Sunday, July 9, 2023

Seed and Soils

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 13:1-9 18-23, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A.

This reading contains what is often called “The Parable of the Sower,” and sometimes called “The Parable of the Soils.” The latter title raises the important point that the sower is actually not the focus of the parable. After sowing seeds in all manner of directions indiscriminately (that alone is a marvelous image worth exploring), the fate of the seed depends on the various soils on which it falls.

For anyone interested, I preached a sermon on this text some years ago, “God’s Word in Human Voice,” which you can find on my other blog here

I think this parable offers a challenge for biblical studies. It is not so much the parable itself, but the explanation of the parable – beginning in v.18 (with parallels in Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15) – where the challenge lies over the meaning of the word “parable.” For many years, parables were treated as allegories, where every detail seemed to be cleverly forced to represent something that reinforced the interpreter’s theology. Lately, the pendulum has moved into the argument that a parable only has one, overall meaning. But, the ‘explanation’ of this parable in vv.18-23 and its parallels would suggest that the gospel writers did note get that memo.

Aside from an attempt at a modern definition of the word “parable” (which, in my mind, seems to be fluid in the texts so it should be fluid in our discussions about the texts), the question of what a parable is still presents a challenge, because that question lies within the text itself. Verses 10-17 are omitted from the lectionary reading. Those verses and their parallels in Mark and Luke concern how parables allow those “with ears to hear” to apprehend the truth, which seems to be hidden to those whose hears are dull and closed. However, when the “explanation” of the parable is offered, does it really sound like “the secrets of the reign of heaven,” or incredibly insightful in a way that only the insiders can apprehend it? To me, frankly – and you have no idea how alarmed I am that I am actually writing this in public – the explanation sounds like a fairly rudimentary sermon that simply states the obvious.

So, what is a parable? Why did Jesus use parables? There is something at stake in them that is subtler and more meaningful than a sermon illustration. Talk amongst yourselves.
1 Ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐξελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τῆς οἰκίας ἐκάθητο παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν: 
In that day Jesus having gone out of the house was sitting by the sea.
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ἐκάθητο: IMI 3s, κάθημαι, 1) to sit down, seat one's self  … 2a) to have a fixed abode, to dwell
1. In 12:15 Matthew tells us that Jesus left the synagogue, but does not say exactly where he went, only that great crowds came to him. By the end of that chapter he is inside somewhere, because in 12:46 he is told that his mother and brothers are “outside” wanting to speak with him.

2 καὶ συνήχθησαν πρὸς αὐτὸν ὄχλοι πολλοί, ὥστε αὐτὸν εἰς πλοῖον ἐμβάντα καθῆσθαι, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἐπὶ τὸν αἰγιαλὸν εἱστήκει
And great crowds gathered to him, so that he having boarded into a boat to sit, and all the crowd had stood by the shore.
συνήχθησαν: API 3p, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather 
ἐμβάντα: AAPart asm, ἐμβαίνω, 1) to go into, step into
καθῆσθαι: PMInf, 1) to sit down, seat one's self 
εἱστήκει: PluperfAI 3s, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set
1. The verb “standing” with reference to the crowd is in the pluperfect tense. I’m not real sure how to capture that in English. Most translations just go with a simple past tense. Likewise, it is a bit awkward to capture the aorist participle (having boarded in a boat) and the infinitive (to sit), because my ears want more solid verbs. Most translations supply them with “got into a boat and sat down.”

