THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER
AND ITS INTERPRETATION
Mark 4:1-9,13-20; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15

Copyright 1999 by George Lyons

Setting

The Synoptic writers were not unconscious theologians, neither were they devoid of historical interests. Admittedly, Form Criticism reminds us that the Evangelists wrote to fulfill clear kerygmatic purposes. But it can be shown that the Gospels contain enough substantially sound eyewitness material to provide a relatively detailed reconstruction of the ministry of Jesus (McArthur 7-8). Naively assuming a thoroughly biographical development in the Gospels presents considerable difficulty regarding the apparent historical setting of the Parable of the Sower. Matthew and Mark agree against Luke (for Matthew and Luke, see the discussion of the Parable of the Tares and Its Interpretation).

According to Luke, the parable appears to have been given during a preaching tour through the cities and villages of Galilee. "Having in 6:19 left the stream of Mark's narrative, Luke now returns to it. flat his point of flair is different" (Arndt 225). The pericope concerning Jesus' true relatives (Mt 12:46-50; Mk 3:31-35; and Lk 8:19-21) is closely associated with the day of parables, but Luke's account follows rather than precedes it. Nothing in Luke or Mark demands a close chronological connection with the surrounding material. In Luke, "the place of action is left unnamed" (Arndt 225). However, Matthew's narrative precisely sets the time and place (Mt 13:1). Luke's purposes apparently cause him to give secondary consideration to chronology in this case. There remains the equally conceivable possibility that this fundamental parable was given on more than one occasion.


Exegetical Analysis

Minor differences appear in the parallel accounts of the parable. Mark uses a form of the verb didavskw, 'teach,' three times in his transitional introduction (4:1-2) which neither of the other synoptics follow. Luke shows a marked tendency to condense in both the parable (Mk — 97 words; Mt — 87; and Lk — 68) and the interpretation. Greater variations appear in the interpretation. (See Gerhardsson for a thorough treatment of similar rabbinic practices of transmission, 122-170). For the most part, variants involve only insignificant grammatical or stylistic preferences on the part of the Evangelists. For example, it has been observed that Mark's "interpretation confuses the soil with the seed" (Buttrick 413). This apparent confusion (Mk 4:15, 16, 18, 20) results from "the double meaning of 'sown': the seed may be said to be 'sown,' and the ground may be said to be 'sown,' and in the interpretation these two meanings are mixed" (Plumner 190). Matthew's version attempts to rectify this problem (Kingsbury 53).

As was the usual practice of a rabbi, Jesus sat (kaqh'sqai — Mt 13:1-2; Mk 4:1) as he taught his standing audience. He began by calling the crowds to thoughtful attention — jAkouvete —"Listen" (Mk 4:3 repeated in 4:9; cf. Mt 13:9 and Lk 8:8). jIdouv . . . oJ speirwn' — Behold! — the sower!" has been suggested that perhaps the man was before their eyes (Buttrick 408). But more likely the article is used generically — a sower (Arndt 229). Matthew consistently uses the plural — "seeds" — Mark and Luke the singular -- "seed".

The second soil is called "rocky" (petrwvdh" — Mt and Mk) or "the rock" (hJ petra — Luke). Both terms suggest "soil which thinly covers a rock ledge. The seed sprouts, immediately, because the soil is warmed by the rock" (Johnson 408; cf. Branscomb 80 and Geldenhuys 245). Matthew and Mark describe the growth of this seed by use of ejxanatevllw — to spring up out of the ground,' while Luke employs fuvw '"to grow up." Rather than describing heat of the sun in detail, the rapid sprouting, and the scorching of the plant, Luke simply explains it had no success" (8:6).

The seed is oJ lovgo" — "the word" (Mk 4:14); Matthew modifies this — "the word of the Kingdom" (Mt 1,3:19); Luke — "the word of God" (Lk 8:11). The apostolic writers follow the example of Jesus in this usage (1 Pet 1:2, 3, Js 1:18). Sowing, then is the act of preaching (Kingsbury 35). But as a result of an apparent confusion, all three synoptic writers identified the sown seed with the hearers. "Since that which grows from the seed is the human character, the seed represents the germ of it, and the soil the previous state of the heart" (M'Neille 193).

JO ponhrov" — "the evil one" (Mt), oJ Satana'" — "Satan" (Mk), and oJ diavbolo" — "the devil" (Lk), are not to be distinguished.

