Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (April-June 1998) 172-88.

          Copyright © 1998 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.





                              AND THE SOILS*



                                                  Mark L. Bailey



            Matthew 13, the third of Jesus' five major discourses in

Matthew, includes the Lord's address to the crowds (vv. 1-35) and

His address to the disciples (vv. 36-52). This chapter contains

His presentation of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which

He revealed in response to the Jewish leaders' rejection of Him

(12:1-45). This section focuses on the new and unexpected phase

of the kingdom of heaven, as will be demonstrated in the articles

in this series.

            The word "parable" does not occur in Matthew until chapter

13. Kingsbury sees this as significant in that before chapter 13 Je-

sus spoke to the Jews openly. (The word "parable" occurs twelve

times in chapter 13 and only five times thereafter.) The parables

in Matthew 13 were given in some measure as an apology against

the Jews for their rejection of Christ.1 This chapter is a great turn-

ing point in Matthew's presentation. Jesus was preaching and

teaching the kingdom to the Jews (4:17, 23; 9:35; 11:1), but they re-

jected Him. In reaction to this rejection Jesus presented the para-

bles to show them they were no longer the privileged people to

whom God would impart His revelation, but instead they were in

danger of being judged by the Son of Man for having spurned

their Messiah.2 As Maier observes, "The parables portray a

breach between Jesus and Israel widening to a breaking point.

The very fact that Jesus now withdraws into a parabolic form of

teaching is a sign of judgment upon Israel."3


Mark L. Bailey is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and Pro-

fessor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.


*This is article two in an eight-part series, "The Kingdom in the Parables of

Matthew 13."


1 Jack Dean Kingsbury, Matthew 13: A Study in Redaction Criticism (Richmond,

VA: Knox, 1969), 31.

2 Ibid.

3 John P. Maier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the

First Gospel (New York: Paulist, 1978), 90.

                        The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   173


                        THE STRUCTURE OF MATTHEW 13


Each of the two sections in Matthew 13 (vv. 1-35 and vv. 36-52)

includes a statement of setting (vv. 1-3a; 36a), an excursus (vv.

10-23; 36b-43), four parables (vv. 4-9, 24-33; 44-50), and a con-

clusion (vv. 34-36; 51-52). While many scholars say Matthew 13

has seven parables,4 the possibility of an eighth may be suggested

by two observations. First, in verse 52 the phrase oi[moio<j e]stin is

the masculine equivalent of the feminine form used earlier to

introduce other parables (o[moi<a e]stin, vv. 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). Sec-

ond, the concluding clause immediately following verse 52 is the

Matthean formula that serves as a textual marker to indicate the

ends of the five major narrative/discourse cycles (7:28; 11:1;

13:53; 19:1; 26:1).

            Of the parables in this chapter, two are recorded in Mark and

Luke and a third in Luke only: the sower and its interpretation

(Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; Luke 8:5-15), the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-

32; Luke 13:18-19), and the leavening process (Luke 13:20-21).

The remaining five are unique to Matthew: the tares and its ex-

planation (13:36-43), the hidden treasure (v. 44), the pearl mer-

chant (vv. 45-46), the dragnet (vv. 47-50), and the householder

(vv. 51-52).

            Both macrostructures and microstructures can be detected in

this chapter. Jesus told the first four parables in the presence of the

multitudes and disciples beside the sea, while He presented the

last four to the disciples alone after they left the multitudes and

went to a house (vv. 36-52). Toussaint has argued that the first

and last parables of the chapter are a fitting introduction and con-

clusion by virtue of their placement as well as the absence of the

introductory formula that is present in the other six parables.5

The parables of the tares and the dragnet both contain portraits of

separating judgments that will take place at the end of the age.

The eight parables include a series of four couplets that progres-

sirely reveal their messages by means of images of planting,

growth, values, and responsibilities.

            Matthew 13 has been recognized as a chiasm which includes

the parables, their introductions and interpretations, and support-

ing Old Testament quotations. This argues not only for the in-

clusion of the householder as the eighth parable, but also for the

unity and authenticity of the entire passage. Such a structure also


4 For example Fredrick D. Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Waco, TX: Word,

1990), 480.

5 Stanley D. Toussaint, "The Introductory and Concluding Parables of Matthew

Thirteen," Bibliotheca Sacra 121 (October-December 1964): 351-55.

174     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


reflects the greater message of the entire Gospel. The following

chiasm serves as the framework for a study of the parables.