3 καὶ ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς πολλὰ ἐν παραβολαῖς λέγωνἸδοὺ ἐξῆλθεν ὁ σπείρων τοῦ σπείρειν
And he spoke to them many things in parables saying, “Behold the sower went out to sow.
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound
λέγων: PAPart nms, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἰδοὺ: Imp, εἴδω, ἴδω, - at times this imperative takes the form of a particle, such as in “Lo” and “Behold.”
ἐξῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
σπείρειν: PAInf, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed 
1. The NIV says, “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” While we are more accustomed to the word “farmer” than “sower,” that translation missed the relationship between the noun “sower” (σπείρων) and the infinitive “to sow” (σπείρειν).
2. Is there some irony or other literary purpose behind the detail that Jesus is by the sea, sitting in a boat, talking about soils? Maybe it’s simply an acoustic thing. Some people say Jesus’ parables were simply prompted by things close at hand, such as a field of lilies over there, birds swirling around over here. That would not be the case with a man in a boat in the sea talking about seeds in the soil.
3. Matthew indicates that Jesus talks about “many things in parables.” We might suppose that this story has many parabolic features or we might suppose that this is just one of many of the parables that Jesus spoke. 

4 καὶ ἐν τῷ σπείρειν αὐτὸν ἃ μὲν ἔπεσεν παρὰ τὴν ὁδόν, καὶ ἐλθόντα τὰ πετεινὰ κατέφαγεν αὐτά. 
And in him sowing some fell along the path, and the birds having come ate them.
σπείρειν: PAInf, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed 
ἔπεσεν: AAI 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall
ἐλθόντα: AAPart npn, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
κατέφαγεν: AAI 3s, κατεσθίω, 1) to consume by eating, to eat up, devour
1. The ἃ μὲν (which I am leaving untranslated) seems related to the ἄλλα δὲ of the next few verses, as a literary way to continue following seeds’ journeys. I will translated ἄλλα δὲ as “then others.”

5 ἄλλα δὲ ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ τὰ πετρώδη ὅπου οὐκ εἶχεν γῆν πολλήν, καὶ εὐθέως ἐξανέτειλεν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἔχειν βάθος γῆς
Then others fell along the stony places where they did not have much soil, and immediately sprang up because they did not have depth of soil.
ἔπεσεν: AAI 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower 1a) to fall
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἐξανέτειλεν: AAI 3s, ἐξανατέλλω, 1) to make spring up, cause to shoot forth  2) to spring up
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
1. This chapter is the only place where τὰ πετρώδη (pronounced ‘ta petroda’) appears in Matthew, but its phonetic relationship to the name “Peter” (petra, the rock) is visible and audible. (I’m not suggesting any allegorical meaning here.) Since it is a substantive plural adjective, I am making it “stony places.”

6 ἡλίου δὲ ἀνατείλαντος ἐκαυματίσθη καὶ διὰ τὸ μὴ ἔχειν ῥίζαν ἐξηράνθη.
Yet [the] sun having risen they were scorched and through the not having root they withered.  
ἀνατείλαντος: AAPart gsm, ἀνατέλλω, 1) rise  1a) to cause to rise
ἐκαυματίσθη: API 3s, καυματίζω, 1) to burn with heat, to scorch
ἔχειν: PAInf, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἐξηράνθη: API 3s, ξηραίνω, 1) to make dry, dry up, wither 
1. My phraseology (“the not having root”) is quite awkward here. I’m trying to capture (in the rough translation) the definite article (τὸ) and the infinitive verb (ἔχειν) together. That happens in English on occasion, most notably in churches that refer to “the laying on of hands.”

7 ἄλλα δὲ ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ τὰς ἀκάνθας, καὶ ἀνέβησαν αἱ ἄκανθαι καὶ ἔπνιξαν αὐτά. 
Then others fell among the thorns, and the thorns rose up and strangled them.
ἔπεσεν: AAI 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall
ἀνέβησαν: AAI 3p, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  1b) to rise,
ἔπνιξαν: AAI 3p, πνίγω, 1) to choke, strangle 
1. Who knew soils were such perilous territory, with scorching and strangling?

8 ἄλλα δὲ ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν τὴν καλὴν καὶ ἐδίδου καρπόν, ὃ μὲν ἑκατόν, ὃ δὲ ἑξήκοντα, ὃ δὲ τριάκοντα. 
Then others fell among the good soil and were giving fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.  
ἔπεσεν: AAI 3s, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall
ἐδίδου: IAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone
1. I’ve used green font in vv.4ff to show how many natural terms associated with the ground are feminine: Path, soil, root, thorns, good soil. Other terms, like the sun and the birds that descend from the sky, are masculine or neuter. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Jesus or Matthew are behind this; it is more a matter of how the Greek language evolved. It suggests, however, that the phrase “Mother earth” may have pagan roots, but is not an ‘unchristian’ phrase.

