Listen To The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13: 1 — 23
Meditation on the Word of God is seldom mentioned directly in the New Testament unlike the Old Testament:
e.g. Psalm 119: A Prayer of Abiding In the Word.
When we read the New Testament wisely, however, and listen to the first Christians, we soon realise that our Lord intended his disciples to build upon the spiritual teaching of the Old Testament, for as he taught: he had come to bring it to fulfilment, and not to displace it.
Meditation on the Word of God is therefore carefully integrated within the whole of Jesus’ message; never isolated. But never does he teach his disciples profound spiritual truth without underscoring the need to ponder it, treasure it in the heart, and allow it to take root and grow the way God planned.
The text for our meditation, our pondering and intimate engagement, is a parable, the first of its kind in Matthew, requiring interpretation by Jesus. All parables require to be meditated upon, or they would hardly be parables.
Our Lord began his ministry teaching in what we might label “straight talk”, or simple stories. He did not begin using parables like this until he encountered people’s refusal to receive his teaching about the Kingdom of God.
Why did Jesus resort to parables? It will at once be obvious that parables:
Dr Charles Erdman has a superb explanation to help us in our meditation on the Parable of the Sower: he says about parables: —
The purpose was fourfold: First of all, parables were illustrations, which made spiritual truth more plain and clear to the mind of the hearer. Second, they put the truth in portable form so that it easily could be carried away and remembered. Third, they were designed to avoid offence to those who were hostile and who were not prepared to receive the truth; and fourth, they were used, as Isaiah declared, as a judgment upon those who were wilfully blind. They shrouded the truth from such as lacked spiritual qualifications for its reception.
So now let us walk slowly through this piece of very special intensive training and unpack it, carefully respecting our Lord’s method and chosen style.
(For a more detailed introduction: Parables of the Kingdom, from The Gospel Story, by R. Cox.)
Some Notes On The Text
One day, after a very heavy teaching schedule in or near Peter’s home, Jesus leaves the house and walks down to the lakeside. There he sits and rests, until a crowd gathers around. He steps into an average sized fishing boat, and sits down again.
This scene and account are here recorded by St Matthew who depicts Jesus as a typical rabbi of his day, preparing to impart instruction.
Verses 2 and 3
As the crowd settles and recognises that Jesus is ready to address them, our Lord points to a man on a hillside not far from the lake:
“See the sower”, (a more correct translation), hinting that they will be thinking about what he is doing. He continues, “he has gone out to sow”.
Verse 4 — 9
As was the custom, the farmer sowed the seed all over the field prior to ploughing it. The seed seemed to fall on four quite different types of ground:
First: Some fell on the well-trodden paths the surface of which would let nothing through. The seed stayed on the surface and not unexpectedly, the birds soon ate it all up.
Second: Some fell on stoney places where they did not have much depth of soil. They germinated all right and began to grow, but without proper roots they couldn’t survive in the heat.
Third: Some fell into the brambles which choked the life out of them from the time they sprouted.
Fourth: But some seed fell on rich soil and grew so well, it produced a bumper crop; some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty.
Our Lord rounds his parable off with a piece of advice:
“If you have ears to hear, you had better listen!”
Verses 10 — 17
A few of our Lord’s closest disciples notice that a lot of the people listening are confused and feeling somewhat exasperated by his teaching. He is not halfway through his special delivery of seven major parables and he appears already to be heading for trouble. The disciples walk over to him and, standing in the water beside the boat, quietly tell him what they think he needs to hear. Their exact words were, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
We can easily sense what they are politely trying to convey:
Our Lord does not answer quite as they expected. Instead he continues teaching in a quiet tone that only those next to him can hear. And they get more than they bargained for! At the risk of being a little prosaic, we might paraphrase the explanation of Jesus like this:
Jesus then quotes Isaiah 6: 9 and 10.
Hearing you will hear
“This prophecy”, says Jesus, “is fulfilled in these people. It was fulfilled in Isaiah’s own day, and so it will continue while people only listen to what they want to hear, and while false teachers tell them only what they want to know. In other words, people have always been baffled and always will be unless they are:
Our Lord concludes his justification for speaking in parables by acknowledging that these loyal disciples who have come around him are blessed because it is God’s good pleasure that they should be given understanding and spiritual perception. Clearly he is warmed by their concern for the crowd, and even their demand for an explanation from him.