Sower and the Soils (vv. 1-9)

            Question by Disciples/Answer by Jesus (Understanding) (vv. 10-


                        Interpretation of the Sower and the Soils (vv. 18—23)

                                    Tares (vv. 24—30)

                                    Mustard Seed (vv. 31—32)

                                    Leavening Process (v. 33)

                                                Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 34—35)

                                                Interpretation of the Tares (vv. 36—43)

                                    Hidden Treasure (v. 44)

                                    Pearl Merchant (vv. 45—46)

                                    Dragnet (vv. 47—48)

                        Interpretation of the Dragnet (vv. 49—50)

            Question by Jesus/Answer by the Disciples (Understanding) (v. 51)

Householder (v. 52)6


            Verses 13-17, a subsection of the entire structure, can be ar-

ranged as follows.

Therefore I speak to them in parables

A. Because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do

     not hear, nor do they understand

            B. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled,

                 which says,

                        C. You will keep on hearing, but will not understand,

                                    D. And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;

                                                E. For the heart of this people has become dull,

                                                            F. And with their ears they scarcely hear,

                                                                        G. And they have closed their eyes

                                                                        G.' Lest they should see with their eyes,

                                                            F.' And hear with their ears

                                                E.' And understand with their heart and return,

                                                     and I should heal them.

                                    D.' But blessed are your eyes, because they see;

                        C.' And your ears, because they hear.

            B.' For truly I say to you, that many prophets and righteous men

A.' Desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what

      you hear, and did not hear it.7

            These chiasms indicate that the entire chapter represents not

only Jesus' authentic ministry, including both the parables and

their interpretations, but also the intentionally structured literary

product of the human author, Matthew, who wrote under the inspi-

ration of the Holy Spirit to preserve a record of that ministry and


6 For a slightly different arrangement of the chiasm, see David Wenham, "The

Structure of Matthew 13," New Testament Studies 25 (1979): 517-18.

7 Kenneth E. Bailey, Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 61-62.

          The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   175


to address the needs of his first-century audience.8 Kingsbury

says this chapter honors Jesus as the Christ, identifies the major

characters, and provides an apology for the use of parables.9 He

has also pointed out that each of the eight parables has an apolo-

getic purpose and a paraenetic purpose.10 Apologetically the para-

bles of Matthew 13 served to warn the Jewish leaders of the dan-

gers of thinking they had exclusive rights as the eschatological

community of God's kingdom.11 The paraenetic purpose was to

encourage the disciples that they had now come into a privileged

relationship with God through a right attitude toward His will,

and as recipients of "the mysteries of the kingdom" they had a

new responsibility to become caretakers of that message in the



                        "MYSTERIES" IN MATTHEW 13


The term "mysteries" in verse 11 has its background in Old Tes-

tament secrets communicated through divine revelation and di-

vinely interpreted. This New Testament word is linked to the

Aramaic zrA,13 which is used eight times in Daniel in relation to

what God had revealed and what needed to be interpreted (Dan.

2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:6).

            Jesus said these parables concern "the mysteries of the king-

dom" (ta> musth<ria th?j basilei<aj, Matt. 13:11). They are enig-

matic to those who fail to understand the message because of a re-

jecting heart, but they are understandable by those privileged by

God to know and receive more (vv. 10-11). These mysteries of the

kingdom both reveal and conceal truths of the kingdom of

heaven, so that it is appropriate that these parables followed im-

mediately after the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus.

            The parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 introduce some-

thing new in the Gospel of Matthew. The kingdom, as preached by

John (3:2), Jesus (4:17), and the disciples (10:7), correlates with

the general expectation of the earthly kingdom identified with


8  Wenham notes the implications of these observations for questioning the criti-

cal: approaches so often taken by both source and redaction critics ("The Structure

of Matthew 13," 25).

9  Kingsbury, Matthew 13, 27.

10  Ibid.

11 Au]toi?j is a technical term for the crowds in Matthew 13:3, 10, 13, 24, 31, 33, 34.

12 Ibid., 52.

13 Raymond E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New

Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 31-35.

176     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


David and Israel, so much so that the message of the kingdom had

been addressed almost exclusively to a Jewish audience. But the

kingdom realities described in the parables of Matthew 13 are far

different from the grandeur of the Davidic kingdom described in

the Old Testament (Dan. 7:13-14; Hag. 2:20-23; Zech. 14). Even

Ladd notes that these mysteries differ from the Old Testament ex-

pectation. "That there should be a coming of God's kingdom in the

way Jesus proclaimed, in a hidden secret form, working quietly

among men, was utterly novel to Jesus' contemporaries. The Old

Testament gave no such promises."14 The parables of Matthew 13

differ from that expectation of the politically victorious, geograph-

ically and ethically defined kingdom of the Old Testament.