9 ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκουέτω.
Let the one who has ears hear.
ἔχων: PAPart nsm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἀκουέτω: PAImpv 3s, ἀκούω, 1) to hear

18  Ὑμεῖς οὖν ἀκούσατε τὴν παραβολὴν τοῦ σπείραντος. 
Therefore you hear the parable of the sower.
ἀκούσατε: AAImpv 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to hear
1. The “one who has ears” in v.9 is now “you.”

19 παντὸς ἀκούοντος τὸν λόγον τῆς βασιλείας καὶ μὴ συνιέντος, ἔρχεται ὁ πονηρὸς καὶ ἁρπάζει τὸ ἐσπαρμένον ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ: οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν σπαρείς.   
All who hear the word of the reign and are not understanding, the is evil one comes and carries away that which has been sown in his heart; which is the seed along the path.
ἀκούοντος: PAPart gsm, ἀκούω, 1) to hear
συνιέντος: PAPart gsm, συνίημι, 1) to set or bring together 1a) in a hostile sense, of combatants  2) to put (as it were) the perception with the thing perceived  2a) to set or join together in the mind 
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ἁρπάζει: PAI 3s, ἁρπάζω, 1) to seize, carry off by force  2) to seize on, claim for one's self eagerly  3) to snatch out or away
ἐσπαρμένον: PerfPPart asm, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. There is evidence in the gospels that the disciples sometimes struggled with hearing about the reign (or ‘empire’) of heaven and did not have understanding (notice the meanings of the verb συνίημι above), when they interpreted it as an earthly reign that would do battle with the Roman Empire. This may be the gospel writers’ way of distancing the followers of Jesus from various Jewish revolutionaries that fought against the Empire physically. I suspect that was a very volatile controversy among the early church.

20 ὁ δὲ ἐπὶ τὰ πετρώδη σπαρείς, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τὸν λόγον ἀκούων καὶ εὐθὺς μετὰ χαρᾶς λαμβάνων αὐτόν: 
Then that having been sown along the stony places, that is the one who having heard the word and immediately having received it with joy;
σπαρείς: APPart nsm, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἀκούων: PAPart nsm, , ἀκούω, 1) to hear
λαμβάνων: PAPart nsm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it  1a1) to take up a thing to be carried  1a2) to take upon one's self 

21 οὐκ ἔχει δὲ ῥίζαν ἐν ἑαυτῷ ἀλλὰ πρόσκαιρός ἐστινγενομένης δὲ θλίψεως ἢ διωγμοῦ διὰ τὸν λόγον εὐθὺς σκανδαλίζεται
yet not having roots in himself but is for the time being then with troubles or persecution on account of the word immediately is scandalized.
ἔχει: PAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
σκανδαλίζεται: PPI 3s, σκανδαλίζω, 1) to put a stumbling block or impediment i
1. The phrase “not having roots in himself” is curious. I wonder if it is a reference to being rooted in community or in a tradition. It seems related to the problem of hearing the word without understanding (μὴ συνιέντος) in v.19.
2. The word πρόσκαιρός is literally pros/kairos, toward/time, perhaps similar to the phrase pro tem. The sense is ‘temporary,’ I think.

22 ὁ δὲ εἰς τὰς ἀκάνθας σπαρείς, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τὸν λόγον ἀκούων καὶ ἡ μέριμνατοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἡ ἀπάτη τοῦ πλούτου συμπνίγει τὸν λόγον, καὶ ἄκαρπος γίνεται.
But that having been sown in the thorns, who is the one hearing the word and the distraction of the age and the deceit of the wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
σπαρείς: APPart nsm, σπείρω, 1) to sow, scatter, seed 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἀκούων: PAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to hear
συμπνίγει: PAI 3s, συμπνίγω, 1) to choke utterly 
γίνεται: PMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. The verb συμπνίγω is a variation of πνίγω in v.7 above. There, I use ‘strangle,’ here I use ‘choke’ to show the difference.
2. There is some question whether “it becomes unfruitful” refers to “the word” or “the one hearing the word.” Either one seems sufficient as a precedent.