Verses 18 — 23
Our Lord then, still speaking privately to his close disciples, moves the conversation on with an explanation of the inner meaning on the parable. It is interesting that he here calls it (in verse 18) “the parable of the sower”. Some modern commentators call it the “parable of the soils,” since it is the four different soils he seems to focus on. Whilst this is true, there is an important reason for us to retain the title of the parable as given by Jesus (see conclusion).
The parable of the sower is now explained.
The climax of this long lesson is contained in the final verse (23):
“My teaching”, declares Jesus, “is concealed from the unfit, but is freely and abundantly available to those who: hear, understand, and produce.”
From this we take the lesson which is so critical for those who would claim to be his disciples.
Listening to, meditating on, and producing fruit of the word of the kingdom. This is the calling of those to whom it has been given to know the mysteries* of the kingdom (verse 11).
*(Greek, ta mysteria, “the secrets of the kingdom”; known by secret, confidential speech, the whisperings of the heart.)
As the true disciples of Jesus produce the “fruit of the word”, they will encounter the same resistance and treatment that the Lord himself experienced. At all times however, they are to remember that, as they obey his commands and perform their role, he is the sower of the seed, that is, of the word, not them! They may or may not see the harvest they would hope and pray for. That is not for them to be preoccupied with; after all, it is God’s decision as to where, when and how much the harvest will be. Enough for them to carry out the intended teaching of Jesus:
Be listening to,
meditating on, and
producing fruit of,
“the word of the kingdom”.
A Treasury of Meditation
We consider this lesson to be of such importance that we have attached a supplement of readings from esteemed teachers of the Christian spiritual tradition. Together they form a veritable treasury of meditation. All the readings come from books long out of print as far as we know. If we reprint here anything still under copyright we apologise and seek the advice of any publisher concerned. The supplement contains the following:
Rt Rev Dr Challoner
1. Consider, in this parable, the infinite riches of the goodness and bounty of the Son of God, who, without distinction or respect of persons, sows so plentifully the seed of His word, and of His graces, on all kinds of soils. This seed is heavenly, it is capable of producing fruit an hundredfold. He is the sower, and waters with rain from heaven the seed. He has sown, and yet three parts in four of this divine seed are lost for want of a correspondence in the soil. Christian, see in what manner you receive the seed of God’s word, see how you correspond with the divine graces and calls; your eternal salvation is at stake. If you bring forth good fruit, the result of this divine seed, you shall live on it for endless ages in the kingdom of heaven; but if you suffer the soil of your soul to be like a beaten highway, or like a rock covered with a thin surface of earth, or like ground overrun with thorns and briars, the seed of God will be lost upon you, and you will be answerable for the loss of it, and miserable for all eternity.
2. Consider what is meant by the highway, where the seed is trodden under foot, or picked up by the birds; and see how justly such souls are compared to a highway or beaten path, as live in forgetfulness of God, and in continual dissipation of thought, so as to become a mere thoroughfare for every passenger that pleases, that is, for every idle amusement that offers itself, for every impertinent or sinful imagination, without any sense at all of the fear of God, or any care to keep off those wicked spirits, signified by the birds, which are ever upon the watch to snatch away this divine seed of God’s word, that lies thus unregarded on the surface of the soul. But what is the remedy for this evil? No other, be sure, than to plough up this ground that has hitherto been made a highway; to fence it in, so that passengers may have no longer liberty to be continually trampling it under foot; and to harrow it, so that the seed may be covered by the earth, and lie no longer exposed to be a prey to the birds.
For a highway or beaten path, so long as it remains such, can never bring forth fruit. Now, in the spiritual sense, we plough up the soil of the soul by daily meditation upon eternal truths; we fence it in by a spirit of recollection; and we preserve the divine seed, which is to make it fruitful, from our spiritual enemies, by letting it sink deep into our souls, and guarding it by watching and prayer.