            What Jesus spoke through the parables was distinct from the

message He had been preaching up to that point in His ministry.

The enigmatic and judicial elements revealed in the apology

section (13:10-17), which Jesus stated after the people were seen as

obstinate, was not what He had taught them earlier. Twice the

ministry of Jesus had been couched in terms of the Old Testament

expectation (4:23; 9:35). But after chapter 13 such vocabulary was

no longer associated with Him until it was used again with refer-

ence to the Second Coming (Matt. 24—25; 26:29). The same could

be said of the "nearness" language of the kingdom. After chapter

13 the verb "preach" (khru<ssw) was also no longer used by Matthew

to describe Jesus' ministry.15

            The reason "mystery" is an appropriate designation is that

what would be revealed in the parables of Matthew 13 (and be-

yond) had not been seen nor heard by the prophets of the Old Tes-

tament. As Pentecost concludes, "But what the Old Testament had

not revealed was that an entire age would intervene between the

offer of the kingdom by the Messiah and Israel's reception of the

King and enjoyment of full kingdom blessings. "16


                        THE SOWER AND THE SOILS

All three Synoptic Gospels include the parable of the sower with

Jesus' interpretation of it. While some call this the parable of the

soils,17 Jesus identified it as the parable of the sower (v. 18).


14 George E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Real-

ism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 225.

15 This is especially noteworthy when one considers the use of this term to sum-

marize Jesus' ministry in a number of earlier passages (4:17, 23; 9:35; 11:1).

16 J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990), 219 (italics


17 For example W. H. Griffith Thomas, Outline Studies in the Gospel of Matthew

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 188.

         The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   177


While this parable is not introduced with the formula character-

istic of the other kingdom parables in this chapter, the interpreta-

tion (vv. 18-23) identifies the seed sown on each soil as "the word

of the kingdom," thereby identifying this as a kingdom parable.



The setting for the parables of Matthew 13 includes temporal, geo-

graphical, cultural, and literary elements. The temporal setting

is indicated by the phrase "on that day" (13:1), thus linking it with

the preceding controversial discussion with leaders. That day

was the Sabbath (12:1-10). Jesus' clarification in 12:46-50 that

familial relationship with God the Father depends not on one's

Jewish nationality but on obedience to the will of God is a fitting

introduction to the parables in chapter 13. The disciples and not

the leaders of Israel, as seen in Matthew 13, were related to Jesus

because of their response to the will of God.18

            The geographical context for the first four parables of the

chapter, of which the sower is the first, was "by the sea," that is, the

Sea of Galilee. Most likely Jesus was near Capernaum since He

had just ministered there in the synagogue (12:9).

            Jesus' sitting in a boat (13:2) may have helped the crowd see

and hear Him, and may have given Him added security from the

hostile leaders.19 The audience for the first four parables beside

the sea was the multitude and the disciples, but the audience for

the last four parables was only the disciples, who had gone with

Jesus into a house (vv. 36-52).

            While Jesus spoke a few parabolic sayings and metaphors be-

fore this chapter (e.g., 7:24-27), no full-length parable or example

story was recorded by Matthew before chapter 13. Bornkamm ob-

serves that Matthew did not use the term "teaching" in reference

to Jesus' communicating the parables because he reserved the

word "teaching" for the Lord's instruction about the Law.20 This

is borne out by the fact that the formulaic conclusion for the first

two discourses mentions teaching (7:28; 11:1), but the conclusion

to the parable pericope in Matthew 13 does not (13:53). What Jesus

began to do in the parables chapter related not so much to Israel

and her relationship to the Law as it did to His disciples as a new


18 Kingsbury also sees the parable of the sower as validating the denunciation and

blessing that was clarified in verses 10-17 (Matthew 13, 34 ).

19 Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker,

1980), 185.

20 Gunther Bornkamm, "Enderwartung and Kirche im Matthausevangelium," in

Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, ed. Gunther Bornkamm, Gunther Barth,

and H. J. Held (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 35.

178     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April--June 1998


audience who were understanding what He was proclaiming. To

them the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven were given. In the

literary structure of the chapter the first parable (the sower) intro-

duces the theme of understanding and the last parable (the house-

holder) includes a question and an exhortation based on the dis-

ciples' understanding. As noted earlier, these two function as

parallels in the chiastic structure of the chapter.