23 ὁ δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν καλὴν γῆν σπαρείς, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τὸν λόγον ἀκούων καὶ συνιείς, ὃς δὴ καρποφορεῖ καὶ ποιεῖ ὃ μὲν ἑκατόν, ὃ δὲ ἑξήκοντα, ὃ δὲ τριάκοντα.
But the one having been sown along the good soil, is he who is hearing the word and understanding, who bears fruit and produces that which is a hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἀκούων: PAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to hear
συνιείς: PAPart nsm,  συνίημι, 1) to set or bring together  1a) in a hostile sense, of combatants  2) to put (as it were) the perception with the thing perceived  2a) to set or join together in the mind 
καρποφορεῖ: PAI 3s, καρποφορέω, 1) to bear fruit  2) to bear, bring forth, deeds  3) to bear fruit of one's self 
ποιεῖ: PAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make
1. The word for “understand” (συνίημι) here and in v.19 has the sense of bringing thoughts together (συν), like the English “synthesis.”
2. I have read – and I can only suppose it to be true because I’m ignorant about these matters – that even thirtyfold would be crazy productive, not to mention fifty- and a hundred-fold.


  1. Ref your discussion on whether parables are detailed allegories or have one overall meaning:

    I have come to think that the point of parables is that they have *no* intended meaning - or perhaps many meanings. A parable differs from a moral story or a cautionary tale which tells us why it is bad to eat string or cry wolf or whatever. Surely the very nature of a parable is that it is something which is thrown out indiscriminately, not planted in neat rows with a specific purpose. (At the risk of stating the obvious, that's certainly what the etymology of the word would suggest - para + ballein).
    Jesus chucks out the story and lets it land where it will and fare however it does. A parable might mean something different to me than it does to you, and something different to me today than what it meant to me last year, or what it might mean to me in five years' time - and that's ok, because that's what a parable is supposed to do. It's not so much a lesson to be learned as a question to be wrestled with.

    (I suppose some might regard this as an ultra-liberal subjective approach to Scripture, but it seems to me to be in keeping with a Teacher who often asks, 'what do you think?' 'what do you say?' and places the emphasis on our ears to listen.)

    If we lay aside the 'interpretation' verses (which, I agree, sound more like a sermon preached in the Matthean community than something Jesus would have said), we are left, I think, with a meta-parable - a parable about parables. When we hear a parable, we can choose to leave it where it falls (and that's ok - it might feed someone else); or we can choose to let it grow in us for a while (and that's ok too - perhaps there is still value in the growth, even if only temporary); or we can choose to let it grow and yield fruit, again and again, whenever we come back to it and harvest it again.

    I'm not sure if that's useful to you (or anyone else) or not, but it suddenly occurs to me that I may have just written the outline of my sermon for Sunday! :-)

    1. Hi Forton Church,
      I largely agree with everything you have said, except that I've gotten to where any time I think I have a general idea of how one ought to experience or interpret parables it seems to get overturned by the next parable.
      I really like the suggestion that the Parable of the Soils is a parable about parables. I think the language in between the parable and the interpretation would indicate that the gospel writers felt that way as well.
      I hope this promising sermon goes well!
      Thanks for chiming in,

  2. @Forton, that's wonderful! A parable, in your explanation, is more like a koan, something to think about rather than just settling on a meaning and engraving it in stone. Thank you both!

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  4. Regarding the 'thirtyfold' - thinking about a seed of corn growing into a cornstalk with ears of corn. How many seeds in an ear, and how many ears on a stalk? Or an single grain of any kind producing a plant? Plant's strategy: throw out a lot of seeds and hope something happens...!


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