3. Consider who they are that are meant by the rock or stony ground, where there is no depth of earth, nor proper moisture to nourish the seed, so as to bring the fruit to maturity; viz., such souls as receive indeed the word of God, and are moved by it to make some good resolutions, and some slender efforts towards bringing forth the fruits of a new life ; but the rock of their old bad habits (which they have never heartily renounced) hinders the seed from taking root: their resolutions are but superficial, they do not sink in deep enough to reach or change the heart, but upon the first opposition or temptation they wither away and die. The remedy here must be, to procure that this rock may be softened, by means of long continued application to mental prayer and other spiritual exercises; till those old habits are brought to give way to the fear and love of God, which are capable of breaking even the rock in pieces and changing it into fruitful soil.
Resolve to be ever attentive to the gracious calls of the word of God, and of His heavenly inspirations, and to let this divine seed sink deep into thy soul by daily meditation.
By Abbot Gueranger
St. Gregory the Great justly remarks, that this parable needs no explanation, since eternal Wisdom Himself has told us its meaning. All that we have to do is to profit by this divine teaching, and become the good soil, wherein the heavenly seed may yield a rich harvest. How often have we, hitherto, allowed it to be trampled on by them that passed by, or to be torn up by the birds of the air! How often has it found our heart like a stone, that could give no moisture, or like a thorn plot, that could but choke! We listened to the word of God; we took pleasure in bearing it; and from this we argued well for ourselves. Nay, we have often received this word with joy and eagerness. Sometimes, even, it took root within us. But, alas! something always came to stop its growth. Henceforth, it must both grow and yield fruit. The seed given to us is of such quality, that the divine Sower has a right to expect ‘a hundred-fold’. If the soil, that is, our heart, be good; if we take the trouble to prepare it, by profiting by the means afforded us by the Church; we shall have an abundant harvest to show our Lord on that grand day, when, rising triumphant from His tomb, He will come to share with His faithful people the glory of His Resurrection.
By L Goffine
The word of God is compared by the Prophet Jeremias, to a hammer which crushes hearts as hard as rocks, and to a fire that dries up the swamps of vice, and consumes inveterate evil habits (Jer. 23:29). The Psalmist compares it to thunder that makes all tremble, a storm-wind that bends and breaks the cedars of Lebanon, that is, proud and obstinate spirits; a light that dispels the darkness of ignorance; and a remedy that cures sin (Ps. 28:3, 5; 118:105). St. Paul compares it to a sword that divides the body from the soul, that is, the carnal desires from the spirit (Heb. 4:12); the Apostle James to a mirror in which man sees his stains and his wrongs (Jas. 1:23), the Prophet Isaias to a precious rain that moistens the soil of the soul and fertilizes it (Is. 55:10-11); and Jesus Himself compares it to a seed that when it falls on good ground, brings forth fruit a hundredfold (Lk. 8:8). One single grain of this divine seed produced the most marvellous fruits of sanctity in St. Augustine, St. Anthony the Great, in St. Nicholas of Tolentino, and others; for St. Augustine was converted by the words: “Let us walk honestly as in the day: not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities not in contention and envy” (Rom. 13:13). St. Anthony by the words: “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). Nicholas of Tolentino was brought to Christian perfection by the words: “Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world” (I Jn. 2:15).
How should we prepare ourselves to be benefited by the word of God?
We must be good well-tilled soil, that is, we must have a heart that loves truth, desires to learn, and humbly and sincerely seeks salvation; we must listen to the word of God with due preparation and attention, keep the divine truths we have heard in our heart, frequently consider and strive to fulfill them.
What should be done before the sermon?
We should endeavor to purify our conscience, for, as St. Chrysostom demands; “Who would pour precious juice into a vessel that is not clean, without first washing it?” We should, therefore, at least cleanse our hearts by an ardent sorrow for our sins, because the spirit of truth enters not into the sinful soul (Wis. 1:4); we should ask the Holy Ghost for the necessary enlightenment for little or no fruit can be obtained from a sermon if it is not united with prayer; we should listen to the sermon with a good motive, that is, with a view of hearing something edifying and instructive; if we attend only through curiosity, the desire to hear something new, to criticize the preacher, or to see and to be seen, we are like the Pharisees who for such and similar motives went to hear Christ and derived no benefit therefrom. “As a straight sword goes not into a crooked sheath, so the word of God enters not into a heart that is filled with improper motives.” We should strive to direct our minds rightly, that is, to dispel all temporal thoughts, all needless distraction, otherwise the wholesome words would fall but upon the ears, would not penetrate the heart, and the words of Christ be fulfilled: They have ears, and hear not.