In the eight parables of this chapter Jesus explained to the disci-

ples why the kingdom had not yet arrived in grandeur, glory, and

power, and He confirmed to others their refusal to respond to Him,

the Messiah.21 Ridderbos believes the unbelief of the crowds must

have been a bitter disappointment to the disciples.22 The combina-

tion of the questions by His own family (Mark 3:21), the desertion

by some of His own followers (John 6:66), and the reactions and

rejections by the Jewish religious leaders (Matt. 9:34; 12:22–27)

may have been troublesome to those who had committed them-

selves to Him. Since all three Synoptic Gospels record Jesus' ex-

hortation to hear, He explained why more people were not hear-

ing, understanding, and responding to "the word of the king-

dom." Hence one purpose of this parable of the sower and the soil

is to explain why the word of the kingdom, as preached by John the

Baptist, Jesus, and His disciples, had not been better received.

Further, as will be seen from the concluding exhortation, the

parable was also intended to encourage the hearers to listen. to Je-

sus' words.



The parable consists of a series of four scenes describing various

qualities of soil (13:3–8) and a hortatory conclusion (v. 9).

Though four kinds of soils are mentioned, the parable may be

thought of as presenting basically only two kinds of soil with the

first three being unproductive.23 The good soil is stressed by its

position at the end of the narrative (in the position of "end stress")

and because it alone was productive.

            In interpreting the parable (13:18–23) Jesus explained the


21 David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1972), 223-24.

22 Herman N. Ridderbos, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 251; also see

Philip Barton Payne, "The Authenticity of the Parable of the Sower and Its Inter-

pretation," in Gospel Perspectives, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield:

JSOT, 1980), 1:164.

23 Kingsbury, Matthew 13, 33.

         The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   179


meaning of each of the four soils. Contrasted with the one who

"does not understand" the message of the kingdom (v. 19) is the

one "who hears the word and understands it" (v. 23). Also of note

is the contrast between one who is "unfruitful" (v. 22) and one who

"bears fruit" (v. 23). Blomberg diagrams the parable as follows:24





fruitful seed                           unfruitful seed



                        seed on path     seed among rocks      seed among thorns



Neither the parable nor its interpretation identifies the sower. But

the imagery of God as sower and the people as different kinds of

soil was well known in Jewish circles (cf. 2 Esdras 4:26-32).25

Throughout the Old Testament, sowing and harvest were recog-

nized metaphors for the eschatological expectation of the kingdom

(Jer. 31:27; Ezek. 36:9; Hos. 2:23; cf. Matt. 9:35-38). In these Old

Testament verses God was addressing Israel about His forthcom-

ing New Covenant relationship with them. The proclamations by

John the Baptist and Jesus fit this same expectation of the coming

of the Messiah to establish His kingdom and fulfill God's

covenant promises. Matthew's emphasis on the kingdom is seen

in Jesus' interpretation of the seed as "the word of the kingdom"




The record of the pathway (vu. 3-4). This first scene is virtually

identical in the Synoptic Gospels. Only a few minor differences

are noted. Matthew always wrote of seed in the plural whereas

Mark used the collective singular. Mark emphasized the need for

the audience to "Behold!" (Mark 4:3), while Luke's "trampled un-


24 Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,

1990), 226.

25 Hans-Josef Klauck includes several other Jewish references to this imagery

(Allegorie and Allegorese in synoptischen Gleichnistexten [Munster: Aschendorff,

19781, 92-96. Craig A. Evans believes the passage is a midrash on Isaiah 55:10-21

("On the Isaianic Background of the Sower Parable," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47

[July 1985]: 464 68).

180     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1998


der foot" (8:5) and the prepositional phrase "of the air" (8:5) are

typical of Luke the physician's concern for physical details.

The seed is said to have fallen "beside the road" (or "along the

path," para> th>n o[do<n). In the absence of fences, paths ran around

and through plots of ground that were usually topographically de-

fined because of variations in the terrain. Inevitably some seed

would fall in these paths. The birds ate26 the seed, thus preventing

it from growing.

            The interpretation of the pathway (vv. 18-19). Jesus called

this parable "the parable of the sower" (v. 18). "Against the fre-

quent inclination to retitle this the Parable of the Soils since the

soils are the variable in the story, Matthew's [better, Jesus'] title

reminds the church that the focus in the parable is the sower, not

ourselves."27 Though this parable illustrates the response to the

message of the kingdom, the parable nonetheless focuses on Jesus

Christ and His kingdom.