Luke who does not include the closing note of hope in Jesus' "hard" saying regarding the purpose of parables" (Mt. 13:15b; Mk 4:12) incorporates it into his version of the Sower's interpretation (Lk 8:12; cf. also 8:13). "With the insertion of suievnai into vv. 19a and 23b, Matthew discloses that "understanding" is the principal theme of the Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower," thus accenting the ethical aspect only implicit in Mark and Luke (Kingsbury 61). Jesus' explanation of the intent of this teaching given between the parable and the interpretation bears this out--"All things are obscure to those outside who see indeed but do not know, and hear indeed but do not understand unless they should repent and receive forgiveness." (an adaptation of Manson's translation [78] and Jeremias' ending [15]).

Statement of Teaching

Those who reject the interpretation of the parable as secondary (basically for theological reasons) flatter themselves, venturing a more probable meaning — emphasizing the abundant harvest despite all opposition. (Nineham 135; Hunter 47; Jeremias 150; etc.). "But that seems a limited and feeble sense to get out of so detailed a story" (Moule 36). There remains considerable disagreement as to whether the yields suggested (30-, 60-, and 100-fold) are unexpected eschatological hyperbole (Dalman as cited in Jeremias 150) or what could reasonably be expected (Dalman as cited in Kingsbury 145).

The Gospel's application of the parable stresses that since the Gospel seed is uniformly good, the differences in yield depend on the character of the soil that receives it (Hunter 47; Plummer 187; etc.). It is incorrect to view the parable of the Sower as [simply] a harvest parable signifying the reaping of the crop; i.e., the Day of the Lord. . . . The parable does no emphasize the element of time; it illustrates the fate of the seed" (Kingsbury 35-36). The Kingdom is now a present reality, which does not, however, produce uniform results in all hearers. But the harvest element must not be neglected. Some will never fully grasp the truth; others will lose it by discouragement or neglect; but many will respond, bringing excellent results from the Sower's labor. Yet the response Jesus is seeking is not unshaken confidence regardless of apparent reasons for doubts (Jeremias 151). It is instead a call to self-examination: "What kind of soil are you? Be careful how you hear. Be fruitful!"


Applications

The parable does not state that Jesus is the Sower, though the image seems fully applicable to his preaching ministry. He is the seed--the Word of God (Jn 1:1-16). But "any faithful Christian preacher is a sower" (Nineham 140). The proclaimed Word, to which many are not responsive "is nonetheless the vehicle by which God confronts [people] even now with his rule and raises up a people that is pleasing to him" (Kingsbury 37). The character of the hearer is not predestined or unchangeable. People may repent (Mk 4:12 and Mt 13:15) in order to be forgiven and thus receive the Word. "Reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain salvation upon you" (Hosea 10:12; RSV). (Note the first exciting fulfillment in the early chapters of Acts, e.g., 2:37-39 and 3:19-21).



REASONS FOR ACCEPTING THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER AND THE TARES AS GENUINE

  1. The supposed linguistic and stylistic characteristics in the interpretation are not exclusively confined to the Evangelists. As authors of their Gospel, characteristic styles would be expected. Editorial activity does not prove that he was the creator of the explanation (Mickelsen 225). That the writer should radically depart from his sources seems unlikely (cf. Gerhardssen 136-148).

  2. The life setting of Jesus was Palestinian Judaism, whose apocalyptic interest was intense. The fact that all three synoptics attest Jesus' future eschatological emphasis is decisive (especially Mt24:1-35; Mk 13:1-31; Lk 21:1-33 and elsewhere; see Jeremias 227 note).

  3. The absence of the interpretation in the Gospel of Thomas is inconclusive. Because of the Gnostic predilection for secrecy, Thomas may have deliberately suppressed parable Interpretations (Kingsbury 149).

  4. The rule of "end-stress" demonstrates the eschatological harvest to be the prominent aspect of the parable of the Tares. It is not surprising, then to find this aspect emphasized in the Interpretation. The rule of three, brings the fate of the seed into prominence in the parable of the Sower.

  5. The rule of "contrast" is most clearly in operation in the interpretation, which sharply distinguishes patient inactivity and active judgment, torment for the wicked and bliss for the righteous in the Parable of the Tares.

  6. Regarding the Parable of the Tares, the purported thrust (see Statement of Teaching) for those who doubt the interpretation's genuineness is in marked contrast to Matthew's understanding of the church revealed elsewhere. Marks given to recognize wolves in sheep's clothing, false prophets and bad trees (Mt 7:15-20; 12:33-37; 3:8-10; Bornkamm 73-74).

  7. The possibility that Jesus deliberately constructed an allegory which be later interpreted cannot be discredited. Old Testament parables bear allegorical elements (e.g., 2 Sam 12:1-7) as do some rabbinic parables.

  8. The real or apparent life-setting of the parable well suits the interpretation.