How should we comport ourselves during the sermon?
We should listen to the sermon with earnest, reverent attention, for God speaks to us through His priests, and Christ says to them: Who hears you, hears me (Lk. 10:16). We must listen to the priests, therefore, not as to men, but as to God’s ambassadors, for every priest can say with St. Paul: We are ambassadors for Christ, God, as it were, exhorting by us (II Cor. 5:20). “If,” says St. Chrysostom, “when the letter of a king is read, the greatest quiet and attention prevails, that nothing may be lost, how much more should we listen with reverence and perfect silence to the word of God?” The word of God is, and ever will be, a divine seed, which, when properly received, produces precious fruit by what priest soever sowed; for in the sowing it matters not what priest sows, but what soil is sowed.
Be careful, also, that you do not apply that which is said to others, but take it to yourself, or the sermon will be of no benefit to you. Are you free from those vices which the preacher decries and against which he battles? Then, thank God, but do not despise others who are perhaps laboring under them, rather pray that they may be released and you preserved from falling into them. Keep also from sleeping, talking, and other distractions, and remember, that whoever is of God, also willingly hears his word (Jn. 8:47).
What should be done after the sermon?
We should then strive to put into practice the good we have heard, for God justifies not those who hear the law, but those who keep it (Rom. 2:13), and those who hear the word of God and do not conform their lives to it, are like the man who looks into the mirror, and having looked into it goes away, and presently forgets what manner of man he is (Jas. 1:23-24). To practice that which has been heard, it is above all necessary that it should be kept constantly in mind, and thoughtfully considered. St. Bernard says: “Preserve the word of God as you would meat for your body, for it is a life-giving bread, and the food of your soul. Happy those, says Christ, who keep it. Receive it, therefore, into your soul’s interior, and let it reach your morals and your actions.”
That food which cannot be digested, or is at once thrown out, is useless; the food should be well masticated, retained, and by the digestive powers worked up into good blood. So not only on the day, but often during the week, that which was heard in the sermon should be thought of and put into practice. Speak of it to others, thus will much idle talk be saved, many souls with the grace of God roused to good, and enlightened in regard to the evil they had not before seen in themselves and in future will avoid. Let us listen to others when they repeat what was said in the sermon. Heads of families should require their children and domestics to relate what they have heard preached. Let us also entreat God to give us grace that we may be enabled to practice the precepts given us.
How much am I shamed, 0 my God, that the seed, of Thy Divine, word, which Thou hast sowed so often and so abundantly in my heart, has brought forth so little fruit! Ah! Have mercy on me, and so change my heart, that it may become good soil, in which Thy word may take root, grow without hinderance, and finally bring forth fruits of salvation. Amen.
By Fr Gabriel
PRESENCE OF GOD - 0 Lord, I am here before You. Grant that my heart may be the good ground, ready to receive Your divine word.
1. Today Jesus, the divine Sower, comes to scatter the good seed in His vineyard the Church. He wishes to prepare our souls for a new blossoming of grace and virtue.
“The seed is the word of God.“ Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, eternal Utterance of the Father, came to sow this word in the hearts of men; it is, as it were, a reflection of Himself. The divine word is not a sound which strikes the air and disappears rapidly like the word of men; it is a supernatural light which reveals the true value of things; it is grace, the source of power and strength to help us live according to the light of God. Thus it is a seed of supernatural life, of sanctity, of eternal life. This seed is never sterile in itself; it always has a vital, powerful strength, capable of producing not only some fruits of Christian life, but abundant fruits of sanctity. This seed is not entrusted to an inexperienced husbandman who, because of his ignorance, might ruin the finest sowing. It is Jesus Himself, the Son of God, who is the Sower.