            Jesus said that the seed is "the word [or ‘message’] of the

kingdom" (to>n lo<gon th?j basilei<aj), and that the birds represent

"the evil one" (o[ ponhro<j) who "snatches away" (a[rpa<zei) what

had been sown in the heart of the one who heard but did not under-

stand the message of the kingdom. In Judaism birds symbolized

satanic activity, and were symbols of robbers (Gen. Rab. 44:15;

80:5; Lev. Rab. 3:1, 4; Book of Jubilees 11:5-24; Apocalypse of

Abraham 13:14, 23, 31). "As the Holy Spirit could be pictured as a

dove, so it was natural to depict the action of evil spirits with birds'

evil actions."29

            This first kind of soil represents one who has not understood

the message of the kingdom because of willful rejection of that

message. Morris calls this soil an illustration of a "careless


            The hearer knows that there is some spiritual truth here in-

            tended for his profit, but since he does not act on it, he soon finds

            that what he heard is lost. The failure to attend to the message


26 Katesqi<w is an emphatic compound of e]sqi<w, probably in anticipation of the vio-

lent action mentioned in the interpretation.

27 Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 489.

28 This word conveys the notion of violence and therefore is fitting for the actions

of the archenemy himself (Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Litera-

ture, 2d ed., rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker [Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 1979], 108).

29 Payne, "The Authenticity of the Parable of the Sower and Its Interpretation,"


3O Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

            The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   181


            and to find out what it means results in total loss, first of the

            message and ultimately of the hearer.31

The person's lack of understanding points up individual respon-


            The record of the rocky soil (vv. 5-6). "The rocky places" on

which this seed fell probably refer to limestone just under the sur-

face of the soil rather than rocks above the soil, since the parable

speaks of immediate reception, which would not be true of rocks

above the surface. This seed lacked growth because it had "no

root" (13:6); Luke added that it had "no moisture" (Luke 8:6). The

shallow soil lying over the limestone bedrock would allow for

rapid germination.33 But the plants that "immediately" sprang up

were "scorched" and consequently "withered." The soil was un-

productive because of the lack of depth, premature germination,

scorching by the sun, and the drying of its roots. "Plants with de-

fective root systems are not equipped to handle the hot weather."34

            The interpretation of the rocky soil (vv. 20-21). Jesus said

this soil represents the person who, hearing the Word, immedi-

ately receives it with joy, but because "he has no root" in himself

the seed is shortlived. This failure is attributed to the affliction

and persecution that come because of identification with the

Word. The result is that this kind of person "falls away" or liter-

ally, "is caused to stumble."35 Affliction (qli?yij) or persecution

(diwgmo<j), originating with people rather than circumstances, is

primarily verbal or physical abuse, which believers must be pre-

pared to suffer at the hands of hostile Jews, Gentiles, family

members, and others because of their allegiance to Jesus.36 Jesus

had already warned His followers that they could expect persecu-


1992), 345.

31 Ibid., 346.

32 Robert; Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 259. "The receiver bears the responsibility for

both the lack of understanding as well as opening the door to the enemy" (Daniel

Patte, The Gospel according to Matthew: A Structural Commentary [Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1987], 189).

33 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, trans. S. H. Hooke, 2d ed. (New York:

Scribner & Sons, 1954), 11. Sirach 40:15 employs the same metaphor: "The children

of the ungodly will not put forth many branches; they are unhealthy roots upon

sheer rock."

34 Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 337.

35 The word is skandali<zw, "to be offended." "That is to say, he comes to regard ad-

herence to Christ as something of a trap; if it means persecution he wants nothing

to do with it. He is repelled. The time of trial means the end of this person's adher-

ence to Christ" (ibid., 346 47).

36 Kingsbury, Matthew 13, 59.

182                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


tion (5:10–12, 43–44; 10:16–25; cf. 24:9). When pressures came,

the word that had been received was lost. Luke added that such in-

dividuals fall away "in the time of temptation" or testing (Luke

8:13), again pointing to external factors (in contrast to internal

distractions in the following soil type).

            The record of the thorny soil (v. 7). In the third scene the seed

began to grow but was choked by thorns. Mark's account adds that

because the plants were choked, they "yielded no crop" (Mark

4:7). Thorns37 were commonly known to hinder plant growth

(Isa. 5:6; Jer. 4:3; Hos. 10:8), since they would keep light from the

plants and would intertwine with the roots below the ground.38

The seed was choked out by the thorns as the plants grew. The

failure in this scene is no less total than in the first two.39

            The interpretation of the thorny soil (v. 22). The seed among

thorns, Jesus said, represents those who her the word of the king-

dom but are unfruitful because of "the worry of the world" (h[

me<rimna tou? ai]w?noj) and "the deceitfulness of riches" (h[ a]pa<th

tou? lou<tou). These twin dangers of anxiety and wealth were

subjects in the Sermon on the Mount (6:19–34; cf. 19:23-24).

