabole' and it is not straightforward to translate. In the Bible, parables can act like a proverb, a riddle, a conundrum, or even a prophecy. They use everyday objects and people (a mustard seed, a farmer, etc) but often in unusual or shocking ways (eg someone selling everything they have to possess a pearl (Matthew 13:45-46)). Importantly, while the stories may appear simple on the surface, they actually challenge their listeners' perceptions and are open to a number of different interpretations, depending on the context in which they are used.

Interestingly, here Jesus himself gives an explanation of what this particular parable means (verses 18-23), something he does not usually do in the Gospels. Previously, scholars thought that these verses had been added later but most now argue that this interpretation, like the others in this section (Matthew 13:37-43, 49-50), originated with Jesus.

To Ponder

  • This parable relies on at least some familiarity with farming, a world which would have been very familiar to Jesus' first audience. In a modern, urbanised world, to what extent is such language now a barrier to understanding?
  • Where are the rocky ground and the fertile soil for the good news of the kingdom of God in today's world?
  • Jesus interpreted this parable in a particular way (verses 18-23). Are we entitled to interpret it in different ways, to reflect our own contemporary experiences of the world? Why, or why not?

Bible notes author

The Revd Geoffrey Farrar

Geoffrey Farrar is a presbyter in the Richmond and Hounslow Circuit, where he has pastoral charge of three churches in Barnes, Putney and Roehampton. He trained at Wesley House in Cambridge and has recently completed an MA in Ancient History with the University of Trinity Saint David.