Then why does the seed not always bring forth the desired fruit? Because very often the ground which receives it does not have the requisite qualities. God never stops sowing the seed in the hearts of men; He invites them, He calls them continually by His light and His appeals; He never ceases giving His grace by means of the Sacraments; but all this is vain and fruitless unless man offers God a good ground, that is, a heart, well prepared and disposed. God wills our salvation and sanctification, but He never forces us; He respects our liberty.
2. Today’s Gospel (Lk 8,4-15) mentions four categories of people who receive the seed of the divine word in different ways. It compares them to the hard ground, to the stony soil, to the earth choked with thorns, and lastly, to the good fertile field.
The hard ground: souls that are frivolous, dissipated, open to all distractions, rumors, and curiosity; admitting all kinds of creatures and earthly affections. The word of God hardly caches then heart when the enemy, having free access, carries it off, thus preventing it from taking root.
The stony ground: superficial souls with only a shallow layer of good earth, which will be rapidly blown away, along with the good seed, by the winds of passion. These souls easily grow enthusiastic, but do not persevere and “in time of temptation fall away.“ They are unstable, because they have not the courage to embrace renunciation and to make the sacrifices which are necessary if one wishes to remain faithful to the word of God and to put it into practice in all circumstances. Their fervor is a straw fire which dies down and goes out in the face of the slightest difficulty.
The ground covered with thorns: souls that are preoccupied with worldly things, pleasures, material interests and affairs The seed takes root, but the thorns soon choke it by depriving it of air and light. Excessive solicitude for temporal things eventually stifles the rights of the spirit.
Lastly, the good ground is compared by Jesus to those who, with a good and upright heart, hearing the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit in patience. The good and upright heart is the one which always gives first place to God, which seeks before everything else the kingdom of God and His justice. The seed of the divine word will bear abundant fruit in proportion to the good dispositions it finds in us recollection, a serious and profound interior life, detachment, sincere seeking fox the things of God above and beyond all earthly things, and finally, perseverance, without winch the word of God cannot bear its fruit in us.
An Intimate Prayer
O Jesus, divine Sower, rightly do You complain of the arid, sterile ground of my poor heart. What an abundant sowing of holy inspirations, interior lights, and grace You have cast into my heart! How many times You have invited me to come to You by special appeals, and how many times have I stopped, after following You for a short time! 0 Lord, if only I could understand the fundamental reason for my spiritual sterility, my instability and inconstancy in good I Will Your light fail me! No, for You are continually instructing and admonishing my soul in a thousand ways. Oh! if so many souls living in error and not knowing You had received but a hundredth part of the light which You have given me so profusely, how much fruit would they not have drawn from it!
Will Your grace fail me? Is not Your grace my strength? O Lord, I see that neither Your light nor Your strength will fail me; what I lack is the perseverance which can faithfully withstand temptations, difficulties, and darkness, which can face courageously the sacrifices and austerity of the Christian life It is easy to make sacrifices and to renounce oneself for a day, but it is hard to keep on doing it always, everyday of our life. Is this not the reason that You said, 0 Lord, that the good heart brings forth fruit ”in patience”?
O Jesus, who endured with invincible patience Your most sorrowful Passion and death, give me the patience I need to keep up the struggle against my passions and my selflove, patience to embrace with perseverance all the sacrifices required by total detachment, to be able to live without personal satisfactions and pleasures, to do everything that is repugnant to me, that hurts me, that crosses me and is displeasing to my self-love.
O Lord, You know that I desire total purification because I long for union with You; but You cannot purify me entirely if I cannot accept patiently Your work: the trials, humiliations and detachments that You prepare for me. 0 Jesus, divine Sufferer, give me Your patience; make me, like Yourself humble and patient.
By R Cox
From childhood every Hebrew was familiar with the parable form of instruction. It had been popularised by the writings and sayings of king Solomon, about 1,000 B.C. It is a simple and primitive technique: a description of the familiar things of daily life, with a deeper meaning hidden within. The oriental mind delighted in probing and searching for this hidden lesson. The story form, in which it was told, made it easy to remember; its enigmatic nature stimulated thought and provoked enquiry. It was both obvious and obscure, with all the fascination of a simple but ingenious puzzle. The Jewish rabbis made great use of it in their instruction; yet none of their parables approach that simplicity and vividness so characteristic of our Lord’s.