"Anxiety (of the age) depresses us away from the Word; delusion

(with wealth) impresses us above the Word."40

            The record of the good soil (v. 8). In the first three scenes, the

reader is mentally carried along toward the time of harvest.

Since the seed in the first three scenes did not result in fruition,

one might expect the same here. However, as Scott has observed,

this scene presents "a completed narrative and encompasses tem-

porally the entire story time from sowing to harvest."41

            The seed on good soil yielded a crop designated as a hundred-

fold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold. Mark added that the crops "grew up

and increased" (4:8).42 Mark wrote of an ascending order of

"thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold" (4:8, 20); Matthew spoke of a de-

scending order of "a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty"


37 The word a@kanqan means any plant with points (a]kh<) and not a specific species.

Like the birds of the first soil, so here the image is a general one.

38 Asher Feldman, Parables and Similes of the Rabbis (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1924), 186-87.

39 Bernard B. Scott, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 335.

40 Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 494.

41 Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 355.

42 Jan Lambrecht observes that this duality of expression is typical in Mark

("Redaction and Theology in Mk. IV," in L'euangile selon Marc, ed. M. Sabbe

[Louvain: Louvain University Press, 1971], 300). For a list of double participles in

Mark see Frans Neirynck, Duality in Mark. (Leuven: Leuven University Press,

1988), 82-84.

           The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   183


(13:8, 23); and Luke mentioned the singular expression, "a crop a

hundred times as great" (8:8). McNeile says Mark's order is the

natural one, and that Matthew's is reversed to "indicate more

clearly that even in the fruit-bearing hearers of the word there are


            The word kalh>n ("good") highlights the soil's character and

not just its appearance. The verbal expression "kept producing"

(e]di<dou, v. 8) is in the imperfect tense to show the usual activity of

production, though with differing amounts. Matthew used both

"bears fruit" (karpoforei?, v. 23) and "brings forth" (or "produces,"

poiei?), whereas Mark and Luke each have one expression (Mark

4:8,  e]didou karpo>n; Luke 8:8, e]poi<hsen  karpo>n). In this way

Matthew continued the emphasis that one who is related to God

through Christ is a "doer" of the Father's will (7:21; 12:50).

            Huffman, among others, has questioned the productivity as

extreme, but Genesis 26:12 shows this possibility without using

what Huffman notoriously has called "atypical features" in the

parable.44 However, the verse in Genesis shows that a hundred-

fold represents the blessing of God. In Matthew 13 the disciples

were indeed blessed when they heard with understanding and re-

ceived the privilege of knowing the mysteries of the kingdom of

heaven. Alexander writes, "It is indeed a moderate and modest

estimate compared with some recorded by Herodotus, in which the

rate of increase was double or quadruple even the highest of the

three here mentioned, and the recent harvest of our Western

states affords examples of increase still greater."45

            Pliny writes,

            The deputy governor of that region [Byzacium in Africa] sent to

            his late Majesty Augustus—almost incredible as it seems—a parcel

            of very nearly 400 shoots obtained from a single grain as seed, and

            there are still in existence dispatches relating to the matter. He

            likewise sent to Nero also 360 stalks obtained from one grain. 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.46

Consequently Jeremias's skepticism of the amount is unfounded,

since the yield of a hundredfold is true to life. As Scott concludes,

"Thirty-, sixty- and one hundred-fold represent a modest success,


43 McNeile, The Gospel according to Matthew, 188-89.

44 Norman Huffman, "Atypical Features in the Parables," Journal of Biblical Lit-

erature 97 (June 1978): 212.

45 Joseph A. Alexander, The Gospel according to Matthew Explained (London:

Nisbet, 1861; reprint, Lynchburg, VA: James Family, 1979), 355.

46 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.249. A similar report is recorded by Varro

on the produce of Italy (On Agriculture 1.44.2).

184                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


a good harvest, quite within everyday expectations. It is neither

hyperbolic nor superabundant."47

            The interpretation of the good soil (v. 23). Jesus identified

this soil as "the man who hears the Word and understands it" and

brings forth various levels of fruitfulness. The one distinguish-

ing feature of the fourth soil is seen in the verb "understands"

(suniei<j). Mark wrote "accepts" (parade<xontai, 4:20) while Luke

said "holds fast" (kate<xousin, 8:15). Each writer emphasized the

nuance essential for the appeal to his audience. In Matthew the

reception of the Word makes one fruitful. There is also balance

in the parable between the three multiples of fruitfulness with the

three former cases of devastation.48 Matthew employed the word

poiei? ("brings forth" or "produces") to convey the idea of fruit be-

ing produced by the one who is rightly related to the Father

through Jesus' message and is thus assured of entrance into the

kingdom. The order of the verbs is instructive, as explained by


            But the seed sown on the good earth is the person who listening

            to the Word understands it; this person of course bears fruit and

            does things (v. 23). Hearing comes first ("faith comes by hearing,"

            Rom 10:17), understanding comes next (Matthew's special way of

            describing true faith), and the doing of fruitbearing then natu-

            rally (de "of course"!) follows.49



The parable ends with the exhortation "He who has ears, let him

hear," that is, let him understand and receive what has been said.

