Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (April-June 1998) 172-88.
Copyright © 1998 by
THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER
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
The very fact that Jesus now withdraws into a parabolic form of
teaching is a sign of judgment upon
Mark L. Bailey is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and Pro-
fessor of Bible Exposition,
Dallas Theological Seminary,
*This is article two in an eight-part series, "The Kingdom in the Parables of
1 Jack Dean Kingsbury, Matthew 13: A Study in Redaction Criticism
VA: Knox, 1969), 31.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 (
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.
THE NEED OR PROBLEM PROMPTING THE PARABLE
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-
THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AND THE DETAILS
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 (
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 (
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
verses God was addressing
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 (
25 Hans-Josef Klauck includes several other Jewish references to this imagery
(Allegorie and Allegorese in
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'
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-
2d ed., rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker [
29 Payne, "The Authenticity of the Parable of the Sower and Its Interpretation,"
3O Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (
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-
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
Gospel according to Matthew: A Structural Commentary
Fortress, 1987], 189).
33 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus,
trans. S. H. Hooke, 2d ed. (
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
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 (
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
see Frans Neirynck, Duality in
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
The deputy governor of that region [Byzacium in
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
the plains of Lentini and other districts in
of Andalusia, and particularly
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 (
Nisbet, 1861; reprint,
46 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5.249. A similar report is recorded by Varro
on the produce of
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 EXHORTATION (v. 9)
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
THE CENTRAL TRUTHS IN RELATIONSHIP TO THE KINGDOM
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 (
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
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),
58 Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 150.
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.
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.
THE INTENDED APPEAL FOR THE AUDIENCE
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 (
74 Toussaint, "The Introductory and Concluding Parables of Matthew Thirteen,"
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