Gospel for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 July 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
van Gogh - The Sower
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
The rest of the Gospel text below is optional:
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For 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. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With 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. 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.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly 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.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As 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. But 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” (Matthew 13:1-23 – NRSV)
Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel features seven parables: the parable of the sower (above), the darnel, the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure, the pearl and the dragnet. Matthew adds five parables to the two he shares with Mark – see Mark 4:1-34. Matthew “has enlarged and supplemented his source, making it into the third major discourse of Jesus” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 197).
The parable of the sower is generally regarded as being original to Jesus. We find this parable also in Mark – see 4:3-9 – and Luke – see 8:5-8.
A fundamental theme of the parables here is that of “choice” – do you accept the authority and identity with Jesus or not? (See also Chapter 10.) The parables remind us that there is a deep mystery to that choice.
It is not hard to imagine this being a major point of questioning and concern for the early Christian communities. See also St Paul writing some thirty years earlier in Romans 9-11.
The fact that this group of parables is placed literally at the mid-point of the Gospel suggests its high significance to Matthew and his community.
in parables: C. H. Dodd defines parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought” (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 5).
the sower: Although this text is called “the parable of the sower”, the focus is the seed, especially contrasting the seed in rich soil with the other three instances in which the seed is not in rich soil. The assumption is that all the seed is in fact good.
And as he sowed, some seeds fell etc: Attempts have been made to draw a link between this description of how the seed is sown in the parable with how seed was typically sown by Palestinian farmers. As Harrington points out, it is probably best to not attempt such connections as they are somewhat tenuous: “Rather than trying to defend the verisimilitude of the parable, it is better to take the peculiar actions of the sower as part of the ‘unusual’ dimension of the story” (Daniel j Harrington, op cit, 194).
Let anyone with ears listen: We find the same expression in 11:15. Like the seed falling on different kinds of soil, the response to the words of Jesus will vary. But the listener should be in no doubt that those who are able to hear what Jesus is saying will know and see things beyond their imaginings.
“(T)he parables are perhaps the most characteristic element in the teaching of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels” (C H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 1). Today’s Gospel – Matthew 13:1-10 – gives us a good example of this. Matthew tells us that “(Jesus) told them many things in parables”. It is therefore important to be clear about what the parable is and is not.
A parable is not an allegory. It should not be interpreted allegorically. Sadly, though this is how the parables have frequently been interpreted. In an allegory, the various people, events and things refer to identifiable people, events and things with which the audience will be familiar. It is then a matter of decoding the allegory. For example, St Augustine reads the parable of the Good Samaritan as if it were an allegory: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means the moon and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes and dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels etc” (Ibid).
Parables are different. Parables “are the natural expression of the mind that sees truth in concrete pictures rather than conceives it in abstractions. .... At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought” (op cit, 5). Dodd adds: “This concrete pictorial mode of expression is characteristic of the sayings of Jesus” (Ibid).
Interpreting the parable is therefore not a matter of decoding it but rather a matter of letting it awaken and mobilize our imaginations. As such it will “leave the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought”. This is a crucial element in the life of the parable. In effect, it means that each time I listen to the parable it can have the same “teasing” effect but an entirely original outcome. And so, first and last, we must heed Jesus’ command: “Listen!” We let the parable decode us!
What then are we to make of those sections in this Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel – with parallel texts in both Mark and Luke – that offer an allegorical interpretation, firstly of the parable of the sower (13:18-23) and then the parable of the darnel (13:36-43)? There is a simple explanation for this: The parables belong to Jesus and the allegorical interpretations belong to the early Christian writers.
“A sower went out to sow ....” Pay attention! Let the parable find a life of its own in your imagination. Gently, reflectively read the parable several times. Try on different ways of being part of the story – imagine being the sower .... an onlooker .... the sower’s wife or child .... the sower’s mother or father .... What do you see, feel, hear? This is, above all, an exercise in listening!