This is Jesus' exhortation for His hearers to be receptive and re-

sponsive to the truth of the parable, namely, the message of the




Many writers hold that this parable presents hindrances to the

present growth of the kingdom or that God guarantees the ultimate

success of the kingdom. As Blomberg says, "The former comes

from focusing on the unfruitful plants; the latter from concentrat-

ing on the fruitful ones."51 Bruner expands this to four major in-


47 Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 358.

48 Payne, "The Authenticity of the Parable of the Sower and Its Interpretation,"


49 Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 495 (italics his).

50 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX:

Word, 1993), 369.

51 Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 229.

          The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   185


terpretations for the parable, focusing on the ideas of victory, re-

sponsibility, patience, and power.52 The emphasis on victory is

that the parable was designed to inspire faith, since, in spite of the

many obstacles, the kingdom of heaven would come soon and

would bring with it a great harvest that would more than compen-

sate for the temporary discouragement caused by those rejecting it

or hostile to it. Along the same line Huffman summarizes, "The

excess in losing is overcome by the excess in winning."53 Simi-

larly Hill says the parable is not so much on how people should

hear, "but on how the kingdom of God will certainly come, with a

harvest beyond all expectation, but by way of failure, disappoint-

ment, and loss."54 This view also could include those who advo-

cate the stark realism of various responses to the message and

various levels of growth.55 For example Jones says, "Jesus

wanted his disciples to be convinced of the power of preaching the

kingdom, as well as the realism of unreceptive responses."56 And

again, "The proclaiming disciple is also buoyed by the realistic

expectation of a colossal harvest."57 According to this view the

parable teaches disciples of the kingdom that they need not be dis-

couraged by failure and hostility.

            The view that perceives that patience is the central theme says

the parable's purpose was to teach the disciples not to be disap-

pointed with the response to their preaching of the kingdom and to

keep sowing the Word, since response will come in the final har-

vest. This is the view of Jeremias, who says the harvest symbol-

izes the "eschatological overflowing of the divine fullness, sur-

passing all human measure."58 He adds, "To human eyes much

of the labor seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in re-

peated failure, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence: he knows that

God has made a beginning, bringing with it a harvest of reward

beyond all asking or conceiving."59 Similarly Perkins states,

"The parable suggests that Jesus' vision of the presence of the rule

of God can even deal with the losses that occur. . . . The parable


52 Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 481.

53 Huffman, "Atypical Features in the Parables," 212.

54 Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, 225.

55 Thomas, Outline Studies of the Gospel of Matthew, 187.

56 Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982),


57 Ibid.

58 Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 150.

59 Ibid.

186     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


presents us with an image of confidence in the word of God which

can take any such loss without discouragement."60

            Bruner suggests a third theme: The Word itself has the power

to create the kingdom. And from a slightly different angle Jones

focuses on the sovereignty of the sower, not on the seed, soils, or

produce. He sees the parable as an "archetype of election," which

portrays God's sovereign purpose and freedom to move toward all

people.61 Scott says, "In failure and everydayness lies the mira-

cle of God's activity."62

            Bruner seems to harness a number of the above ideas when he

states, "It is our responsibility to understand this Word, it is our

mission to bring this Word with a patient urgency into the church

and world, and it is our privilege to wait expectantly and joyfully

for the final victory of this Word's promise."63

            The concluding exhortation to hear (13:9) prompts a fourth

interpretation, emphasizing the responsibility of the audience to

be eager hearers of the Word. Morris believes this parable makes

the point that "the one message can produce different results in

different hearers."64 Hagner states, "The key issue is respon-

siveness or non-responsiveness to the message of the king-

dom."65 At least two factors support this fourth view. First, in Je-

sus' interpretation of the parable He emphasized reception of the

seed by the soils. The action of the sower gave way to the results of

that action. This recognition is critical in understanding the

meaning of the parable. Patte states, "Thus [Jesus'] explanation

underscores by its oppositions what the soils do with the seeds or

word (13:22-23), and in the process it becomes clear that the mys-

teries of the kingdom concern what people do with the word of the

kingdom which they hear."66

            Second, the one distinguishing feature of the fourth soil is

suggested by the verb suniei<j ("understands" v. 23).67 Some re-


60 Pheme Perkins, Hearing the Parables of Jesus (New York: Paulist, 1981), 80--


61 Jones, The Teaching of the Parables, 72. A similar emphasis is seen in Amos

Wilder, "The Parable of the Sower: Naivete and Method in Interpretation," Semeia

2 (1974): 134—51.