It would seem that our Lord now began this form of instruction for the first time. It marked a definite stage in his ministry; a caution and care in describing his kingdom, because of the false picture in the minds of his hearers. Had he told them in plain language what his kingdom was to be (especially its universality, the call of the Gentiles), they would have rejected him at once. The crowds had been following him for more than six months; his personality, his eloquence, and his miracles had captivated them; but their ideas had not been changed. They must, then, be taught to think, to reason and so to understand and accept his kingdom. This is the purpose of the parables. The truth is there, but hidden; the crowds will puzzle over and remember these picturesque stories when many other savings of his will have been long forgotten. In the course of time, those who are rightly disposed will see, and understand. In the meantime he can continue his instructions before the very eyes of those Pharisees who are watching to catch him out in his words, and so bring about his death.
Thirty of our Lord’s parables are recorded in the gospels (also thirty miracles). Eight of them (See footnote 1) are given here as a group; they could quite easily have been spoken in one day - Parable Day. Four of them, concerned with the sowing of crops, seem to indicate the time of the early winter rains, which fall in November.
The location of all eight parables is probably the rocky promontory between Am Tineh and Tabgha. Six months before, our Lord used Simon’s boat as a pulpit in this same place. It is now the time of the early rains. Grey clouds fill the sky, and the farmers are busy scratching the reddish brown earth with their primitive wooden ploughs, pulled by a yoke of oxen. It is the time to sow wheat and barley, the two important grain crops in Palestine. There are no fenced paddocks; a cairn of stones is all there is to mark boundaries. In one plot of ploughed ground, there is the fertile soil of the plain of Genesareth, and the less fertile slopes of the rocky hillside. Running across the field are tracks and rights of way, trodden hard by animals and men: the plough scarcely marks them. The sower broadcasts his wheat by hand from an apron sack round his waist; the sparrows and pigeons follow him as he walks along. The cause of the sudden growth on rocky soil is that moisture cannot sink in; it remains on the topsoil. ‘Briers’ stand for thorns and thistles, a new growth that comes up with the wheat. The average yield from good soil by the lakeside is about forty fold; a hundredfold would be a bumper crop.
This question was put to our Lord only at the end of the day (See Footnote 2) when they had returned to the house at Capharnaum. Often before he had illustrated his teaching with vivid pictures from nature; but now his whole discourse was made up of parables. It was so unusual to hear the Master using such puzzling language. More than that, he seemed to be deliberately hiding the meaning of his words. His reply confirmed this. The crowds were more interested in miracles than a supernatural life of holiness; they would accept him only in so far as he satisfied their false and settled views of the Messianic kingdom.
And among them were his enemies, the Pharisees, waiting for the words from his mouth that would convict him. But these parables of his could not be used as evidence in court. There is great drama here: our Lord speaking his secrets to men, who, though they were all ears, yet could not understand.
All could follow the story of the seed sowing, but not even his disciples saw the deeper meaning. They knew he was teaching something important, not painting vivid pictures merely to interest the crowd. Every parable had a hidden meaning; it was important that his chosen followers should know what it was; their duty was to carry his teaching to all nations. The great ‘secret’ of this story was that the seed of God’s grace, the life-giving power that was to bring the kingdom into existence, was to be scattered broadcast: all men, represented by the different kinds of soil, were to have an opportunity of entry. It was not to be restricted to the Jews: ‘through the gospel preaching the Gentiles are to win the same inheritance in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 3: 6).
The only qualities required for membership are right dispositions of mind and will; any person who accepts the standard of the eight beatitudes is suitable soil for God’s grace. So our Lord cuts right across the Jewish conviction that no personal qualification beyond descent from Abraham is required for membership in the kingdom. He further points out three common obstacles to the fructifying of divine grace hardness, shallowness, and entanglement: added to these is the enmity of the devil.
This supplement includes written material from the following major spiritual publications:
1. “Mediations For Every Day of the Year”
2. “The Liturgical Year”
3. “The Church Year”
4. “Divine Intimacy” (Mediations On the Interior Life For Every Day of the Year)
5. “The Gospel Story”
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