62 Scott, Hear Then the Parable, 362.

63 Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 481-82 (italics his).

64 Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 335.

65 Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 381.

66 Patte, The Gospel according to Matthew: A Structural Commentary (Philadel-

phia: Fortress, 1987), 192.

67 Cf. verse 51, "Have you understood all these things?"

        The Parable of the Sower and the Soils                   187


spond to the message of the kingdom by understanding it; but oth-

ers do not. "Those who hear the proclamation of the kingdom re-

spond in a variety of ways; not all seed that is sown is produc-

tive."68 What differentiates one group from another is not their

nationality but their response to the message of the kingdom.

Along this line Blomberg presents three major points for this


            (1) Like the sower, God spreads His Word widely among all kinds

            of people. (2) Like the three kinds of unfruitful soil, many will re-

            spond to His Word with less than saving faith, be it (a) complete

            lack of positive response due to the enticement of evil, (b) tempo-

            rary superficiality masquerading as true commitment, or (c) gen-

            uine interest and conviction about the truth that simply falls

            short due to the rigorous demands of discipleship. (3) Like the

            fruitful soil, the only legitimate response to God's Word is the

            obedience and perseverance which demonstrate true regenera-



            In keeping with Jesus" "apology" for the parables (vv. 10-17),

the contrast between the unproductive and the productive soils in

the first parable illustrates the contrast between those within Is-

rael who were rejecting the message of the kingdom and the dis-

ciples who received the message of the kingdom. If the Jews were

unbelieving, they could not inherit the eschatological kingdom.

            One of the mysteries of the kingdom is that in the preaching

of "the word of the kingdom" God is inviting people to become re-

lated to Him by salvation through His Son. This message to

which the Jews failed to respond was nonetheless the very vehicle

by which God is raising up a people for Himself. Within Israel

there were differing responses to Jesus' message. His message

was like seed being sown in people who for various reasons were,

not as responsive as the disciples might have hoped.



From this parable and Jesus' "apology" (vv. 10-17) the initial au-

dience should have understand that the Jewish leaders were being

replaced as the custodians of the kingdom message. This re-

placement resulted from their rejection. Thus those who disobey

the message of the kingdom will not participate in the kingdom.

            The proclamation of the kingdom message is the same vehi-

cle by which God is preparing a people for His rule today. From

the negative responses to the word of the kingdom, this parable

shows that not all will respond to the message the same way. As


68 Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 367.

69 Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 228.

188                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 1998


Hagner says, "Not all seed that is sown is productive."70 Though

there is a mixed response to the message, believers are to be faith-

ful in its continuing proclamation. As Patte observes, "Indeed,

they need to be aware of what causes the rejection of their message

so as to be able to design a mission that will appropriately con-

front the situation."71

            Thomas says the three unproductive soils are caused by

Satan, the flesh, and the world.72 These three are enemies

working against the desired fruitful response. Therefore the

parable encourages those who share the message of the kingdom

not to become disappointed. This parable "carries a ringing as-

surance for fainthearted disciples."73

            By negative example the first three soils encourage listeners

to respond to the message properly. The fourth soil encouraged the

disciples to hear and understand the word of the kingdom, to do

the work of the kingdom, and to be fruitful for the kingdom.

Those who do so show that they are members of His family (7:21;

12:50). "The one who is spiritually illumined is the one who bears

fruit for God."74

            This parable provides not only a forceful challenge to believ-

ers but also gives a warning to unbelievers. For the not-yet-re-

sponsive, this parable serves to challenge them to receive the

Word of God and to enjoy its productivity in their lives. To both

audiences, the additional comment in Luke 8:18, "Take care how

you listen," has a powerful appeal.


70 Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 367.

71 Patte, The Gospel according to Matthew, 91.

72 Thomas, Outline Studies of the Gospel of Matthew, 191. He says that the seed

on the wayside soil went on but not in; the rocky soil was on and in but not down;

the seed in the thorny soil went on, in, and down but not up; and the seed in the

good soil was on, in, down, and up (ibid.).

73 Archibald M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (Philadelphia: Westminster,

1960), 47.

74 Toussaint, "The Introductory and Concluding Parables of Matthew Thirteen,"





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